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Ninth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Wiccan Prisoners’ Establishment Clause Claim

On February 19, 2013, the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by two California prisoners who alleged that prison officials had violated their constitutional rights by failing to apply neutral criteria in determining whether paid chaplaincy positions were necessary to meet the religious needs of prisoners adhering to religions outside the five major mainstream faiths – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Native American.

State prisoners Caren Hill and Shawna Hartmann, practicing Wiccans at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, filed suit claiming that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials had violated their religious rights.

They raised claims under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), as well as the California Constitution, related to the CDCR’s refusal to hire a paid full-time Wiccan chaplain and failure to apply neutral criteria in evaluating whether a growing membership in minority religions warranted a reallocation of the resources used to accommodate prisoners’ religious exercise needs.

The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ third amended complaint on the ground that it failed to state a claim for relief under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that the Free Exercise Clause only requires prison officials to provide prisoners a “reasonable opportunity” to practice their faith, and that insofar as the CDCR allows staff chaplains of other faiths, as well as volunteer Wiccan chaplains, to assist Wiccan prisoners in the practice of their religion – and Hill and Hartmann conceded that they had received such assistance – their Free Exercise claim failed. The appellate court noted that “it is well-settled that the First Amendment does not require prison administration to provide inmates with the chaplain of their choice.”

With respect to the Equal Protection claim, the Court of Appeals held the complaint lacked facts demonstrating that prison officials had acted with discriminatory intent.

In regard to the RLUIPA claim, the Court found that the complaint failed to allege any factual allegations showing that the plaintiffs’ religious exercise was so substantially burdened that they felt pressured to abandon their faith.

Addressing the Establishment Clause claim, however, the Ninth Circuit took note of the plaintiffs’ allegations that more prisoners practice the Wiccan religion at CCWF than there are practicing Jewish, Muslim and Catholic prisoners at the facility, yet only Wiccans lacked the benefit of a paid full-time chaplain. If proven, the Court of Appeals held, those allegations could establish that CDCR “favor[s] some religions over others on a preferential basis” in violation of the Establishment Clause. Thus, the district court’s judgment was reversed as to that claim and a state constitutional claim.

Hartmann was released prior to the appellate court’s ruling, which mooted her claims for declaratory and injunctive relief. Hill and Hartmann were ably represented by attorneys David C. Kiernan, Thomas Ritchie and Barbara McGraw. See: Hartmann v. California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 707 F.3d 1114 (9th Cir. 2013).

Following remand, Hill was released several weeks after the Ninth Circuit’s ruling as a result of changes in the application of California’s three-strikes law. Consequently, since the lawsuit did not include a request for monetary damages, the remaining claims were mooted and the case was voluntarily dismissed in June 2013.

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