Federal appeals court rules that Wiccan inmates can sue to gain chaplain

Wiccan inmates can sue to gain chaplain
by Bob Egelko
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Originally appeared in SF Gate

A state prison inmate and former inmate who practice the Wiccan religion can proceed with a lawsuit accusing California of discriminating by refusing to hire a Wiccan chaplain while paying for chaplains from more mainstream faiths, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The women claim that Wicca, a goddess-worshiping form of witchcraft, has more adherents in the state women's prison at Chowchilla (Madera County) than Islam or Judaism, two of the five religions that have state-paid chaplains.

The appeals court told a federal judge in Fresno to determine whether the state prisons are unconstitutionally preferring majority religions over Wicca and other minority faiths without paid chaplains, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The judge had dismissed the Chowchilla inmates' lawsuit, a ruling the appeals court overturned Tuesday.

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.

Wiccan inmates have access to a volunteer chaplain. The two female inmates who sued the prison system in 2007 - Shawna Hartmann, who has since been released, and Caren Hill - said the volunteer was able to meet with them only every two or three months, and that they and other Wiccans needed ordained clergy to perform "initiations, blessings and ceremonies" in a faith that relies on "an oral tradition of songs and stories."

U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill dismissed the suit in 2011, finding no violations of the inmates' rights. The appeals court agreed with much of his reasoning Tuesday, saying the prisons had not interfered with the women's right to practice their religion or intentionally discriminated against them by providing only a volunteer chaplain.

But 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.

The appeals court's ruling can be read at 1.usa.gov/WUO02x.
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: begelko@sfchronicle.com