Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Incarcerated Wiccan claims prison system discriminates

Incarcerated Wiccan claims prison system discriminates
August 25, 2009 9:31 PM

McALLEN – A Wiccan man incarcerated in Edinburg has sued the Texas prison system claiming he has been prevented from practicing his religion behind bars.

Charles Roberts, 28, of Brownsville, alleges he has asked several times for religious books, pentagrams and a person to lead Wiccan services at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Lopez Unit but has received no assistance from the prison’s chaplain.

"They have programs for Christians, Catholics and Muslims, but not for us," he said in a lawsuit filed in federal court earlier this month. "It is discrimination against us and a violation of our constitutional rights."
A spokesman for the prison system declined to comment on Roberts’ specific claims citing the ongoing litigation but said TDCJ has established policies for accommodating minority religious groups.
"It is (our policy) to extend as much freedom as possible to pursue individual beliefs and practices consistent with security, safety and orderly conditions in the institution," reads an orientation handbook provided to all new inmates

Under current prison policy, there must be three inmates of the same faith in a given facility before employees will allow them to meet for worship services. An outside volunteer is also required to lead the sessions.
The department has established Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Native American and non-denominational Christian services at all of their prisons. Wiccan volunteers also lead worship sessions at two TDCJ facilities outside of Houston, department spokesman Jason Clark said.

But Roberts – a Brownsville native incarcerated for a 2004 conviction on aggravated assault charges — claims that prison officials failed to even note his religion correctly on his inmate intake forms.
When he told him practiced Wicca – a neo-pagan, nature based religion — an intake officer classified him as "non-denominational," his lawsuit states.

"The fact that my religious preference is said to be non-denominational goes to show that nothing is being done," he wrote.

A number of Texas inmates from various faiths have challenged the prison’s religious policies on similar grounds over the past several years. In nearly every case, federal judges and appeals court justices have found that the department’s guidelines does not put undo restraints on inmates’ ability to practice their faith.
Roberts has asked a federal court to award him $500,000 in damages and to force TDCJ to grant his religious requests.

A hearing date on the case has not yet been set.

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