The Alaska Supreme Court on Friday reversed a lower-court decision denying an inmate access to a kosher diet and prayer shawl, sending the case back to Anchorage Superior Court for further review.
Paul T. Stavenjord, a Buddhist inmate at Goose Creek Correctional Center in Wasilla, brought the appeal. He was found guilty in 1998 on two counts of first-degree murder for killing his neighbors Deborah Rehor and Carl “Rick” Beery the year before near Chulitna, northeast of Talkeetna. Stavenjord is serving a 198-year sentence.
According to court documents, Stavenjord, 64, claims to be a Buddhist monk ordained by the Tenshin Ryushin-Ji Buddhist Temple and a qualified Buddhist teacher with 30 years of experience, as well as a “prison ministries adviser” for the temple.
In January 2011, Stavenjord was incarcerated at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward. After requesting that a vegan diet be discontinued — citing the poor quality of the food — he asked to be placed on a kosher diet for religious reasons. He also requested authorization to buy a prayer shawl.
The Department of Corrections denied both requests, saying a kosher diet was not related to the Buddhist faith and that prayer shawls were allowed only at the discretion of the prison superintendent.
In June 2011, Stavenjord filed suit in Anchorage Superior Court alleging that Spring Creek officials had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The Superior Court ruled in a summary judgment that there was no evidence that a prayer shawl or kosher diet was necessary for the practice of his religion. The decision also questioned whether he was “sincere in his request for these accommodations.”
Stavenjord appealed. On Friday, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the judgment and remanded it back to Superior Court.
The Supreme Court found that the summary judgment failed to examine whether the Department of Corrections had met its burden of proof. It also ruled that the sincerity of Stavenjord’s religious claim was an aspect not normally applied to summary judgment.
Additionally, the court found that the standard set up in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act meant that Stavenjord did not have to prove that the shawl or diet were necessary for the practice of Buddhism, only for the “exercise of religion.”
The decision reverses and remands the case back to the Superior Court for further proceedings.