Chowchilla prison may need Wiccan chaplain

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) ― California prisons hire full-time chaplains and spiritual leaders to serve Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant and Native American inmates. In a case involving Chowchilla's prison, a federal appeals court gave new life Tuesday 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.

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.

The number of Wiccan inmates 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.

The religion's beliefs are misunderstood by the CDCR, McCollum said. Wicca is a pagan religion that worships nature and involves witchcraft.

"People have a lot of misconception about Wiccans," McCollum said. "It has nothing to do with Satan."

 

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