Nebraska: Inmates get pagan religion recognized in state prison State agrees to pay $12,400 to cover two inmates' attorney fees under deal

By Timberly Ross

Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- Two Nebraska inmates have succeeded in getting a pagan religion recognized by state prison officials and will be able to hold their own worship services.

Wolfgang Rust, 59, and Bobby Conn, 30, reached a settlement in December with the state Department of Correctional Services over their fight to practice Theodish Belief at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. The state will pay $12,400 to cover the inmates' attorney fees under the deal approved last week in federal court.

The agreement calls for the prison system to recognize Theodish Belief and allow worshippers to procure items for religious ceremonies, including drinking horns, a boar's tusk, a hobby horse and organic food.

Messages left for a prison spokeswoman weren't returned.

The inmates' lawsuit, filed in August 2008 in U.S. District Court in Lincoln, said they had been forced to combine worship services with Asatru followers in violation of to their constitutional rights and federal law. Both religions are forms of heathenism practiced in northern Europe about the 5th century but are as distinct as the Christian religions of Catholicism and Protestantism, according to the filing.

"Plaintiffs are dedicated to practicing the religion of our ancestors in an authentic, traditional tribal form which is as close to the elder ways as possible," the lawsuit said. They contend Asatru is "radically different and blasphemously obnoxious."

The inmates' attorney Gene Summerlin praised the settlement, saying it allows Rush and Conn to exercise their religious freedom.

"The issue from the very beginning was these guys should be given separate worship times so they can practice their religion fully and the Asatru worshippers can practice their religion fully . . . and not try to mesh two religions," Summerlin said.

The lawsuit followed the inmates' earlier request to prison officials for recognition of their religion. They were turned down in 2005 because prison officials determined the faiths were too similar.

Rust, formerly John Rust, is serving a life sentence for a 1975 killing in Omaha. His death sentence was commuted in 1994. Conn was sentenced to 20 to 30 years for plotting to kill his estranged wife in Sherman County in 2001.

Rust was among a group of inmates who, in 1995, unsuccessfully fought to perform fire ceremonies and wear special medallions that resemble a swastika as part of the Asatru faith.

He's since been excommunicated from that religion, the lawsuit said.

Published: Wed, Mar 16, 2011

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