Jan 21, 2017

Pagans, Wiccans, Satanists can now practice religion in Ohio prisons

By Alan Johnson
The Columbus Dispatch
January 20, 2017

Inmates in state prisons have a new choice to practice their religious convictions: Paganism.

The Appalachian Pagan Ministry, a small volunteer group based in Huntington, West Virginia, has held services at two Ohio prisons and plans to expand to three others.

The Rev. Donna Donovan, ordained as a Druid priestess and an interfaith minister through Universal Life Church, is the leader of the group working with inmates she describes as "pan pagan," referring to religious that are "non-Abrahamaic," which excludes Christians, Jews and Muslims. Her meetings have included believers in Asatru, Odinism, Heathenism, Wicca and Satanism.

"The only way to eradicate hate and intolerance is through education," Donovan said. "I don't personally care what your higher power is as long as you believe there's a higher power than yourself."

Donovan's group is visiting prisons in Ohio and West Virginia. She has been to the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville and the Allen-Oakwood Correctional Institution in Lima. Her group will soon begin visiting prisons in Chillicothe and Lebanon.

Inmates must request visits by outside religious organizations rather than groups deciding to visit and hold services on their own.

JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, has an approved list of about 50 religious groups that have permission to visit prisons, including a wide variety of Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups, plus Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah's Witness, Mormons, Native Americans, Sabbatarians and Wiccans.

The organizations must submit applications, pass background checks and undergo training about prison procedures before visiting inmates.

State records show Baptists (4,739), Roman Catholic (3,420) and Muslims (1,563) are among the highest religions self-identified by inmates. There are also Rastafarians (755), Amish (36) and Druids (21).

Donovan said there is widespread public misunderstanding about Pagans and related non-Christian groups. Inmates, too, usually don't know about the religion, she said.

"I've seen huge changes in behavior by inmates," she said. "It's helping. Instead of just just sitting there and stewing, they can be taking time to better themselves."

She said she meets with 30 to 40 inmates at each Ohio prison. She funds the ministry out of her own pocket and through public donations.

"These inmates, male and female alike, know the mistakes they have made in their lives. They are paying for those mistakes. Yet instead of wallowing in self-pity or continuing to blame outside sources for their current situation, they are holding themselves accountable and doing what they can to grow in body, mind and spirit to ensure they do not make those same mistakes again."

Ohio prisons opened the door to the expansion of religious groups because of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court, ruled which found that state could not deny religious services to prisoners. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the decision, said federal law "protects institutionalized persons who are unable freely to attend to their religious needs and are therefore dependent on the government's permission and accommodation for exercise of their religion,

@ohioaj

http://www.dispatch.com/news/20170120/pagans-wiccans-satanists-can-now-practice-religion-in-ohio-prisons

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