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Capitol riot shaman puts spotlight on religious diets for prisoners

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Jacob Anthony Chansley is shown standing at the dais in the U.S. Senate chamber on January 6 during the riots at the U.S. Capitol. This image from Twitter is part of the U.S. Department of Justice's complaint. <br>
Jacob Anthony Chansley is shown standing at the dais in the U.S. Senate chamber on January 6 during the riots at the U.S. Capitol. This image from Twitter is part of the U.S. Department of Justice's complaint.

March 3 (UPI) -- Special diets for prisoners based on their religious practices are in the spotlight after a judge granted a request by a shaman jailed in the Capitol riots to be served organic food.

Jacob Anthony Chansley -- a shamanic practitioner who entered the Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot wearing horns, a coyote tail headdress and face paint -- had asked the D.C. Department of Corrections for "traditional food that has been made by God." The jail chaplain denied the request.

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"Upon entering the DC DOC institution, you have not identified your faith/belief," the chaplain wrote. "Religious Services was unable to find any religious merit pertaining to organic food or diet under shamanism practitioner."

A recent U.S. Department of Justice report on the right of prisoners to practice their faiths says that while any group can be affected by policies that prohibit religious exercise, the "unsurprising reality" is that complaints about violations are most often raised by members of religions other than Christianity.

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Shamanic traditions

After the denial, Albert Watkins, a St. Louis attorney who was representing Chansley, filed an emergency motion in federal court seeking "sustenance" for his client. The motion said that based on the 33-year-old's shamanic belief system, non-organic food would act as an "object intrusion" into his body and cause serious illness.

Shamanism involves beliefs that shamans, with a connection to the underworld, have the power to heal the sick and communicate with spirits, the motion says.

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"In shamanic traditions, the body, mind and soul are interconnected, and the well-being of all three are necessary for my client to be able to practice his faith," Watkins wrote.

According to the Feb. 2 motion, Chansley had not eaten for more than a week and had lost more than 20 pounds.

U.S District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled Feb. 3 in favor of Chansley, noting the DC DOC provides dietary religious exemptions for Muslim and Jewish inmates.

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"Its sole rationale for withholding an analogous accommodation for defendant is that his religious views lack 'religious merit.' But that derisive language simply underscores the fact that not only is the DOC withholding a religious exemption for defendant that it already grants to other religious prisoners, but that it is doing so simply because defendant belongs to a disfavored sect," Lamberth wrote.

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The judge based his ruling on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the right to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. RLUIPA prohibits regulations that impose a "substantial burden" on the religious exercise of prisoners unless the institution can demonstrate the rule serves a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive way to pursue that interest.

"First, defendant's dietary accommodation is unambiguously based on a religious belief," the ruling says. "Second, defendant's willingness to go without food for more than a week is strong evidence of his sincerity in his religious beliefs."

The U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia, which is prosecuting the case, took no position on the food request.

Prosecutors allege that Chansley -- who has referred to himself as "QAnon Shaman" and is also known as Jake Angeli -- left a note for then-Vice President Mike Pence in the Senate chamber that said, "It's Only A Matter Of Time, Justice Is Coming." He was indicted on two felonies and four misdemeanors and has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Chansley, who said he was heeding the call of then-President Donald Trump to save the nation when he joined the crowd protesting the certification of the 2020 presidential election results, returned to Arizona after the breach of the Capitol, the motion says. He surrendered Jan. 9 to law enforcement in Phoenix.

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A federal magistrate judge ordered that Chansley be detained and he was provided with an organic diet while being held in Arizona. But after he was transferred to Washington, D.C., he no longer was given organic food, the motion says.

After Lamberth issued his ruling, the DC DOC requested that Chansley be removed from its jail because it was unable to comply with the food requirement. He was transferred to the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia, which could accommodate his dietary requests.

Keeping kosher

The Justice Department report, which was released in September to mark the 20th anniversary of RLUIPA, says the act has supported the religious exercise of people practicing a wide range of religions, including Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Native Americans.

Prisoner cases have involved religious diet, access to religious texts and articles, opportunity to participate in religious group meetings, religious head wear and accommodation of religious grooming practices, according to the report.

(RLUIPA also protects the rights of individuals and institutions to use land for religious purposes, such as places of worship and religious schools.)

In Arizona, three Jewish inmates are suing the state Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Re-entry over the replacement of kosher meals with vegan food with no animal protein or animal products. Their suit also alleges violations of RLUIPA, as well as the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

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The vegan meals -- which include beans, hummus, nut butters and soy-based imitation meats -- are called "common fare" because they purportedly satisfy the needs of lots of special diets, according to Jordan Kroop, a Phoenix attorney who represents the inmates.

"The idea behind it is if I serve you vegan food, that will satisfy Muslims who eat halal, Jews who want to eat kosher, people who are vegetarians, people who are vegans, people who are on a low-sodium diet or whatever it is," Kroop said.

But the lawsuit, filed in December in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, says the meals fall short of some of the religiously prescribed standards in Jewish dietary laws. Some of the food is not kosher and it is prepared and served with materials that have not been designated kosher, the suit alleges.

Generally, a public facility that prepares or handles food must be under the constant supervision of an Orthodox rabbi for the food to be considered kosher, the suit says. Food can lose its kosher status if it is cooked in pots that were used to prepare non-kosher food or cleaned in a dishwasher also used for non-kosher kitchen items.

The suit seeks an order that the Department of Corrections provide "nutritionally sufficient kosher meals."

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The plaintiffs also are asking a judge to certify the suit as a class action covering Jewish and Muslim prisoners who require kosher meals. The dietary rules of Judaism and Islam are very similar and many Muslims will eat kosher meals when halal food is unavailable, Kroop said.

Kroop said RLUIPA prohibits rules that infringe on an inmate's sincerely held religious belief unless it conflicts with a valid penological interest. Under the act, the government also cannot challenge the sincerity of someone's religious beliefs or say a religion is not valid, he said.

The Department of Corrections responded in court documents that the common fare meal meets the dietary requirements of Jews who keep kosher, Muslims who comply with halal rules on food that is acceptable to consume and followers of all other religions.

A compelling factor in implementing the meal was to permit any inmate to choose it for religious, spiritual or personal preference, according to the department, which denies the dietary policy places a substantial burden on prisoners' religious exercise.

The department also says the food meets kosher certification standards and the meals are prepared and served in a manner that maintains their kosher status. Among other procedures, the food is served on one-time-use polystyrene trays with plastic utensils and the kitchen equipment used to prepare the meals is washed and sanitized in a separate plastic tub, the court documents say.

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Kroop said providing kosher food to inmates has a positive long-term impact.

"It has been shown time and again that prisoners who find and practice religion or who increase their religious observance while in prison are better inmates," he said. "They're better behaved, there's lower violence, there's lower recidivism."

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