NEW ORLEANS - An ACLU of Louisiana lawsuit has prompted an out of court settlement that allows Mormon inmate Norman Sanders to get access to religious materials from respected vendors in order to practice his beliefs. Since 2003, Warden Burl Cain of Louisiana State Penitentiary had repeatedly refused to amend the instituted Vendor List and treat Mr. Sanders' affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ like the Baptists and other favored religions.
"The First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause applies equally to all inmates and state prison officials had to be prodded to get with the program," said Joe Cook, Executive Director, ACLU of Louisiana. "Religious liberty can only flourish if the government leaves religion alone and remains neutral barring violation of established law."
Norman Sanders has belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints all of his life. An important tenet of his faith is that he study religious texts and writings. Until institution of the approved Vendor List in December of 2003, he had been able to get Mormon religious writings. Thereafter, he was denied access to publications from sellers of Mormon materials, including the bookstore at Brigham Young University. The books he ordered were returned to the senders.
"Angola officials may not control the private practice of religion unless it clearly poses a safety or security risk, which did not exist in this case," according to Katie Schwartzmann, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Louisiana. "It is unfortunate that we even had to bring this lawsuit. Mr. Sanders tried for years to get Angola officials to comply with the Constitution. We are pleased that prison officials made the right decision and finally decided to settle this case."
Earlier this month, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections reached a settlement with Mr. Sanders. It agreed to add Brigham Young University Bookstore, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies and Deseret Book Direct to its vendor's list. Also, Mr. Sanders received $10,950.00 for damages out of a total award of $21,786.13 that included attorneys' fees and costs. The original federal lawsuit was filed in Baton Rouge in 2006.
The ACLU is the foremost defender of civil liberties and individual freedom as embodied in the Constitution. That includes keeping the government out of the business of endorsing and advancing religion, so everyone may worship freely.