Federal judge rules South Dakota prison tobacco ban infringes on religious rights

[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the District of South Dakota [official website] on Wednesday ruled [opinion, PDF] that South Dakota's ban on the use of tobacco in prisons infringes on the religious rights of Native American inmates. The Native American Council of Tribes (NACT), along with two individual plaintiffs, brought suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIP) [text] in 2009 against the Department of Corrections (DOC) seeking injunctive relief in order to use tobacco during religious ceremonies at the prison. Native Americans had been permitted to use tobacco during ceremonies at the prison prior to 2009 when the DOC enacted a policy banning tobacco in prison facilities. The DOC contends that the tobacco ban was necessary for security reasons. Judge Karen Schreier granted the requested injunctive relief, holding that the ban substantially burden's the Native American inmates' ability to exercise religion and that the government failed to provide a compelling governmental interest for the total ban on tobacco products. Schreier suggested that the inmates and officials confer in order to determine a narrowly tailored injunction.

The US and international community have recently made efforts to focus on issues surrounding the rights of indigenous populations. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples James Anaya called on US officials [JURIST report] in August to consult with Native Americans in North Dakota about the scheduled sale of land in the Black Hills area of the state that is considered to be sacred. In April Anaya announced that he would visit the US to launch the UN's first ever investigation into the rights situation of Native Americans [JURIST report]. Anaya's goal was to look into the rights of Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, and determine how the US's endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [text, PDF] has affected the rights of these groups of people. The US endorsed [JURIST report] the Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010, after being one of four member states originally opposed to the treaty when it was adopted by the UN [JURIST report] in 2007. The other countries opposed to it, Canada, New Zealand and Australia [JURIST reports], have all also changed their views and have since endorsed the treaty. This non-binding treaty outlines the human rights issues faced by the more than 370 million indigenous people throughout the world and encourages nations not to discriminate against them. The declaration was debated for more than two decades before it was passed.

 

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