Court says inmate can't draw on envelopes

March 6, 2009 10:06:42 AM PST
A convicted sex offender from Dallas has lost a court appeal of his challenge to rules that bar him from drawing pictures or writing messages on the outside of envelopes he mails from prison. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Robert Smithback, 29, who in 2002 began serving 45 years for aggravated sexual assault on a child under the age of 14, filed suit against Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials after corrections officers refused to mail envelopes on which he had drawn a cross or printed the words "Jesus," "LORD!" or "In God We Trust."

According to the ruling Thursday from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Smithback "decorates his envelopes in this manner to share his religious faith with those who come in contact with the correspondence."

Texas prison rules, however, say inmates can't embellish outgoing envelopes with illustrations or written messages.

In his suit, he argued the policy infringed his religious freedom and freedom of speech in violation of the Texas and U.S. constitutions and violated other laws covering religious freedoms.

A federal magistrate judge threw out the suit two years ago and Smithback, now an inmate at the Polunsky Unit near Livingston in East Texas, appealed the dismissal to the New Orleans-based appeals court.

In denying his claim, the appeals court also refused to award him unspecified compensatory damages.

The judges said that while the prison agency policies bar inmates from decorating the outside of envelopes, Smithback wasn't claiming the department was restricting in any way his religious exercise on materials within the envelope.

The policy "does not substantially burden Smithback's religious exercise," the court said.

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