Murder convict asks judge to permit Satanism practice in public

Posted Jan. 28, 2012, at 12:16 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2012, at 1:35 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A man serving 30 years for murder has asked U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock to order officials at the Maine State Prison in Warren to allow him practice Satanism with other inmates.

Current Department of Corrections policy allows Joshua Cookson, 33, of York to practice Satanism in his cell. He is seeking to have Satanism recognized as a religion within the Maine prison system so he and others may worship in a group setting in the activities building, where group practices of other religions take place at the Maine State Prison in Warren. The group practice of Satanism is allowed in federal prisons, according to Cookson.

Cookson was convicted in June 2000 by a York County jury of murdering Robin Rainvill, 21, of Portsmouth, N.H., on Jan. 14, 1999, at Cookson’s tiny mobile home, according to a previously published report. The jury found that Cookson fired 13 shots, stopping once to reload while he and Rainville were playing with a rifle after drinking and taking drugs.

Prison officials have denied Cookson’s repeated requests for group worship since June 2009, when he first filed an internal grievance over the matter. Former DOC Commissioner Martin Magnusson in September 2009 denied Cookson’s request because “Satanism materials and the practice of Satanism are a threat to the safety, security and the orderly management of the facility.”

Cookson sued Magnusson in June 2010 in U.S. District Court in Bangor alleging that by not recognizing Satanism as a religion, the DOC was violating his 1st Amendment right to freedom of religion. Cookson, who is acting as his own attorney, paid the $350 filing fee by check, according to court documents. The complaint was amended last year to substitute the name of Joseph Ponte, the current commissioner, for Magnusson’s name.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Kravchuk issued her recommended ruling granting the DOC’s motion for summary judgement on Jan. 4. She found that the commissioner’s denial of Cookson’s request, which cited concern security concerns, did not violate Cookson’s constitutional rights.

“If you accept the commissioner’s finding that the practice of Satanism, as commonly understood, poses an institutional danger to the security of the prison, Cookson’s request to convene group rituals based, however loosely, on the religious practice of Satanism could properly be denied,” Kravchuck wrote. “Cookson remains free to practice his individual religion.”

Cookson filed his objection to her ruling on Jan. 20. So far, he has not requested a hearing before Woodcock, who will issue a final decision after he has reviewed all the documents in the case. There is no timeline under which he must issue a decision. If Woodcock rules against him, Cookson could appeal to the 1st U.S. District Court of Appeals in Boston.

Cookson is not the first inmate to sue the DOC over religious practices. In June 2008, Kravchuk recommended a suit filed by American Indians be dismissed after a group of 10 inmates filed a lawsuit seeking access to a sweat lodge, powwows and ceremonial food and music. Although, they lost the lawsuit, the following year Magnusson issued a revised policy concerning religious practices in the state’s prisons.

As of Feb. 19, 2009, the Department of Corrections recognized nine groups who were allowed to have weekly worship services as a group. As listed in the religious services policy for the DOC, They are: Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jehovah’s Witness, Judaism, Muslim, Native American, Pagan and Wicca.

Prisoners may have holy books such as Bibles and Qurans and religious publications, including journals and religious calendars, and items such as prayer rugs and shawls in their cells. Attending group worship services, however, is a privilege that must be earned. Prisoners who are in solitary confinement or restricted to their cells due to behavioral issues may not attend.

The items that can be worn and used in worship also are spelled out in the policy. For example, necklaces displaying a cross, crucifix, Star of David or other religious symbol must be on approved “breakaway” material. The same is true for rosaries and prayer beads used by Buddhists, Muslims, Indians, Pagans and Wiccans.

A yarmulke, the skullcap worn by Jews, as well as the kufi and hajib, worn by male and female followers of Islam, respectively, may not obscure a prisoner’s face, the policy states. Prayer rugs used by Muslims and Indians also may be used for individual worship.

The policy also spells out what items may be used in group worship. Cookson argued in his complaint and other court filings that he is seeking to use items such as candles, incense and bells. Those items are allowed to be used in group worship by religions recognized in the policy, Cookson said in court documents.

The Associated Press contributed to the this report.

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