In a dispute over religious practices, a federal appeals court in Richmond today upheld a ruling that has prevented a state prisoner from creating an "outdoor worship circle" featuring one thousand pounds of small stones.
The inmate, Johan Krieger, who is serving time in a state facility in North Carolina, argued that prison officials have unfairly denied his requests for "sacred items" and a worship circle outside, violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
A federal trial judge concluded that Krieger failed to show how the practice of his religion, which is called Asatru, was harmed by the lack of a worship circle outdoors. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision.
The appeals court described Asatru as a polytheistic religion with origins in Northern Europe. The court said "Asatru is a decentralized religion, which does not have a spiritual leader or a governing religious authority."
North Carolina's prison system recognizes Asatru as an "approved religion," and the state has adopted a policy addressing the accommodation of inmates who practice the religion.
State prison officials, for instance, allow Asatru worshippers to have, among other things, "altar candles, a small evergreen twig, a sacrificial bowl, mead made from honey or a fruit juice substitute, a cardboard staff," a picture of a “Thor Hammer” and a cardboard sword.
Krieger in 2005 submitted a proposal to North Carolina prison officials for the construction of an outdoor worship circle that would have included two tons of gravel and one-half ton of small stones. He also asked for other items, including a large horn cup, that the state did not permit. Prison officials denied the request.
The appeals court said today that Krieger failed to offer an explanation about why indoor worship—rather than in the outdoor circle—would compromise his religious beliefs. The court noted that the practice of Asatru is "individualized and lacks any mandatory aspect of exercise, a fact readily acknowledged by Krieger."
The Fourth Circuit also said the lower court "correctly concluded that Krieger failed to demonstrate that his behavior was modified and his religious beliefs were violated by the deprivation of the outdoor worship circle and the listed sacred items."