Guest Post: Patrick McCollum on Why His Fight Matters

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 6, 2011 — 69 Comments

[The following is a guest post from Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum. McCollum is currently involved in a high-profile case against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which just suffered a setback in a recent Ninth Circuit Court decision. He can be reached through the Patrick McCollum Foundation.]

I have just returned from the Himalayas where I have been on a humanitarian mission to help the people of the remote villages of Nepal to improve their circumstances. I received the news about the 9th Circuit’s ruling in my case, and I am working on my response and I will post it shortly. But I also received other news, news that’s related to my case and which for me holds even a higher priority to share. Today, I learned that one of the Pagan inmates, a woman named Nicki who I’ve worked with for years, died in the prison alone.

Nicki was a dedicated Pagan who found solace in our sacred practices and who told me that the thing that gave her hope and a reason to live, was her opportunity to participate in our rituals in prison. On my last trip to the prison, accompanied by Starhawk and several others, we were denied the ability to provide an already pre-approved Beltane celebration by prison officials. Not only were Nicki and the other Pagans denied their constitutional rights, but they were also threatened by prison officials with punishment for even meeting with us. Nicki had told me she was very distraught at not being able to have a Pagan chaplain and that she really needed clergy from her own faith for counseling and support.

Nicki is the 8th Pagan inmate in the California Department of Corrections that has died alone that I’m aware of, who was requesting equal rights from the CDCR and was denied it, and who specifically expressed that it was critical for her to have access to counseling and support from a Pagan chaplain. Now the rest of the women in Nicki’s Pagan circle are requesting to have a ritual to acknowledge her death and to process their grief, but because they do not belong to the five favored faiths, and they don’t have a chaplain to facilitate it, they can’t meet. This is a huge weight on me. I am doing everything I can to try to get the state to act in a responsible and moral manner and to change their discriminatory policies against minority faiths, but they are fighting with everything they have to deny us.

People are dying …. Our people are dying alone and in despair. Please show up. Each and every one of you needs to press the state of California in any way you can. Write your state senators and congressmen. Write to the California Department of Corrections and the California Attorney General’s office. Contact the Governor. Tell them we won’t stand for this! As for me, if the CDCR thinks winning this round in my court case is going to take me out, they haven’t got a clue. I am a Priest of the Goddess and I draw on the inspiration and spiritual support of our community. And we, my friends and fellow Pagans, have survived millennia of persecution and we’re still here.

I have just flown 32 hours across the world after climbing the world’s highest mountains to help our brothers and sisters there. I’m tired and every muscle and bone in my body ache, and I need sleep. But I refuse to submit to injustice. I am hoping that if I can get up tomorrow and return to the battle after all that, that each of you will do your part. But before that, please take a moment and light a candle for Nicki and all of the others who have suffered alone. I know it would mean a lot to them to know that they are not forgotten.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Thank you, Rev. McCollum, for all that you have done and are doing. You inspire me.

  • I am at a lose for words…whether your personal feelings on the matter of inmates says they deserve what they get…when someone feels lost, isolated, or passes…you do not have the right to play God with their life or their faith. Patrick Collum's compassion and integrity are traits to be admired and he has my support.

  • Thank you Patrick for bringing these abuses into the light of day. We cannot fight against discrimination that we (the widespread community) are unaware of.

  • This is why I have said this is a discrimination case, and for all of those who feel anger is misplaced, all I can say is Thank You Rev. McCollum for explaining so distinctly of the results of this case.

  • I'm all the way across the country in New York, so I doubt that there's much that I can do, other than make a few calls or write a few letters. Will a letter to a politician in California even matter to them, if it comes from someone in New York? But, I will certainly send as much positive thought and energy your way as I can muster.

  • Tea

    Bless you Mr. McCollum and keep fighting! We shall overcome.

  • caraschulz

    I'm not a bleeding heart, but people in prisons shouldn't have to die alone and be barred from spiritual counseling. Yes, I can contact my Senators (in Minnesota) I can pass these stories on. But what else can I do? I'm willing…I just don't know what else to do.

    • Bookhousegal

      Do that, Cara. You know we've had our disagreements, but *do that.* Do it well. 😉

    • Bookhousegal

      *wink* Also stop acting ashamed if your heart *does* bleed once in a while: That's what it's made for, just usually under certain high pressures. 🙂

      Pretending it doesn't never turned a spear, either. 🙂

    • kenneth

      The obvious answer is to get ourselves convicted and sentenced in California, but I'll admit that's WAY at the bottom of my bucket list! I think I'm going to try to get more involved in groups like Americans for Separation of Church and State. I used to throw them a few bucks now and then, but I think they often have local affiliates that work on things. We can't all become personally effective soldiers in the California fight but here's what we all can do in our own backyards: Every day challenge the religious right's campaign to make "people of faith" an exclusive brand for themselves and the revisionist history which says America was founded as a Christian nation.

  • Dana Corby

    I'm a little concerned about the tenor of Mr. McCollum's remarks. The court's ruling was very clear that it was not about the reasons behind the suit — what I read seemed if anything sympathetic — but that it was the wrong suit brought by the wrong plaintiff in the wrong way. The judge encouraged McCollum to try again with a better lawyer and to include the inmates in the suit.

    In this response, however, McCollum doesn't address any of that, just spouts victim-head rhetoric about 'not submitting to injustice.' Perhaps when he has rested from his humanitarian labors he'll be able to re-read the decision and frame a better response.

    In the meantime, yes, Pagans in prison need and deserve chaplains. But they don't necessarily need professional chaplains: my understanding of the CDC's position is that volunteer chaplains are permitted. The Director who forbade the previously-permitted ritual was in violation of his own rules and should be censured by the CDC Board and instructed to permit such gatherings in the future. And if you don't mind my saying so, perhaps he was alarmed by the presence of a well-known political activist armed with a video camera.

    • HiC


      Please go back and carefully read what Mr. McCollum actually said in this statement. Right there, in the first paragraph, he clearly states :

      «I received the news about the 9th Circuit’s ruling in my case, and I am working on my response and I will post it shortly. But I also received other news, news that’s related to my case and which for me holds even a higher priority to share.»

      Obviously, this statement by him was not meant to be a response to the court's ruling, but a directly related matter that goes to the bigger issue at hand.

      So, perhaps you might want to redact the second paragraph of your comment, as it is not relevant nor appropriate based on the clearly stated intent of this particular statement from Mr. McCollum.

    • Robert Mathiesen

      He said he was bone-weary when he wrote this. Cut him some slack until he posts again when he's less tired, as he has said he will.

      And Starhawk wrote it wasn't the director who forbade the ritual, but a watch captain in the absence of anyone who could have taken responsibility.

    • Star Foster

      Actually it's paid chaplains who organize the volunteers, so an unsympathetic paid chaplain can bar volunteers, as Patrick found out when arriving for a previously approved Beltane ritual.

      • And that, for me, is the heart of the problem. Unless we have PAID Pagan Chaplains, there's no reason to expect any hospital or correctional facility to accommodate our needs. We're too few in number to matter to the mainstream faiths for them to worry about making sure our rights are granted. Unless we're the bee in their bonnets, they wont give us a second thought as they continue to trample on the rights of our incarcerated brethren. And this is hardly isolated to California. This happens in every city on a daily basis. Just check with your local hospitals and jails to see how little you matter.

        • Oh, yes, there is reason, Dydan. Chaplains who are paid by the state, as in the case of prison chaplains, are expected to serve all the inmates of that particular facility regardless of their religion. I have accompanied Patrick to Folsom and to High Desert State Prison (remote in location and set to accommodate the most hardcore inmates). I have met the chaplains in those prisons. I have talked with them and sent to the prison libraries, via the chaplains, for the use of both chaplains and inmates, copies of Gus DiZerega's _Pagans and Christians_ and our _The Pagan Book of LIving and Dying_. Both books have useful information for Pagan practitioners and for chaplains who may be serving them.

          Further, in my area there are several hospital chaplains and hospice workers who have the names of Pagans (myself among them) who are willing to serve Pagan patients. We rarely are called, but we do stand ready, and connected, for the Pagan who requests our services.

          The question of paid Pagan clergy is another matter. I do not disagree with you that those of us who do such work on a volunteer basis could make good use of some financial support. As for myself, I mainly do interfaith work (see others posts on TWH and on my blog at as much as I do because I am older and unemployed and trying to stay afloat on SS alone. Others who do this kind of work have other sources of income to support them and to free them to do this kind of work. There might be more skilled Pagans who'd do this work if they could earn a living, or even a part of a living, in doing so.

          At Cherry Hill Seminary we have a program to train Pagans for chaplaincy work; Patrick is our worthy advisor.

          • Sencha

            I'd like to second what Macha has said about Cherry Hill. The program and the faculty are excellent, and such educational programs will become increasingly necessary as Pagan forms of spirituality continue to grow. Many Pagans have (perhaps understandably) been leery of paid clergy, paid chaplains, etc. due to various reasons, but there is a substantial…and growing…need for such. As a community, we Pagans need to seriously think about offering our support…both financially and in spirit…to people like Patrick who are fighting the battle on the front lines.

          • Marcella

            Macha, there *are* Pagans working as paid chaplains. I'm a Pagan hospital chaplain attending Cherry Hill seminary to earn my M.Div. for certification by the Association of Professional Chaplains, the national certifying body for non-Catholic, non-Jewish chaplains in the U.S. ( Two of my classmates this semester are working on their MDiv degrees so they can pursue paid chaplaincy in the armed services.

            Through a year-long, full-time chaplaincy residency required of all professionally certified chaplains (, I was trained to serve people of all faiths and of none. Because of my religious/spiritual background, I can better serve Pagan patients and family members than can my colleagues, so they often refer to me — as I refer Catholic sacraments to our Catholic priest chaplain or to a community priest. Because there is always more need than we have chaplain-hours available, we refer to outside clergy of all faiths when appropriate, so Pagan clergy are an important part of our network. At present, I believe we have only one.

            Our patients are also served by coordinated groups of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish lay people who come regularly to offer blessings to patients who have self-identified as those faiths. I would love to see a similar group of Pagans of all ilk. Yes, our hospital has a religious designation for Wiccans!

            Both paid chaplains and lay volunteers are needed to serve the Pagan community. Together we can raise awareness of Pagans' needs and work in concert to fulfill those needs in times of vulnerability and of separation from primary spiritual community.

            (Please note that Cherry Hill is accepting donations to support their current process of accreditation so their MDiv degrees can be used for certification.

          • Aline O'Brien

            Thanks for introducing yourself and telling us about your worthy pursuits, Marcella. I'm aware that there is the occasional paid Pagan chaplain here and there, but they are rare, hardly the norm. I have been deeply involved with CHS for at least 10 years, first as a teacher (of a course still being taught, by someone else, that perhaps you have taken), as PIO, department chair, Board member, you name it. I know the seminary intimately, just not every student and his or her path. We greatly appreciate your support, and even more, are glad you're finding our offerings beneficial to your personal and professional growth.

            Yours in changing culture,
            Macha NightMare (Aline O'Brien)

          • Dydan Waters

            Macha, thank you for all you do. Truly, it means a lot to me!

            Honestly, I would jump at attending Cherry Hill in a heartbeat if it wasn't for the fact that they are not yet accredited. My interest has been in Pastoral Counseling for a long time now, but the fact that Cherry Hill is not accredited would not work for me in my state. I just can't justify investing in an education that I cant use to gain a license to practice here in Texas. So, I sit and wait and hope Cherry Hill's status changes. I know they are in the process and that it could take years. 🙁

            Here in south Texas, there's not much support. I know for a fact that the hospitals in my area do nothing to accommodate Pagans. I've been the thorn in their side for a good year now about that. At best, they say "gee, we never thought of you people" and at worst I hear "why should we?"

    • Dana, we have to keep our eye on the ball. The over-arching issue is clear: California prisoners are being denied a very basic human right, and this injustice is being done on the basis of religion. Everything else is details. The details are important, sure. But the state of California is involved in very clearly unconstitutional actions, and that is what we need to emphasize.

      • Rhett

        I agree. Just because the summary ruling on the lawsuit was correct doesn't mean there isn't a problem. There probably is, and it very well could be from religious prejudice within the CDCR. That's the moral argument. One day, not too long from now, it might be that the law will get to weigh in on that moral argument.

        • Crystal7431

          "One day, not too long from now, it might be that the law will get to weigh in on that moral argument." I pray it will be so, and hopefully soon for those inmates that are suffering now.

    • kenneth

      They absolutely need professional chaplains, and not because we want dollar parity for our guys. If the system is based upon professional chaplains are you are a voluntary chaplain, you have no standing. You are just a guy off the street visiting inmates and a warden will feel free to deny you access for any reason or no reason at all. Unless and until the "five faiths" policy is overturned, pagan inmates, and all others of minority faiths, will have official status as a lower class of human being (or non-human) and will be treated accordingly.

  • Oriana

    Can someone post for me the addresses of who to write to in California…or link me to the article that lists them. Thank you

  • R.M. McGrath

    I'm sorry to hear about the people that died who requested Pagan chaplains but were denied. That is wrong and that is a fight which should continue to be fought.

    Perhaps next time you can do your research ahead of time and handle the case properly so that it could be heard. It deserved to be heard.

    You are being blatantly manipulative here by suggesting that the reason that the case was not heard was due to some sort of religious prejudice. According to the recent blog by Rhett Aultman linked by Wild Hunt, that's simply not true.

    I'm sure you're a decent person and I applaud the good work you're doing. But next time, do it right. And don't blame religious prejudice. Pagans have enough problems being taken seriously as a religion, by appealing to the victim mentality present in many Pagans, that only does a further disservice to Pagans and Paganism.

    • kenneth

      You had the state of California arguing in essence that they have no obligation to support minority faiths because they have no "real" standing under our country's Constitution! That's not religious prejudice?

      • Joy

        Kenneth, you make four separate comments here:
        1. "You had the state of California arguing in essence that they have no obligation to support minority faiths…" — Actually, there has been no arguing on this case yet, because the case didn't get that far.
        2. "…because they have no "real" standing…" — This is accurate in that Patrick does not have standing in the case the way the suit was written. This ruling says nothing about whether prisoners have standing to sue for their religious rights.
        3. "…under our country's Constitution!" — This isn't related to the Constitution; the case hadn't gotten that far.
        4" That's not religious prejudice?" — Although I agree the actions some prison officials have taken seem to be based on prejudice, there's nothing in the ruling itself that is prejudiced, because all that was ruled on is whether Rev McCollum was the appropriate person to file the suit.

        I know this stuff is frustrating and confusing — the judicial system survives on sorting out tangles. And, as Rev McCollum points out, people are dying without spiritual care while things are being sorted out. So, I hope you use your anger to take some small action — or large! — toward helping incarcerated Pagans have the spiritual care they need.

  • Kelledia

    I'm lighting a candle and praying that in this, or the next lifetime, incarcerated Pagans may have an easier load to bear. Whatever got them to that point; there but for the Gods, go I.

  • i just started a Memorial Page a Facebook called Nicki's Circle please Join me in celebration of this womans Life and working toward assisting Patrick in making sure this does not continue to happen in the future

  • Lillitu Shahar Kunning

    This makes me so sad. We here in CA need to step up our efforts to get ourselves recognized- so we can supprt pagans in prison. This discrimination must end.

  • You fought the good fight on this one, Patrick, and you know that I supported you. But I think that it is time to start over again with fresh inmate plaintiffs—as Nicki would have been had she survived. How else to get around the issue of legal standing?

    • Aline O'Brien

      Patrick is only the first named plaintiff; other plaintiffs in this lawsuit ARE Pagan inmates.

      • Point taken. But apparently having him as plaintiff is what the judges are focusing on, no?

        • Rhett

          No. There are a number of claims in McCollum's suit. McCollum makes a number of claims of his rights, the inmates make a number of claims of theirs, and McCollum also attempted to make claims as a third party on the inmates behalf.

          Of these claims, the inmates were unexhausted or untimely, McCollum's lacked evidence, and McCollum did not qualify for third-party standing to make claims on the inmates' behalf. There were three groups of claims in there, all of which "bounced" for different reasons.

          Even without McCollum attempting third-party standing, the inmates' claims would still have been unexhausted and/or untimely.

  • Robert Franklin Miller

    Our laws and courts are set up to run a narrow line . Prisons WILL and DO violate constitutional rights of prisoners daily , and do not stop till the courts tell them to , I as a prisoner use a state law mandated grievance system form to inform the warden and state corrections commissioner , the actual civil rights of mine they were violating , and included the court precedents . they said those federal cases were not in Ga .,and signed their names . these were my evidence of “willful intent to deny constitutional rights “. Now Pagans have rights in Ga . BUT a chaplain could NOT file . My rights = my case .

    • Joy

      Thank you for your actions in this, Mr Miller. You stepped forward when others, I'm sure, were too concerned about potential harm to take action, even through an official process.

      May you be blessed in all you do for the Lady and Lord.

  • Beth Falconi

    This makes me mad as hell! What has happened to our constitutional rights? What? because we're Pagan we have no rights? I don't think so, This should be taken to a higher court, We are still Americans and probably some of the BEST!!

  • R.M. McGrath

    I'm not saying that there wasn't religious prejudice. There was. And it should be stopped. But that's not why the case was not heard and I feel it's deceptive to claim otherwise.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I just re-read Patrick's post and found no place where he said the appelate loss was due to religious prejudice.

  • Thank you for all you do, Patrick. The fight is far from over, regardless of the ruling. I agree with Rhett, the ruling was correct for technical legal reasons. Just taking that step back, assessing the paths that need to be taken, and tackling it again, are what I know you will do.

    Much love and many blessings to you, and I am sending energy for your eventual success in these matters.

  • Nsoshisett

    I hope someone will post an address to which we can write, and suggest that a) a prisoner bring a petition for a Pagan chaplaincy, and lays out exactly how that should be done; and b) that Pagan prisoners be encouraged to hold ceremony for their fellow Pagans and not illegally discriminated against.

    As far as feeling sorely used by the State of California goes — after having read the judge's pronouncement, I must say it's fairly even-tempered and even suggests a more productive venue for getting what is needed for Pagan prisoners. Too bad this particular initiative didn't turn out as Mr. McCollum (and all of us) would have liked it to but the door seems quite open for another try!

  • Stella Cadente

    Although this is, in and of itself, an important issue, thank you for putting a human face on it.

  • elnigma

    A way someone wanting to help prisoners have access to their religious materials is to try to contact the warden about buying and sending copies of books for them. Another may be by volunteering their time to visit, or by helping lend spiritual support to their families on the outside.

  • Samael

    I believe the injustice he is referring to is the state's five-faith policy, not the courts judgment.

    The court case was poorly researched and handled, yes. It should have been obvious that they needed inmates who felt their rights had been violated to be front and center in the case. But the anger and feelings of injustice are directed towards a biased law that restricts the religious rights of recognized spiritual paths. Those feelings are well placed and appropriate.

    Everyone should write the governor of California, regardless of whether you live there or not. You should also write your state's governor. Pouring well written and articulate letters into California politician's offices, and bringing more public attention to the problem is necessary to ensure that this is dealt with quickly and fairly.

    Though it does sound as if the court is sympathetic to the cause. Hopefully this will lend itself to a speedy redressing of state law, and finally establish equal rights for inmates of any religion.

  • SIRI

    I certainly will light a candle for Nicki and the others who have died alone. You have my support in this matter. Keep up the good fight.

    PS. We have some very good pictures of you and your violin at the Dirty Foot Tribe's fire at FPG. LOL! You are welcome at our camp anytime.

  • Mrs J. Labonte

    Well the book based Abrahamic religions do believe in Hell, although we Pagans certainly do not. So since they believe in it, let's GIVE IT TO THEM – not magically, as we all pretty much agree that it is the law of our faith to harm none! But in inundating them with letters and e-mails, writing letters to the editors in CA newspapers and in petitions.
    i am not a Cabot tradition Wiccan but i have always agreed with Rev. Laurie Cabot's motto for her political work – Never
    again the Burning!
    i am a beginner's level student of the Correllian Wicca tradition; however, i have been a graduate of the old Seax Wicca Seminary, formerly run by Raymond Buckland, since Fall Equinox 1981 – and i am an ordained Minister of
    the Universal Life Church, and i have someone i correspond with as a minister in the CA prison system, for whom i
    am, outside of occasional family contact, the main helpful influence, or so i am told. LET ME EMPHASIZE THIS IS A ULC ORDINATION and not, repeat N O T, in the Correllian Tradition that i am ordained.
    i am totally behind you all on this – j/L Granny Matrika

    • Christianity and Islam certainly have a concept of Hell, but Judaism must have missed your memo that they are supposed to believe in it too since Judaism doens't have any such belief.

  • Dearest Patrick,
    My heart sighs a heavy sigh as I feel the weight of your struggle coupled with your world travels. One who works as tirelessly as you should be rewarded with the benefits of seeing Pagans accepted and honored with basic human rights, as are experienced by others of the five faiths of this country. In my world I have been blessed with acceptance the more I come out to others (web, twitter, facebook, social circles). And yet I know we still have a very long way to go.
    I just started following you on Twitter. This social avenue may be one of the best and quickest ways to draw attention to this heinous disregard of basic human rights. May peace and rest be with you, and peace to the soul of Sister Nicki. Perhaps her death may be beacon of light for all for suffer in silence.

  • OK – I was in fact conflating the Massachusetts bunch as a whole with the Plymouth group in particular.

    I am still highly sceptical of any claims about "tolerant" Puritans or Separatists or even Congregationalists. England, after all, gave us Thomas More, the great Humanist who coined the word Utopia and who also enjoyed burning heretics.

    I am willing to accept that it is possible, but only because I am greatly enamoured of John Milton, who may or may not have been a Puritan.

    • Tomb

      It also gave us Thomas Paine, certainly no friend of (any) Church.

      • True that. My scepticism is limited to claims of toleration among English Christians, and even then, as in the case of Milton, I am willing to make exceptions.

  • Pamela

    I will light a candle for Nicki keep on fighting for our rights and thank you for what you do….

  • Is there anything that the average person like me can do to help?

  • If the Federal government has recognized Wicca and Paganism in the US Military as official religions since 2007, how can a State government deny and say it is non-existent enough to not be recognized?

  • Autumn

    That is so cruel, it should be labeled as such. Cruel and unusual punishment for sure. What I don’t understand is the State of CA. I would expect this from a state in the South, but not such a Liberal state as CA. I will light a Candle for the Women who have past on alone. Thank You Patrick McCollum for all you do. You are a great Humanitarian, and please keep up your good workings. I live in WA state, and I wish there was more I can do. If this situation arises in my State, I will be very glad to join your fight for equal rights! Not only is this demeaning to Women, they have been striped of the right to have clergy. Just because it is not the “top five” does not give the State the right to deny. The more I sit here and let it simmer in my mind, the more stronger I become in my Pagan beliefs, getting angry is not the thing to do, but fighting the State of CA is.