McCollum v. California and other Pagan News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 2, 2009 — 34 Comments

Top Story: Wiccan chaplain Patrick McCollum’s ongoing fight to overturn the California prison system’s “five faiths policy”, which limits the hiring of paid chaplains to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American adherents, has gained some new allies. Though a judge recently ruled against McCollum in February (twice), saying he had no standing to challenge the policy , his federal-court appeal is gaining support from groups like the Anti-Defamation League (PDF) and Americans United (PDF).

“The court said a legal challenge to the prison’s chaplain policy can only be brought by an inmate, not someone seeking to be hired. In addition, the court denied McCollum’s claim because he could not prove he would be hired even if the state policy was changed. The court also denied McCollum’s standing as a taxpayer. AU’s brief disputes these arguments, stating that the Constitution and civil rights law demand that McCollum have his day in court.”

Other groups filing amicus briefs in support of McCollum’s appeal were The Interfaith Alliance, the Hindu American Foundation, and Pagan organizations like Cherry Hill Seminary (among others, I’m working on getting a full list). McCollum has been struggling for years to see that Pagan chaplains and inmates receive fair and equal treatment within the American prison system. In his 2008 testimony before the US Commission on Civil Rights McCollum described an “endemic” level of discrimination against Pagan inmates, and the chaplains who try to serve them, in our prisons.

“I’d like to start with a few true examples of discrimination to illustrate the severity of the problem: A Wiccan inmate has cancer and the prison guards refuse to transport him to his chemotherapy treatments unless he removes his religious pentacle medallion which they have objections to. He chooses to forgo his chemotherapy and keep his pentacle. A Wiccan inmate has been trying to go to Wiccan services for months, but the guard at her dorm refuses to give her a pass. The guard says it is for the good of the Wiccan inmate’s soul. Another dying Wiccan writes his volunteer chaplain that he needs to see him before he crosses over. The chaplain makes numerous attempts to reach prison staff to receive the necessary clearances, but no one responds. But worse, prison mailroom staff refuse to forward the chaplain’s mail, so that the inmate knows why his chaplain isn’t coming. Over more than a decade, I’ve had the opportunity to interact nationally with both administrators and inmates on religious accommodation issues. While practices differ from state to state, I found discrimination against minority faiths everywhere.”

The mistreatment of minority faiths in prison is an ongoing crisis, and I hope that these amicus briefs from prominent religious and civil rights groups help sway the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals into allowing the case to be heard, and McCollum’s evidence presented. More on this story as I have it. If you want to send Patrick McCollum magical healing and support, Circle Sanctuary has set up a special page for that purpose.

In Other News: Two weeks ago I told you about a controversy brewing over the Pagan and atheist-blocking web-access policy of the Indianapolis Public School system that  resulted in the Freedom From Religion Foundation threatening a lawsuit. Since then, Indianapolis Pagan Issues Examiner Andrah Wyrdfire has been doing journalism proud by going after some answers from local officials.  First she got a statement from Dr. Eugene White, Superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, who claimed the software blocked all religions, not just the Pagans, then she got a hold of Dorothy Crinshaw, CIO of the Indianapolis Public Schools, who said Pagan sites weren’t blocked at all!

“When asked if she could verify whether or not IPS was censoring Pagan/Wiccan (alternative spirituality) websites, Dorothy stated that she was unaware of that being the case and asked for an example of a website so that she could look for herself.  Upon searching for Wicca on her IPS computer, she found that she was able to not only obtain results but click on any of the results and open the pages … Dorothy emphasized that, as far as she knows, no religious web content is being censored from the schools’ computers based on any specific religion; it would only be censored if it had a blog or social networking option.”

Crinshaw seemed to imply that the offending document that started this was simply standard boilerplate and didn’t actually reflect day-to-day policy at the schools. However, considering how many religious organizations now use blogs, I’m not exactly reassured about what content students actually have access to. Wyrdfire is now pursuing Education Networks of America to find out where their content-blocking categories and lists come from, and I can’t wait to find out the answer. No update yet on if FFRF is going to actually pursue litigation or not, so this story is still ongoing.

Speaking of, many Pagans (including Z. Budapest) have turned to the service in hopes of pursuing local issues while making some money, but what they may not know is that the individual holding the purse-strings of the enterprise is ultra-conservative Christian billionaire activist Philip Anschutz. AlterNet features an article from Jamison Foser of Media Matters for America that wonders if Anshutz is laying the ground-work to own a big chunk of locally-focused journalism’s future.

“Anschutz launched about a year and a half ago as an Internet-only local news portal; it currently reaches 129 markets and its traffic ranks 21st among U.S. news sites — with the fastest traffic growth of any site from August of 2008 to August of 2009. And just a few weeks ago, bought NowPublic, a Canadian citizen-journalism site with reporters in more than 140 countries Given the newspaper industry’s struggles, it isn’t inconceivable that could quickly become a key source of news and information for many Americans. At which point, based on Anschutz’s history, it’ll be like having a local version of Fox News Channel in every city in America.”

So what’s the big deal? Well, besides the insinuation that Anshutz may one day do an ideological/theological purge of his local news new-media empire, there’s the fact that many unassuming progressive-leaning Pagans are driving traffic and revenue towards Anshutz’s goals for the promise of a small cut of the action. What, exactly, are his goals? Denying gays the right to marry, working against discrimination laws that include sexual orientation, promoting “intelligent design”, stopping medical marijuana, and working to elect politicians like George W. Bush. Obviously some Pagans may have no trouble with many of these goals, but I wonder how many Pagan Examiners know who they are working for?

In Loudoun County, Virgina, residents of Leesburg  are wrestling with the issue of religious Winter holiday displays on public lands. After a local committee’s attempts to (I assume) avoid legal trouble led to total ban, a local uproar started that has led to petitions and a defiant assertion that some may later regret.

“At Monday night’s meeting, Loudoun residents — some in holiday garb and carrying signs that read “Keep Christ in Christmas” — argued that the new rule would curtail religious speech. “We don’t care if the courthouse lawn looks like a cafeteria of different religious symbols. We don’t want to lose our holiday,” said Barbara Curtis, 61, of Bluemont, who runs a parenting blog, Mommy Life.”

Since then the ban has been overturned and Curtis waxes triumphant at her blog, but I know from history that this loving embrace of an open public square by certain Christians has quickly faded once tested. Shall we remember the Green Bay Wiccan wreath that was vandalized and never replaced? How about the ran-over holiday pentacle display in Olean? What about the South Carolina politician who welcoming “any” religion, so long as it wasn’t Wiccan. Dare we even go into the “open” public invocations that didn’t want to include Pagans? While I certainly welcome a truly open public square, too often “religious freedom” means “freedom for our religon”, not freedom for every religion. I’ll try to give the pro-Christmas folks the benefit of the doubt, but I’d also like know if any local Pagans would like to put a display up in Leesburg?

In a final note, Hellenic polytheist Kate Winter has launched a fascinating new site entitled Girls Underground that explores a rather unique yet pervasive archetype.

“In which a young girl travels to an otherworldly place, far from home, where she is surrounded by strange creatures ~ some helpful and others very dangerous indeed ~ and must navigate her way past obstacles in time to defeat her adversary and reach her goal… gaining wisdom, power, and perhaps even love, along the way.”

The site has a regularly updated blog, and the whole project winds it way through pop-culture, literature, and mythology. You don’t see too many in-depth topic-focused Pagan blogs like this, so it’s always refreshing when a new one comes along. I encourage my readers to check it out.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Jason Pitzl-Waters