Dettmer v. Landon

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Dettmer v. Landon
Court United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
Full case name Herbert Daniel Dettmer v. Robert Landon, Director of Corrections
Decided September 4, 1986
Citation(s) 799 F.2d 929 (4th Cir. 1986)
Case history
Prior action(s) Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Alexandria.
Court membership
Judge(s) sitting John D. Butzner, Jr.

Dettmer v. Landon, 799 F.2d 929 (4th Cir. 1986), is a court case in which the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that although Wicca was a religion, it was not a violation of the First Amendment to deny a prisoner access to ritual objects.


The plaintiff, Herbert Daniel Dettmer, was a Virginia prisoner, and a member of the School of Wicca. Dettmer desired access to ritual objects, including several varieties of knife, with which to practice Wiccan rituals. Knives, of course, are not available to prisoners. When the state would not provide him these ritual objects, he sued Robert Landon, the Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections in federal court to get access to objects he claimed were necessary for his religious practice. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia decided in Dettmer's favor, finding that Wicca was a religion, rejecting the argument put forward by the Department of Correction that it was merely a "conglomeration" of occult practices. This decision was appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and was argued before the appellate court in April 1986.

Opinion of the Fourth Circuit

The Fourth Circuit, in a decision by Senior Circuit Judge John D. Butzner, Jr., affirmed the district court's ruling that Wicca was a religion, but vacated the injunction.

The appellate court considered but rejected the claims of the government about Wicca itself, which included that Wicca was a mere "conglomeration" of "various aspects of the occult, such as faith healing, self-hypnosis, tarot card reading, and spell casting, none of which would be considered religious practices standing alone,"[1] and that even if Dettmer's beliefs were religious, the rituals were not.

The conclusion of the Fourth Circuit was that the District court had found that Dettmer had a religious belief entitled to full First Amendment protections, but that he was not entitled to an injunction, since "[t]he decision to prohibit Dettmer from possessing the items that he sought did not discriminate against him because of his unconventional beliefs."

Importance of the case

While not entirely a victory for Dettmer, this was the first time Wicca was recognized by a court of law as a legitimate religion.

Notes and references

  • ^ "Dettmer v. Landon (appeal)". Retrieved November 30, 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • ^ "Panorama Middle School". Retrieved November 29, 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>