On May 14, 1997, thirty-five inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary who were professed members of the Church of New Song (CONS) filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the warden of Iowa State Penitentiary in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. Many inmates were either dismissed or failed to pay the court-filing fee so that the case finally included only fourteen named plaintiffs. Additionally, the case name was changed from Goff v. Mascher to Goff v. Graves when the original warden was replaced by his successor.
The plaintiffs, represented by private counsel, asked the court for injunctive relief, alleging that the defendants had violated their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion and the First Amendment right to free speech, in contempt of the court's earlier decree in another case, Remmers v. Brewer, 361 F.Supp. 537 (S.D. Iowa 1973) (PC-IA-0013)., which recognized CONS as a religion entitled to First Amendment protection. Specifically, the plaintiffs contended that prison officials had not allowed them to observe their religious holiday, called the "Celebration of Life festival," by interfering with their right to cater food for the "Celebration banquet."
The defendants claimed that the plaintiffs' professed religion, labeled "Eclatarianism," was not actually a religion as protected by the First Amendment, but was rather a front for a white supremacist gang. They asked the court for a declaratory relief preventing the plaintiffs from engaging in CONS activities. Citing Remmers, the Court (Magistrate Judge Ross A. Walters) declared that the "settled law of this district, affirmed by the Eighth Circuit, is that CONS is a religion within the ambit of the First Amendment.'" In the Remmers litigation, the Court found that evidence that CONS was a scam to be insufficent to overrule its ruling acknowledging CONS as a religion entitled to First Amendment protection. Loney v. Scurr, 474 F. Supp. 1186 (S.D. Iowa 1979).
On November 20, 2000, the Court (Magistrate Judge Ross A. Walters) recommended that the plaintiffs' First Amendment claims be dismissed, holding that they had not established that the defendant was in contempt of the Remmers decree with respect to the prohibition of the Celebration of Life banquet and the restriction upon catering food. The Magistrate also recommended that the defendant's request for declaratory relief be denied.
On January 29, 2001, the District Court (Judge Robert W. Pratt) adopted Judge Walters' recommendation in part. The Court dismissed the plaintiffs' free speech claim and denied the defendants' request for declaratory relief. However, the Court rejected Judge Walters' report on the banquet food issue, reasoning that the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause "[protects] the rights of those plaintiffs who sincerely believe in Eclatarianism." The court recommitted this portion of the claim to the Magistrate Judge in order to determine the sincerity of each plaintiffs' beliefs.
On August 21, 2001, Magistrate Judge Walters reviewed and determined the sincerity of each plaintiffs' beliefs in Eclatarianism and found that seven named plaintiffs were not sincere believers in the religion, thus justifying the dismissal of their claims, while six named plaintiffs were sincere believers. One plaintiff's claims were voluntarily dismissed.
The Court (Judge Robert W. Pratt) adopted the Magistrate Judge's recommendations on December 27, 2001. The Court granted injunctive relief from the defendant's practice of denying Celebration of Life banquet food to CONS members to four plaintiffs. The other plaintiffs' claims were dismissed. The Court also denied the defendant prison officials' request for declaratory relief to prevent the inmates from participating in CONS activities. Both the plaintiffs and defendants appealed the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
On March 30, 2004, the Eighth Circuit (Judge Pasco Middleton Bowman II) reversed the District Court's order requiring the prison officials to permit food trays from the Celebration of Life banquet to be taken to CONS members in lock-up. The Court reasoned that the ban on delivering food trays was reasonably related to legitimate penological interests and, as such, was not in violation of the Free Exercise Clause. The Court further found insufficient evidence that a feast for the Celebration of Life banquet was deeply rooted in the CONS religion. The Court affirmed both the District Court's denial of the prison officials' counterclaim for declaratory relief and the Court's decision to partially seal the record and issue a protective order.
The last entry on the docket, dated July 1, 2004, is a grant of disbursement to the plaintiff's attorney for $915.00 by Magistrate Judge Celeste F. Bremer. We have no more information on this file.
In addition to the Remmers litigation, PC-IA-0013, the subject of CONS members' religious rights in prison was also the subject of litigation in Voshell v. Spence, PC-IA-0022.Stacey Jensen - 09/01/2006