Which Kind of Notoriety Do You Want? (Wiccan Chaplain Edition)

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 6, 2012 — 34 Comments

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews does not seem to be a fan of notoriety. Earlier this week Canada’s federal corrections agency announced that they were looking to hire a chaplain to service the spiritual needs of Wiccan inmates.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

Corrections Canada this week put out a request for a proposal for a Wiccan chaplain who will provide about 17 hours of service a month, about an hour less service than the department says it needs for the Jewish faith. […] “This has been put to tender because there is a need,” said Corrections spokesman David Harty. “The requirement of these services is on-going. It has been used in the past.”

While this move was welcomed by Canadian Wiccan groups, including the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of B.C., mere hours after the Canadian press started reporting on the story (“Wiccan priest called to perform rituals, invoke gods for BC prison inmates”) Minister Toews immediately retracted the posting saying it needed to be “reviewed” before proceeding.

“About an hour after The Canadian Press reported about the contract, a statement from Mr. Toews’s office said it will not proceed until after a review. “Religious freedom is a paramount value in Canadian society,” Julie Carmichael, director of communications for the minister, said in an email. “However, the government is not convinced all services offered through the chaplaincy program reflect an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.” A government official said Mr. Toews was not consulted about the Wiccan posting.”

I’m sure Toews simply wanted to avoid notoriety, but all he did was trade one kind of sensationalist story (“Canada Hiring Witches”) for an entirely different one (“Why Won’t Canada Hire A Wiccan?”). It went from a novelty story about hiring a Witch to questions as to why a Wiccan chaplain position needs special review when other religions don’t (though it seems Toews has a history of wrong-headed decisions). Here’s a sampling of the headlines…

“Wiccan priest hire reversed by federal minister,” “Toews cancels Wiccan chaplain tender: Potential backlash spells the end for prison service,”  “Sorry Wiccans, no chaplain for you in B.C. prisons,” “Wiccan prisoners in B.C. cursed by the federal government,” “Toews nixes Wiccan priest for B.C. prisoners,” and my current personal favorite “Vic Toews hexes job posting for prison witch in B.C.” (it’s almost poetic).

So which kind of notoriety would you prefer? The guy who hired a Witch chaplain, or the guy who buckled under pressure and removed a chaplain posting for Wiccan prisoners? Here’s how the Canadian Press is framing the move: “Public Safety Minister Vic Toews appears less concerned about the quality of spells cast from behind bars than he is about a backlash from taxpayers, cancelling a Corrections Canada tender for a priest to nurture the spiritual needs of witches in prison.” Ouch. No matter what he does now, he’ll have to explain his decision. In the meantime he’s managed to alienate Pagans in Canada, and may be opening his office up to possible legal action.

David Eby with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association say Corrections Canada is constitutionally obligated to provide the spiritual leader. “It’s the kind of job posting that is going to catch a lot of people off guard, but the government does have an obligation not to discriminate between religions,” he said. “They don’t get to say, ‘We like the Catholics but we don’t like the Wiccans,’ or ‘We like people who practice the Muslim faith but we don’t like the Wiccans.’ They have to provide those services equally.”

In short, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews should have sucked it up, strapped on his helmet, and hired a Witch.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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