Brian Hall, a Cherokee Indian who is currently a prisoner at Goose Creek Correctional Center (GCCC), wants nothing more than to practice and express his faith by wearing items with personal religious significance, a right denied to him by the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC).

He did not accept DOC’s denials and thanks to a new court settlement, won by the ACLU of Alaska, he and others like him will be able to continue their spiritual path without unconstitutional constraints.

Mr. Hall’s religious practices call for him to wear a bear claw pendant around his neck and a bandana around his head that signifies the direction of his particular spiritual path. The bandana could be one of six different colors or contain one of six different symbols depending on the direction he is called to move.  

He made multiple requests to DOC officials to be allowed to wear these two religious items, as is his right under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Alaska Constitution, but DOC denied him at every turn on vague, unsupported grounds that these practices were never allowed before at GCCC and that they would create a safety risk inside the facility.

On August 10, 2016, Mr. Hall filed suit against DOC on the ground that he was denied the right to freely exercise his religion and the ACLU of Alaska took on his case. In the ACLU’s lawsuit, DOC officials failed to prove any specific safety risk posed by Mr. Hall’s religious items.

This week, a settlement was reached whereby DOC agrees to the following:

  • Although DOC does not generally allow prisoners to wear or possess bear claw pendants, Mr. Hall will be provided such a pendant and allowed wear it and allowed to wear one of six differently colored bandanas on his head at any time as religious accommodations under RLUIPA.
  • Adopt a policy within 30 days stating that:
    • Any request for future religious accommodations by prisoners will be evaluated in accordance with RLUIPA
    • DOC will not deny these requests because the accommodation does not accord with the generally held tenets of the religion for which the accommodation is associated.
    • If DOC denies any request, it will make reasonable efforts, in collaboration with the person requesting the accommodation, to determine if the denial is the least restrictive way to accomplish DOC’s interest or whether some other form of accommodation can be provided.
  • Pay the ACLU of Alaska $30,000 in legal fees.

“The right of incarcerated persons to practice their deeply-held religious beliefs without unjustified interference from the government must be respected,“ said ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua A. Decker. He continued, “The freedom of religion is the first freedom in the First Amendment. The ACLU of Alaska is proud to stand with them as they fight for that right.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is our nation’s guardian of liberty. For nearly 100 years, ­the ACLU has been at the forefront of virtually every major battle for civil liberties and equal justice in this country. Principled and nonpartisan, the ACLU works in the courts, legislatures, and communities to preserve and expand the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States. The ACLU of Alaska, founded in 1971, is one of the 53 state ACLU affiliates that strive to make the Bill of Rights real for everyone and to uphold the promise of the Constitution—because freedom can’t protect itself.