California jails may have to hire Wiccan chaplains


A U.S. appeals court has ruled that Wiccan inmates in California prisons may be entitled to their own chaplain.

In a suit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation -- which also named the state and then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- inmates Shawnna Hartmann (since released) and Caren Hill argued the CDCR violated their constitutional rights to exercise their religious beliefs and that the prison system failed to apply "neutral criteria" in deciding which faiths merit full-time prison chaplains.

The CDCR maintains paid full-time and part-time chaplains to serve Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Native American and Protestant inmates; inmates of other faiths have paid staff chaplains or volunteer chaplains.

In an opinion released Tuesday, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court's decision that the prisoners were sufficiently accommodated with the services they currently receive.

But it agreed that prison hiring policy suggests a possible "unconstitutional endorsement" of one religion over another, Judge Kevin T. Duffy wrote on behalf of the three-member panel, and that the administration does not evaluate whether "growing membership in minority religions warranted a reallocation of resources."

The ruling doesn't find there necessarily was a violation of the plaintiffs' rights, but does send the claim back to the lower court for further consideration and a chance for the plaintiffs to present their evidence.
Last September, the Correctional Service of Canada issued an RFP seeking a Wiccan chaplain to minister to prison inmates in B.C., but the plan was quickly nixed by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

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