In Lincoln, most worship services are Saturday or Sunday, but
at the state penitentiary, the Asatrus congregates at 1 p.m.
There are only 35 members of this denomination at the prison,
and the place of worship consists of a large rock and an outdoor
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approve any meetings if (the act) is repealed.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
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
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