Wicca is a pagan-based religion growing in popularity in Europe and North America. One sign of growth can be measured by the increased number of legal decisions relating to the practices of Wiccans. The most recent of these came last week, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit remanded for reconsideration a prior dismissal of a lawsuit filed by inmates at the women’s facility in Chowchilla, California.
Wiccan inmates have requested to have their own Wiccan chaplain in prisons throughout the state for several years. Currently, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) employs spiritual leaders and chaplains for Catholics, Muslims, Native American, Jewish and Protestant individuals. Inmates of other religions are permitted to worship with these individuals or with volunteer chaplains.
The court of appeals stated that the Wiccan prisoners should be allowed to present evidence that the CDCR is unconstitutionally showing preference to conventional faiths. The court also indicated that it may also be possible for the CDCR to show that Wiccans do not have enough worshippers or critical needs for a full-time chaplain. Indeed, a CDCR survey revealed that there were only about 183 prisoners in the system that were practicing Wiccan in 2007. However, Patrick McCollum, a leading Wiccan minister who has long argued for full-time chaplains for Wiccan prisoners, estimates the number at about 2,000. Moreover, several of the woman involved in the lawsuit have stated there are currently more Wiccan individuals than there are Jewish, Muslim or Catholic prisoners in the Chowchilla facility. Regardless, the appeals court stated there needs to be some semblance of neutrality in the state’s prison system. “The prison administration has created staff chaplain positions for five conventional faiths, but fails to employ any neutral criteria in evaluating whether a growing membership in minority religions warrants a reallocation of resources,” the court stated.
This case is of minor significance for employers in the private sector—even a “sweat shop” does not have to hire a chaplain, no matter how devout its employees may be. But the case does serve to remind employers that there are a number of religions outside the mainstream. An employer that refuses to recognize such a religion does so at its own peril, as religious beliefs are entitled to certain rights of accommodation under both federal and state law.
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