A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit that accused Nebraska prison officials of reneging on a 2005 agreement to accommodate Native American inmates' religious and cultural needs.
The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed U.S. District Judge Warren Urbom's Feb. 6 dismissal of the complaint, brought by inmate Michael Joseph Sims. Urbom said he had no jurisdiction to enforce the terms of the agreement but suggested the case be filed in a state court.
On Thursday, the appeals court stated simply that it had “carefully reviewed the record and Sims's brief, we find no error warranting reversal.”
In the 2005 settlement, prison officials agree to allow Native American inmates time for religious education and worship ceremonies and the ability to use traditional ceremonial foods such as fry bread, buffalo, corn and “berry dish” in their ceremonies.
Sims said in his complaint that state prison leaders have not allowed those ceremonial foods, have denied access to eagle feathers for ceremonial use and have repeatedly changed policies, provisions, access, spiritual educational classes and schedules without agreement from Native American inmates, as required by the 2005 settlement.
Prison officials also removed ceremonial stones from a sweat lodge at the prison, Sims' lawsuit said.
Sims, who is serving a life sentence at the Nebraska State Penitentiary for first-degree murder, also sought to reinstate use of tobacco in certain ceremonies, saying prison officials allow it in certain areas at the Community Corrections Centers in Lincoln and Omaha.
Sims served as his own attorney and could not be reached Thursday for comment.
A Nebraska Department of Correctional Services prison spokeswoman said Thursday that she was trying to reach prison system attorneys to answer Associated Press questions about whether officials have restricted Native American inmates' ceremonies.
Prison officials have previously declined to answer questions about whether Native American inmates are given ceremonial foods and eagle feathers for religious rites or whether prison employees removed ceremonial stones from the prison-based sweat lodge.
“The Department takes great pride in respecting the religious rights of all individuals,” Bob Houston, director of state correctional services, said in a written statement Thursday. “We have a multi-disciplinary religion team that makes certain we not only meet court mandates and state and federal laws, but also respects the various religious groups that serve our inmate population.”
The tug of war between prison officials and Native American inmates dates back decades.
In 1974, a federal consent decree required prison officials to allow Native American inmates to conduct religious ceremonies and have access to medicine men and ceremonial tobacco, among other things.
The 2005 agreement replaced that decree.
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