Appeals court sides with Indian inmate in religious rights case

A building at the Green Bay Correctional Institution in Allouez, Wisconsin. Photo from Rauglothgor / Wikipedia

Prison officials in Wisconsin have failed to accommodate an Indian inmate who wants to practice his religion, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday.

David Schlemm, a member of the Navajo Nation, wants to eat venison during a ceremonial period and wear a headband in his cell and during sweat lodges. Prison officials denied both of his requests but the court said the state failed to justify its reasoning.

"Saving a few dollars is not a compelling interest, nor is a bureaucratic desire to follow the prison system’s rules," Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in the unanimous decision, referring to Schlemm's request for venison.

Easterbrook noted that the prison provides Kosher and Halal foods for Jewish and Muslim inmates, respectively, so other food options are available during ceremonial times. The state did not investigate whether it could do the same for Schlemm, the court determined.

Regarding the headband, Schlemm has offered to limit its use and has said he will not wear any colors that might signify a gang affiliation. Prison officials failed to adequately consider this request as well, the decision stated.

"Once again we conclude that Wisconsin is not entitled to summary judgment," Easterbrook wrote. "It has asserted a need to suppress gang identifications but has not offered evidence that Schlemm’s proposed accommodation would undermine that interest."

According to the Associated Press, Schlemm also has asked for weekly sweat lodges instead of monthly ones and wants to wear traditional clothing items beyond the headband. These claims have not been fully addressed at the administrative level within the prison system so they were not a part of the court's decision.

The 7th Circuit nonetheless directed a federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction allowing Schlemm to wear a headband in his cell and during religious ceremonies and to have a supply of venison during a ceremonial period while his case continues.

The ruling comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Holt v. Hobbs, another religious rights case involving inmates. The lower courts are now imposing a higher standard on prison officials.

"The court stressed in Holt that the prison system has the burdens of production and persuasion on the compelling-­interest and least-restrictive-­means defenses," the 7th Circuit stated yesterday.

David Schlemm. Image from Wisconsin Department of Corrections

According to the AP, Schlemm represented himself in the case so no oral arguments were held because he remains imprisoned and isn't eligible for parole until 2026. His appeal was submitted April 7 so the court did not take a lot of time to resolve his claims.

The AP said Schlemm is being held at the Green Bay Correctional Institution. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections lists his age as 45 but erroneously lists his race as "White" despite his tribal affiliation.

Get the Story:
Federal appeals court rules that Navajo imprisoned in Wisconsin can wear headband, eat venison (AP 4/22)

7th Circuit Decision:
Schlemm v. Wall (April 21, 2015)

Supreme Court Decision:
Holt v. Hobbs (January 20, 2015)

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