Saturday, December 12, 2009
Wiccan Prison Chaplain Case Before Ninth Circuit
(image courtesy Cherry Hill Seminary website)
The religious freedom of inmates has been a central theme in prison rights litigation. The California prison movement has been transformed in important ways through litigation on behalf of Black Muslim inmates; for background on this, check out Christopher Smith's excellent paper or Eric Cummins' wonderful book The Rise and Fall of the California Radical Prison Movement. Following these cases, and others, CDCR employs a "five-faith policy", according to which it employs five paid prison chaplains in the following faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American. Now, a Wiccan clergyman, who has volunteered in California prisons for many years, is challenging this policy before the Ninth Circuit.
Patrick McCollum is a well-respected Wiccan authority, the author of Courting the Lady and a faculty member at Cherry Hill Seminary, a Neo-Pagan educational institution. He has testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on prisoners' religious freedom. According to the information on the book flap, McCollum began his service as a statewide Wiccan chaplain in 1997, after advising the State in a dispute involving a Pagan inmate. He is a member of the American Correctional Chaplains Association.
McCollum's case was defeated in the District Court, for a preliminary issue of standing. The District Court decided that McCollum lacked standing and could therefore not sue CDCR; the only people with standing to sue in such matters are current inmates, not people looking to be hired for the position. After all, said the court, at most McCollum could argue for CDCR to assess the limitation of chaplaincy positions to five, but even applying broader standards would not necessarily lead to including Wicca among the faith groups that merit a paid position, nor to hiring McCollum himself.
Interestingly, CDCR initially argued that, in assessing the need for prison chaplaincy positions, it applied a set of objective criteria: (1) liturgical needs, (2) the numbers of the group, (3) existing and alternative accommodation means, (4) security, (5) cost, and (6) other practical factors related to institutional operational needs. However, at a later stage CDCR stated that it never applied these criteria, though it intended to use it from now on.
The summary judgment decision has been appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a brief submitted to the court, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League, and other organizations, argue that the District Court's decision was erroneous.
Some of the arguments for and against McCollum's position are presented in this Opposing Views piece. Should there be standing in this case? Have McCollum's rights been violated? On the merits, does the "five faiths" policy constitute religious discrimination? Curious to hear what our readers think.
Here are some words from McCollum, in an interview included in the documentary A Hero Denied, which focused on the rights of Wiccan soldiers.