In 2010 Syracuse University’s Henricks Chapel formally appointed a Pagan Chaplain, making Syracuse the second American university to appoint such a position. The University of Southern Maine (UME) set the precedent way back in 2002. Syracuse was next in 2010 followed by the Air Force Academy (USAFA) in 2011. More than three years have passed since Syracuse welcomed Pagan Chaplain, Mary Hudson. In that time she has accomplished much; most recently, the installation of a dedicated sacred stone circle in the campus’ main quad. Prior to 2010 Syracuse had already taken steps to advocate for religious plurality and tolerance.
Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. Pagan Community Notes is just one of the many regular features The Wild Hunt brings you to help keep you informed about what’s going on in our interconnected communities. If you appreciate this reporting, please consider donating to our Fall Funding Drive (and thank you to the over 200 supporters who have already donated). Now, on to the news…
Pagan prison chaplain Patrick McCollum has penned an open reaction letter in response to a New York Times article about a Southern Baptist Bible college located inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
[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.
This week has weighed heavily on me. As the mother of three school age children, I spent this holiday week in-and-out of classrooms. With the Newtown tragedy still fresh, there was an underlying uneasiness within our elementary school – a profound sadness and unspoken fear. While I looked at all the children’s projects taped to the walls, one phrase kept passing through my mind:
“How could God have allowed that to happen?”
You wonder how a practicing Pagan, a Wiccan Priestess could ask this question? But I’m not asking it. I’m hearing it. I’m reading it. Whether it’s spoken by neighbors or published on the internet, this burning question is drowning out much of the news reports and political calls-to-action as people desperately grasp for meaning.