Updated at: 02/20/2013 2:38 PM
By PAUL ELIAS
(AP) SAN FRANCISCO - California prisons hire full-time chaplains and spiritual leaders to serve Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant and Native American inmates.
On Tuesday, a federal appeals court gave new life to a decades-long battle by Wiccan inmates for access to their own full-time chaplain.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a trial judge’s dismissal of a Wiccan prisoner lawsuit seeking the same rights as the five other religious practices. The appeals court said the Wiccan prisoners make a compelling argument that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation may be unconstitutionally showing preference to the five religions in violation of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees religious freedoms.
The appeals court ruled that the trial court 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 of 150,000 inmates.
The appeals court also warned that the CDCR may still be able to show that the Wiccans don’t have enough worshippers or critical needs for a full-time chaplain. It ordered the trial court judge to reconsider the case.
"There are certainly enough Wiccan prisoners to merit their own chaplain," said Gary Friedman, a spokesman for the American Correctional Chaplains Association. "I hope this leads to the hiring of more chaplains to represent even more minority faith groups."
Wicca is a pagan religion that worships nature and involves witchcraft.
The number of Wiccan inmates in California is in dispute. A CDCR survey reported 183 Wiccan prisoners in 2007 after recording about twice that number in 2002.
But Patrick McCollum, a leading Wiccan minister who has led the Wiccan prisoner fight for full-time chaplains for 20 years, puts the number at about 2,000 system wide. McCollum said many Wiccans 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.
McCollum, who volunteers as a Wiccan chaplain in California prisons and who lost his own lawsuit against the CDCR in 2011, says he believes the CDCR opposes hiring a full-time chaplain because of a misunderstanding of the religion’s beliefs.
"People have a lot of misconception about Wiccans," McCollum said. "It has nothing to do with Satan."
The CDCR declined comment, citing pending litigation. In court papers, its lawyers argue that its opposition is based strictly on numbers, pointing out that other minority faith groups are also without full-time chaplains. The court papers also argued that Wiccans are served by the full-time chaplains and volunteers like McCollum.
California deputy attorney general Kenneth Roost argued in the court papers that "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."
Still, the appeals court said that if the Wiccans claims do hold up then "the prison administration has created staff chaplain positions for five conventional faiths, but fails to employ any neutral criteria in evaluating whether a growing membership in minority religions warrants a reallocation of resources."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)