Devout racist’s religion doesn’t trump racial segregation in prison, appeals court says

In a case featuring a clash of constitutional interests, a federal appellate court ruled Thursday that California may hamper an inmate’s religious worship in order to avoid the potential for unconstitutional racial segregation in its prison system.

The 23-page opinion by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a 2012 decision by U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller of Sacramento.

The appellate opinion describes Dennis Walker as a “devout racist.” He is an Aryan Christian Odinist, a religion that forbids adherents from integrating with members of other races and also forbids communication with its deity in the presence of a non-Aryan. As used by Odinists, “Aryan” refers only to white individuals of Northern European heritage.

Walker, 57, is classified by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as an inmate eligible to share a cell with someone of another race. In 2008, while incarcerated at the California Medical Facility, Vacaville, he refused to be celled with a Muslim inmate, so he was written up as a rule violator and placed in solitary confinement. The violation report may have been a factor in a later denial of parole. He is currently incarcerated at Pleasant Valley State Prison, Coalinga.

He went to federal court in 2011 with a challenge to the CDCR’s classification policies, but Mueller dismissed the lawsuit, so he took his arguments to the 9th Circuit. He claims that placing him with an inmate of another race would interfere with his religious practice, and prison officials’ refusal to exempt him from their integrated housing policy violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, and the First Amendment.

“Walker has shown that his classification as ‘racially eligible’ substantially burdens his religious exercise,” in violation of the federal religion law, the three circuit judges declared.

They also found that communicating with the object of his worship, called “the warding ritual,” is “a valid religious exercise,” and if he can’t do it in the presence of a nonwhite cellmate, that infringes on his right to conform to his religious beliefs, guaranteed under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

But, the panel said, “We conclude that the state has a compelling interest in avoiding invidious racial discrimination and potential (legal) liability” under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, “and the only way for the state to satisfy this interest was to reject Walker’s request for an exemption from the housing policy.”

The opinion was authored by Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima, with the concurrences of Chief Circuit Judge Sidney R. Thomas and Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown.

The judges relied heavily on two opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2005, the high court considered an equal protection challenge to California’s previous race-conscious celling policy and held that racial classifications are viewed as immediately suspect, and their usage can seriously damage the integrity of a prison system. In a landmark 1987 opinion, the court held that a prisoner’s claim under the free exercise clause fails if the state shows the challenged action is “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”

Denny Walsh: (916) 321-1189