Court Ruling May Dampen Religious Fervor in Prisons

Article excerpt

In Lincoln, most worship services are Saturday or Sunday, but at the state penitentiary, the Asatrus congregates at 1 p.m. Thursdays.

There are only 35 members of this denomination at the prison, and the place of worship consists of a large rock and an outdoor fire pit.

The Asatrus (pronounced Ah-SAH-trues) are just one of the unusual "faith groups" that have blossomed behind bars since Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. But last month the Supreme Court overturned the law, and now not just the Asatrus, but main-line prison religions wonder if their gains will be erased. "The existence of (the act) has been a major tool we've had in being able to negotiate with prison officials for access," said Charles W. Colson, who was convicted in the Watergate scandal and who now heads Prison Fellowship, a behind-bars ministry. "Without it, I had one official tell me, `I'm not going to approve any meetings if (the act) is repealed. Why should I?' " But prison officials say their policies won't change. "I don't think it's going to have much, if any, impact," said Mark Rosenau, who has been chaplain at the Nebraska State Penitentiary for the past 19 years. The prison, he said, has 14 recognized faith groups among its 950 inmates, including the Asatrus and the Sacred Pipe, a Lakota Sioux religion so popular that the prison has had to schedule two sessions a week for its sweat lodge, a type of sauna and spiritual retreat. Rosenau said the prison will continue to allow all groups to worship once a week, as it has under the religious freedom act. But finding a place for everyone will be tough. "We just don't have the meeting places available for everyone to have their own choice," said Rosenau. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 1993 with bipartisan support and the backing of President Bill Clinton and church groups across the country. The act said governments can infringe on religious practices only if they have a health, safety or other "compelling interest" in doing so. It was originally adopted to address complaints by religious groups that some state and local laws discriminated against them. The Supreme Court declared the law too broad. It said religious freedom issues must be decided by the courts on a case by case basis. "The impact of (the act) meant you had to expand to a whole series of religions and faith groups that were never even heard of before," said Jerry Gasko, the deputy director of Colorado's prisons. …