Constitutional Law

6th Circuit Reinstates Tennessee Inmate's Religious Freedom Claim

A federal appeals court has resurrected a Tennessee inmate’s claim that he should be allowed to receive hate-filled white supremacist material in prison because it is part of his religion.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (PDF) Wednesday that the inmate’s claim had been improperly dismissed by a lower court judge because neither the judge nor the state of Tennessee had addressed whether barring the prisoner from receiving such material violated a federal law strengthening inmates’ religious freedoms, according to the Associated Press.

The appeals court also said the state had not properly explained why it has a compelling interest in prohibiting this particular inmate from receiving such material while apparently allowing other inmates to have it.

Anthony Hayes, 54, a convicted murderer who has been in a Tennessee prison since 1975, sued state prison officials in 2006 for the right to receive the materials from two groups aligned with the racist Christian Identity movement, which has fomented violence, according to Mark Potok, who monitors hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“This is fundamentally a neo-Nazi reading of the Bible,” Potok told the AP. “Christian Identity says the Bible is the reading of the white race.”

The material contained messages of white supremacy and racial purity, claiming for example that the Bible is for the white race only and that “Jews are mongrelized descendants of Satan through Cain,” according to court documents.

A spokeswoman for the Tennessee prison system said officials try to make sure inmates get access to legitimate religious materials. “But we do have to weigh certain activities against the safety and security of the institution,” she said.

Hayes’ lawyer could not be reached for comment.

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