Asatru is a polytheistic religion that originated several centuries ago in Northern Europe. Asatru is a decentralized religion with no spiritual leader or governing religious authority. Although Asatru practitioners observe general principles of the religion, each member exercises his or her faith in a personal manner.
In Krieger v. Brown, No. 10-7576 (4th Cir. 2012), the plaintiff, Johan Krieger, who is incarcerated in a state correctional facility in North Carolina, practices Asatru. The North Carolina Department of Corrections (NCDOC) recognizes Asatru as an approved religion. To develop a policy to accommodate inmates practicing Asatru, the NCDOC consulted Valgard Murray, the leader of the “Asatru Alliance, the oldest and largest Asatru church in North America.”
The NCDOC developed a policy to permit prisoners access to certain items used in the most common Asatru ceremony, called “Blot.” Permitted items include a picture of a Thor Hammer, a cardboard sword, a cardboard staff, an altar and altar cloth and candles, a small evergreen twig, mead made from a fruit juice substitute or honey, a sacrificial bowl, runes, folk music, and pictures of various Gods and Goddesses of the Asatru faith. The NCDOC also permits other items for use in private worship practices.
In 2005, Krieger requested permission from the NCDOC to construct a large outdoor worship circle made of stones requiring “two tons of gravel, shrubbery, one-half ton of small stones, and at least 400 pounds of concrete to construct an altar.” In addition, Krieger requested several sacred items not included among the items approved by the NCDOC that he alleged were necessary for group worship: “a large piece of cloth for creating a banner, a large horn cap, an oath ring, heathen music, cardboard replicas of Thors hammer, a spear, a shield, an axe, and a bow and arrow.” Krieger also requested items for personal worship that were not approved by the NCDOC.
The NCDOC denied Kriegers requests and he sued two NCDOC employees in Federal District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, alleging that the denial of his requests for an outdoor worship circle and use of certain sacred items imposed a substantial burden on his free exercise of religion in violation of RLUIPA. Krieger also alleged that the denial violated his right to freely exercise his religion under the First Amendment. Krieger claimed that to practice Asatru, “he must utilize sacred items in the performance of well-established rituals.” To support his claims, Krieger submitted several exhibits, including “The Handbook of Asatru,” with a forward by Valgard Murray. Krieger later amended his request for an outdoor circle, “seeking only outdoor space for a worship circle and enough rocks to form a loose circle rather than an exact replica of [his previously submitted] design.”
The Federal District Court granted the NCDOCs motion for summary judgment because, it concluded, the denial of Kriegers requests placed only an incidental burden on his religious exercise under RLUIPA and, therefore, Krieger failed to establish a prima facie case. The Court also found that Kriegers First Amendment claim failed for the same reason.
Krieger appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, alleging that the District Court improperly evaluated the significance of the requested items to the practice of Asatru. According to Krieger, the District Court should have instead considered whether he had met his burden by showing that the deprivation of an outdoor worship circle and the requested items substantially burdened his religious exercise by forcing him to practice Asatru “differently than he otherwise would have.”
The Fourth Circuit affirmed. It found that Krieger failed to establish how requiring him to pray indoors would substantially burden his practice of Asatru. Although Krieger claimed that the “Blot” ceremony is “best performed outdoors,” the literature submitted by Krieger stated that practicing Asatru indoors is possible. Further, “the practice of Asatru is individualized and lacks any mandatory aspect of exercise, a fact readily acknowledged by Krieger.” Although Krieger alleged that the sacred items were “necessary” for “well-established rituals,” he failed to identify those rituals or explain how the absence of those items impacted the rituals or violated his beliefs. The literature submitted by Krieger included a list of “mandatory religious items for Asatru worship.” The items permitted by the NCDOC to prisoners practicing Asatru were identical to those included on the mandatory religious item list.
You can access the decision of the Fourth Circuit here.