An attorney representing a Nevada prison inmate who was denied a special diet he had requested as a practicing Thelemist asked the Supreme Court on Monday to reverse a lower court order rejecting his legal claim. Ely State Prison inmate Gilbert Paliotta requested a traditional Egyptian diet from the prison chaplain as part of his religious beliefs. The religion known as Thelema was founded in 1904 by the English poet and mystic Aleister Crowley, who is regarded as its prophet, according to the website religioustolerance.org. Those who follow the path of Thelema are called Thelemists or Thelemites. The chaplain recommended that he instead officially request a kosher diet from the prison because the Egyptian diet was not available and because of the strong religious ties between Paliotta’s religion and Judaism. There is no record in the court filings of exactly what an Egyptian diet would consist of. Paliotta did ask for the kosher diet but his request was denied. Paliotta sued, arguing his First Amendment rights and his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act were violated. But Ely District Judge Gary Fairman dismissed the case after state officials contacted a Thelemist official who said the religion does not require any particular diet.
The state is arguing that Paliotta’s dietary request is not based on his religion but instead on his own subjective beliefs. In a brief filed on the case with the Supreme Court, the state said the lawsuit and appeal “is a transparent attempt by an inmate to obtain a preferential dietary benefit for personal, non-religious reasons where the religion at issue has no dietary constraints.” But attorney Adam D. Hosmer-Henner, representing Paliotta, argued that Fairman prematurely rejected the dietary request. The government should not be able to cross examine an individual requesting a religious accommodation using his own holy text, he said. “Both of these requests, along with several others, were rejected based on the sole premise that an individual’s specific religious beliefs must be based in the formal religious doctrine of that individual’s religion,” Hosmer-Henner said. The district court should have at least held a hearing on the issue before deciding in favor of the state, Hosmer-Henner said. There was no review of cost or security involving the request, he said. The court will rule later in the case.
Paliotta was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 2001 for the killing of his cellmate Raywalt Becker, who was found dead on July 21, 1998. Paliotta was serving five consecutive 30-year sentences for a string of armed robberies in Clark County in the early 1990s.