California Prisons Don't Have to Subsidize Wicca

     (CN) - The 9th Circuit on Wednesday rejected a Wiccan chaplain's claims that the California prison system should add a celebrant of Wicca and other pagan or nature-based religions to its paid chaplaincy program.
     Without reflecting on the merits of the Wiccan religion, the federal appeals court in San Francisco dashed Patrick McCollum's First Amendment, free-exercise and equal-protection claims against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Rather the court concluded that the volunteer chaplain lacked standing because he "attempts to transform his employment discrimination action into an effort to vindicate the inmates' First Amendment rights."
     The paid-chaplaincy program has evolved in California's prison system since the 1930s, and today it employs clergy of the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American faiths.
     According to 2002 estimates, there are approximately 598 inmates in the system who identify themselves as Wiccan, a term that the ruling says includes "faith groups consisting of Wiccans, Goddess worshipers, Neo-Pagans, Pagans, Norse Pagans (and any other ethnic designation), Earth Religionists, Old Religionists, Druids, Shamans, Asatrus, and those practicing in the Faery, Celtics, Khemetic, Gardnerian, Church of All Worlds, Reclaiming, Dianic, Alexandrian, Iseum of Isis, Reconstructionist, Odinist or Yoruban Traditions, and other similar nature-based faiths." (Parenthesis in original.)
     In 2006, McCollum and a group of seven inmates sued the CDCR, arguing that its failure to include a Wiccan chaplain in its paid-chaplaincy program was discriminatory in that it denied them access to worship spaces, sacred items and free worship. Finding that the inmates' claims were both time-barred and unexhausted, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer granted summary judgment to the agency. Breyer also ruled that McCollum lacked standing to bring such a third-party action in asserting, essentially, that the agency's failure to hire him violated the prisoners' rights.
     The three-judge appeals panel agreed with the lower court on all points and ruled unanimously to affirm.
     "McCollum challenges the deliberative process, or in his view the alleged lack of process, through which prison officials have thus far measured inmates' needs and accommodated inmates' free exercise rights," Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote for the panel. "His claim, at bottom, asserts not his own rights, but those of third-party inmates."
     Since inmates can file their own claims against the program's merits and the lack of a Wiccan minister, McCollum cannot do so for them. Thus, McCollum failed to show one of the essential requirements for third-party standing, the panel ruled.
     "Like the district court, we note that prisoners have challenged the program in this very lawsuit and in at least one similar suit," McKeown wrote. "Although the inmates' claims here were dismissed primarily for failure to exhaust, presumably they would have the opportunity to bring similar claims in the future if they comply with procedural requirements. It is the inmates, not McCollum, who have standing to pursue the primary claim he articulated, namely, that the chaplaincy policy 'has the pernicious effect of depriving inmates of other religious accommodations . . . that are afforded to ... inmates [of the five faiths].'"
     McCollum also failed to meet the criteria for taxpayer standing, the panel found, as he "does not challenge the expenditure of government funds to provide paid chaplaincies nor even the existence of denomination-specific paid chaplaincies-he challenges only the current allocation of chaplaincies among religious denominations and the procedure for determining such allocations."