BANGOR (AP) – A group of American Indian inmates is suing the Maine State Prison over a three-year-old smoking ban they argue violates their religious freedom.

In the lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court, the 14 inmates contend prison officials have denied them the right to build a sweat lodge, seized religious items, and temporarily confiscated a bowl used in their weekly “smudging” ceremony, where sweetgrass is burned to produce smoke.

“They’ve been denying us everything,” said Mike Thompson, a member of the Micmac tribe, who is serving a 40-year sentence for robbery and aggravated assault. “It’s easier for them to say ‘No’ than it is to learn about our ways. They don’t do any research or anything. They just say, ‘No, no, no.”‘

Prison officials say they are working with members of the Sacred Feather Native American Circle to address their concerns.

Warden Jeff Merrill said the smudging ceremony has been allowed in a designated area for some time, and negotiations are under way to allow the inmates to build a sweat lodge.

But the smoking ban is not open to debate, especially within cells, Merrill said. In 2000 the state Department of Corrections banned all smoking on prison grounds for health reasons.

The Maine lawsuit is the latest in a series of actions brought by American Indian inmates against prison authorities around the country.

A 1995 case filed against Massachusetts prison authorities resulted in a series of rulings and voluntary agreements that permit the practices discussed in the Maine lawsuit.

In New Hampshire, a federal judge threw out a similar lawsuit last year, ruling that the inmates had not yet exhausted the prison’s complaint procedures.

Recognition of Native American inmates’ religious rights has been growing over the years, said Peter d’Errico, an expert in American Indian legal issues who has retired from the University of Massachusetts.

For many years, he said, American Indian religious practices were outlawed in prisons because they were outside acceptable Judeo-Christian traditions.

Later, prisons in some areas required inmates practicing American Indian religions to prove membership in a recognized tribe.

Now most state prisons and all federal prisons allow exactly what the Maine prisoners are seeking, d’Errico said. But most judges do not want to interfere with prison officials’ control over security issues, letting the prisons decide when and where ceremonies are allowed.

AP-ES-05-15-03 1507EDT

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