Wiccan inmate seeking religious accommodation gets viral attention

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POLKTON, N.C. –A Wiccan inmate has sued for to a long list of religious accommodations including both a vegan diet and ice cream as a ritual food for one sabbat. Jennifer Ann Jasmaine is also seeking more time to practice her religion, including time outside with a fire. According to one prison minister, that’s not going to cut it in any facility.



The fact that Jasmaine is a transgender woman figures prominently in the original story, although her gender identity is not mentioned in her initial filing in the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. Rather, she focuses on remedies which would enhance her religious practice.

For a better look at the case, we talked to Rev. Donna Donovan, founder of Appalachian Pagan Ministry, which provides ministers to nearly 20 prisons in Ohio, West Virginia, and Idaho. First, Donovan offered her take on Jasmaine’s list of demands.

That list includes upping the number of rituals from eight annually to twice weekly; one of those, as requested, should be outside with fire allowed. The list of “religious items for Witchcraft” includes a book of shadows, sacred cloth, vigilia, cup, boline, sitella (“a large decorative vase . . . which contains items used for sortis”), wand, “tailsman[sic] bag,” tarot cards, runes, and an athame made with a plastic knife taped to a picture of a real one.

All of the items have specific dimensions described, such as the eight- to 10-inch wand, and a sacred cloth that is precisely 44 inches by a full six feet.

In the U.S. Department of Justice technical reference entitled “Inmate Religious Beliefs and Practices,” there is a list of items which Wiccan inmates are allowed to use. These include, for example, a book of shadows, which is referred to in the original Charlotte Observer article as “the Wicca holy text known as The Book of Shadows.” In addition, the DoJ list also includes one divination tool and a wooden wand, which “need not be larger than a pencil,” a feather, salt, water, a picture of “divine unity,” and a religious medallion.

Some of the items Jasmaine is seeking are only listed in the “congregant” section of the manual, meaning that an authorized outsider has to retrieve the items from locked storage. Chalices, candles, and bells are congregant items, but not considered personal religious items. The besom (or broom) and vigilia, among other the items demanded, are not listed in either place. Jasmaine does not describe the vigilia so much as describe its purpose, which is “to teach all the sacred truths revealed through the study of nature.”

Jasmaine does assert in her suit that she has the right to “meet with a clergy person of a particular faith, even if she wasn’t a member of this faith before entering prison,” and says that being able to do this eight times annually “is not a reasonable opportunity” for practice.

Donovan explained some facts of prison life. “For this inmate to hold ritual, outside with or without a fire, would require an outside clergy to be present,” she observed, and or to hold ritual of any kind. “In their minds, if an inmate is leading a religious service, it is in a leadership role and therefore subject to gang activity, particularly where Pagans and Heathens are concerned.”

However, regarding access to clergy, she said, “if they are not allowed for no reason, then she’d have a case on that.” The challenge is finding a chaplain.

Donovan does not deny the fact that Pagan inmates get the short shrift due to a lack of trained chaplains. “Pagan prison ministries are very few and far between, and very very few last long. Many groups today will spout off that they do prison inreach, when in all actuality they merely offer courses or books at a price.”

In this particular case, the prisoner could possible win her case, if it’s in fact true that the prison chaplain won’t even put Wiccan ritual on the calendar, as past cases suggest.  However, the dietary specifications are not likely, as none are specified in local policy or federal guidance.

However, Jasmaine is seeking to change those rules, arguing in part that following a vegan diet is an interpretation of the Wiccan Rede of “harm none.”

A court case did in fact grant Muslim prisoners halal foods. This accommodation is allowed despite not being required of all Muslims, Donovan noted, but it doesn’t hurt to have a religious text laying out those rules. “She can claim the ‘harm none’ part all she wants, however, eating plants is harmful if you take it to that extreme. . . . North Carolina has a vegan meal plan, and she can certainly request that based on dietary needs, medical or otherwise, but not religious.”

In addition, she also wants special foods for the eight Wiccan sabbats, likening them to Muslim diet during Ramadan. Vanilla ice cream is a suggested food for Beltane, with dairy foods in general being appropriate for Imbolc. These appear to be the only contraventions of a vegan diet, but that does make them stand out.

“I will be very blunt, as I am with the inmates I work with,” Donovan said. “This is prison, not camp. If you want ice cream, then buy it off commissary. However, if she does that, she will negate her claim to have a vegan meal plan. You cannot have it both ways. Ice cream is not a Wiccan meal requirement. There truly is no Wiccan meal requirement.”

In the past, Jasmaine, as Duane Leroy Fox, has filed other suits in various states to advocate for better treatment, although this appears to be the first on religious grounds. The denial rate, such as in this case, suggests to Donovan that these cases are largely frivolous.

If nothing else, Jasmaine appears to understand how to navigate the system, having brought this suit only after filing the appropriate forms for relief by the local chaplain and having it denied. She also recognizes that she’s looking for relief which goes against existing guidance about Wiccan inmates, and thus wants a judge to require changes to satisfy her needs.

Jerry Higgins, public information officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, declined comment on the ongoing litigation.

What often happens to Pagans in prison, Donovan said, is that they get segregated, “especially if they try to push their rights. Therefore, they are not allowed to work or earn any money. . . .

“Again, I will be exceptionally blunt: it is inmates, like the one in this case, making ridiculous and frivolous claims, that make it so much harder for those who are seriously fighting for their religious rights.”