William Chance, an inmate of the Texas prison system since a 1992 conviction for aggravated sexual assault, has been in court arguing that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The prison banned peace pipe ceremonies (shared pipes can transmit diseases), indoor smoke-wafting (the prison installed a fire alarm in the gym where it used to be performed), and is prohibiting Chance from receiving a lock of his dead parents' hair from his brother. Chance also argued in court that his unit, specific to Native Americans, did not offer enough religious services and ceremonies specifically to his brand of faith.
A district court previously entered a summary judgment in favor of Texas, but an appeals court in the Fifth Circuit disagreed with applying summary judgment in the case of the parents' hair. The appeals court pointed to a previous ruling by the 8th Circuit, Fowler v. Crawford, which called for "deference owed to the expert judgment of prison officials" when inmates brought up arguments that other prisons permitted a practice theirs did not. RLUIPA allows a significant burden to be placed on an inmate's religious beliefs if that was the least intrusive way to further "compelling government interests," namely safety, and the appeals court decided that banning the sharing of pipes and the burning indoors of herbs satisfied that requirement. Chance's argument about the frequency of ceremonies was dismissed because of the difficulty in a prison being able to accommodate every specific faith, and because the prison was willing to be more accommodating toward the frequency of ceremonies but found it difficult to get an adequate number of volunteers from regional Native American resource groups.
The appeals court disagreed with the lower court ruling that determined preventing Chance from possessing a small lock of his dead parents' hair was not a substantial burden on his religious beliefs. The court also appeared to dismiss prison officials' argument that any exception to a rule permitting prisoners to acquire items only from approved vendors would be an unacceptable security risk. According to the appeals court opinion, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice even argued that the hair Chance received could be dipped in PCP and smoked at a later point, despite Chance's offer to allow the hair to be tested and even to cover the cost. Throughout the opinion, the court was willing to defer to the expert opinion of the prison officials involved in the decision, but the appeal to security and public safety ("I mean, that is what we do," the unit's regional director testified) in defending a blanket ban on personal items from non-approved vendors, such as family members, from entering the prison was a bridge too far. "We have never gone as far as upholding an absolute, no-exceptions prison restriction on requests for outside objects," the appeals court ruled.
Chance said he wasn't happy with the court's ruling because "the most important parts of Native American spiritual practices were dismissed," but will continue the legal fight to be permitted to receive his parents' hair. A scheduling conference is set for next week and the trial is supposed to start in January.