Challenge to California’s Five Faiths Policy Goes Before 9th Circuit

The Wild Hunt is 100% reader supported by readers like you. Your support helps us pay our writers and editors, as well as cover the other bills to keep the news coming to you ad free. If you can, use the button below to make a one-time donation - or become a monthly sustainer. Thank you for reading The Wild Hunt!

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.