QAnon Shaman Jacob Chansley will be served organic food in detention per a court order that is a First Amendment win for the free exercise of religion in prison.
A month ago you couldn’t use the Internet without seeing Jacob Chansley. Better known as Jake Angeli, the QAnon Shaman, or “that guy at the Capitol riot with the buffalo horns,” Chansley’s face was plastered across news articles and Facebook memes. Shortly after the coup attempt, he was taken into federal custody and charged with “knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, and with violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.” Denied release on bond because he is seen as a flight risk, he was transferred to Washington DC to stand trial. He hadn’t eaten since he was arrested.
Chansley is a self-proclaimed shaman, and says he requires a fully organic diet as part of his religious practice. According to an inmate request slip he submitted, “I only eat traditional food that has been made by God. This means no GMOs, herbicides, pesticides or artificial preservatives or artificial colors.” (Presumably, foods may still be grown by industrial agricultural methods in vast monocrops, harvested by undocumented farm workers, and further processed by pasteurization, canning and freezing, without being overly offensive to a shaman.) His mom, Martha, backed him up, saying, “He gets very sick if he doesn’t eat organic food – literally will get physically sick.” Chansley’s lawyer, Albert Watkins, filed a petition with the DC court asking that his client be provided organic food, or, alternatively, granted pre-trial release so he could rustle up his own grub. He’d lost 20 pounds since being transferred from Arizona.
Others chimed in. “It’s a jail, Jacob. It isn’t a Whole Foods.”
“This dude sounds super ready for the hardships of a protracted civil war.”
“Seriously, this guy needs to count his blessings. All the fur and horns, he’s lucky he wasn’t shot by jr or Eric.”
It’s hilarious, but more importantly, Chansley has a point.
Here in the United States, we are supposed to have rights. Some of these are enumerated in the Constitution, added there at the insistence of Americans who wanted a strong guarantee that these rights would not be infringed by an overreaching government. Listed right at the top is the guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Whether Shamanism can even truly exist in modern American culture is legitimately questionable, but the First Amendment doesn’t lay out requirements for being a valid practitioner of any religion. The Supreme Court has long held that even trivial governmental restrictions on free exercise should be subject to scrutiny. What constitutes a religious belief is also to be interpreted broadly, and the Court has considered “essentially all belief systems aimed at answering questions of ‘ultimate concern’” to be religious in nature. Further, Chansley would need only to believe sincerely for his religious convictions to merit recognition. His willingness to forego eating for a week or longer, if organic foods could not be provided by the detention center, was taken as evidence of sincere belief by the judge, who ordered Chansley to be moved to a center in Virginia which would be able to comply with his dietary requirements.
There’s another aspect to this case that should be considered a civil rights victory. While reviewing Chansley’s request, the District of Columbia chaplain did not find any requirement that a fully organic food diet was required by adherents of Shamanism. However, could the prison chaplain legitimately block the free exercise of sincere adherents of another religion, or should we take the QAnon Shaman at his word regarding the requirements of his practice? The decision in Chansley’s favor is a win for free exercise of religion by prisoners. It’s hard to see a decision to humanize incarcerated people and make their experience somewhat less brutal as a bad thing.
Finally, this speaks more to America’s character than it does about Jacob Chansley. The man who allegedly stormed the Capitol with the intent of disenfranchising millions of Americans has had his rights protected by the same Constitution he and his fellow “patriots” would subvert. The United States is far from perfect, and could work significantly harder to protect the exercise of sincere moral beliefs (and even the lives) of the people it imprisons, but we have the framework, if not the political will, to do so. If jailing the relatively entitled cohort that stormed the Capitol last month wins these freedoms for those less privileged, then something worthwhile may well come out of the putsch.
Related: Dr. King, Unity, and the Putsch