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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.