Minnesota sex offenders sue over religious restrictions during pandemic

[anvplayer video=”4966562″ station=”998122″]

More than a dozen men in Minnesota’s Sex Offender Program are suing the state’s human services department, alleging the agency has banned the practice of religious gatherings for more than six months in the wake of COVID-19.

Attorney Erick Kaardal, who filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of 15 clients, said the restrictions inside the Moose Lake facility continued even after a June executive order from Gov. Tim Walz that allowed places of worship to reopen at 50 percent capacity.

"If our spiritual practices were banned through September, we’d say that’s outrageous," Kaardal said in an interview. "Now we need to say that’s outrageous that MSOP doesn’t give spiritual practices to these clients."

The religions among the men who are suing vary, as some identify with Native American tradition, while others worship different Christian denominations and the Jewish faith. Several clients cite other practices outside of the mainstream religions, such as Wiccan and Asatru.

Affidavits submitted as part of the lawsuit describe the impacts of the ban. The program clients say they have experienced "emotional anguish" and "a lack of support and interaction" over the last six months.

"They are relying on their different faith traditions to get through a difficult time," Kaardal said. "They’re institutionalized, but they have a federal right to have the same practices that we have."

The lawsuit argues that by restricting access to religious practice, the state is violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which guarantees rights to those who are incarcerated or civilly committed.

In a statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, MSOP executive director Nancy Johnston said the restrictions are intended to reduce the spread of the virus, which is highly contagious in congregate-living settings.

"Restrictions on gatherings and outside visitors in place at MSOP facilities are intended to prevent and control infection and are in large part responsible for the fact that there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among MSOP clients in Moose Lake or St. Peter," the statement reads in part.

DHS said the clients are still permitted to practice their faith on an individual basis and are able to gather with other clients who live in their unit.

"Despite COVID restrictions, there remain many outlets at MSOP for clients to practice their faith," Johnston argues.

The lawsuit is asking the court for an emergency injunction that would lift the restrictions and restore the old DHS policy on religious gatherings. A hearing is scheduled for October.