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June 2012
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Death row inmates inspire new look at inmate religious ceremonies lawsuit


LOUISVILLE - Three Kentucky death row inmates should get another chance to show they have the right to a sweat lodge, powwow and traditional foods to conduct Native American religious ceremonies behind bars at the prison, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ordered part of a lawsuit brought by six-time convicted killer Robert Foley, two-time convicted killer Roger Dale Epperson and Vincent Stopher, condemned for the death of a sheriff's deputy in Jefferson County, reinstated after concluding that state officials failed to show compelling reasons for denying the requests.

The appeals court also turned away a related bid by two condemned inmates to get monetary damages from prison officials for changing the rules on visits by pastors to those on death row.

U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell ruled in 2013 that the prison's rejection of the requests were necessary for the security of inmates and others.

The case put forth the questions of whether inmates should have access to Native American traditions for a faith-based once-a-year powwow and if they should be able to collect money damages from prison officials.

"The answers ... are yes and no," Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote for the three-judge panel.

The inmates sued under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

It prohibits state and local governments from placing a substantial burden on the religious exercise of inmates.

The simplest way to determine if and how Native American ceremonies could be held would be to look at how other states have dealt with the requests - something Kentucky did not do, Sutton wrote.

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