Patrick McCollum’s Case Hits the Mainstream

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Today the Religion News Service has released a story on the Patrick McCollum chaplaincy case currently before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. This, along with Dr. Barbara McGraw’s recent editorial at On Faith, Starhawk’s advocacy on McCollum’s behalf, and a groundswell of attention throughout the blogosphere, should mean that a lot more attention is going to be paid to this case in the near future. Because I know that several of you will want to write about this issue on your own blogs/journals, or be informed when you discuss this issue with others, I’m providing a summary of my coverage, with pertinent links to case documents.

About Patrick McCollum: Patrick McCollum 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 in numerous legal struggles involving modern Pagans. In recent years he has received attention for his appearance before the US Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, DC, to speak at a briefing focused on prisoners’ religious rights (full transcript of the proceedings), and for his meeting with Obama Administration officials concerning interfaith relations and discrimination against minority faiths in America. On Imbolc of this year, McCollum was installed to the Executive Board of Directors of a United Nations NGO, Children Of The Earth. McCollum currently serves as an unpaid statewide correctional chaplain for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in all 33 CDCR correctional institutions.

Patrick M. McCollum; et al., v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; et al.: The current case, which has been in litigation for five years, and is currently before the 9th Circuit, centers on the State of California’s “five faiths” policy. This policy limits the hiring of paid chaplains to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American adherents. The case itself has yet to be heard, as legal counsel for the CDCR has been arguing that McCollum doesn’t have the standing to bring the case (an assertion that is rejected by McCollum, Americans United, the ADL, and other groups). With a California federal district court ruling in early 2009 that he had no standing to bring his suit, the current appeal will ultimately decide if the case gets heard.

Why is the CDCR working so hard to prevent this case from coming to trial? Why is the CDCR arguing standing, even though this isn’t about McCollum alone, but a class action brought by the chaplain and several Pagan inmates? It could be because the CDCR and the State of California risk some major embarrassments should the true details of this situation gain widespread attention. In a statement sent to The Wild Hunt, McCollum tells us that lawyers for the CDCR have argued from the beginning of this long legal saga that there are two “tiers” of religion in America.

“I originally sued on behalf of myself and Pagan inmates as their chaplain, but about a year later several inmates joined the lawsuit.  Together, we claimed that it is unconstitutional for the state to deny the Pagan inmates their religious rights, their religious materials, and their religious services.

During the course of the case, the CDCR, other related defendants, and the Assistant Attorneys General who represents them have argued before the court that Pagans are not deserving of equal civil rights as are provided adherents of the preferred faiths.  In one of their first arguments to the court, the defendants said that certain “traditional” faiths are first tier faiths and that those faiths were meant to have equal rights and  protections under the United States Constitution, but that all of the other faiths were second tier faiths, and were not meant to have the same equal rights and protections under the United States Constitution as the first tier faiths.”

This somewhat nuanced “two tiers” argument was echoed by a recently filed amicus brief by the WallBuilders’, which claims that modern Pagans have no expectation of Constitutional protection under the religion clauses.

“The true historic meaning of “religion” excludes paganism and witchcraft, and thus, does not compel a conclusion that McCollum has state taxpayer standing … paganism and witchcraft were never intended to receive the protections of the Religion Clauses. Thus, in the present case there can be no violation of those clauses … Should this Court conclude that McCollum has taxpayer standing … this Court should at least acknowledge that its conclusion is compelled by Supreme Court precedent, not by history or the intent of the Framers.”

Further, I was provided a copy of a document that proves the California Department of Correction’s key official and witness committed perjury before the court regarding the most key components of the state’s case against the Pagans. So you can begin to see why they are trying to derail this case on standing. Despite repeated requests from mainstream and Pagan press, the CDCR refuses to comment on recent developments, though they have been trying to contact folks off the record to talk about the case.

Why This Case Is Important: Some have argued that this is simply about McCollum seeking a job, as though a chaplain’s salary were somehow worth years of expensive and time-consuming litigation. In reality, this is about overcoming what McCollum has called an “endemic” level of religious discrimination against minority faiths in our prison system.

“I’d like to start with a few true examples of discrimination to illustrate the severity of the problem: A Wiccan inmate has cancer and the prison guards refuse to transport him to his chemotherapy treatments unless he removes his religious pentacle medallion which they have objections to. He chooses to forgo his chemotherapy and keep his pentacle. A Wiccan inmate has been trying to go to Wiccan services for months, but the guard at her dorm refuses to give her a pass. The guard says it is for the good of the Wiccan inmate’s soul. Another dying Wiccan writes his volunteer chaplain that he needs to see him before he crosses over. The chaplain makes numerous attempts to reach prison staff to receive the necessary clearances, but no one responds. But worse, prison mailroom staff refuse to forward the chaplain’s mail, so that the inmate knows why his chaplain isn’t coming. Over more than a decade, I’ve had the opportunity to interact nationally with both administrators and inmates on religious accommodation issues. While practices differ from state to state, I found discrimination against minority faiths everywhere.”

Only by providing advocates and a voice for inmates within the prison system can there be any real change or redress. To ensure equal treatment for all faiths, not simply the ones the individual prison administrations prefer. Further, what we allow to happen to prisoners does, in the long run, affect us as well. Prisons, especially Federal and State-run prisons, can set legal precedents that can have ramifications for the “outside” world. Pagan prisoners, without any ongoing guidance or spiritual direction, can fall back into criminal behaviors. Several studies have pointed to religious programs having an affect on recidivism.  To deny minority faiths a better outcome after getting out because they aren’t a “top tier” faith is immoral and discriminatory.

What You Can Do: Besides writing about this case and sharing it with your friends, the number one thing you can do, according to Patrick McCollum, is to contact California officials and (politely) ask that Pagans receive equal treatment.

“…as far as what the Pagans can do, they can write letters to the Governor of California, the California Attorney General, and to the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, stating their outrage and asking them to remedy the situation. Public pressure can and will make a difference here, but it will take us actually making the phone calls and the e-mails, and of course actual letters are always best, especially if the writers are California citizens. Even so, all Pagans, no matter where you are from, should contact these guys as soon as possible. Everything is on the line on this one, and we could all lose the rights that it has taken us so many years to gain.”

Here are some contact links: Jerry Brown, the California Attorney General, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Mathew L. Cate, the Secretary of the CDCR.


Site featuring links to all the Amicus Briefs.

AREN Action Newsletter interview with Patrick McCollum.

Patrick M. McCollum; et al., v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; et al.

Defendants Concede That They Made Misrepresentations About The Application Of Any Criteria (copy).

All recent Wild Hunt posts relating to Patrick McCollum.