Jacob Chansley, the so-called “QAnon Shaman” arrested for storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, has filed an emergency motion before a federal judge in Washington, D.C., “for sustenance.” In the alternative, Chansley is asking to be released from jail pending trial. The requests are related to Chansley’s belief in Shamanism, a religion which he says allows him to eat only organic food as a core tenet of practice.
The motion, filed by attorney Al Watkins, mirrors requests for organic food which Watkins made during a plea hearing last week. Chansley pleaded not guilty to charges related to the siege.
Watkins says Chansley hasn’t eaten since authorities moved him to Washington, D.C., more than a week ago. Chansley has lost more than twenty pounds, the documents state, and further note that his “physical condition . . . is declining.”
Included in the motion are handwritten requests by Chansley to prison officials for organic food. In the requests, dated Jan. 27, Chansley states that he has “eaten only organic food for the past 8 years.”
“Because of my being a Shamanic practitioner, I only eat traditional food that has been made by God. This means no GMO’s, herbicides, pesticides, or artificial preservatives or artificial colors,” Chansley continued. “I have not eaten anything since Monday morning @ approx. 8:15 a.m. Being w/o food is stressful due to the way it affects my serotonin levels. As a spiritual man, I don’t mind fasting for a few days, but 5 days is the longest I have ever gone w/o food/fasted for. I am humbly requesting a few organic canned vegetables, canned tuna (wild caught), or organic canned soups. If I have to go a week w/o food or longer then so be it. I will stay committed to my spiritual/religious beliefs even if it means I suffer physically. I will continue to pray through the pain and do my best not to complain. I simply ask that you understand that the physical effects of not eating organic are harmful to my body & bio-chemistry.”
“I have strayed from my spiritual diet only a few times over the last 8 years with detrimental physical effects,” the note continues. “As a spiritual man I am wiling to suffer for my beliefs, hold to my convictions, and the bare weight of their consequences. I simply ask that an exception plz be made for my special circumstances. the last facility I was @ in Arizona made such an exception for the short duration of my visit there. I kindly & humbly ask that a brief exception be made in this location as well. Please Chaplin [sic] as a man of God I ask that you please try to understand my convictions and plead my case to the necessary parties. Thank you . . . ”
A chaplain denied Chansley’s request on either Feb. 1 or 2 — the date is typed incorrectly — because “Religious Services” at the Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections “was unable to find any religious merit pertaining to organic food or diets under Shamanism Practitioner” guidelines. The denial also says that Chansley had “not identified” his “faith/belief” when he entered the institution.
An email from the jail’s attorney to Watkins, which was filed along with the motion, reasserts the institution’s position. Contrary to Watkins’ arguments, the emails from the jail say Chansley “has not gone seven days without eating.” The DOC attorney asked Watkins to provide documentation “demonstrating that your client [Chansley] requires an organic diet.”
In his legal motion, Watkins, the attorney, notes that Shamanism is a faith recognized by the U.S. Government.
“Shamanism is a system of religious practice,” Watkins explains to Judge Royce C. Lamberth, whose handwritten notes appear at the top of the filed document. “Historically, it is often associated with indigenous and tribal societies, and involves belief that shamans, with a connection to the otherworld, have the power to heal the sick, communicate with spirits, and escort souls of the dead to the afterlife. It is an ideology that used to be widely practiced in Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. It is centered on the belief in supernatural phenomenon such as the world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits.”
Watkins explains that Chansley believes disease originates outside the body. “[U]nhealthy objects” can invade the body via so-called “object intrusion” and “cause serious illness.” Such illness can be caused by non-organic food, Chansley believes.
“Defendant’s physical repudiation of non-organic food is one which was disclosed as giving rise to bodily responses which are immediate and involve systemic responses that are not simply discomforting, but debilitating and, notably, dehydrating,” Watkins continued. He noted that a magistrate judge in Phoenix, Ariz., where Chansley was arrested and initially detained, “promptly directed the provision of organic food to the Defendant.”
After Watkins raised Chansley’s dietary requests to Judge Lamberth last week, he emailed the General Counsel for the D.C. Department of Corrections to sort out the particulars. Watkins now describes the communication as “insufficient to meet the temporal urgency of the situation.”
Prison officials sometimes vet religious meal requests according to the generalized dictates of an inmate’s faith; an inmate’s personal interpretation of his faith is sometimes a secondary concern. For example, the Montana Supreme Court in 2004 held that a Catholic prisoner was not entitled to meals specifically consisting of “fish and unleavened bread . . . on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays during Lent.” Rather, the court held that meatless meals would suffice. The justices attached weight not to the inmate’s religious desire for a Biblical meal but rather to a clergyman’s statement about what the overall Catholic faith required:
Father Pins stated in his affidavit that the Catholic religion does not require fish to be consumed on days of abstinence from red meat. On the contrary, a vegetarian diet is acceptable. Moreover, Father Pins asserted that Catholics are not required to consume unleavened bread during Lent. Father Pins further stated that CCC’s new meal program does comply with the requirements of the Catholic faith.
Accordingly, legal issues involving religious meal requests have been litigated frequently. Jail facilities are required to honor an inmate’s “sincerely held” religious beliefs; the requirement stems from the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Generally speaking, “[t]he courts have properly recognized that prison authorities must accommodate the right of prisoners to receive diets consistent with their religious scruples,” the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held in 1975 and reasserted in 1992. As the Montana case illustrates, meals “consistent with” a particular religion may not be precisely what the inmate orders.
Watkins’ motion spends considerable time accusing former president Donald Trump of “incit[ing]” the siege on the Capitol Complex. It says a policeman held open the doors and told rioters — “in effect, if not verbatim,” that “the building is yours.” It also continues to press the assertion that Chansley may be willing to become a cooperating witness in Trump’s impeachment.
A federal grand jury indicted Chansley on six counts: (1) civil disorder; (2) obstruction of an official proceeding; (3) entering and remaining in a restricted building; (4) disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building; (5) violent entry and disorderly conduct in a capitol building; (6) and parading, demonstrating, or picketing in a capitol building.
The U.S. Department of Justice objected to releasing Chansley before trial but took no position on the request for organic food.
Judge Lamberth granted Chansley’s motion for organic food late Wednesday afternoon.
Read the documents below.
Editor’s note: this report began as a developing story. It has been updated substantially since its initial publication to include additional material from the court documents. It has also been updated to include a discussion of the relevant case law surrounding religious meal requests.
[Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images]
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