Alex C. Snelson, 33, is serving two to six years in state prison for possession of a stolen car after spending time in the Washoe County Jail in Reno for possession of methamphetamine and brass knuckles.
He argues in a federal lawsuit that he was denied the right to freely exercise his religion last year when he was forced to either starve or break from a strict dietary regime that allows only “whole foods” but no byproducts or processing additives.
Snelson claims deputies also retaliated against him by refusing him ice cream because they said it would violate his religion. He said in an amended, hand-written complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Reno on Wednesday that the ice cream is a “whole food” and he is entitled to it as well as his fellow non-pagan inmates.
“Each day that I am effectively forced to eat outside my religious dietary guidelines is a day that I must endure feeling totally and utterly violated, tortured and religiously defiled,” Snelson wrote.
Snelson, who was homeless and unemployed when he was arrested last year, said the violation of his First Amendment rights caused him to suffer at the county jail. He’s seeking “hedonic” and “vindictive” damages as well as monetary and punitive damages.
County prosecutors said Friday they hadn’t seen the new filing and had no comment.
County spokesman Bob Harmon said it is the policy of the jail operated by the sheriff’s office to “accommodate the religious practices of all inmates.”
“Mr. Snelson’s allegations are just that — allegations, and we are confident that the facts will show that the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office acted in accordance with constitutional requirements,” Harmon said Friday.
Washoe County Deputy District Attorney Mary Kandaras said in court filings in March that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held previously that such claims must be “rooted in religious belief” not in “purely secular” philosophical concerns.
“Determining if a prisoner’s claim is ‘rooted in religious belief’ requires analyzing whether the prisoner’s claim is related to his sincerely held religion’s belief,” she said in a motion requesting that Snelson be required to explain his beliefs.
Kandaras said Snelson’s original lawsuit filed in August didn’t identify any specific religion, the content of his diet, whether his diet was recognized by the tenets of his religion or if he simply made it up.
Snelson, who is acting as his own attorney, said in the amended suit he is a full, active and participating member of the pagan religion Satanism.
“I use my diet to purify and cleanse my internal organs,” he said, adding that the “religious dietary restrictions that have been imposed on me by my church and by my religion and by my faith.”
Snelson said he is a member of the Church of Light in Chino Hills, California. The Associated Press was not able to locate such a church.
A leader of an international Satanic organization questioned Snelson’s claims.
The Church of Satan, founded in San Francisco in 1966 by Anton Szandor LaVey, allows its members “to choose whatever diet is pleasing to them,” said Magus Peter H. Gilmore, a high priest at the church.
The church website says it is the “original Church of Satan” dedicated to the “acceptance of man’s nature as an animal living in a cosmos that is indifferent to his existence.” It adds that Satanism is “not Devil worship. There is no belief in God, Satan, the soul, the supernatural or in any form of afterlife.”
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