Republicans do not normally wear themselves out worrying about how to keep prison inmates happy. But GOP State Rep. Scott Walker of Wisconsin firmly sides with any convicts who may not like the new chaplain at the Waupun Correctional Institution. The reverend is a real witch, and we're not talking about her personality.

No, Jamyi Witch is a minister of Wicca, a neo-pagan faith based on the worship of nature. She changed her last name from Welch to fit her adoptive religion -- whose practitioners are known as witches despite what appears to be no special enthusiasm for brooms or pointed black hats. She told the Los Angeles Times that some prisoners lose interest when they find that she can't show them how to magically melt the bars in their cells.

Walker, who is chairman of the corrections committee, says he was "personally offended" by Witch's hiring, but he says his real objection is paying someone to be a chaplain when only 30 of facility's 1,200 inmates share her religion. "It's not a good use of a $32,500-a-year chaplain position," he says. Earlier, he complained that her religion would offend many inmates.

The Department of Corrections, however, says the critics are mistaken. Witch, it says, had the best qualifications of the 10 applicants for the position, and it would be illegal to reject her because of her religion. A spokesman told the Wisconsin State Journal, "Most people don't understand that a chaplain is not a minister; it's a coordinator of religious practices for all inmates."

If a Catholic chaplain can arrange services for Jews or Muslims, then there is no obvious reason why a Wiccan can't arrange services for Catholics. Witch has considerable experience as a volunteer minister in several penitentiaries. She recently invited an imam to preside at a religious feast for Muslim inmates.

And she says she's not interested in proselytizing but in helping meet the spiritual needs of all prisoners. Experts on Wicca, for the record, say its adherents don't worship Satan or carry out sacrifices or do most of the other things you might think if you got all your information from scary movies.

Walker, however, thinks prison chaplains should reflect the religious composition of the correctional population. In that case, he might want to do something about Waupun's other chaplain, an Episcopalian, whose church is grossly underrepresented in correctional institutions.

It turns out there are more inmates professing Catholicism than any other faith -- which raises the question of why so many followers of Rome have trouble staying out of jail. But never mind. It's hard to believe that the public or the legislature would be upset if a rabbi had been hired, even though Jews are less numerous in the state prison system than Wiccans, and even though Jews are offensive to some Christians.

If chaplains are going to be hired according to a religious census, the state will have to start looking in some new places. The most common answer among Wisconsin inmates when they're asked their religion is not what you would expect -- "Green Bay Packers" -- but "none." Should that discovery lead to the hiring of chaplains who are atheist, agnostic, or just indifferent to the entire God issue?

Another member of the legislature, Rep. Mike Huebsch, has urged eliminating funds for the job, a proposal he highlighted in a press release with the lighthearted headline, "Huebsch burns Waupun witch project."

But the fact that some people have fond memories of the days when suspected witches were burned alive doesn't remove Wicca from the protection of the First Amendment. As you may recall, that guarantees the "free exercise" of religion. Federal courts have recognized Wicca as a genuine religion, which qualifies it for the same deference granted to other faiths.

The military services and prisons are allowed to hire chaplains with public money in order to accommodate the religious needs of those in their care. And in a country based on freedom of conscience, what goes for one faith goes for all.

The Pentagon already allows Wiccan soldiers to meet on bases, even though that practice has been criticized by a lot of politicians, including a Texas governor named George W. Bush. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., tried to ban Wiccan rites from military bases, fearing they would result in "all sorts of bizarre practices being supported by the military under the rubric of 'religion.'" But one person's bizarre practice is another person's sacred ritual, which is why the Constitution requires the government to remain neutral.

As for Jamyi Witch, it's safe to say that she doesn't have the power to cast sinister spells or work black magic. Otherwise, she'd have performed a public service and made her critics disappear.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus