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California may have to hire Wiccan chaplain

SAN FRANCISCO — California prisons hire full-time chaplains and spiritual leaders to serve Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and Native American inmates.

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court gave new life to a decades-long battle by Wiccan inmates for access to their own full-time chaplain.

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The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned a trial judge’s dismissal of a Wiccan prisoner lawsuit seeking the same rights as the five other religious practices. The appeals court said the Wiccan prisoners make a compelling argument that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation may be unconstitutionally showing preference to the five religions in violation of the First Amendment, which guarantees religious freedoms.

The appeals court ruled that the trial court judge was wrong to dismiss the case almost immediately after it was filed without delving deeper into the evidence. For instance, the court said it could be that a chaplain could be needed only at the Chowchilla prison rather than throughout the 33-prison statewide system of 150,000 inmates.

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