Archives For Daniel LaPlante

Unfortunately, the case will not be whether he should get ten kinds of cake, but rather whether it is legitimate to ask for cake as a part of Wiccan ritual. If the court rules against him, it will be taking away the rights of all Pagans in Massachusetts prisons to celebrate the ceremony of cakes and ale which is a fundamental Wiccan practice with a long history. – Pagan Chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum

A Wiccan man serving time at MCI-Norfolk since 1987 for a  triple murder is suing the Massachusetts Department of Corrections for allegedly infringing on his religious rights. Daniel LaPlante says prison officials are interfering with his ability to practice the Wiccan religion by preventing him from obtaining specific ritual oils, herbs, teas, medallions, and a variety of cakes for his faith. He also says they are preventing him from practicing his faith in the “time, place and manner” that the Wiccan religion requires.

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Wiccan Altar [Photo Credit: Angie Armstrong/Flickr]

Without those items, LaPlante claims he won’t be able to stay in the Coven Communal Wicca Group, which meets weekly in the prison. LaPlante also maintains he also needs to be able to worship during certain moon phases, such as new and full moons.

In 2013, LaPlante’s attempt to sue the DOC failed. In recent weeks, both LaPlante and the Department of Corrections (DOC) have filed motions for summary judgment, asking the judge to end the lawsuit by ruling in their favor. There is no date set when Judge William G. Young will make a decision.

Prison officials do admit that they haven’t provided some of the items, but quickly add that many items on LaPlante’s list are considered contraband. They also say that they are following guidelines in the DOC’s Religious Services Handbook, which is used to evaluate inmate religious requests for commonly practiced religions. Wicca is included in the handbook.

The Wild Hunt spoke with Pagan Chaplain and activist Rev. Patrick McCollum about the case, and what it means for the religious rights of Pagan prisoners. Rev. McCollum trains state and federal prison religion directors each year, and he says accommodating Wiccan and Pagan practices is the number one request.

Patrick McCollum [Courtesy Photo]

Patrick McCollum [Courtesy Photo]

We first asked Rev. McCollum how important are things such as candles, incense, and teas to the practice of the Wiccan religion. He responded:

As you know, there are many different traditions under the category of Wicca. To many of them, especially the earlier traditions, things like candles and incense and observances of the phases of the moon are critical to their practice. For example in my tradition, access to actual fire, water, earth, and incense, are fundamental to any working or ritual. And as for ritual teas, that practice is common among many in the Wiccan community. Also, medallions and ritual oils play a big part.

However within a prison context, the question as to whether or not these things are required or supported by our practices is irrelevant. Under RULUIPA, which is the law of the land regarding religious practices in correctional institutions, prisons are required by law to provide all of these items to Pagan inmates if requested unless they specifically create a threat to the safety and security of the institution. The majority of the items requested in this case cannot be seen as creating a security risk, as they have been approved previously in other contexts in the past. Therefore the state should be trying to find a reasonable way to accommodate them.

In the end, one needs to recognize that while it’s possible that the inmate is pushing volume-wise for more than might be reasonable, his actual requests are clearly within reason under the law. Unfortunately, the case will not be whether he should get ten kinds of cake, but rather whether it is legitimate to ask for cake as a part of Wiccan ritual. If the court rules against him, it will be taking away the rights of all Pagans in Massachusetts prisons to celebrate the ceremony of cakes and ale which is a fundamental Wiccan practice with a long history.

When asked if he felt prisons have become more accommodating to Pagan religious practices in recent years, he said they were nationally. He added:

There is no question that prisons are becoming far more accommodating to Pagan religious practices in recent years. Twenty years ago when I first started challenging prison systems for discriminating against Wiccans and Pagans, prisons wouldn’t allow Pagan religious practices period! Now the prison systems in almost every state in the U.S. have designated Pagan religion programs or have procedural manuals on how to accommodate them. I have attended services in prisons in various states across the country where candles, incense, May Poles, BOS, Thor’s hammers, chalices, and even Athames [cardboard or wooden replicas] are common. Also outdoor ritual space and even small bonfires.

While things are getting better across the nation, Rev. McCollum sees this particular case in Massachusetts a continuation of a long standing policy to restrict the religious rights of Pagan prisoners. Yet even there, he sees some progress.  He said:

I advised the Massachusetts DOC on the basic requirements of Wiccan practices at least 15 years ago, and they took the position that they would fight every request, legitimate or not. This case, no matter how frivolous it may seem, is really just the end result of many years of religious discrimination coming to a head.

This case like many others, will likely never see the light of day on the real issues presented. Instead, the state will seek to get it thrown out on technicalities so that they are not forced to comply with the law.

To give credit, Massachusetts has made some progress in this area and have established some Pagan accommodations, but they are generally about ten years behind everyone else in the country on accommodating Pagans.

Rev. McCollum wanted to caution Pagans outside the prison system on how they can unintentionally set these hard fought gains backwards. He said:

Some in our community take the position that nothing is really necessary to practice our faith in prison other than our personal connection with magic. We need to be careful in making that assessment, especially when speaking for others (especially those in prisons). It’s important to remember that all that is necessary to practice Protestant Christianity according to the very definition of Protestant, is the person and a Bible! They do not require Sunday services or Bible classes or a chaplain or minister, or all of the other paraphernalia that they have been given to accommodate them. It is only when Pagans or other minority faiths ask to be accommodated equally, that denials persist.

The Wild Hunt will continue to follow this story and report as things change.

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.

Daniel LaPlante. Photo: The Boston Herald.

Daniel LaPlante. Photo: The Boston Herald.

  • A new documentary, The Art of Disappearing, tells the story of Haitian Voodoo priest Amon Fremon, who visited the People’s Republic of Poland in 1980. Quote: “What I did learn from the brief research I did on him, is that he believed that he was a descendant of Polish soldiers who were abandoned in Haiti, after the Haitian Revolution. They intermarried with Haitians, and may have established themselves at a settlement in Casales. And although they probably practiced Catholicism in the early days, some would later become practioners of Voodoo.” Sounds interesting!
  • The definition of who’s an Indian in the United States is causing some heartache (and fiscal strain) as the implementation of the Affordable Care Act rolls out. Quote: “The definition of “Indian” in the section of the law that deals with the insurance exemption appears to be the same as the one in 25 USC § 450b. That means only members of federally recognized tribes and shareholders in Alaska Native regional or village corporations are considered “Indian.” But that definition is narrower than the one found in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which was made permanent by the ACA. For example, California Indians with allotments have long been considered eligible for IHS care.” A hearing is scheduled to address these concerns.
  • Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll is becoming this generation’s Pat Robertson. Quote: “He’s been heavily criticized by Christian voices across the spectrum, and according to reports, several attendees at the Catalyst Conference in Dallaswalked out during his talk. He’s even being marginalized by some Reformed Christians (i.e. Calvinists) who precipitated his rise to prominence. “I’m not a Mark Driscoll kind of Calvinist,” some have remarked to me.” There’s good money in being a divisive lightning rod if you can withstand the weather.
  • StudioCanal has initiated a worldwide search for long-missing footage from the 1973 cult-classic film “The Wicker Man.” Quote: “Director Robin Hardy has endorsed a worldwide appeal launched by StudioCanal to locate original film materials relating to cult horror classic The Wicker Man. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the film about a policeman (Edward Woodward) sent to a remote island village in search of a missing girl, whom the townsfolk claim never existed. It also stars Christopher Lee. StudioCanal intends to mark the occasion by releasing the ‘most complete version of the film possible’.” There’s a special Facebook page created for the hunt. There have been a number of attempts to get at the “original” directors cut, with an “extended” version released in 2001 (and later packed in a deluxe box set). I’d love to see a high-quality restored director’s cut. 
  • “Evil spiritual entities” is not a real diagnosis. There’s no evidence base. 
  • Druid leader King Arthur Pendragon (no, not that Arthur Pendragon) is protesting plans to display human remains at the Stonehenge visitors center in England. Quote: “This is out of step with the feelings of many of the people and groups I represent, who would rather the ancient dead were reburied and left to rest in peace and, where appropriate, samples kept for research and copies put on display […]  We shall not take this development lightly and will oppose any such intention by English Heritage at Stonehenge. I cannot rule out non-violent direct action against the proposals.” As I’ve noted before on this site, there is no consensus among British Pagans on this issue, with many, most notably Pagans for Archeology, opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains. Read more about King Arthur, here.

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.