Yesterday I wrote about what the mainstream press thought were the top religion stories of 2006, and today I present the first part of my top ten news stories that involve or affect modern Paganism. A ongoing theme this year seems to be legal issues and discrimination, but there were some interesting quirks and stories that fall outside the issue of litigation. 2006 has been an eventful year, and it was difficult narrowing it down to just ten stories, but I think I have picked the ones that had the greatest impact now and for the future. What follows are my picks for the bottom six stories of 2006, the top four will follow tomorrow.
10. The Rachel Bevilacqua custody case. What happens when your religion is used against you? Rachel “Rev. Magdalen” Bevilacqua was barred from all contact with her son after photos of her at an adults-only Subgenius event were submitted by her son’s father as proof that she was an unfit parent. The original judge called Bevilacqua “perverted” and “mentally ill” before stepping down under a growing scrutiny of his actions. The case is still in litigation (for nearly a year now) as the biological father’s lawyers keep trying to delay a final decision on custody. This case is emblematic of the ongoing issues Pagans and other minority religions face in divorce and custody cases. Part of this problem is the fact that many adherents of minority faiths don’t have the money to hire decent lawyers, while often facing the combined wealth of the Christian families on the opposing side.
9. Supreme Court allows entheogenic tea. In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court ruled (full opinion, here) that members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal may legally import and use the entheogenic tea hoasca. The tea which contains traces of DMT is banned by the Controlled Substances Act. This is seen as a blow to the Bush administration who has been actively fighting this case for years. The court ruled that the government has failed to supply a “compelling interest” to limit the religious practices of the group, Justice Roberts said that the government was taking a “zero tolerance approach.” This is widely seen as a triumph of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and could also open the doors to other religious groups who feel that the ritualized use of entheogenic substances are an important part of their practice.
8. Religious Right tactics backfire in favor of Pagans. We are used to different factions of the Religious Right fighting to put Christianity “back” into schools and other government-funded areas, but this year we witnessed this tactic backfire (at least) twice and the true ramifications of their actions become more clear. First the Brunswick County Board of Education in North Carolina tried to approve a new policy that would allow the disbursement of religious tracts in their schools. But after Llewellyn publications offered to disburse free Pagan books through local groups, the board got cold feet, tabled the vote, and spawned one of my favorite news photos of the year. Then later this year Falwell’s Liberty Counsel threatened an elementary school in Charlottesville with legal action if it didn’t allow two children to distribute Bible-school flyers, the school board fearing legal action started allowing religious material which opened the way for a local Pagan group to advertise their Yule event (much to the chagrin of local Christians). Do you think that since their fingers have been singed they will have learned their lesson?
7. Growing freedoms for Pagans outside America. This year saw all sorts of positive news for Pagans outside of America. Greek Pagans were allowed the right to perform public rituals and legally exist in the Orthodox-dominated country, Romania has officially recognized Witchcraft, and Iceland has increased the number of Asatru priests who can perform legal ceremonies. Meanwhile, a recent examination of census data makes modern Paganism the fastest growing religious category in Australia. It looks like the re-birth of Paganism is growing strong roots just about everywhere it exists.
6. American teens are experimenting with Wicca/Witchcraft in ever-growing numbers. The evangelical polling organization The Barna Group found in three national studies of over 4000 teens that an overwhelming majority of (73%) have participated in “psychic or witchcraft-related activity, beyond mere media exposure or horoscope usage.” This was so remarkable that the organization listed it as one of their most significant findings of the year. It may not be a “phase” either. The recently released Baylor study on American religion found a “surprising level” of paranormal belief and experience amongst adults as well. Figures that could signify a continuing growth of modern Pagan faiths.
5. First imprisoned modern Pagan executed. Michael Lenz, an Asatruar on death row for the killing of a fellow inmate was executed in July of this year. Reporters examined the Asatru faith in and out of prison, and Asatru bloggers tried to explain their theology to a press that seemed to not “get” their religion.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the top 4!