Wiccan prisoner sues state, claiming religious rights violated

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 9, 2011 - 12:19 AM

Stephen Hodgson said Stillwater prison banned items necessary to his faith such as oil, incense.

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Stephen Hodgson showed some of the items he and a group of Wiccans use from their portable altar in the Stillwater Prison chapel.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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A Stillwater prisoner who practices the Wiccan faith has filed a federal lawsuit against the state alleging his religious rights have been violated.

Stephen Hodgson claims his religious mail has been confiscated, and he has been prohibited from burning incense or using prayer oils and herbs needed to practice his faith.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights sided with Hodgson after investigating and determining that "probable cause exists to believe that an unfair discriminatory practice was committed." Hodgson, 54, is serving two consecutive life sentences for two murders in 1991.

John Schadl, communications director for the Department of Corrections, said he could not comment on Hodgson's lawsuit, which was filed in February. He did say the prison system does its "best to accommodate religious practices and services. Obviously we have to do that within the context of making sure that both our employees are safe in the facilities, that offenders are safe and that security concerns are addressed."

Hodgson estimates 200 to 300 Wiccans are in prison system in Minnesota -- a state that is a magnet for Wiccan followers. The Twin Cities metro area -- dubbed "Paganistan" by Wiccans for having one of the highest witch concentrations in the country -- has an estimated 20,000 witches who meet in 236 different covens or groups, according to the Rev. John Mayer, executive director of the nonprofit City Vision, a Christian organization that tracks local religious data.

Wicca is a nature-based religion that falls under the umbrella of pagan traditions. Many Wiccans are drawn here because of the many lakes and rivers, which have spiritual significance to them, Mayer said.

Incense is used in Wiccan rituals to purify worship space. Without incense to represent the elements of fire and air, Wiccans believe it is not possible to properly cast the sacred circle needed for Wiccan rituals. Herbs are associated with the elements as well and are connected to deities, while oils are for personal prayer.

Prisons restrict incense

Hodgson argues he has faced discrimination because he is not Christian and is critical of a controversial evangelical Christian program used in the state's prison system. That program was the focus of a recently settled lawsuit against the Department of Corrections.

Prison officials have "decided Christianity is the way to go and everybody else should fall in line," Hodgson said.

For about the past two years, Hodgson said, he and other inmates who practice Wicca have not been allowed to use incense in the religious programming area at Stillwater because it violates prison policy. They also have been denied religious herbs and oils.

Schadl said burning anything in a prison "can mask odors that would need to be brought to the attention of guards ... if there was contraband marijuana being smoked. The fragrance of incense floating around could cause a problem."

According to a Department of Human Rights memo about its investigation of Hodgson's complaint, evidence "showed that use of incense is a necessary and foundational part of Wiccan ritual," and the "policy prevents believers of the charging party's religion from practicing their beliefs." It also said restricting herbs was unreasonable.

As for the oil, the prison allows it in group worship, but it cannot be kept in cells, the memo stated. Inmates reported they were told that oils were not allowed because their scent could cover contraband, the memo stated. Hodgson and other prisoners have rebutted that the prison allowed a variety of nonreligious, scented items.

The prison's "canteen carried heavily scented air fresheners, body lotions, hair pomades, soaps and similar items which do not have a religious use," the memo stated. "Some of these ... had herbal or spice scents similar to those in the oils" Hodgson wished to use during his private prayer. The memo stated that the prison based its decision on "whether the product was used for non-religious personal hygiene or for religious devotions." Therefore, the prison "has engaged in illegal discrimination on the basis of religion."

Hodgson said he has been particularly upset by the prison's confiscation of religious materials he receives in the mail. He said prison officials have done this because they consider the pictures of museum paintings and statues of naked deities like Apollo and Aphrodite sexually explicit.

Jeff Holman, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, said that since 2006 it has received five charges brought by prisoners against the Department of Corrections alleging discrimination based on religion. One of the five cases involved a Wiccan prisoner, and the department did find probable cause that an unfair discriminatory practice was committed, Holman said.

Sarah Pike, a religious studies professor at California State University-Chico, who has written extensively on Wicca, said she's talked to prison chaplains across the country about Wiccans in prison.

"Probably the biggest issue that comes up ... is the conflict between religious practice and safety issues and the way those are interpreted by the prisons," she said.

John Stitely, 60, a retired attorney and an executive officer with the Wiccan Church of Minnesota, said the Twin Cities is a fairly tolerant place for Wiccans but misconceptions still exist, making it difficult for many Wiccans to "come out."

"There's a lot less of that [discrimination] in the Twin Cities, but there's some," Stitely said. "That's why some people don't want to talk about it. We don't worship Satan, we don't sacrifice children. We don't do bad things. A lot of people think we're just bizarrely strange because we have a different theology."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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