Which Kind of Notoriety Do You Want? (Wiccan Chaplain Edition)

Which Kind of Notoriety Do You Want? (Wiccan Chaplain Edition) September 6, 2012

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews does not seem to be a fan of notoriety. Earlier this week Canada’s federal corrections agency announced that they were looking to hire a chaplain to service the spiritual needs of Wiccan inmates.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

Corrections Canada this week put out a request for a proposal for a Wiccan chaplain who will provide about 17 hours of service a month, about an hour less service than the department says it needs for the Jewish faith. […] “This has been put to tender because there is a need,” said Corrections spokesman David Harty. “The requirement of these services is on-going. It has been used in the past.”

While this move was welcomed by Canadian Wiccan groups, including the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of B.C., mere hours after the Canadian press started reporting on the story (“Wiccan priest called to perform rituals, invoke gods for BC prison inmates”) Minister Toews immediately retracted the posting saying it needed to be “reviewed” before proceeding.

“About an hour after The Canadian Press reported about the contract, a statement from Mr. Toews’s office said it will not proceed until after a review. “Religious freedom is a paramount value in Canadian society,” Julie Carmichael, director of communications for the minister, said in an email. “However, the government is not convinced all services offered through the chaplaincy program reflect an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.” A government official said Mr. Toews was not consulted about the Wiccan posting.”

I’m sure Toews simply wanted to avoid notoriety, but all he did was trade one kind of sensationalist story (“Canada Hiring Witches”) for an entirely different one (“Why Won’t Canada Hire A Wiccan?”). It went from a novelty story about hiring a Witch to questions as to why a Wiccan chaplain position needs special review when other religions don’t (though it seems Toews has a history of wrong-headed decisions). Here’s a sampling of the headlines…

“Wiccan priest hire reversed by federal minister,” “Toews cancels Wiccan chaplain tender: Potential backlash spells the end for prison service,”  “Sorry Wiccans, no chaplain for you in B.C. prisons,” “Wiccan prisoners in B.C. cursed by the federal government,” “Toews nixes Wiccan priest for B.C. prisoners,” and my current personal favorite “Vic Toews hexes job posting for prison witch in B.C.” (it’s almost poetic).

So which kind of notoriety would you prefer? The guy who hired a Witch chaplain, or the guy who buckled under pressure and removed a chaplain posting for Wiccan prisoners? Here’s how the Canadian Press is framing the move: “Public Safety Minister Vic Toews appears less concerned about the quality of spells cast from behind bars than he is about a backlash from taxpayers, cancelling a Corrections Canada tender for a priest to nurture the spiritual needs of witches in prison.” Ouch. No matter what he does now, he’ll have to explain his decision. In the meantime he’s managed to alienate Pagans in Canada, and may be opening his office up to possible legal action.

David Eby with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association say Corrections Canada is constitutionally obligated to provide the spiritual leader. “It’s the kind of job posting that is going to catch a lot of people off guard, but the government does have an obligation not to discriminate between religions,” he said. “They don’t get to say, ‘We like the Catholics but we don’t like the Wiccans,’ or ‘We like people who practice the Muslim faith but we don’t like the Wiccans.’ They have to provide those services equally.”

In short, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews should have sucked it up, strapped on his helmet, and hired a Witch.

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34 responses to “Which Kind of Notoriety Do You Want? (Wiccan Chaplain Edition)”

  1. If you read the responses on one of the Canadian articles, you can see the kind of discrimination that exists even up there. One person went so far as to say that they hoped that the government spent “nothing” on other religions too, making it seem like they thought these services were free and that Wiccans wanted to be compensated alone. Or people wondered if the government was going to “provide babies for their sacrifices”, etc.

    These comments and mentality are the reason why national organizations that promote information and discussion are important. So many people have preconceived notions that are blatantly offensive that there is a valid need for these groups.

  2. Just so you know.. there is someone currently doing this job already. Because it’s a contract job, the gov’t is putting the position up for tender this time around. Never mind she has been doing it for 6 years straight already.

  3. Absolutely a bone-headed move, and you’re right; he’ll end up getting a lot more heat for appearing to discriminate against Wiccans than he ever would have for such a routine thing as hiring a Wiccan chaplain.

  4. They just basically discontinued balls as standard or optional equipment on politicians everywhere in North America sometime after the late 1940s…..

  5. On the one hand, he has to justify how he spends every dollar of tax payers money and, if the tax payers do not want it, why should he spend money on a chaplain?

    On the other hand, if one religion is not granted a chaplain, why is any other?

  6. And there is a further conundrum. If chaplaincies are unfunded, then this tends to favor those religious groups that are the best funded (who can not only supply “volunteers” for free, but can also subsidize the supplies and infrastructure that go along with chaplaincy), and that is usually the Catholics and the evangelical nutjobs. This is what often happens in the US and it is one of the reasons for supporting professional, fully-funded, chaplaincies.

  7. You also have denominational issues.

    What good is a Wiccan chaplain for an Asatruar?

    What if the chaplains is an eclectic Wiccan, but the inmate is a traditionalist Gardnerian?

  8. Unbelievable, in a province where Wicca is a recognized religion, and Wiccan clergy can and do perform marriage ceremonies, due in large part to the efforts of Sam Wagar and the CWABC. If the provincial gov’t is pursuaded that Wicca is a legitimate religion, why then would the federal Minister not recognize that decision? If there was a posting for the position, there obviously was a need.

  9. This isn’t the first time Vic Towes has caused controversy in Canada. Earlier in the year he stated that Canadians had to choose
    “either stand with us or with the child pornographers” concerning a controversial bill that was incredibly invasive to people’s privacy rights online. It’s earned him a lot of flack. I can’t help but wonder if this is his way of courting the common voter who he mistakenly assumes would be against the religious rights of Wiccans.
    I suspect this will earn him another metaphorical tar and feather treatment.

  10. Yes, this. I’m aware that Jason is focused on the article and the person in the moment (and thus would require a lot more research than is probably necessary to check out Toews’ past), but I would not say that Vic Toews wants to avoid controversy. Well.. I’m sure he does, actually, but he does not have a very good track record with the public (I don’t actually know anyone who is familiar with politics in this country who *likes* the man, even a little bit). He seems to spend more time putting out fires for his decisions than actually making decisions.

  11. All chaplains are supposed to be able to serve all faiths, at least in some measure. There’s no realistic way any denomination will have a full supply of dedicated chaplains available to them. Just having ANY pagan chaplains would demonstrate that militaries, prison systems etc are truly on board with religious freedom.

  12. FWIW, I served as a Wiccan chaplain in federal and provincial prisons in Canada for 14 years, tho I am no longer involved. I visited in several provinces, mainly Ontario. Paid and voluntary Wiccan chaplaincy was happening in B.C. when I was active.

    Inmates are wards of the government and as such by law they have to have their religious accommodation provided to the best of the ability of the government.

    A supreme court judgment some years ago decided that individuals were the authorities on their own religious practices – not government, not even the official ‘ministers’ or whatever of their faiths.

    Regular full-time institutional chaplains are Christian, tho in my day there was a full-time Muslim chaplain in Ontario also. These chaplains conduct services for their trads, but provide other chaplaincy services to all inmates (and staff). Wiccan chaplains and other minority-faith chaplains only deal with people of their faiths, and under the auspices of the institutional chaplain.

    All of this was done fairly quietly, tho I did have the interesting experience of seeing my name in an article on the front page of a national newspaper once. Generally the media are interested in novelty and sensation rather than justice or accurate information (and I once was a reporter!)

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I remember inmates as being quick to file grievances and lawsuits. Morally and legally, all religions, whether ‘recognized’ by the government or not, have to be treated equally. Our current Conservative and notably religiously inclined government will have to bend.

  13. I’d like to make another point and one that I think is very important: There are recognized Wiccan organizations in B.C. Organizations can achieve recognition and official status to perform the government function of legal marriage and get some tax breaks. But this is a matter of jumping thru some hoops to show a degree of stability and a membership beyond your five co-covenors, etc., i.e., being an actual responsible organization of sorts. This is not the same as the government ‘recognizing’ a religion. The government does not have the authority to recognize a religion.

  14. Having the ‘wrong’ chaplain is just asking for trouble, though. Sending me (for example) a Wiccan chaplain would be little different to sending me a Catholic one.

  15. “The government does not have the authority to recognize a religion.”
    How come? Considering that governments offer legal protections to religions (well, religious adherents) against such things as prejudice, one imagines that it first needs to recognise the religion before protecting it.

  16. Indeed. I predict that Minister Towes will receive a quiet phone call from the Prime Minister’s Office and quietly walk this thing back. I suspect that Mr. Harper may not have any more love for minority religions than does Mr. Towes, but he has a better sense of the optics of this type of situation.

  17. It’s the same way in the US. The gov’t has no legal right to recognize a religion, only to grant individual organizations tax exempt status and things of that sort. This is the last shred of the separation between church and state we have

  18. Lēoht Sceadusawol – Do you really want the government to ‘recognize’ your religion? That means they can refuse to recognize it too. The way it is, recognizing religions is not a government function. “Protecting” religions is part of (at least the Canadian) government’s role in that people cannot be discriminated against for their religious practice. All religions are equally protected already (at least in theory).

  19. The real problem here is the media, which continue to “noveltize” anything that is done regarding Wicca or Paganism. I truly believe that if the media did not report everything like this with a heavy dose of ridicule, government officials would be less hesitant to engage with us.

  20. Toews should have known better than to let himself be swayed by a newspaper article. It’s this court reporter’s strong opinion that anyone who has worked in any aspect of the legal and justice systems should let tripe media reports sail past him and should be basing any decisions or even opinions on the facts and the law in any matter. His leadership ability is certainly questionable, and I was not surprised to learn from comments here that he is controversial for other reasons.

    I do agree with Anna Greenflame’s post to a certain extent. Yes, the media needs to not do that. However, I don’t expect them to stop anytime soon, and I think that someone in a position like Toews’ should have the sense to ignore it.

    If Toews had chosen to ignore the article and instead gone ahead with providing this very minimal measure of spiritual support to pagan inmates, it would have been a relatively simple matter. His withdrawal of this job posting is bound to result in complaints, costly lawsuits, and far more grief than letting it stand could ever have created.

    Cathryn Meer Bauer

  21. In theory, perhaps, but if they do not recognise that what you are doing is an accepted religious practice, you don’t get the protection.

    It’s going back a bit now, but Arthur Pendragon, the Druid noted for campaigning about Stone Henge, was taken to court for wearing a sword in public. He maintains it was a religious observance, but had to fight for that legal recognition.

    I am after recognition, not officialisation.

  22. They recognize structure – an address, having been in existence a certain length, sometimes a liturgy (they don’t care what’s in it, only that you’re *serious* and actually do stuff), have a certain number of people signed up, etc. This is so as not to provide tax breaks or marrying rights (witnessing and filing a government contract between the couple) to some fly-by-night outfit. It is not the beliefs, the religion itself, that gets recognition. And if you’re not looking for tax breaks or marrying rights, then the government is not in the business of caring what kind of religious activities you are involved in.

  23. Most Pagan paths in the UK don’t get those breaks. And Handfasting is not legal in England.

  24. @603cb77dffc8aa24b16b6df720861d24:disqus , thank you for your clarity.

    @LeohtSceadusawol:disqus interesting you should bring up different paths… I’m eclectic Wiccan, the Circles are probably half to two-thirds Wiccan, the rest are other Pagans. I can facilitate their own stuff, explain to staff that yes this is legit that they’re doing, help them obtain books, tools etc. and at least have an understanding of what their needs and direction are when they need counsel of some kind… I’m a spiritual advisor. My Path isn’t about leaders or followers, it’s about knowing your own self well enough to be able to stand before the Gods and do what’s right. Absolutely correct that I can’t step into the shoes of another Trad, but I think that one of the primary reasons that I specifically am doing this, is because I *am* eclectic, and She deems it necessary there be someone who can aid the greater numbers… that’s what I think, anyhow 😉
    @f8949b81170097930c8d7e04ace68dd2:disqus perceptive… I don’t get it done in 17 hours, I’m usually lucky to get it done in 18 and 20 – 22 is more likely… I can only bill for 200 hours per year – but when I started 6 years ago that was, like, 100.

    Those are in-institution hours, and don’t include travel times or prep/followup, or outside contact.

    As I understand it, mine isn’t the only contract being scrutinised, but it’s the most sensational one. These are so small that in previous years they weren’t considered necessary to be put out to tender… you may have read 25 – 50K, but those numbers must be for the full 3 years.

  25. Toews party recently open an Office Of Religious Freedom. However it only applies to countries his party doesn’t like. They’ll fight for religious freedom in China but not in Israel. The last time this fool was in the news was when he proposed a law that would allow the police to monitor your internet use without a warrant. He said ” You’re either with us or with the child pornographers.” Then it came out that he knocked up the teenaged family babysitter and then abandoned his wife for her.

  26. No, the real problem is NOT the media. The real problem is a hidebound, ignorant Minister of the Crown, who doesn’t know his own job.

  27. 1. The media do need to be aware of the appalling hatred and oppression of “witches” in other countries, please don’t fan the flames of the ignorant who are in this country with sensationalism; and
    2. Are there not still anti-witchcraft laws on the books in Canada, and not in the US? This could be a problem in the future, with a repressive government, because “witchcraft” can encompass psychic readings, Tarot cards, tossing herbs into a fireplace, owning black cats — it can expand.
    3. The US Military has had Wiccan chaplains for ages, don’t know exactly how long.

  28. Please remember, PM Harper attends a Fundamentalist Christian church, and in the past has expressed the same views as the Neo-Con movement, who are almost all of Fundamentalist Christian churches. Vic Toews may have made the announcement, but as the Conservative Caucus practically micromanaged by Harper, you can be *sure* that the Prime Minister knew about this, and probably agreed with it. And if it blows up, he will throw Toews “under the bus”, and claim plausible deniablity, as he has done before.

  29. I think you are mistaken about that. The U.S. military has recognized Wicca as a religion for decades, but Wiccan military chaplains are another matter. To the best of my knowledge, no branch of the U.S. Military has hired a Wiccan for any paid chaplain’s position. I dimly remember hearing (maybe on this very site) of a Protestant chaplain who became Wiccan, but as soon as he declared himself, the Christian denomination that had sponsored his ordination withdrew its support and he lost his post (which was following the regulations that qualify chaplains). Given the number of years it took the Federal Government to add symbols of Pagan religions to the approved list of symbols on veterans’ gravestones, a reform which cost the government almost nothing, I don’t expect a Pagan chaplain to be hired by any branch of the U. S. military armed any time soon.

    Partly motivated by a desire to retain experienced personnel, the U. S. armed services have come a long way toward recognizing and accommodating the increasing diversity of religions among military personnel. There are various workarounds to give adherents of minority religions access to organized religious services of their religions, such as allowing civilian volunteers to lead services on bases and appointing servicemen and women to be lay leaders.

    There is variation as to how easy or difficult it is for Wiccans in uniform to hold religious observances. The official policies support accommodation, but the execution depends on the attitudes of the base or unit commander and the chaplains. Some chaplains are very supportive of everyone’s religious needs and rights; others quite the opposite. About ten years ago, a colleague of mine and I wound up being impromptu civilian leaders of a scheduled Pagan/Wiccan ritual on a domestic Air Force base that we happened to be visiting. The service had been scheduled and people showed up, but their regular civilian leaders, who were townies, couldn’t make it that afternoon, and we offered to fill in.