The state's highest court says that the closure of a sweat lodge at a state prison violates federal law and an agreement settling a previous lawsuit.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled Monday in the case of Randall Trapp and Robert Ferreira, who it said were "adherents of Native American religious practices" who were incarcerated in state prisons.
The complaint alleged that the closure of the "purification lodge" at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000; a settlement agreement reached in 2003 to resolve a prior lawsuit brought by Trapp; and the state Declaration of Rights.
The court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly, concluded that the closure violated the law and the settlement agreement, but said it did not need to rule on the state constitutional question.
The lodge was built at the prison in 2004, but within six months, prison officials shut down ceremonies there, citing concerns that smoke from the lodge was filtering into the main building.
The court concluded that the closure "substantially burdens Ferreira's exercise of religion."
The federal law protects "any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief," as long as the exercise is based on "a sincerely held religious belief," the court said.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.