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Prison’s Refusal to Allow Wiccan Services Must be Reviewed for Compelling Governmental Interest

by Kevin Bliss

Mario Sentelle Cavin, incarcerated at the Macomb Correctional Facility in Michigan, filed an appeal in the Sixth Circuit after a federal district court ruled that his religious freedoms had not been violated when the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) refused to allow him communal worship for Wiccan services.

Wicca became a recognized religion in the MDOC in 2005, and the prison system permits group worship during major holidays called Sabbats. Another Wiccan holiday, Esbat, is celebrated each lunar month. Cavin believed that Esbat was to be celebrated communally too, with certain items such as candles and incense, and requested the opportunity to do so from Chaplain David Leach at the Macomb prison.

The MDOC denied Cavin’s request, and in 2015 he filed suit and requested appointment of counsel, injunctive relief to eliminate the restrictions, and monetary damages from both the MDOC and Chaplain Leach. The federal district court ruled in a summary judgment order that prison officials and Chaplain Leach were entitled to immunity; the court also refused to appoint counsel, and following a bench trial held the MDOC’s policies did not violate Cavin’s rights. It found that additional worship services would overtax limited prison resources and that many Wiccans celebrated Esbat alone. Cavin appealed.

The Sixth Circuit held that Cavin’s sincere Wiccan beliefs were sufficient to establish a right protected under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The appellate court noted the district court had found he was a “sincere adherent” of the Wiccan faith, and “saw no reason to overturn that factual finding.” Therefore, it did not matter if other members of the same religion did not hold similar views as Cavin, as long as his beliefs were not “idiosyncratic.”

In addition, the Court of Appeals wrote that Cavin’s religious practices were burdened because the MDOC did not allow him access to religious supplies such as candles and incense, and forced him to celebrate Esbat in his cell with a cellmate who may have been “unfriendly” to the practice.

The Sixth Circuit pointed out that the district court did not rule on whether the MDOC’s policy furthered a compelling governmental interest in the least restrictive manner possible. As Cavin’s belief was communal worship during Esbat, and since the MDOC’s decision to prohibit such communal worship burdened Cavin’s practice, that question needed to be addressed to determine whether his rights had been violated.

The appellate court agreed that immunity prevented Chaplain Leach and the MDOC from being liable for monetary damages. It also noted that Cavin’s case did not involve unusually complex issues requiring appointment of counsel, and that he was doing an admirable job of representing himself.

Accordingly, in a June 17, 2019 decision, the Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of immunity for Chaplain Leach and the MDOC, vacated the ruling against Cavin’s RLUIPA claim and remanded the case for further proceedings. See: Cavin v. Mich. Dep’t of Corr., 927 F.3d 455 (6th Cir. 2019). 


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Related legal case

Cavin v. Mich. Dep’t of Corr.