White-supremacy group doesn't qualify as religion

By David L. Hudson Jr.
First Amendment scholar

A California inmate who adheres to the white-supremacist Creativity Movement has lost his federal lawsuit to force prison officials to recognize his racial beliefs as a religion. Creativity Movement is the current name of the former World Church of the Creator, which changed names after losing a trademark-infringement lawsuit.

Scott Conner, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison, petitioned prison officials to recognize “Creativity” as a religion, thereby allowing him use of the chapel for services, a special religious diet and access to outside clergy. Prison officials denied the request, contending that Creativity is a hate group that seeks to further segregation and racism. A warden said the ideology “would tend to incite violence within the institutional setting.”

After losing his prison administrative appeals, Conner sued prison officials in federal court claiming that they had violated his constitutional rights under the free-exercise clause and his statutory rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or RLUIPA. He contended that prison officials denied him access to religious adornments, group worship privileges, religious literature and a religious-based diet. Conner also wanted inmates to be able to marry non-inmates in ceremonies conducted by Creativity clergy.

U.S. District Judge Maxine M. Chesney dismissed the inmate’s claims in her Dec. 2 opinion, Conner v. Tilton. Chesney denied the free-exercise and RLUIPA claims because she found that Creativity did not qualify as a religion. She followed the test for determining whether a set of beliefs qualifies as a religion from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Africa v. Pennsylvania (1980), in which the court ruled that a state prisoner failed to show that the group MOVE was a religion.

In Africa, the 3rd Circuit adopted a three-factor test or three principles to decide whether certain beliefs constitute a religion:

  • Whether the beliefs address fundamental and ultimate questions of deep matters.
  • Whether the set of beliefs is comprehensive and consists of a belief system as opposed to isolated teaching.
  • Whether the belief system has formal characteristics associated with a religion.

Chesney applied the three Africa criteria and concluded that Creativity was not a religion. She said Creativity was “guided exclusively by secular goals.” Though Creativity uses terms such as “sacred goal” and “holy responsibility,” the judge deemed the beliefs as no more than a “pragmatic philosophy ... to ensure the survival and promote the dominance” of the white race.

Chesney then turned to the second factor in the Africa test — whether the beliefs are comprehensive in nature. She found Creativity to be confined to the purpose of promoting white supremacy, writing that the “essence of Creativity” is summed up by its golden rule: “What is good for the White Race is the highest virtue; what is bad for the White Race is the ultimate sin.” She analogized Creativity’s focus on white supremacy to the Church of Marijuana’s focus on smoking marijuana.

As for “formal and external signs” of religion, the judge allowed that Conner had shown that Creativity has a well-defined organizational structure and that members must be familiar with the group’s teachings and must take an oath. Conner also established that there was an active Creativity clergy. However, the judge again focused on the “sole purpose” of the organization, which was to promote a “secular belief system.”

Chesney also rejected Conner’s claim under RLUIPA for the same reason — that Conner could not meet his burden of showing that Creativity was a religion, rather than a set of secular principles couched in religious terminology.