An inmate at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility is suing the state for allegedly infringing on his freedom to practice his religion.
His religion? Satanic worship.
Bernard Pritchard is doing time at the prison for "aggressive stalking," according to the New Mexico Corrections Department. In July, he filed a pro se lawsuit—meaning he's representing himself—against the department, Deputy Warden Kathleen Hodges and Chaplain Ron Adams for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights, the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act and his Eighth Amendment rights.
Pritchard says the defendants acted with "deliberate indifference" and "interference" with his "right to pray and exercise his beliefs and inner faith of Satanic worship." He adds that they've caused "infliction of emotional distress of plaintiff's feelings, acts, experiences of his faith and solitude to what his beliefs are considered to be divine and issues of ultimate concern and occupy a place parallel to that filled by God."
"Defendants denies plaintiff a reasonably [sic] opportunity of pursuing his faith comparable to the opportunity afforded to fellow prisoners who adhere to conventional religious precepts," his lawsuit reads.
Pritchard is asking for an injunction to practice "Satanic worship" as well as $100,000 "jointly and severally" from his defendants for "emotional injury" and another $20,000 from each defendant for punitive damages.
Notably, Pritchard's lawsuit fails to explain specifics about how his defendants allegedly infringed his religious rights. Alex Tomlin, a spokeswoman for the department, says prison officials go out of their way to accommodate inmates' abilities to practice their religion. This goes beyond worship services and includes specific accommodations like special foods for those practicing kosher, allowing Muslims to rise early to pray during sunrise and granting sweat lodges for those practicing Native American religions, among many others, Tomlin says.
"The department respects all religions and the rights of inmates to practice their religions," she says.
That includes smaller religions like Satanism. But even among Satanists, Pritchard's views appear to be on the fringes.
The Hell's Kitchen-based Church of Satan is the most widely known and organized branch of Satanism. The Church of Satan does not actually worship Satan, devils, or even profess to believe in their existence. Instead, the church follows atheism and treats Satan as "a symbol of Man living as his prideful, carnal nature dictates," according to an essay by Magus Peter Gilmore, identified as the "high priest" of the church.
"I am Satan, the adversary of man's stupidity and ignorance," reads the church's official website. "You are Satan. Satan is not a disembodied entity. Satan is an idea, a myth, a metaphor, an archetype, that personifies something within you and without you. Experiences with Satan hold merit according to each individual's subjective interpretation. If you learned something from your experience with Satan, then it helped you."
This message is at extreme odds with what the church dismisses as "devil worship," otherwise known as theistic Satanism.
In an email to SFR, Gilmore writes that his church has no members named Bernard Pritchard and that "Satanic worship" and "inner faith" are terms "we Satanists reject...as that concept plays no role in our skeptical philosophy."
Regardless, both Gilmore and the New Mexico branch of the American Civil Liberties Union agree that prisoners must be allowed to practice their religions.
"Court cases have established that correctional facilities must make reasonable accommodations for inmates' sincerely held religious beliefs," says ACLU-NM spokesman Micah McCoy.
But whether Pritchard can be taken seriously is another matter.
"If he is affiliated with a devil worshipping group through some website, then I would expect that they would need to supply literature outlining their beliefs and requirements for their adherents' regular practice according to their tenets," Gilmore writes. "Determining the legitimacy of such a group and its precepts and practices might be an aspect of the trial that could prove to be unusual. I would suspect that a prisoner cannot simply invent a set of beliefs and expect to be allowed to follow whatever he assigns as required behavior to such a concoction."
Read the lawsuit below: