California witches charm appeals court
Courts | Angela Lu
Wiccan chaplains could soon be casting spells over California inmates thanks to a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of a Wiccan prisoner’s lawsuit.
The appeals court said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) may be unconstitutionally showing preference to other religions that have spiritual leaders in its prisons. The California prison system currently allows Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and Native American chaplains.
The central concern in the case is whether California prisons have enough Wiccan inmates to demand a need for a full-time chaplain. A CDCR survey said the prison system had 183 Wiccan inmates in 2007, although Patrick McCollum, a leading Wiccan “minister,” puts the figure at about 2,000.
McCollum, who volunteers at the prisons as Wiccan chaplain, said many Wiccan prisoners were afraid to answer the CDCR survey for fear of reprisals. He also argued that a survey should be conducted by a neutral party with no ties to the CDCR.
While the lower court sided with CDCR, the appeals court ordered the trial court judge to reconsider the case, saying the judge was wrong to dismiss the case almost immediately after it was filed without delving deeper into the evidence. For instance, the court said it could be that a Wiccan chaplain could be needed only at the Chowchilla prison rather than throughout the 33-prison statewide system, which houses 150,000 inmates.
The appeals court also warned the CDCR may still be able to show that the Wiccans don't have enough adherents or critical needs for a full-time chaplain.
California Deputy Attorney General Kenneth Roost argued in court papers that other minority faith groups also are without full-time chaplains: "The Constitution permits prisons to employ chaplains to accommodate inmates' religions needs, and does not require prisons to hire chaplains representative of all inmates' religions."
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