A federal appeals court ruled in San Francisco Tuesday that an inmate at a state women's prison in Chowchilla can pursue a lawsuit seeking a paid prison chaplain for her Wiccan religion.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit filed against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation by Caren Hill, a prisoner at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.
A federal trial judge in Fresno had dismissed the case in 2011.
The appeals court overturned the dismissal and said Hill could go back to the trial court to proceed on her claim that the state prison system showed an unconstitutional preference for certain religions.
A prison administration's accommodation of prisoners' religious rights must be carried out "without unduly preferring one religion over the other," the court said.
The corrections department currently hires chaplains for Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Native American and Protestant faiths. Inmates of other faiths, such as Wicca and Buddhism, can have volunteer chaplains and can also use the services of the paid chaplains.
Wicca is a neo-pagan religion based on a reverence for nature.
Hill's lawsuit claims the department's choice of which chaplains to hire is an unconstitutional establishment of religion because the decisions are not based on "neutral, equitable or unbiased criteria."
The lawsuit alleges the Chowchilla prison has more Wiccan inmates than Jewish or Muslim inmates, and comparable numbers of Wiccan and Catholic prisoners.
The appeals court does not require the department to hire a Wiccan chaplain, but merely allows Hill to try to prove her case at a trial.
The court said Hill would have to prove her allegations of unfairness with evidence, such as current figures on the number of Wiccan inmates in the state prison system.