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Published: Monday, February 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Does this broomstick go with my prison stripes?

In its wisdom -- and yes, I am being ironic -- the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling Tuesday that revives a California inmate lawsuit to force the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to hire a paid, full-time Wiccan chaplain. Oddly, the three-judge panel found that the complaint "did not contain sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal theory under the First Amendment." Nonetheless, the court overturned a federal judge's 2011 dismissal of the lawsuit.
It's enough to make you wonder whether Samantha twitched her nose and cast a spell on the robed wonders. Or, mayhap, the jurists are wizards who found no solid legal case but still chose to conjure up a trial reset just for the fun of it. It's not as if the public has to pay for a new trial. Judicial rulings, they're like magic.
How many Bathilda Bagshots are there in California prisons? In their complaint, inmates Shawna Hartmann and Caren Hill claim that Wicca has more adherents in the Central California Women's Facility than Catholicism, Islam and Judaism.
A 2007 Corrections survey found 183 Wiccan inmates -- compared with 42,666 Protestant, 28,884 Muslim, 23,160 Catholic, 8,296 Native American and 2,678 Jewish inmates. Those are the big five religions for which the department hires paid, full-time chaplains. A survey five years earlier found 598 Wiccans, which suggests witchcraft could be melting in the California prison community.
Wiccan minister Patrick McCollum, who has served as the prison's unpaid volunteer chaplain, told me the department skewed its survey because it "did not want to facilitate (or) allow the Wiccans to practice at all."
Why? "Because they thought that they were evil." And: "They had a lot of misconceptions."
You can put me on the record as a skeptic about Wicca. When I read the complaint that Wiccans aren't treated the same as adherents to mainstream religions, I figure that's what you get when you join what for some is a do-it-yourself theology. It's like atheists suing because they aren't welcome in church.
For his part, McCollum is quite serious about Wicca.
I wish the 9th Circuit were as serious. Federal jurists complain about clogged courts. They should look at the mirror, mirror on the wall. They've created their own curse.
Inmate Hartmann first filed this suit in 2008. She since has been released from prison. The complaint is so flimsy that her attorneys actually argued that it was wrong for the judge to dismiss the case because their complaint was "unduly long or poorly written."
Hill is serving a 29-year sentence for possession of a controlled substance for sale. According to court documents, she is a repeat offender with felonies and misdemeanors dating back to 1976.
Criminal Justice Legal Foundation President Michael Rushford observed that he has seen this kind of "there are raisins in the tapioca pudding" inmate nuisance claim before. It's a game life-sentence criminals play "to amuse themselves. They play this game because stupid courts let them get away with it."
"Do you do spells?" I asked McCollum. "Yes," he answered, "a spell is a prayer." He offered up an example: "Great mother whose love encircles the earth, please let this reporter print the truth, and let her be blessed for doing so."
If I turn into a frog over the weekend, I take back this column. Until then, I'm just a chump who pays taxes so the 9th Circuit can pull rabbits out of hats.

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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Jon Bauer, Opinion Editor: jbauer@heraldnet.com

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