May 2015 Church & State | People & Events

Now that he is a potential GOP presidential candidate, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker tends to shy away from “culture war” issues. But more than a decade ago, Walker was involved in an incident that seemed like a religiously motivated modern-day witch hunt.

ThinkProgress’s Josh Israel recently detailed the story of Walker’s crusade against the Rev. Jamyi Witch, a Wiccan priestess who was hired as a full-time chaplain at the Waupun Correctional Institution, a maximum-security facility. Late in 2001, Walker, who was then a state assemblyman, questioned why a Wiccan was hired at Waupun.

“Witch’s hiring raises both personal and political concerns,” Walker said in a December 2001 statement. “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.”

The press release added that Walker, who offered no evidence that Wicca is offensive, “remains open to the idea of eliminating funding for” Witch’s position.

Witch was hired in November 2001 after she had served several years as a volunteer for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. At the time, the warden who hired her offered glowing remarks for Witch.

“Jamyi is an outstandingly approachable person, somebody that I wouldn’t mind approaching on spiritual matters myself,” the warden said.

Ironically, it seems Witch got the job thanks, in part, to Walker. Witch told ThinkProgress that Walker “had been instrumental in finding funding to keep the chaplaincy program going.”

Clearly Witch was not the hire Walker had in mind. He investigated the hiring, reiterating that he was opposed to Witch for purely religious reasons.

“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,” Walker said at the time.

Walker wouldn’t let go of the issue. He even suggested eliminating Witch’s position and hiring chaplains of specific religions in proportion with the faiths of the prison’s inmates.

“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.

Ultimately, Israel reported, Walker failed to have Witch removed, and his proposed legislation on proportional prison chaplain representation never came to pass. Witch went on to spend 12 years as a prison chaplain, serving mainly Christian prisoners with no complaints. 

Walker’s administration declined to comment for Israel’s story, and the report noted that Walker now preaches about the importance of religious diversity. But when asked about issues of religion in recent months, Walker has tended to punt. He declined to comment on whether or not he believes in evolution or if he thinks President Barack Obama is a Christian.

Israel interviewed Americans United Communications Director Rob Boston, who said Walker’s actions are quite revealing.

“American history is studded with examples of religious bigotry, from anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism to the Islamophobia of today,” Boston 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.”