In September of 2011 Wisconsin-based Pagan prison chaplain Jamyi J. Witch was accused of participating in, and masterminding, a bizarre hostage scheme with the alleged goal of winning a transfer for her and an inmate. “The charges stem from a police investigation of an Aug. 10 incident in which Witch, a chaplain at the prison, claimed to have been taken hostage by an inmate. […] The inmate told Witch about being jumped by three men while he was in his cell on Aug. 7 and said he needed to get out of Oshkosh.
[On May 13th I ran a guest editorial from Joseph Merlin Nichter on a proposed Religious Property Matrix (RPM) for California prisons. Knowing that Joseph’s views only represented one perspective within the Pagan community, I reached out to the Rev. Patrick McCollum for his own thoughts on the issue. Patrick 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 2008, he testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights on prisoner’s religious rights, saying he “found discrimination against minority faiths everywhere”and that the problem was “endemic.”]
As a longtime activist for both Pagan and minority faith religious rights, a recent post by volunteer chaplain Joseph Nichter about the so called “Religious Property Matrix” created by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has raised serious concerns for me and prompts me to respond in detail to his thoughts and comments. I’d like to begin first by laying a framework for the discussion by sharing a little history regarding the fight for equal religious accommodation for Pagans in the California prison system and also express why I feel I am qualified to speak to this issue. First let me provide a little background on my own qualifications and experiences with both the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and religious accommodation in corrections in general nationwide.
Yesterday the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the case of Hartmann v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation which clears the way for a direct challenge to California’s discriminatory “five faiths” policy. This policy limits the hiring of paid chaplains to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American adherents. Judges stressed that while the prison did not intentionally limit the religious rights of Shawna Hartmann, Caren Hill, and other Wiccan inmates, the neutrality of California’s chaplaincy policy could be challenged.
“Although the state is not required to “provide inmates with the chaplain of their choice,” it must use neutral standards when deciding how to spend money on prisoners’ religious needs, said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. California prisons have long employed chaplains for Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews. After American Indian inmates sued the state in 1985, the prison system began providing spiritual advisers for them […] the court said the women may be able to prove that the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is violating the constitutional ban on a governmental “establishment of religion,” which prohibits a state from endorsing one faith over another. That ban requires the prisons to use “neutral criteria in evaluating whether a growing membership in minority religions warrants a reallocation of resources,” the court said in a 3-0 ruling.” This ruling is part of a larger effort by Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum to nurture cases that would challenge the policy after the 9th Circuit Court upheld a lower court decision stating he doesn’t have standing.
One small step forward for a Pagan but a giant leap for Pagan-kind.
Earlier this week Cherry Hill Seminary announced that the Board of Chaplaincy Certification Incorporated (BCCI), certifying body of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), granted Sandra Lee Harris MDiv the go-ahead to apply for her chaplaincy certification. The letter reads:
“Thank you for your application for a theological education equivalency. The Commission on Certification has reviewed your education credentials and it is the decision of the Commission that your request be granted.”
Many of you may already know that. Sandra’s news was reported here at The Wild Hunt and was emailed throughout many of the Pagan networking organizations. So why am I spending an entire post on this? Why am I wasting our collective Sunday rehashing the story? Really, is there anything better to do on a chilly, fall morning than contemplate the future of Pagan education within Academia? I think not. So, sit back, grab a cup of tea, and let’s examine how the implications of this announcement far exceed the personal triumphs of one Pagan’s journey. Let me share what I’ve learned after a week of research and two interesting phone conversations. How a step became a leap…. Before ever graduating from Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS), Sandra began investigating the prospects of earning her professional Chaplain certification from APC. In doing so, she realized that she would have to prove that her theological education, from an unaccredited institution, was equivalent to the academic work of any CHEA (Council for Higher Education) accredited school. However, there were two major hurdles.