Archives For California

[On May 13th I ran a guest editorial from Joseph Merlin Nichter on a proposed Religious Property Matrix (RPM) for California prisons. Knowing that Joseph’s views only represented one perspective within the Pagan community, I reached out to the Rev. Patrick McCollum for his own thoughts on the issue. Patrick has been working as a Pagan chaplain and activist for well over twenty years. He was one of the founding members of the Lady Liberty League, and has been involved inumerous legal struggles involving modern Pagans. In 2008, he testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights on prisoner’s religious rights, saying he “found discrimination against minority faiths everywhere”and that the problem was “endemic.”]

Patrick McCollum with California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier and aide (08/25/12)

Patrick McCollum with California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier and aide (08/25/12)

As a longtime activist for both Pagan and minority faith religious rights, a recent post by volunteer chaplain Joseph Nichter about the so called “Religious Property Matrix” created by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has raised serious concerns for me and prompts me to respond in detail to his thoughts and comments.

I’d like to begin first by laying a framework for the discussion by sharing a little history regarding the fight for equal religious accommodation for Pagans in the California prison system and also express why I feel I am qualified to speak to this issue.

First let me provide a little background on my own qualifications and experiences with both the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and religious accommodation in corrections in general nationwide.

In 1981, after several years working in the California prison system, I became the Statewide Wiccan Chaplain for the California Department of Corrections for all 33 California correctional facilities. This was a position that was designated by the Director of the California Department of Corrections, Cal Terhune. At that time, there were no other Pagan chaplains at any correctional institution in the United States, and so I was breaking new ground. In California alone, I facilitated multiple religious prison programs, created dozens of Pagan prison libraries, traveled from institution to institution, and interacted with as many as 1,800 Pagan inmates. I also interacted with Wardens and senior administrators at the highest level at the CDCR headquarters. Later, I was drafted by the Colorado Department of Corrections to establish a Pagan religion program for that state. Over the years, I gradually became the Pagan religious advisor or helped establish Pagan religion programs for over twenty different correctional systems nationwide, and also became a volunteer Pagan Chaplain and Pagan religious advisor for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Over the last 15 years, I have served in multiple capacities in national correctional activities, including holding prominent positions

Patrick McCollum on the cover of Witches & Pagans.

Patrick McCollum on the cover of Witches & Pagans.

in several of the foremost national correctional organizations. I currently serve as the Director of the National Correctional Chaplaincy Directors Association, one of the foremost training agencies on religious accommodation in US Prisons. The NCCDA is comprised of the highest level directors and administrators who oversee all correctional religious activities for their respective states. We currently have over 22 state’s systems represented. I am also a member of the Executive Council for the American Correctional Chaplains Association, the oldest and largest chaplain’s organization in the world with roughly 2,000 chaplain members. In addition to being on the Executive Council, I am also the Chair of the Minority Faiths Issues Committee for the ACCA. On another front, I serve as the Chaplaincy Liaison for the American Academy of Religion, the world’s largest academic body for religious studies, with over 10,000 members. I have also advised correctional administrators or been involved in correctional programs in three other countries. In 2009 I was selected by the United States Commission on Civil Rights as both an advisor and a panelist, to prepare a report for Congress and the President of the United States on religious discrimination in US prisons. Lastly, I was selected last year to author a special edition for the American Jails Magazine on religious accommodation in US jails, and am currently contracted to write the chapter on accommodating minority faiths in prisons for the American Correctional Association which represents all correctional facilities in 50 states. With all of that said, here are my thoughts and comments on the Religious Property Matrix for the California Department of Corrections.

Mr. Nichter addresses the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation’s (the CDCR’s) actions as though they are acting in good faith and making reasonable attempts to “standardize” religious practices to improve access to religious items for inmates. Nothing could be farther from the truth! In order to see what is really going on, one must step back and take a look at the history of the CDCR’s accommodation of minority faiths over the years, and the strategy that they have consistently used to thwart Pagan religious practices and minority faith practices in general.

In roughly 1979, over thirty years ago, Pagan inmates in the California Department of Corrections began asking to be treated equally and to have equal religious accommodation in California prisons as required by law. You see, while people who are incarcerated in the United States loose many of their constitutional rights when they go into prison, the law is very clear regarding their religious rights. All incarcerated persons no matter what their faiths, retain their religious rights in prison! That is … they retain the right to both practice their religion without coercion or discrimination from prison custody staff, prison administrators, prison chaplains, and the California government in general. Included in these constitutional protections, is the right for religious practices of all faiths to be treated and accommodated equally. Then on top of that, the federal court long ago added an additional twist to religious accommodation in prisons. The courts ruled that while in all other instances the government is constitutionally required to stay out of the business of religion, in prisons, they have a special duty to actually help facilitate religious practices for inmates, because inmates are institutionalized wards of the state and as such do not have free access to be able to facilitate their own practices or to obtain their own religious items or access to clergy. This gives the CDCR a special mandate to actually advocate for inmate’s religious needs.

Central California Women's Facility (CCWF)

Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)

Instead of doing so when Pagans came forward and asked the CDCR for equal accommodations in California prisons, the CDCR took the official position that Wicca, Witchcraft, Druidry, Heathenism, and related beliefs, were evil and “against God and the Bible” and would not only not be accommodated in California prisons, but would be actively quashed. All Pagan books were officially labeled as pornographic or as security threats and our religious items were openly referred to as instruments of satanic practice or devil worship.

Around this time, a Wiccan inmate named William Rouser challenged the state’s position and took them to court in the Ninth Circuit federal court case Rouser vs White. Rouser asked the court to order the CDCR to comply with the Constitution and to make them provide him with at least basic services including a Wiccan Chaplain, scheduled Wiccan religious services, and access to his religious items. The CDCR fought Rouser tenaciously for years using the full power of the State to both intimidate and discourage him. They put him in solitary confinement and took many other actions to try to stop the practice of Paganism in California prisons. After around twelve years of litigation with the state denying Pagan religious services at every turn, the Martin Luther King Civil Rights Clinic at the University of California at Davis took Rouser’s case. When it became obvious that Rouser was going to win, the CDCR utilized a tactic that they have now become famous for … they offered to settle the case.

In the settlement, the CDCR agreed to allow Rouser several very basic religious artifacts, and to provide him with both access to a Wiccan Chaplain and at a minimum, access to participate in the eight Wiccan Sabbats. The court added to the settlement agreement that other inmates could also attend the Wiccan services, and that the services must be posted as a part of the regular chapel schedule.

I was recommended to serve as Rouser’s chaplain, and thus began my career in Pagan chaplaincy and as an advocate for Pagan prisoner’s rights.

Immediately and from the very beginning after the settlement, the CDCR proceeded to break every aspect of the settlement agreement. On one occasion where I reminded administrators from the California Department of Corrections that they were under a court order to provide these services, they responded, “You don’t see any federal judges here now, do you!” It was then that I first learned that the CDCR uses the tactic of settling minority religion cases in order to get them out of the direct overview of the courts, and then proceeds to violate the settlements knowing that it takes years for the inmate to get back into court. In Rouser’s case after he won the settlement, it took 15 years for him to actually get back into court to get the judge to make the CDCR comply, and they are already violating that second order! Rouser’s is not the only Pagan prisoner’s religion case with a similar story, there are many!

During the years that Rouser battled, many other inmates also litigated their rights with exactly the same results. During that time, in addition to helping CDCR administrators develop policies more in line with Federal mandates, I also went to work to fight for equal religious accommodation for all of our Pagan traditions, both in California and in many other states. I successfully won the rights for inmates to both practice and for them to possess many religious items. Each item in California was a battle with total opposition by the CDCR. In every case, there was no legal justification for the state’s position. There was no security threat or penalogical interests involved, just arbitrary denial with lots of conversations about how allowing Pagan religious items and practices in prisons was evil or immoral. Even so, we made progress, and over time we gained a number of rights already guaranteed by our Constitution.

Throughout this long process, the CDCR also utilized another tactic to minimize minority faith rights. This tact involved two fronts. First, they formed Religious Review Committees, both at the institutional and at the state level to review and approve or disapprove religious items. This was to give them legal cover in court so that they could say that they had not arbitrarily made the decision to deny religious items, but instead, that a qualified body of diverse religious experts had made the decision. The only problem was that the CDCR wouldn’t allow any representatives from the minority faiths to participate on the committees. In other words, they stacked the committees with members of the very faiths who had been fighting the advance of Pagan practice in prison to begin with. They had Rabbis and Protestant ministers, and Catholic Priests deciding what was appropriate and allowable for Pagans to have access to. The other and considerably more ominous tactic the CDCR used was to search for Pagans who would be willing to support the CDCR’s position, in exchange for money, recognition, or position. This has happened several times over the years, and when stepping back, was quite obvious to any informed onlooker. The CDCR has always had access to members of our community who are well known to be experts on Pagan practices to consult, but instead, the CDCR always searches out individuals who they can manipulate instead. They have also drafted so called experts on Paganism who are Christian ministers, to both testify against us and to determine what appropriate practices are for our community.

The CDCR has not stepped up in good conscience as Mr. Nichter has indicated; instead, they have actively and intentionally blocked all minority faith advances as much as possible for many years. They have neither conducted themselves with integrity or moral fortitude in the past, and they have done little to give us reason to believe that they can be trusted now!

In recent public documents and court testimony it has come to light that the CDCR has actively destroyed thousands of court ordered documents relating to discrimination toward Pagans, used coercion, committed perjury, and spent millions of taxpayer dollars fighting a religious war to quash Pagan faith practices.

In examining the Religious Property Matrix and its development, it is clear that no credible experts on Pagan practices were consulted, and the end result is the removal of many already established and approved religious items from Pagan inmates. Under the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act, inmates are allowed any religious items that are not a safety and security risk to the institution. Since most of the items being taken away in the new Religious Matrix have been allowed for years without any safety or security issues, there is no credible argument that they have now all of the sudden become a problem. The Matrix also changed the term “Religious Artifacts” to “Religious Items”, a seemingly small and inconsequential distinction. But again, being educated as to the facts reveals that the devil is in the details. Religious Artifacts are protected items under law, requiring that staff handle them with respect and that a specific procedure must be followed to insure their safety. For example, they can only be inspected in the presence of the inmate, and a supervisor must be informed and sign off before they can be removed or destroyed. Religious Items on the other hand, can be summarily handled, removed or destroyed at any time by any staff member without consequence and with no recourse on the part of the inmate. This is a huge change in policy and definitely not designed to forward religious tolerance or accommodation.


Druids and Druid chaplains in prison.

There is a long history of California correctional staff disrespecting Pagan religious items. For years they have regularly destroyed them without reason, made jokes about them, or called them devil worship. The designation of Religious Artifact was instigated to protect against such actions. Now it is being taken away. No small act!

We as a community must take great care in publically supporting CDCR policy that takes away our rights as it makes it appear as though there is a justification for their actions. Also, if we do choose to speak up on behalf of our community, we must first have in hand documents authorizing us to do so. When I fought for the items that already have been approved in the CDCR, I received official letters of authorization and support from many Pagan traditions, leaders, and individual solitary practitioners nationwide. As a result, I have been able to speak on their behalf.

I closing I’d like to say that I respect Mr. Nichter’s work to help serve our prison community and I fully support his efforts to continue in that direction. I was his mentor in that regard. His efforts at Pantheacon this February to establish the new National Pagan Chaplains Association is commendable, and as soon as we get some members and time under our belt I believe we can become a credible organization. I also believe that Mr. Nichter’s family ties to the CDCR administration may help open doorways in the future that may have been more difficult in the past. We need more people like Joseph to step forward and learn the ropes in the prisons and we need more people to educate themselves more widely both about inmate’s religious rights and also the history of religion in corrections so we can make good decisions as a community going forward.

While it’s true that the Religious Property Matrix provides inmates with a list of items that they are supposed to be allowed access to, they already had legal access to those items before the Matrix came out and so it hasn’t changed anything in that regard. But in publishing the Matrix, the CDCR has cleverly taken away access to many other items that were also already approved, and that is the change that the Matrix is truly designed to make!

[The following is a guest-post from Joseph Merlin Nichter. Joseph Merlin Nichter is an author, blogger, ritualist, Freemason, Wiccan and co-founder of the Mill Creek Tradition and Seminary. As the first state-recognized Minority Faith Chaplain, Joseph provides Pagan religious services and assists with religious accommodations of minority faiths for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; he has also served the California Department of Mental Health as a religious program instructor. Joseph is the co-founder and current president of the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association. Joseph lives in Central California with his wife and four children, where he continues to actively serve his community.]

The odds are quite favorable that the average Wild Hunt reader has experienced religious discrimination which has manifested in either social, legal, or vocational arenas. We must consider the impact this type of discrimination can have on our spirituality and self-esteem. I would argue that this form of discrimination which occurs on a daily basis within a correctional-rehabilitative environment, is in direct conflict with their goals and purpose. Nonetheless, that has in fact been the unfortunate state of affairs for quite some time.

Joseph Merlin Nichter (aka WitchDoctorJoe)

Joseph Merlin Nichter (aka WitchDoctorJoe)

In October of 2012 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) issued an internal memorandum containing new directives pertaining to inmate personal religious property and religious grounds. Attached was a newly drafted list of proposed religious items that would be universally approved at every prison within the state of California. Referred to as the Religious Property Matrix (RPM), the list was developed on an effort to improve the current policy which the department itself recognized as “vague and inconsistent.”

Earlier this year the CDCR released its second draft of the property matrix which contained at least 24 alterations. Some of those changes involved simple terms, but important context; for example many of the items which were limited to a small list of allowable colors had been changed to “multicolored, excluding red or blue.” This has been viewed by many as an understandable change considering that Security Threat Groups (gangs) have proven to be an enduring epidemic and colors, such as red and blue, continue to be employed as a primary mode of recognition.

By March the department felt comfortable and confident with the new property matrix and released a notification of change to regulations. These changes will ratify and implement the new religious property matrix and will also include a change in verbiage. All religious objects previously referred to as “artifacts” is being changed to “items.” Perhaps more significant is the removal of the word “Bible” from list of examples included in the states definition of the term “Religious Artifact Item” located in the 3000 block of Title 15, Crime Prevention and Corrections.

The Pagan Alliance and the House of Danu called for an Emergency Pagan Conclave to address and discuss these new changes. The conclave convened on Sunday of this past Beltane weekend in Oakland, California with several Pagan community leaders in attendance; including M. Mach Nightmare, Pantheacon organizer Glenn Turner, Sam Webster, Diana Paxson, and T. Thorn Coyle of the Solar Cross. The conclave commenced with an hour long presentation by Barbara McGraw, which was followed by narrative commentary on the religious property matrix by event organizer James Bianchi. The remainder of the event was dedicated to an open discussion forum which included a panel of experienced Pagan religious volunteers, including two primary officers from the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association.

Referred to as an “Orwellian list” (that which is not permitted is absolutely forbidden), the primary concern being expressed is that the list will place an unfair restriction on religious accommodations and related practices. But based on my own direct personal experiences, I’m inclined to embrace a more optimistic view. There has never been a consistent statewide policy or single unified list of universally approved items.

The fact is that the CDCR policies regarding personal religious items have been vague (no list) and inconsistent (no collective standard). So whenever an inmate, (for the purpose of this article, a Pagan inmate) wants a religious item such as a pentacle pendant, it must be approved by a state employed chaplain. While it may not be hard to imagine how difficult it might be to obtain such an item in such an environment, the challenge doesn’t end there. Most of the time such an item is not approved, but in the rare instances that it get approved, there is no guarantee that said inmate will be able to maintain possession of the item. If the inmate is transferred to another prison or just moved from one yard to another within the same prison, a difference in policy or social climate often results in the confiscation of such items.

The purpose of the Religious Property Matrix is to establish statewide standardization, resolve the inconsistency and facilitate the rights of inmates to practice their religion within the parameters of the correctional environment. The list will ensure all individuals, regardless of religion, will be guaranteed personal possession of fundamental items. At least eighteen of the twenty-four items listed are applicable to Pagan practices and several of the items listed are explicitly Pagan in nature such as the Wand, Tarot/Divination/Runecards, and Rune tiles. I personally view these items in particular as a significant improvement as they have been among the most difficult for me to get approved in the past.

The other concern that’s been expressed is that items which have been approved in the past, yet are not on the new property matrix will be seized. Although there will be a one year wear out period for all items not included on the new matrix, what this does mean is, yes, there are inmates that will lose some of the items they have been fortunate enough to obtain in the past. But this also means that there will be many inmates that will finally acquire items that they were never able or allowed to possess previously. There will be a loss for some and a gain for many others, but there will be state wide continuity and religious equality. Everyone everywhere will finally be granted and guaranteed basic religious items, without equivocation or discrimination. I for one consider that to be progress, for our incarcerated Pagan brothers and sisters, and for pluralism movement as a whole.

In speaking with department staff regarding the matter, they felt it is important to note that several suggestions received during the public comment period are already in the process of review and are expected to be added to the property matrix. In addition, the property matrix is not a static document. There is a process in place to continuously receive and review suggestions for improvement and the inclusion of additional items into the matrix on a regular basis. It is also important to make a clear distinction here between personal religious items and congregant items, which remain subject to approval at a facility level.

Perhaps it’s due to my own military background that I am sympathetic to the logistical, political, financial and social challenges the CDCR faces in the pursuit of its goals. But it is also due to that same background, having been discriminated against as a Pagan myself, that I am sympathetic to the religious rights and needs of the inmates. And while the department is not without its incarnations of ignorance and apathy, I have seen an encouraging trend of equality and acceptance emerging from a previously inhospitable atmosphere. Finally I’d like to take this rare opportunity to challenge the Pagan community to lend their attention and concern to an equally critical need within our circles and groves by previously incarcerated Pagans; reentry acceptance, assistance and support.

[This editorial from Joseph Merlin Nichter is part of a response to the new CDCR rule changes regarding items allowed to Pagan prisoners. I will also be reaching out to Pagan opponents of the proposed changes for their viewpoint. I’d like to thank Mr. Nichter for submitting his thoughts. As always, opinions expressed in guest editorials are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent The Wild Hunt, its editors, or staff.]

The First Pantheistic Center of the Antelope Valley features an article from Lisa Morgenstern about a new first for modern Pagans in the military: Edwards Air Force Base in California hosted a Wiccan service for the 20 Airmen fallen in 2013.

Altar from the Edwards Air Force Base Wiccan service.

Altar from the Edwards Air Force Base Wiccan service.

“The circle keened the names of the fallen in Celtic tradition, calling their names loudly. Amy, a member of Dragon’s Weyr Circle, a Covenant of the Goddess Member coven, stated, “Thursday night as I started to set up the sacred space the wind started to whirl around. The sky looked as if there was a storm brewing, The Celts would say that it was the Sidhe showing their knowledge of the events …..when the circle was done so was the whirling and swirling winds.” The altar held patches of all the squadrons of the men and women lost.

The circle members called in Badb, and the Horned God, and invited the fallen Airmen to join them and be honored. Then they raised healing energy “to send back through their threads of life/energy to help those which are a part of their tapestries of life.” Several traditional poems were read, and as Captain Victoria Ann Pinckney, the local Palmdale High School Graduate and pilot, was a WASP and a tanker pilot, the poem Vectors to the Tanker, along with a WASP memorial poem for female pilots. The Heathens in attendance spoke of the honor accorded to fallen warriors and that those slain in battle are collected by Freyja and Odin and brought to their halls, Sessrumir and Valhalla. They shared mead and lemon cookies on an altar with red roses. The lemon and red roses are military traditions when honoring those lost.”

Edwards Air Force Base has been hosting regular Wiccan services since April, when Elder Priestess Amy Watson, a Covenant of the Goddess member, and wife of an Air Force Captain, first approached the Wing Chaplain.

“When I approached the Wing Chaplain to have services scheduled, he insisted that we schedule weekly services,” said Watson, “just like all the other denominations have.”

With all the talk lately about proselytizing in the military, and the influence of conservative Christianity, I think it’s important to note when important and largely unheralded forward steps are taken. This first, along with other Pagan services on military bases, and the recent approval of the Thor’s Hammer for veteran headstones and grave markers, points to a slow but building new reality within military culture. A pluralistic and multi-religious “post-Christian” future in which a balance must be struck so that all may find within America’s armed forces. I send out my congratulations to Priestess Amy Watson, and to the Pagans and Wiccans at Edwards Air Force Base. I have no doubt the gods heard you in your honoring of the fallen Airmen.

Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

A Fundraiser for Kyrja Withers: Since Florida Pagan and children’s author Kyrja Withers had her home shot at this past March, followed by a chemical bottle-bomb attack, which required Withers’ daughter to seek medical care after inhaling fumes, the Lady Liberty League, Everglades Moon Local Council of COG, and other local Pagan community members have been mobilizing to assist Withers. At the behest of Lady Liberty League, their household is now raising funds to install security measures to protect against future attacks.

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

“Lady Liberty League […] has provided a variety of resources to my husband, Randy, and I during this time.  They also provided a comprehensive on-site Threat Assessment Report of our home in an effort to de-escalate the situation and provide long-term safety for our family. We are seeking assistance to comply with the security measures recommended by Lady Liberty League.  The bulk of the funding received will be to purchase the security cameras necessary to provide surveillence of our unique, colorful home.  The cameras would provide visible deterents to those who would seek to further harass and intimidate us, as well as a means to secure evidence should additional incidents occur.”

They are seeking to raise $1,100 dollars, and have already raised nearly half of their goal. For those seeking to concretely help in this situation this seems to be a pragmatic and sensible way to do so. The Lady Liberty League asks that those who are interested in contributing suggestions of resources, ideas for strategies, and volunteering security consulting and other help” to send them an e-mail, or comment at the organization’s Facebook page.  A focus image has also been provided for those who want to do magical/prayer work for Kyrja and her family. We will update you here with further developments.

Emergency Pagan Conclave Called in California: The Wild Hunt has received a notice that an emergency conclave is being called for Sunday, May 5th in Oakland, California to discuss proposed regulations by the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) relating to religious items allowed by incarcerated Pagans. The call is being put forth by The Pagan Alliance and House of Danu.

Central California Women's Facility (CCWF)

Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)

“The California Department of Corrections (CDCR) has issued proposed regulations that threaten the ability of Pagans who are incarcerated to possess many of the religious items customary for the religious practices of our people. The proposed list excludes items out of ignorance, or for convenience, without regard to the required legal standard permitting personal religious items. Public comment on the proposed regulations ends May 7, 2013 at 5:00p.m.

The last great struggle for religious freedom in this country may very well be in the California prisons. At this historic Conclave. Dr. Barbara McGraw will give a presentation on the history of abuse endured by Pagan inmates, and there will be a panel of Pagan chaplain volunteers to share their experiences. Each of you will be given a guide showing how you can help the people of your tradition within the scope of any budget or time availability. We ask that each tradition send one or more representatives to the Conclave.”

Details on location, time, and how to participate can be found at this Facebook event listing. The proposed changes to what inmate religious property will be allowed can be found, here. The rights of Pagan prisoners has been an ongoing area of coverage at The Wild Hunt, and we’ll have more on this as the story develops.

Houston Pagan Conference: The first Pagan conference in the Houston, Texas area in over 30 years is being held May 18th  at the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands. I reporter earlier on the fundraiser to get this event started.

“There has not been a conference for Pagans in the Houston area for over 30 years. Now is the time to change that. The Houston metropolitan area has a wonderful, rich, and vast Pagan community which should be celebrated. The Houston Pagan Conference was started to not only bring this community together but to also bring forth ideas and discussions on various aspects of faith and practice.”

Guest of honor will be author Raven Grimassi. In addition, OBOD Druid, CUUPs Vice President, and Patheos blogger, John Beckett will be in attendance, so I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about how the event went. Congratulations to the Houston-area Pagan community on getting organized!

In Other Community News:


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

Wiccans and the larger Pagan community had a major victory lately. We got a talking head on the Fox News network, Tucker Carlson, to apologize on-air for sensationalist, distorted, and false remarks involving Pagan religions. A mix of quick-moving Pagan advocacy organizations and a groundswell of outrage from the community as a whole made them (or at least Carlson) re-think their earlier comments. We should feel good about this. We got an apology, and Fox News now knows that pushing that particular outrage button might have negative PR consequences (and no matter what you think of Fox News, they are in the business of adding viewers, not subtracting them).

That story had its genesis in a bit of good news, the University of Missouri recognizing the validity of Wiccan/Pagan holidays. Likewise, another bit of good news, a challenge to California’s “Five Faiths” prison chaplaincy policy being revived by the 9th Circuit Court, inspired a newspaper columnist to take aim and set phasers to “offend.”

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders: You mad bro?

“In its wisdom – and yes, I am being ironic – the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling Tuesday that revives a California inmate lawsuit to force the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to hire a paid, full-time Wiccan chaplain. […] When I read the complaint that Wiccans aren’t treated the same as adherents to mainstream religions, I figure that’s what you get when you join what for some is a do-it-yourself theology. It’s like atheists suing because they aren’t welcome in church.”

That’s Debra J. Saunders, a conservative columnist for the generally center-left oriented San Francisco Chronicle. She plays a role, the conservative gadfly for the lefty media outlet she inhabits (conservative-oriented outlets often do the same thing, running a “token” liberal, it’s a well-worn method to engage/inflame readers). Just like Fox News, Saunders saw a story that she could frame as an outrage, distorted the facts just a bit, then let fire.

“If I turn into a frog over the weekend, I take back this column. Until then, I’m just a chump who pays taxes so the Ninth Circuit can pull rabbits out of hats.”

Ms. Saunders is a professional, and she knows what she is doing. She welcomes your ire, she feeds on it. She uses your angry e-mails and letters as confirmation that she’s doing her job correctly. Her job isn’t to win more readers by appealing to a broad base, her job is to make you mad. Then, when you do get mad, she uses your angry letters as further fuel for her antics.


“I thought I would share this letter because it does three interesting things. First, it wrongly argues that editors would reject any opinion piece that is derogatory toward a religion. That’s ridiculous. Just ask the Catholic church. Second, it demonstrates a special brand of tolerance — a brand that wants to censure dissenting opinions, without even noticing that its demand for censorship is in itself intolerant. Third, it is anonymous. So much for the force of one’s convictions.”

What she’s doing is trolling. Professional-grade trolling, and we shouldn’t feed into it. Unlike Fox News, there’s little to be gained from her apology, and getting angry at her is exactly what she wants. WIth trolls all you can do is ignore them, and refuse to engage with them. As members of a minority religion we have to be savvy about which battles we pick, and we have to realize when someone is goading us into a conflict because they want that conflict, because it actually benefits them to have us mad at them. Debra J. Saunders is a bottom-feeding troll who wants Pagans to be mad at her, but the best thing we can do is simply encourage people to not read, support, or interact with her. We gain little from acting against her, and we have much bigger battles to fight, so leave the troll alone.

Yesterday the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the case of Hartmann v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation which clears the way for a direct challenge to California’s discriminatory “five faiths” policy. This policy limits the hiring of paid chaplains to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American adherents. Judges stressed that while the prison did not intentionally limit the religious rights of Shawna Hartmann, Caren Hill, and other Wiccan inmates, the neutrality of California’s chaplaincy policy could be challenged. 

Central California Women's Facility (CCWF)

Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)

“Although the state is not required to “provide inmates with the chaplain of their choice,” it must use neutral standards when deciding how to spend money on prisoners’ religious needs, said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. California prisons have long employed chaplains for Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews. After American Indian inmates sued the state in 1985, the prison system began providing spiritual advisers for them […] the court said the women may be able to prove that the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is violating the constitutional ban on a governmental “establishment of religion,” which prohibits a state from endorsing one faith over another. That ban requires the prisons to use “neutral criteria in evaluating whether a growing membership in minority religions warrants a reallocation of resources,” the court said in a 3-0 ruling.”

This ruling is part of a larger effort by Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum to nurture cases that would challenge the policy after the 9th Circuit Court upheld a lower court decision stating he doesn’t have standing. McCollum told The Wild Hunt back in November of 2012 that “if the court rules that those inmates who are on that case do have a right to a chaplain then I can walk right back into the court and forget the ruling made by the 9th Circuit or anybody else.” Now, with the way cleared for a direct challenge to California’s policy, McCollum has released the following statement.

Patrick McCollum with California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier and aide (08/25/12)

Patrick McCollum with California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier and aide (08/25/12)

Today I bring good news after a long fight. And while the fight is not over, the victory I have the privilege of sharing is significant and particularly meaningful to me.

This morning, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that if the allegations presented in the Complaint filed in the case Hartman v California Department of Corrections are true (which they are) that the California Department of Corrections violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by not having hired a paid Wiccan Chaplain at the California Correctional Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California.

As many of you know, I have led the fight in this quest for nearly twenty years to establish equality for Pagan prisoners nationwide and an equal right to our own paid chaplains under the law. There have been many difficult and challenging twists and turns in this battle to expose the truth in this matter, and many personal hits on the part of myself and my family to sustain it. And while I say little about the sacrifices made to bring justice, just the commitment and the loss of irretrievable years of one’s life in litigation taking on the system is in itself wearing.

It has not been easy!

I have always known that the only way to change discrimination and misinformation against our community, is to take it on openly and to refuse to accept anything other than success.

 As with all court battles, there are still many issues to work out and lots of hard work still ahead, but the tide has turned, and it has turned in our favor, thank the Goddess!

 I’d like to thank our attorneys, Jones Day of San Francisco, who believe in this cause and have never given up, and I’d also like to thank Dr. Barbara McGraw who has argued our cause diligently from the very beginning. Without their combined help, none of this would have ever happened.

I’d like to also thank the inmates, Hartman & Hill, and all of the other incarcerated Wiccan sisters and brothers who have continued to have the courage to stand up against a flawed system in which they too have sustained continuous adversity and hardship for merely standing up for their faith. Today’s ruling is a testament to their commitment, and and to the sincerity of their beliefs.

Let us all remember, that united we can transform ignorance and hatred in the world into understanding and beauty, and that it only takes one voice to start a chorus. Let us each rise up and be that voice!

In addition, the Patrick McCollum Foundation, an organization formed to support Patrick McCollum’s work as an activist and interfaith ambassador, released the following statement yesterday at the publication of the ruling.

This morning, the 9th circuit published its opinion on a prison religion case involving Wiccan inmates: Hartmann and Hill v. the CDCR, et al.. Procedurally, the case is only at the complaint stage, but the court’s ruling is very significant because the court ruled that the facts alleged in the case are sufficient to state a First Amendment Establishment Clause claim under the U.S. and California constitutions on behalf of Wiccan inmates.

The complaint alleged that the five faiths policy, which permits the hiring of chaplains in only five faiths (Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, and Native American), “favor[s] some religions over others on a preferential basis” and that the CDCR defendants do not apply any “neutral, equitable, and unbiased criteria” to determine chaplain hiring needs or other religious accommodations for inmates of various faiths. The court concluded that if, during the course of the case, the Establishment Clause allegations are proven to be factually correct, the CDCR would be in violation of the Establishment Clause for its five faiths policy chaplain hiring policy. (The court affirmed the dismissal of the other claims largely on procedural grounds: First Amendment Free Exercise, Equal Protection, and RLUIPA.)

David Kiernan of the Jones Day law firm, which handled Patrick McCollum’s case, argued the case before the 9th circuit pro bono. Barbara A. McGraw also served as a pro bono attorney on the case.

This is a major victory for those wanting to change California’s chaplaincy policy, and create better access and resources for inmates. The struggles of religious minorities in American prisons, particularly Pagans, has been well-documented here at The Wild Hunt. Noted Pagan leaders like Starhawk have personally experienced the poor treatment and lack of respect our religions often receive from prison officials. Recent studies have shown that minority faiths can make up significant percentages of a prison population, and according to the women in this lawsuit, Wiccans outnumber Jews and Muslims at their facility, two faiths that are accorded funds for paid chaplains.

This ruling, in the end, isn’t about paying a Wiccan chaplain, or a Pagan chaplain, it’s about access. Volunteer chaplains, especially those outside the dominant Christian paradigm within our prison system, often face a number of hurdles. Ease of access is often decided arbitrarily, and with little knowledge of the faiths being serviced. While some Pagan chaplains are able to make headway, those are isolated instances, and on the whole there is “endemic” discrimination against Pagan prisoners. The Wild Hunt will be keeping track of this case, and will keep you posted as new developments occur.


Meeting the Pagans

Stacey Lawless —  February 14, 2013 — 8 Comments

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in four years. She moved up north for a while and we fell out of touch, so when she moved back we had some catching up to do. The last time we’d seen each other, I was calling myself Heathen and thought that I might become a Freyrswoman. Needless to say, I had to explain that my spiritual journey had covered some ground since then. The strange thing was, as we talked, I realized that it felt like far longer than four years since I last lifted a horn in blót – even though I never lost contact with my local Heathens, and attended a blót as a guest only a few months ago. I also told my friend about getting ready for PantheaCon, and the contrast between how I felt about PCON and how I felt about my own Pagan past gave me some food for thought.

The road to PantheaCon opened for me in December, just a few weeks after my rayamiento. My Tata (Palo godfather) announced that he was going to be on a panel about minority religions and the media (“Setting the Record Straight: Pagans and the Press”), and checking the schedule, I saw that Jason Pitzl-Waters was also on that panel. I wound up getting into an online conversation with Jason about PCON that left me thinking I just had to try to go. Crowds aren’t my favorite, but I was thrilled about the Giant Pagan Event, plus I had the sense that here was a door that I had to try to get through. When my boyfriend agreed that yes, we should go, I was stunned (he’s so much more of a hermit than I am). We bought the various necessary tickets and made the plans and I’ve been thoroughly excited since . . .

But the funny thing is, I can’t quite figure out why I’m excited. I mean, it’s great to be stepping out, finally, into the wider world of Pagandom, meeting people, experiencing different traditions, and delighting in the gathering of the tribes. I find it very ironic, though, that I’m entering this world not as a Pagan, but as a Palera. For whatever reasons of destiny or personal quirks, I never found an expression of Paganism that resonated well with me, or provided a good vessel for my hopes, fears, personal growth or spiritual yearnings. I confess I got rather frustrated with the search, too, and there were more than a few times when I was tempted to write the whole thing off. And apparently the process left a few scars, because I realized the other day that although my identity is still oriented towards Paganism, in a general way, I think of you guys as “you guys” and not “us.”

This is an uncomfortable thing to write, not least because I’m writing it here on The Wild Hunt. The flip side, though, is that I am writing about it on The Wild Hunt, at the same time I’m talking about heading out to PantheaCon. Clearly, those scars don’t run all that deep. And I suppose this could mean that I’m going to PCON to find out why I’m going to PCON – that this is the part of my journey where I get to discover what Pagan things are like outside of my little corner of the Southeast.

There are definitely worse quests to undertake. And I do have some concrete goals and desires for PantheaCon which will keep me busy. There’s the glorious opportunity for networking, for example. I think Pagans and the African Traditional Religions are, or at least should be, natural allies in the contentious religious environment of the U.S., and I hope I can accomplish a little work to that end, even if it’s just swapping a few email addresses. Given that I’m going to meet the redoubtable Wild Hunt-ers in person, I anticipate this will be pretty fun and effective.

I want to see how the other ATR practitioners on the schedule present our religions. And, speaking of events on the schedule, I’m hoping to learn more about how different Pagan groups are doing Ancestor veneration and spirit-work. (Healing the dead, and healing with the aid of the dead, are old interests of mine that I now have the tools to pursue in earnest – and I may be on the verge of becoming something of an evangelist for Ancestor veneration. But that is definitely a topic for another post.) The Circle of Bones ritual, in particular, looks intriguing.

I’m completely stoked about the fact that I’m finally going to be able to meet friends in person who I’ve only ever known online. Also, this is the big opportunity to introduce my boyfriend to my Tata and some of the other folks in my Palo community, which is a small triumph considering we can’t afford to travel to the West Coast very often. And, of course, there’s that  one panel I simply must attend . . .

Roads opening, doors to walk through, quests to undertake. That does sound kind of Pagan, doesn’t it? I’ll be making notes on the journey, and will no doubt write about the adventures when I return. If you’re going to be at PantheaCon too, look for me – my hair’s not blue anymore but is still spiky, and you can’t miss the spiral tattoo on my neck. Come on over and tell me your story. I’m here for the gathering of tribes, after all, and I do want to meet you.


[The following is a guest post from Patrick Wolff. Wolff is a professor of religious studies and holds a PhD in the history of religious thought. His interests include studying religion and Romanticism, playing Classical and Celtic music, and reading science fiction/fantasy literature. Spiritually he’s either openly eclectic or hopelessly muddled, depending on who you ask.]

The ninth annual Conference on Current Pagan Studies met at Claremont Graduate University in the city of Claremont, California on January 26-27. This is a unique academic conference, not only for its topical focus on Pagan Studies, but for its inclusion of both academic and non-academic Pagans as presenters. Both the conference theme and the selection of keynote speakers exemplified the desire to, as the tagline of the conference website puts it, bring “Academia and Community Together.” The conference theme, “Pagan Sensibilities in Action,” covered not only ritual and spiritual practice but history, art, social justice, environmental concerns, psychology, politics, and other topics. The theme reflected a concern that is current in many religions, a desire to explore the implications of one’s theology (or thealogy, or theoilogy, as the case may be) in all aspects of life.

The two keynote speakers embodied this theme, one a recognized scholar in the fields of folklore and anthropology and the other an activist with experience fighting for social justice as well as service through disaster relief and emergency care. Dr. Sabina Magliocco, Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Northridge, and author of numerous books including Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America and Neo-Pagan Sacred Art and Altars: Making Things Whole, presented a lecture titled “The Rise of Pagan Fundamentalism.” Joking that she hoped to avoid being tarred and feathered, Magliocco identified two tendencies of Pagan Fundamentalism, both of which centered on the concept of belief. As a broad religious phenomenon, fundamentalists in all religions insist on a literalist interpretation of foundational texts, and demand conformity of belief as the primary marker of a genuine religious identity. Those who do not share these essential beliefs are viewed with suspicion, or rejected as imposters.

Sabina Magliocco at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies. (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Sabina Magliocco at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies. (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

The first belief is in the literal historicity of the foundational narrative of paganism as an unbroken stream flowing from the ancient past to the present. This “received” view of Pagan (particularly Wiccan) history, shaped by Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner, holds that the Old Religion persisted throughout the centuries amidst persecution, passed down as a closely guarded secret to initiates into the present day. However, when subjected to the scrutiny of critical historical scholarship, the foundational myth of pure Paganism transmitted through the ages was revealed to be lacking in solid historical evidence. Revisionists, most notably English historian Ronald Hutton, author of Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, contended that Wicca was better understood as a new religious movement than as a preserved ancient one. Counter-revisionists, such as Ben Whitmore, author of Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft, have objected that Hutton overstated his case, ignoring or minimizing evidence for continuity in the transmission of Wicca (to which Hutton has replied in his article “Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History” in the most recent issue of Pomegranate). The claims of revisionist historians can come as quite a shock to Pagans who never had reason to question the received myth of Pagan origins, and while many were open to the new perspective, others experienced a crisis of cognitive dissonance which was countered by an uncritical insistence on the literal truth of the myth of pagan origins and a dismissal of, or attack on, revisionist arguments. Since the revisionist perspective presented Wicca as an eclectic, creative religious movement influenced by other forms of occultism and Romanticism, those most opposed to it were often those whose Paganism was heavily invested in the claim of possessing secret knowledge passed through carefully guarded secret initiations. This debate over Pagan origins is not merely an ivory tower discussion, since how Pagans view their past will shape their future.

The second tendency that has emerged in Pagan Fundamentalism is a belief in gods and goddesses as literal spiritual persons, formulated as a reaction against the emergence of humanistic paganism and panentheistic or archetypal interpretations of the divine. However, Magliocco argued, historically Wiccans have varied greatly in their theology, and found unity not in right belief, but in common practice. Against this non-dogmatic tradition of finding shared identity through ritual, Pagan Fundamentalists seek to exclude those who do not hold to their “orthodox” pagan belief in the nature of the gods. This is problematic, Magliocco argued, because it imported a criteria from the dominant Abrahamic faiths that was ill-suited to the ritual-focused nature of Paganism.

Why has belief emerged as a critical identity marker now, when it did not function this way in the past? Magliocco pointed to several reasons, such as a desire legitimate Paganism as a “real religion” in the eyes of adherents of other religions (which comes as a result of the growth in size and influence of Paganism), and a quest for certainty in a tumultuous marketplace of religious ideas (a motivating factor in the fundamentalist strand of all religions). But her third reason pointed to what would become a theme throughout much of the rest of the conference: the role of the Internet, and particularly comments on blogs, that dank and murky lair of trolls, where insults fly freely and rational reflection is beaten down by bombast. The Internet tends to encourage “enclaves of idiosyncratic views,” unchallenged by real-world interaction with those holding differing views, and provides a veil of anonymity that allows abusive behavior that would not be tolerated in face to face interactions. After her presentation, one questioner raised the intriguing possibility that the Internet actually encourages fundamentalism, since online (particularly in blogs and blog comments) individuals are easily reduced to text-based persons.

The second keynote address, “Stirring the Cauldron of Pagan Sensibilities,” was presented by  Peter Dybing, a national disaster team Section Chief with experience as a firefighter and EMT as well as serving on the board member 100% for Haiti and a former National First Officer of Covenant of the Goddess. Stressing is non-academic identity, Dybing challenged attendees to “suspend your academic approach, and access your emotions,” issuing a call to action rather than offering intellectual reflection. His first two points called for a new look at the questions of Pagan leadership and the role of elders. While acknowledging the strengths found in Traditional (hierarchical, individual-focused) and Organic (communal and local) models of leadership, as well as the dangers of what he termed Fantasy Leadership (the self-appointed blogger harassing his or her enemies online, “liked” by clique of online admirers ), Dybing drew from his experience in disaster relief to formulate a Transformative model of leadership, one that is mission-based and organizationally-focused. Leadership should not be limited to the Priest or Priestess as representatives of the God or Goddess, but should be shared based on recognition of diverse skills and expertise. On the related topic of Pagan elders, Dybing stressed the importance of honoring the body of work left by an elder without venerating the person. Elders, even after death, must be remembered as human beings, not saints.

Peter Dybing (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Peter Dybing at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Though the first part of presentation took up the majority of his time, it was in the second part that Dybing most fully revealed his own heart through a call to service as an expression of Pagan spirituality. It was in offering direct aid for the good of others, whether in international aid or in community service, that Dybing said he most fully felt the presence of the Goddess. In a time of environmental degradation, Dybing warned, we must expect a future of natural disasters on an unprecedented scale, and Pagans are uniquely qualified to respond to these challenges. While Magliocco made the case that Paganism should continue to value ritual action over belief, Dybing called on Pagans to pursue active service as a practice of Pagan spirituality.

The other twenty-five presentations were too varied and rich to be adequately summarized here, with topics ranging from theology to psychology, good pedagogy in the classroom to creating masks (and even the pedagogy of making masks), environmentalism, politics, and mysticism. One particularly exciting project described was the Pagan History Project, which will record oral histories of Pagans, similar to the oral history project being conducted by many universities of World War II veterans. Several times a desire was expressed to continue discussion after the conference ended, either on the conference website or Facebook page. This does not seem to have happened yet, but it would be another way to bring Pagan scholarship into conversation with the broader Pagan community. In addition to the thoughtful nature of the presentations, two other aspects of the conference are worth noting. First, there was an ethos of dialogue and conversation among the approximately fifty attendees, so much so that interaction between the presenter and audience sometimes broke out in the middle of a presentation, a rare occurrence in a typical academic conference. Second, the atmosphere of the conference could be described as convivial, with a great deal of laughter and good spirits. In this way, the conference itself was a manifestation of Pagan sensibility.

Pagan Studies has come under recent criticism by some for a lack of necessary critical distance from its subject (see, for example,, Markus Altena Davidsen, “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, available online). This criticism is not without merit. The calling of a scholar of religion is not to support the religion being studied, but to understand it, and the conclusions that come from scholarly inquiry are not always welcome to those being studied (hence Magliocco’s “tar and feathering” comment). Further, too much of an “insider” atmosphere can create an us-and-them dichotomy which distances or even excludes outsiders. The “them” could be non-insider scholars or practitioners of other religions, viewed as outsiders who can never really “get” those on the inside (some of this could be seen by the dramatic eye-rolling and snarky asides from one presenter whenever he made mention of Christian beliefs, something that would not be tolerated in other academic conferences). One Pagan Reconstructionist presenter admitted she had felt nervous about attending a conference of Wiccans and Neopagans, and while she was warmly welcomed, her initial misgivings say something about how the conference could be perceived by outsiders.

The lines of insider and outsider in scholarship are not always clear cut, however, and if there is a danger in insider scholarship designed to offer the benefits of scholarly insight to contribute to the flourishing of one’s own religious community, the opposite danger is scholarship for the sake of no one, except perhaps the expansion of the scholar’s own reputation (and ego). Granted that much of what academics call risky seems rather dreary to most people, the conference organizer, Dorothea Kahena Viale, should be commended for taking the risk of envisioning a conference that seeks to connect scholars with practitioners and intellectuals with activists. There must be a place for scholarship for the good of the community, and for Pagans, one place this can be found is the Conference on Current Pagan Studies.

ADDENDUM: For another perspective of the 2013 Conference on Current Pagan Studies, see Donald Michael Kraig’s blog at

ADDENDUM II: I’d just like to note that this piece is an effort on Patrick Wolff’s part to convey the messages of the two keynote speakers, and of the general tone of this conference. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Mr. Wolff or any other Wild Hunt contributor. Our goal, as always, is to inform our readership about events that could impact the broader Pagan community. I (Jason) hope to weigh in soon with an editorial touching on some of the issues raised here.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

David Wiegleb, Heidi Geyer, and Esther Fishman

David Wiegleb, Heidi Geyer, and Esther Fishman

PPR SeekingtheMystery draft2 187x300

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

In 2011 Pagan activist and chaplain Patrick McCollum, whose work has been reported on often here at The Wild Hunt, experienced a serious setback when the 9th Circuit Court upheld a lower court decision stating he doesn’t have standing to challenge California’s discriminatory “five faiths” policy. This policy limits the hiring of paid chaplains to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American adherents and is part of what McCollum has called an “endemic” level of religious discrimination against minority faiths in our prison system. Ultimately, instead of going forward in challenging the 9th Circuit Court decision, McCollum has been nurturing new cases brought by Pagan inmates that would also challenge the California chaplaincy policy.

Patrick McCollum on the cover of Witches & Pagans.

Patrick McCollum on the cover of Witches & Pagans.

“I’m currently in a place where if an inmate brought a case, my case could go forward […] I saw this coming down the pike, and so I have helped inmates bring forward cases that meet the criteria to make it so my case is viable and valid […] I’ve managed to keep those cases under the radar and the first of those cases his the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week. […] If the court rules that those inmates who are on that case do have a right to a chaplain then I can walk right back into the court and forget the ruling made by the 9th Circuit or anybody else.”

The case he mentioned back in September of last year, Hartmann v. California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation et al, has just had oral arguments before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this past Friday. In a message to me, the Patrick McCollum Foundation laid out what the case was about, and how the decision could have a huge impact on his own stalled case against California’s corrections system.

“Shauna Hartman and Karen Hill, two Wiccan inmates in the California Department of Corrections and rehabilitation who are members of Rev. Patrick McCollum’s prison program, will be represented Friday morning in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by the law firm Jones Day of San Francisco. Hartman & Hill have sued the CDCR for not providing a Wiccan Chaplain and for discriminating against Pagans in general.  The lawsuit, following the case brought by Rev. Patrick McCollum, continues the battle for equality in the prison system and will fulfill the court’s requirement that an inmate must first prove that they need a Wiccan chaplain before McCollum’s case can become viable. If the court rules in Hartman’s favor, then the McCollum case under the previous court’s ruling once again becomes viable and can continue to be litigated.”

McCollum called The Wild Hunt just after completion of oral arguments to say that proceedings went “exceptionally well” though it will be months before a decision is handed down. In the meantime, McCollum will be at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting where he’ll take part in a special presentation on chaplaincy in prison, and the new data that was gathered by the Pew Forum earlier this year. According to that data, there could be as many as 40,000 modern Pagans currently incarcerated in the United States and more than a third of prisons say their Pagan populations are growing. Yet the vast majority of prison chaplains are Christian, and of that number an impressive 44% are Evangelical Christians, so the California challenge to their “five faiths” policy is a vital step towards correcting a growing problem.

Asatru prisoners and their chaplains.

Asatru prisoners and their chaplains.

Noted Pagan leaders like Starhawk have personally experienced the poor treatment and lack of respect our religions often receive from prison officials. However, when Pagan clergy are allowed in, and Pagan inmates are given the same consideration as other inmates, truly healing moments of fellowship can happen.

“It was intense, but fulfilling, and I hope that similar prison festivals can take place someday in other prisons and for other incarcerated people. The mere fact that five prominent Pagans were willing to come and celebrate for a day with the men gave them a sense of validation, an understanding that they truly aren’t forgotten, and that they, too, matter in the world. And this can only be a good thing!”

The battle over access to Pagan chaplains here in United States, or even the question of if Pagan chaplains should be paid in Canada, can seem far away from our troubles and cares. However, these fights get right to the basic question of equal treatment for Pagans and other minority religions. Access to chaplains, to religious guidance and instruction, should be a fundamental right and the human cost when that right is denied can be greater that some would imagine. The rights of prisoners are a canary in the coalmine of our society, what we imagine is acceptable to deny them eventually become acceptable to deny others. Precedents are won and lost behind bars, and McCollum has worked tirelessly to ensure that minority religions have access to chaplaincy. As information on this case, and related cases, becomes available, The Wild Hunt will be here to update you.