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Wiccan Prisoner Gains Right to Religious Practices within California Prisons

by Christopher Zoukis

William Rouser, a prisoner in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prison system and a practicing Wiccan, received a favorable settlement, after the state reneged upon the first one, in which he is allowed to possess specified items and to hold regular services related to his faith.

     According to Rouser, prison guards had routinely harassed him regarding his faith. As a Wiccan, Rouser required the use of incense, candles, wands, tarot cards, altars and religious texts, which officials would allegedly remove and destroy on a regular basis. He said that prison staff also refused to let him use the prison chapel for worship, denied him access to his Wiccan Bible while in segregation and created requirements that were much more difficult to satisfy than those for other religions in order to obtain religious items and a chaplain.

   On May 7, 1993, Rouser filed a federal suit in the Eastern District of California against prison officials for violating his right to the free exercise of religion, due process and equal protection. In November 1997, the government agreed to a settlement that gave Rouser specific access to his religious items and to a room for services on a regular basis. The case was then dismissed without prejudice by Judge Lawrence K. Karlton on December 5, 1997.

     Following the entry of the settlement agreement with the court, Rouser claimed that prison officials continued to deny him access to those rights he fought more than four years to achieve: access to his religious items and adequate space and time to worship. Rouser filed grievances that were ignored and denied, then was allegedly placed in administrative segregation for filing those complaints.

     Rouser submitted a request to the court to reopen the case and file additional, separate lawsuits. Subsequent to Rouser's transfer to a prison in Los Angeles County, on September 23, 2011, a settlement agreement and motion for venue transfer to the Central District of California were filed. The new agreement specified that Rouser would have access to specified personal religious items, including tarot cards, religious literature, oils, herbs, stones, feathers, seashells and a pentagram medallion. He would also be allowed to have his Wiccan Bible if he went to segregation. Reasonable opportunities would be provided for regular and special holiday religious services, where objects including candles, incense, a chalice, an altar, a drum and a wand would be allowed.

     Judge Karlton entered the settlement order and approved the venue transfer on October 18, 2011. Rouser was represented by Philip E. Cook, Jason C. Wright, Kara Backus and Lin Wang of Jones Day.

See: Rouser v. White, et al., United States District Court for the Central District of California, Case No. 2:11-cv-09123-RGK-JEM (Sept. 23, 2011)


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Related legal case

Rouser v. White, et al.