WILLIAMSPORT — A self-described Kulpmont Viking and former inmate is suing Northumberland County, claiming the warden and other officials violated his religious freedom by forcing him to shave off his beard.
Randy Elliott Jr., 25, filed the federal lawsuit in the Middle District of Pennsylvania against Warden Bruce Kovach, Deputy Warden Jim Smink and the prison board — Chairman and Commissioner Stephen Bridy; Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Rick Shoch; Sheriff Bob Wolfe, Controller Christopher Grayson and District Attorney Ann Targonski.
“Nowhere in Northumberland County Prison policy is there a beard-length requirement,” Elliot wrote in court documents. “There is numerous inmates in prison with longer or as long beards that was never asked or told to shave beard regardless of religious beliefs.”
Kovach had no comment Wednesday.
The Viking theology of Odinism or Asatru, a type of Germanic neopaganism, has been exclusively adopted by white supremacists in correctional facilities.
It is a polytheistic, pre-Christian faith native to Scandinavia whose adherents worship gods such as Thor and Odin. It emphasizes a connection with one’s ancestors and values honor, loyalty, generosity and truth.
Asatru has been gaining popularity among inmates, say religious leaders and prison experts who believe its roots in Viking mythology attract prisoners seeking power, protection and unity, according to a report by USA Today in 2006.
Elliott, a former inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township as a county inmate until July 24, most recently pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia and was ordered by Shamokin District Judge John Gembic to pay a $200 fine plus costs and placed on probation for nine months.
Elliott had already been on probation after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. He was sent back to prison after a revocation hearing.
Elliott claims that on June 13 Smink and Kovach ordered him to shave off his beard or he would be placed on restrictive housing unit status. The order came after making verbal and written requests to use the law library and exercise equipment, Elliott claims.
When Elliott submitted a grievance about how the prison officials were forcing him to shave his beard “against the Viking way,” Kovach stated it was shaved off completely to state standards, according to court documents.
Elliott claims prison officials alternate between county and state policy whenever it suits them when violating inmate rights.
The inmate also claims prison officials denied him the right to exercise outside and use the law library.
Elliott is seeking an injunction to prevent such practices from violating his and others’ rights, compensatory damages of $10,000 and punitive damages as the court deems appropriate.
It’s estimated that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 followers of the Viking theology in the United States.
No national statistics are kept on how many inmates follow Asatru, according to the USA Today’s report, but experts say its popularity enjoyed a boost from the Supreme Court, which in 2005 sided with an Asatru inmate by upholding a federal law requiring state prisons to accommodate prisoners’ religious affiliations.