On September 28, 2001, a group of Wisconsin legislators introduced a resolution memorializing the tragic attacks 17 days before and saluting “the unity and patriotism of the American people, who hold diverse religious beliefs and represent diverse ethnic heritages.”
Six weeks later, one of the resolution’s co-authors — then Wisconsin Assemblyman Scott Walker (R) — posted an alliterative press release, titled “Walker Questions Need for Wiccan Witch of Waupun.” He was chairman of the Wisconsin Assembly’s Committee on Corrections and the Courts and was upset that the Rev. Jamyi Witch had been hired as a full-time chaplain at the maximum-security Waupun Correctional Institution. His reason: her Wiccan faith.
In early December, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections hired Witch for an open position. She had been a volunteer for the department for several years and, the warden who hired her told the local press at the time that her interviews, references, background and extensive knowledge of a wide array of alternative religions made her the clear choice for the job: “Jamyi is an outstandingly approachable person, somebody that I wouldn’t mind approaching on spiritual matters myself.”
In an interview, Witch told ThinkProgress that the position had been available, in part, because Scott Walker “had been instrumental in finding funding to keep the chaplaincy program going.” But, days after getting the job, she recalled “Walker came out saying he would do whatever it took to have me removed from my position.”
Walker’s stated objection were entirely based on her religion. Announcing that his committee could investigate her hiring, Walker said, “I can’t imagine that most of the inmates would feel particularly comfortable going to that individual … I would think, in some ways from a religious standpoint, it might actually put inmates in a position that talking to [a Wiccan] is contrary to what some of their own religious beliefs might be.” In addition to considering eliminating the funds for Witch’s post, Walker also suggested he might consider a likely unconstitutional idea: allocating chaplain positions in proportion to the religious faiths of the prison population. “It just seems to be impractical to have someone in that position who admittedly can only provide those sorts of services to roughly 30 people in the entire prison,” Walker said.
One of those who helped defend Witch at the time was another Wisconsin-based Wiccan priestess, Selena Fox. Rev. Fox, whose Lady Liberty League works to defend the rights of Wiccans, Pagans, and people of other Nature religions, told ThinkProgress that Walker’s actions demonstrated a lack of understanding of the U.S. Constitution, of the Wiccan religion, and of the role of prison chaplains. “They are hired to accommodate prisoners regardless of religion,” she noted, adding that “when there’s chaplaincy involved, there cannot be a picking and choosing of what religions to accommodate. You accommodate all or you do not accommodate any.” She was especially frustrated that Walker’s attacks echoed a failed attempt 16 years earlier by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) to strip tax-exempt status from Wiccan religious groups and treat them differently from all other religious faiths.
Indeed, over her 12 years in the position, Witch would ultimately spend more of her time serving prisoners of Christian faiths than any other. She recounted that she helped more prisoners convert to Christianity than any other faith, “My job is to help them connect with the divine however they see the divine. Most people in this country are raised thinking of deity with the Christian belief system; that’s where they would have best chance of finding connection with the divine.”
But Walker’s disparagement went beyond merely suggesting that Witch would not be able to serve non-Wiccan prisoners. “Witch’s hiring raises both personal and political concerns,” Walker explained, adding, “Not only does she practice a different religion than most of the inmates, she practices a religion that actually offends people of many other faiths, including Christians, Muslims and Jews.”
While Walker was unsuccessful in getting Witch removed from the position — his planned legislation never materialized and he left the legislature in early 2002 after becoming Milwaukee County Executive in a special election — Witch noted that his effort did “stir up right wing conservative religious fundamentalists.” A state legislative employee put out a press release, she recalled, with the language “burn the witch.” She also said she endured multiple death threats, harassment of her school-aged children, slashed tires, and a silver cross painted on her door.
ThinkProgress reached out to Walker to ask whether his thinking on this case has changed more than a decade later. The gubernatorial press secretary referred the inquiry to Walker’s political team; they did not respond by press time.
Since becoming governor in 2011, Walker has spoken multiple times about the importance of freedom of religion and religious diversity. As a candidate for governor in 2006, he made his support for greater cooperation between government and faith-based organizations a key campaign plank, boasting of his work on “prison ministries” during his tenure in the legislature. And, after a 2012 massacre at a Wisconsin Sikh temple, Walker used his weekly radio address to denounce “discrimination and violence targeted toward a specific ethnic or religious group” as “contrary to America’s core ideals.” “By placing it in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” he said, “our founding fathers placed special emphasis on protecting religious freedom for all Americans. We must show constant vigilance in defending our founding principles.”
But both Witch and Fox said that Walker had never apologized to them for his actions in 2001 nor reached out to the state’s Wiccan community. As Walker reportedly considers seeking national office, Witch urges voters to “beware.” “If we get a man in the White House who is okay with actively seeking to have people removed from their positions because they are not of a faith he approves of… we’ve been down that road before.”
Rob Boston, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State echoed that point. “American history is studded with examples of religious bigotry, from anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism to the Islamophobia of today,” he told ThinkProgress. “Visionary leaders urge respect for our differences while still seeking common ground. The incident with Rev. Witch was a test of tolerance for Scott Walker and a chance to show true leadership. He failed it miserably.”