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(RNS) A volunteer Wiccan chaplain is headed to a federal appeals court in an attempt to get California to hire prison clergy outside five religious categories.
Supported by interfaith scholars and church-state separationists, the Rev. Patrick McCollum argues that the state policy has the “pernicious effect” of depriving inmates of other religious backgrounds from getting the services they need and deserve.
The court challenge began when McCollum, 59, a prominent leader in Wiccan and correctional circles, applied and was rejected for a full-time position as a chaplain in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“When I got to the personnel office, they refused to give me an application to apply for a state job because they knew that I was a Wiccan,” said McCollum, director of Our Lady of the Wells Church in Moraga, Calif., and leader of the National Correctional Chaplaincy Directors Association.
“They never reviewed my qualifications.”
At this point, McCollum’s appeal concerns whether he has legal standing to bring his suit; McCollum hopes the appeals court will rule on the broad issues in his claims, or send the case back to the lower court for another trial.
Wiccans practice a nature-based pagan faith that’s rooted in pre-Christian celebrations of the cycles of the seasons.
A spokeswoman for the state corrections department did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But in court documents filed with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the department said the case amounts to a “decade-long crusade” by McCollum to get hired, and an attempt to force the department to create a “new pagan chaplain job” for him.
“The district court saw through the veneer of constitutional arguments, and dismissed McCollum’s claims as inappropriately premised on the rights of inmates, rather than his own,” the department wrote in a brief filed with the appeals court.
McCollum counters that his case is more than a fight over a job but rather an effort to expand the state’s policy of hiring only Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American clergy as chaplains.
“I don’t need a job as a chaplain,” said McCollum, who works as a jewelry designer. “What I was hopeful is that they would open the opportunity for people, not just for Wiccan faiths, but for all minority faiths.”
He said members of Wiccan and pagan faiths sometimes outnumber members of other faiths who are permitted to have a full-time chaplain at the state’s correctional facilities.
In its court filing, the department said “the door to future changes in religious accommodation remains open” but defended its current policy.
“Some inmate religious groups require staff chaplains, others do not, and CDCR may employ only those chaplains needed to accommodate religious inmates, no more and no less,” it wrote. “A pagan staff chaplain is not necessary to accommodate pagan inmates, and CDCR is therefore barred from creating a pagan chaplain.”
In a friend-of-the-court brief, representatives of interfaith, pagan and Buddhist groups said the bias demonstrated by the department “extends beyond Wiccans/Pagans to all members of the interfaith community.” But they said the department is remiss in excluding a Wiccan or pagan chaplain for a faith tradition with an estimated 500,000 to 1 million practitioners in the country.
Advocacy groups — including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Hindu American Foundation and the American Jewish Committee — have joined in a brief urging the appellate judges to give McCollum his day in court.
“McCollum has taxpayer standing to challenge the religiously discriminatory manner in which the CDCR is using its funds,” they wrote.
WallBuilders, an Aledo, Texas-based organization that promotes the “godly heritage” of America, has filed a brief siding with the state.
It argues that the founders “did not intend the religion clauses to protect paganism and witchcraft” when they crafted the Constitution’s First Amendment.
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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