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Stereotype of the Month Entry
(10/27/05)


Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Indian Heritage Group Backs Judge In Feather Flap

By Ron Wood
The Morning News

FAYETTEVILLE American Indians should be allowed to freely practice their religion in jail, a heritage group told a federal judge Wednesday.

The American Indian Heritage Support Center filed a friend of the court brief urging U.S. District Judge Jimm Larry Hendren to adopt a magistrate judge's finding that Benton County officials violated the constitutional rights of convicted murderer Billy Joe Wolfe Jr. by denying him a prayer feather.

The magistrate also said Benton County jailers violated the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Hendren will make a final ruling in the case based on a report and recommendations of the magistrate and responses to her report.

Jail officials object that the magistrate went too far, substituting her judgment about jail safety and security instead of deferring to jail administrators.

Benton County Sheriff Keith Ferguson and Capt. Hunter Petray, the jail administrator, testified at a hearing in September that they made an administrative decision to deny Wolfe's request because they felt a feather could be used as a weapon to injure another inmate or a jailer or could be used for sexual gratification.

"We believe that statements attributed to Sheriff Ferguson and Capt. Petray that an eagle feather could be used as a weapon or for sexual gratification are without foundation and show either ignorance or studied disregard of the importance of the Eagle to American Indians," according to the brief.

"It is tantamount to suggesting that the Christian cross or rosary could be used as a weapon or for sexual gratification, which we submit would be insulting to most Christians. Hypothetical situations should not be conjured up and passed as fact."

The group offered to help develop guidelines but were referred to the jail ministry, run by a Christian minister. The group said that raises questions about who develops religious policies for the jail.

"It is extremely important for those who are in charge of jails and prisons to have a guideline or regulation to allow minority individuals to follow their traditional religious ceremonies," according to the brief. "Unfortunately, these are not standardized and are up to the whims of individual correctional officials."

American Indian religious ceremonies vary from tribe to tribe, so there is no single, all-encompassing practice, according to the group, although using an eagle feather for prayer would come closest. Proper regulations would help identify the major sacred ceremonies or actions and if they pertain to a prisoner, according to the brief. Not all religious practices would be suitable for inmates.

Wolfe, a Cherokee, is currently at the Arkansas Department of Correction serving a life sentence for the murder of his friend, Chetlee Janes.

*****

Inmate prevails in suit for access to prayer feather

Posted: February 07, 2006

by: The Associated Press

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) -- A man who was held for 18 months in the Benton County Jail has prevailed in a lawsuit he filed to force jailers to give him access to a prayer feather.

Jailers objected to the feather on security grounds, but a federal judge has ruled that Billy Joe Wolfe Jr. of Jay, Okla., demonstrated that the feather was necessary for him to practice his religion.

U.S. District Judge Jimm Larry Hendren accepted most of a magistrates' report that said denying use of the feather was not reasonably related to the goal of jail security. The report noted that inmates had toothbrushes and other items that could be used as weapons.

Wolfe, a member of the Cherokee tribe, pleaded guilty in July to capital murder and kidnapping for the slaying of Chetlee Janes in 2003 in Maysville. He is now serving a sentence of life without parole in the state prison system.

Hendren turned away a magistrate's assertion that plaintiffs Sheriff Keith Ferguson and jail Administrator Hunter Petray should pay a token $1 damage award. The judge said Ferguson and Petray have qualified immunity. Ferguson and Petray argued that even if they did violate Wolfe's right to religious freedom, their immunity was established at the time.

Hendren agreed with the defendants that there has been little guidance for courts and judges on the issue. He said there was no evidence in this case that "a reasonable officer" in Benton County would know about Wolfe's particular religious beliefs or the related ritual objects.

In a friend of the court brief filed in the case, the American Indian Heritage Support Center urged that Wolfe be given the feather.

"It is tantamount to suggesting that the Christian cross or rosary could be used as a weapon or for sexual gratification, which we submit would be insulting to most Christians. Hypothetical situations should not be conjured up and passed as fact," the group argued.

Attorney Mike Rainwater for the Association of Arkansas Counties said the organization has researched the issue of who is entitled to a prayer feather and under what circumstances. The group will be ready to advise jailers the next time a department needs guidance.

Rob's comment
The jailers' actions implied that they thought Native religions were weird, trivial, or phony. Why else would they have ignored Wolfe's request?

I find it hard to believe that anyone in America doesn't know Indians use feathers. But if these jailers didn't know that and didn't believe Wolfe's claims about it, they should've done some research. Their choice to remain ignorant was equivalent to saying Natives have no religions worth knowing.

Related links
"Primitive" Indian religion


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