Judge discriminates against Illinois prisoner’s request for sacred text

Kevin Halfmann, an inmate in the Centralia Correctional Center in Illinois, is serving time for predatory criminal sexual assault. He is a Satanist — the kind of Satanist who is an atheist following the philosophies laid out in books such as Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible. Recently, he asked to be able to have a copy of the book while he’s in jail.

A judge said no.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners must be allowed access to religious activities and texts, as long as they don’t disrupt order within the prison. Unfortunately, the Satanic Bible has been verboten in Illinois jails for more than 20 years, supposedly because it “has a potential to incite hatred and violence.”

You can, certainly, find places in the Satanic Bible that encourage, say, revenge. But you can also find passages in the Koran and the Christian Bible which can be interpreted to “incite hatred and violence,” too. Certainly more Christians have been responsible for hatred and violence — in the name of their holy book — than members of any other faith. Any federally funded institution caught banning these texts would find itself in serious legal hot water. So why is the Satanic Bible different?

The news on Halfmann’s request comes just as Wild Hunt blogger Jason Pitzl-Waters addresses the specter of Christian privilege. At a time when they are more powerful than ever, many Christians are behaving as though they are part of a persecuted minority.

… you see the valorizing of the very early Christian period, heavy on references to persecution for their faith (and the glossing over of the era when the empire was Christianized). In countless Christian sermons and documentaries that period is returned to time and time again. Instead of being used as a reminder to not abuse power, and to not let any minority be persecuted, this narrative has instead mutated for some Christians into a paranoia about a returning “pagan” persecution that they must constantly battle and guard against.

Unfortunately, this practice creates a number of problems. It keeps the focus on Christians, who already have more control than any single religion ought to have in a society with (in theory) full religious freedom. Worse, it delegitimizes real claims of religious persecution and discrimination experienced by those in minority faiths.

Only in a society where some religions are favored over others could a judge — whose salary is paid by the people — tell a member of one faith that he cannot have access to his holy text, when access to such texts while imprisoned is otherwise protected by law.

I seriously hope Halfmann has the resources to appeal his case.

Readers, what do you think? Should inmates have ready access to religious and philosophical texts that are core to their faiths and practices? Why or why not?

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9 responses to “Judge discriminates against Illinois prisoner’s request for sacred text

  1. “In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners must be allowed access to religious activities and texts, as long as they don’t disrupt order within the prison.”

    Not really true; in fact, the Supreme Court upheld a federal law which required that prisoners be allowed access to non-disruptive religious materials; this law only applies to federal facilities and state facilities which are funded with federal money. If the Centralia facility is purely state-funded, then they are outside this particular federal law.

    According to the USA Today article you linked to above, there was a 1990 Supreme Court case that gave states broad powers to forbid things (presumably in a prison context; the article is vague). The limited law upheld in 2005 was the successor to a more sweeping law passed by Congress in 1997 that was ultimately overturned by the high court. There are clearly many in congress who care deeply about guaranteeing religious freedoms for prisoners, but they’re running up against the Court’s current interpretation of the Constitution. So if prisoners don’t get the benefit of the Free Exercise clause, then as long as prison officials don’t push the Establishment Clause *too* hard they can be as arbitrary as they want to be.

    • Thanks, Hans. Those are important distinctions. Looking through their reports at the Illinois DOC web site, Illinois state prisons do receive federal grants for some programs at the very least. My guess is that that would make them beholden to the federal law that requires prisoners be allowed access to religious materials, but IANAL.

      State prisons may have the ability to forbid any number of things, but they can’t forbid something that they are legally allowed under federal law. I seriously hope this inmate challenges the judge’s ruling.

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  3. If this guy was a Satanist following the philosophies of Anton LaVey, he wouldn’t be in lockup for ‘predatory criminal sexual assault’. Read the damn book. What’s he REALLY trying to pull?

    • To expand on Rolls’s comment:

      Satanists live by an ethical code called the Eleven Rules of the Earth. Rule #5 states, “Do not make sexual advances unless you are given the mating signal.” In the context of Satanism, the “mating signal” means consent. It’s an “only yes means yes” perspective on sexuality. In other words, there is an injunction against rape codified into the basic doctrines of Satanism. Someone who has committed felony sexual assault doesn’t have his bona fides in order.

      I’m not able to speak on behalf of the Church of Satan. But as as far as I can tell, having followed their activities for a few years, their policy for cases like this seems to be to clarify their basic philosophy for the benefit of prison administrators, and then disavow any association with or support for the prisoner.

      • Even if the Church of Satan were to distance themselves from such a person, I don’t think that justifies the decision of the judge (I’m not sure if you’re saying it does). To provide a different example, if a Catholic priest goes to jail for molesting a minor, I still think that priest should have access to the Bible (and WOULD have access to the Bible) — even if he had been defrocked. Violating the sexual mores of one’s faith doesn’t require someone to give up that faith. We all make mistakes. Some people make very big, very harmful mistakes, but it isn’t the fault of their faith — or their interest in that faith — that they made those mistakes.

  4. I’m not saying the judge’s decision is justified. I agree that it reflects a double standard. When you frame this issue in terms of whether inmates should be able to read the book, then I agree with you.

    The point I’m trying to make is that Satanists would be reluctant to say this guy is being discriminated against for being a Satanist, because we would have serious questions about his standing as a Satanist at all. From the perspective of Satanists, your own statement that this inmate is a Satanist is not a neutral or supportive statement, as I am sure you intended it to be. He has the legal right to call himself one, but that doesn’t make him one.

    Being a Satanist is not about subscribing to certain beliefs, nor about conducting certain sacraments, nor about being a member of certain organizations (you don’t have to be a Church of Satan member to be a Satanist). It’s about having a certain kind of attitude and living your life in a certain way. In large part, it’s about personal integrity and personal responsibility, and it precludes things like sexual predatory behavior. This is not a religion of faith and forgiveness. One doesn’t become a Satanist by confessing a creed or shahadah. This is a religion of “either you is or you ain’t”; it’s not about talking the talk, but walking the walk. And this guy isn’t walking the walk. So, from a Satanic perspective, this guy is an outsider appropriating our ideas to suit himself.

    It’s an exercise of OUR religious freedom to say, this guy is not one of us, and whatever is wrong with denying anyone access to our literature, we’re not going to defend this guy’s right to exploit our good name.

    I hope this clarifies what is at stake from a Satanist’s perspective.

    • Thanks for taking the time to clarify. I’m not sure anyone’s asking other Satanists to embrace this inmate or his claim to Satanism. By the same token, I hope other Satanists would defend his right to have access to the Satanic Bible, because the judge doesn’t care what Halfmann did, or whether he’s a respectable Satanist or not — that isn’t the reason he denied the request. He would deny it to any inmate, including any Satanist inmate, regardless of the crime they’ve been imprisoned for.

      • Yes, when the issue is framed in terms of the legal standing and availability of the SB, I completely agree with the points you’ve made. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify my objection. And thank you for the respect you’ve shown to Satanism and to Satanists in this post and in your replies. Many journalists aren’t halfwise so scrupulous as you’ve been here.

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