Religious Justice?


Thomas Jefferson asked: “Shall we suffer a Pagan to deal with us and not suffer him to pray to his god? … It is the refusing toleration to those of different opinion which has produced all the bustles and wars on account of religion.”

Apparently, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagrees with U.S. founder and President Jefferson. By denying paid chaplaincy positions for anyone who is not Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or Native American, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is, in effect, stating that other religions are not as in need of religious education or opportunities for worship. When chaplains of other religions are volunteer only, this decreases the likelihood of prisoners having the opportunity to assemble for purposes of religious worship or education. Prisoners are not allowed to assemble on their own, nor allowed to use the tools and objects of their rites without a chaplain present. By relying solely on volunteer chaplains who must take time away from other jobs to make the long trek out for visits, these prisoners are not allowed the same access to religious practice and rights that inmates of the five faiths listed have. One might argue that this situation impedes the “Rehabilitation” part of the Department of Corrections mandate.

Solar Cross Temple stands with Patrick McCollum in the quest for justice for people’s of all religions. As I wrote in a letter last February to the Governor and the Attorney General of the State of California:

“The denial of rights of religious expression and assembly to prisoners who are not Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or Native American in the California Corrections systems impedes the free practice of many of different traditions and beliefs. Worse, the brief filed by WallBuilders Inc. to the 9th Circuit Court seeks to deny religious counsel and representation to prisoners who are not monotheists. This sets a dangerous precedent and has the future ability to impact those serving in the military, and perhaps eventually, those who require religious succor while in hospitals, or wishing marriage, or free religious assembly without harassment. Our country is filled with Sikhs, Pagans, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Mormons and many other religions and sects. This is how it should be, and all of these humans deserve the same rights.”

The work Patrick does is important to people of all religions, and has personal resonance to Solar Cross, as one of our priests, Robert Russell of Sunna Kindred, was trained by Patrick to do prison ministry to the population of the California Women’s Correctional Facilities. He does so quarterly, providing Heathen education and religious services, with feasts paid for by Solar Cross Temple. Without Patrick’s work, this effort would not have happened.

"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering the prisons." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

I am ever mindful of the Samhain rite I did with Patrick in Chowchilla with the women there. Together we centered, aligned, and prayed. We wrote the names of our dead on Autumn leaves. I taught them and they taught me. If I am to believe that, given opportunity, we all can do the magic of transforming ourselves, I have to also believe that the work Patrick Patrick does in the prisons, testifying at Congressional hearings, and interacting with people all over the world is of paramount importance to the magic of cultural transformation.

Patrick McCollum is one public face of Paganism and religious plurality that Solar Cross will continue to support. As such, Solar Cross pledges to mount a fundraising campaign to help defray costs should Rev. McCollum choose to take this case to the United States Supreme Court. Patrick and his partner have funded these previous legal actions out of their own pockets. It is now time for the rest of us to step up to ensure equal religious treatment for all.

respectfully - T. Thorn Coyle for Solar Cross Temple

[Addendum: Here is a great round up of some legal insights into the case raised by several people, echoing those made by commentators on this journal. Solar Cross will support whatever legal means might best forward this matter, including raising money for a new case. We may also look into starting a common "Chaplaincy Fund" to at least reimburse volunteer chaplains for expenses if that seems to be the best immediate recourse. ]

17 Responses to “Religious Justice?”

  1. Don Berg

    The way I read this the court upheld a ruling that the chaplain bringing the suit does not have the appropriate legal status to make the constitutional claim about the rights of the prisoners. So, this decision has nothing to do with the policy, it simply says, in essence that the prisoners are responsible for making claims about their rights, not a chaplain.

  2. Henry

    “Apparently, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagrees with U.S. founder and President Jefferson.”

    Well, no they don’t disagree. They simply said that the plaintif went about the case the wrong way.
    In their opinon they also state the reasons why and suggest how the issue might be introduced more successfully.
    “555, 556-61 (1992). McCollum’s injury in fact is clear: he was denied the opportunity to apply for a paid-chaplaincy position. See Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244, 261 (2003)(intent to apply is sufficient to demonstrate an injury in fact for an equal protection challenge to admissions policy).
    Whether he has demonstrated causation and redressability is a more difficult question, particularly because he challenges not so much the program itself—that is, the state’s provision of paid sectarian chaplains—but instead the process through which the program has evolved.”

    “Our standing inquiry does not end with the threshold
    constitutional question. Even where plaintiffs meet the bare minimum of the Article III case or controversy requirement,we typically decline to hear cases asserting rights properly belonging to third parties rather than the plaintiff.”
    “Most important for our purposes is that a litigant must normally assert his own legal interests rather than those of third parties.”
    “Although the inmates’ claims here were dismissed primarily for failure to exhaust(ie. due process,HB), presumably they would have the opportunity to bring similar claims in the future if they comply with procedural requirements.

  3. Thorn

    Henry, I did read all of that yesterday, and perhaps it is legally correct that two things were conflated, harming the case.

    I do still hope that something happens to help prisoners get the religious help they ask for, and that the chaplains end up with equal rights. Whether this means no paid chaplains, or more paid chaplains, or that prisoners are allowed to study, gather, and worship on their own without outside supervision… Something has to give.

  4. Henry

    perhaps you might speak to Robert and other volunteers to urge inmates to start making use of the grievance process.
    That’s one of the ‘tips’ given by the descision,”failure to exhaust”. Folks need to use due process first, and who ccan say? perhaps there will be a remedy without having to go through the time and expenditure of appeals.

  5. Rick Loftus, M.D.

    I’m wondering: Is there a main Pagan advocacy organization fronting this issue? It seems to me there are at least two things that need doing: 1) Securing Pagan chaplains the same access to training and paid positions as those of other religions and 2) Directing charitable support towards Pagan chaplains whose time is currently volunteer.

    Who’s leading?

  6. Hecate

    Thorn, Thank you so much for your willingness to support movement forward on this case. I’ve posted my thoughts on a possible way forward here, although it’s not quite as militant as some may wish.

  7. Nerys Lewis

    Henry, I’m not sure how your prison system functions in the US, but in Australia, it is not a system that easily allows incarcerated people to stand in their full power, a place they need to be to follow due process and reach the point of ‘exhaustion’ of all possibilities. I’m sure that is why you have advocates of inmates taking up the cause on their behalf. Our legal system likes to pretend it is ‘fair’ and ‘just’ to all people, but in truth those already in positions of power have an easier time being heard… I hope you are right that you might be an easier, satisfying legal solution, but I suspect that Robert and Patrick would have considered the option already. Cheers, Nerys

  8. Henry

    Hiya Nerys,
    Unfortunately they didn’t consider it. Which is surprising.well, I don’t know about Australia, but inmates are permitted access to legal counsel without restriction and said counsel can file the grievance on behalf of the inmate, thus insuring documentation. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the exact method that was used to prompt the addition of Islamic and Jewish chaplains.
    Anyway others with more standing and cred within the ‘modern pagan movement’ have recently suggested the same.

  9. Diana Rajchel

    I’ve noticed that the legal system in the US can be very selective as to what rules they enforce and what they don’t. While “ignorance of the law is no excuse” is a standard justification for enforcement, there is enough law involved that it’s impossible for any single person to have full knowledge of it. On the other hand, the Constitution isn’t really that difficult a read and a lot of people still skip that, too.

  10. Thorn

    Part of the problem is indeed that prisoners have a hard time standing up for their rights – there are reports, for example, of prisoners being denied access to the infirmary by guards because they were wearing a pentagram. These abuses (and worse) happen all the time.

    However, I have amended my statement above to state the Solar Cross will lend support to whatever can best help this case move forward.

    Rick, that may indeed be something we can do in the future: raise funds to pay chaplains for expenses at least.

    Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful discussion.


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