NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A convicted murderer won the right Wednesday to wage a court fight to receive hate-filled white supremacist material in a Tennessee prison because he claims it’s part of his religion.
A federal appeals court ruled that a U.S. district judge should not have dismissed Anthony Hayes’ lawsuit against Tennessee and its prison system.
A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived Hayes’ lawsuit, saying it was improperly dismissed because neither the lower court nor the state of Tennessee addressed whether barring Hayes from receiving the mailings violated a federal law that strengthens religious freedom.
The law, known at the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, has been used by a variety of prisoners in legal battles.
It’s not clear if the state will appeal. A spokeswoman for the Tennessee Attorney General’s office said lawyers are reviewing the ruling.
Hayes, 54, has been a Tennessee prisoner since 1975 and is serving a sentence for first-degree murder, aggravated burglary and two counts of felony escape.
He is currently being housed in the Morgan County Correctional Complex in Wartburg.
Hayes filed a federal lawsuit in Knoxville in 2006 when officials at Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex barred him from having the materials. He wanted prison officials to recognize his membership in the religious group Christian Israel Identity. He also wanted to receive mailings from the New Christian Crusade Church of Metairie, La., court documents say.
Based on his requested religious affiliation and materials, Hayes is aligning himself with the racist Christian Identity movement, said Mark Potok, head of the department that monitors hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“This is fundamentally a neo-Nazi reading of the Bible,” Potok said. “Christian identity says the Bible is the reading of the white race.”
He says the movement has caused violence.
The religious material that warden rejected contained messages of white supremacy, claiming the Bible is for the white race only and that “Jews are mongrelized descendants of Satan through Cain,” court documents say.
Hayes was able to get access to the material after asking a fellow prisoner to order the literature.
Prison officials, according to the documents, have emphasized that Hayes is a violent felon held in maximum security.
Hayes’ attorney did not immediately return a call to the Associated Press.
The 6th Circuit sent the case back to the lower court because neither the judge nor the state responded to Hayes’ argument that prison officials violated the federal act. The appeals court also noted that the state has not explained why it let one prisoner have the materials while denying Hayes.
A spokeswoman for the Tennessee prison system said officials try to make sure inmates get legitimate religious materials while incarcerated. “But we do have to weigh certain activities against the safety and security of the institution,” spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said.