On 1 June 2011 California's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals published its decision to uphold the lower court's ruling to deny Patrick McCollum and his fellow plaintiffs standing. The case, Patrick M. McCollum; et al., v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; et al. Was brought to the courts by a neo-pagan chaplain (McCollum) challenging the state's “Five Faiths” policy. This policy limits the hiring of paid chaplains to protestant christian, catholic christian, Jewish, mohammedan, and “Native American” (as if this moniker isn't sufficiently vague!) adherents. The ruling is being challenged by a number of neo-pagan groups, predominantly by wiccans and neo-druids.
But what does all this mean to Irminen and other Heathens? To understand this, first we must consider the role of a prison chaplain. Chaplains, supported by the courts uphold prisoners' right to practice their religions in reasonable ways that do not endanger the safety or function of the prison. This right has been supported by the courts because it is proven that when a criminal meditates on their crimes tend to become truly repentant and as a result, are more likely to be productive, law-abiding citizens in the future –- d.h., recidivism is dramatically reduced. Chaplains can organize regularly scheduled religious services as well as provide spiritual counselling and comfort to the inmates. These services can be secular or non-denominational as well as being religon-specific and are aimed at improving both the welfare and attitudes of the inmates.
This, of course, sounds very much desirable. But how does a chaplain accomplish these goals?
A chaplain is given quite a bit of leeway, but we must also keep in mind that (1) the chaplain is an employee of the institution which may be government-run or privately-run, and (2) the office of the chaplaincy is based on a christian model regardless of the triuwa being represented. A prison chaplain is not a harugari* stationed behind the wall and does not pretend to be. Typical “vital areas” covered by a prison chaplain include:
- God, Supreme Being &/or Spirit
- Existence: Being/Non-Being
- Life Crises & Goals
- Identity & Sexuality
- Eternity & Annihilation
- Nature of Growth & Death
- Universal Forces
- Purpose of Pain & Pleasure
- Purpose of God & Humankind
- Derivation & Purpose of Law
- Sources of Religous Authority
- Destiny of Humankind
- Coping with Life & Prison
- Scripture Interpretation
- Truth; Dignity; Honour; Love
- Cycles & Stages of Life
- Moral & Social Accountability
- Family; Marriage; Separation
- Wisdom & Life Skills
- Essence of Good & Evil
- Essence of Humankind & Principles
- Purpose/Meaning in life
While a number of these areas could be positively addressed by a chaplain regarless of his triuwa, it does not require much to realize that a chaplain representing one of the “Five Faiths” is not going to be able to address Irminic spiritual needs in many if not most of these areas. Even if the McCollum case were won all this would offer is a couple of neo-pagan chaplains to add to the mix who will be similarly unqualified in fulfilling the needs of Heathen or would-be Heathen inmates.
Something often overlooked in discussions about matters such as these is the nature of Heathendom itself. As an Ásatrú friend of mine has often pointed out: Heathenry is a religion of the hearth, not the church. As far as the needs of a given individual goes one can build one's own werd** and one's relationship with the gods with little or no help from a chaplain. Negotiating with the wihtir*** may prove very difficult when confined within an institution, but a chaplain cannot help much in this area anyway.
However a prison chaplain can prove useful to a Heathen inmate or to one investigating Heathenry. Again it is the chaplain who has the power to schedule (or deny) “religious services” (fagende). He may also permit and even request books and other materials for the prison library, offer counselling services, usw.
We do not necessarily need Heathen chaplains in the prisons. But we do need Heathen-friendly ones. No amount of litigation or legislation will create Heathen-friendly chaplains. But educating the wider public about what Heathenry is—and is not—may well funnel some positive thoughts about us into the institutions. Again, chaplains are generally given a lot more leeway than other prison employees to interpret policy as they see fit.
How do we educate people? Of course, lots of methods exist. But the more important is simply to present ourselves to the world in a positive fashion. Be a supportive family member, a good citizen, and a good employee or boss. Be open about your Heathenry but don't shove it in people's faces either. Let people get to know you as a quality person first and let them find out about your triuwa after that positive impression has been made. Maybe after knowing you for 3 or 5 years someone asks, “What is that symbol you always were around your neck?” or “Why do you have religious celebrations at all these odd times?” Now you have the opportunity to give an honest, reasonable answer with your reputation already established so that the questioner respects you before the answer is even given—without any feelings of prejudice or of being threatened. It's a slow way, but an effective one.
*Irminic priest. f. Harugarin
** OHG: "worth" related to âr ("honour")
***OHG: "spirits"; "local deities". Various types of wiht are associated with home, property and nature