The notion of religious freedom in America is that all faiths are (ideally) given the same considerations and rights. This is why it was so important to fight for the approval of the pentacle symbol on military graves and markers. But sometimes religious freedom can be interpreted too broadly, creating a disruption or even favoring one religious perspective over another. While we often point to Christian examples of people pushing the boundaries of religious expression at secular institutions, it can happen with Pagans as well. Witness a drama being played out at an Indiana High School.
“For the second day in a row, a Hanover Central High School freshman came to school with pagan symbols sketched on her face and was sent home by school officials. Hanover Superintendent Michael Livovich said the symbols on the girl’s face are disruptive to the educational process, and she will be sent home each day if she refuses to wash them off … Holeman’s father, Andy Pecenka, said he and his wife, Sharene, will talk to a lawyer regarding their daughter’s rights. He said she has been a practicing pagan for three or four years and being sent home compromises her religious freedoms.”
On its face it sounds like religious discrimination, until you listen to the statements being made by the Superintendent Michael Livovich.
“‘If a youngster came to school with crosses on their face or a Star of David sketched on their face, we would ask them to wash it off too,’ Livovich said. Livovich said he was willing to give Holeman an excused absence for Tuesday, but he could not find any information that said the holiday extended through Saturday.”
In a different article on the issue, he is quoted as saying.
“We would never deny a child their religious expression. What she has become, however, is a distraction. If it was a part of her faith that everyone of her faith does this on May Day, then I would say our apologies to the child and the parent. But that isn’t the case here.”
For the Superintendent to allow the girl to paint religious symbols on her face would open up a situation in which any religious group would be allowed to come to class with their face painted during any religious observation. Which as the school official pointed out, would be disruptive to learning. The Pecenka’s case isn’t helped by the fact that the lore and traditions of Beltane don’t point to any widespread occasion of face-painting as an act of religious observance.
Now if the Superintendent is lying and other religious groups are allowed to paint their faces during religious festivals (other than Catholics with ash on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday), or if there was a general consensus amongst modern Pagans concerning painting your face on Beltane, then the case might be different. But as it stands the parents seem to have stepped over the boundaries of our religious rights at a secular school, and should either drop the matter or keep her home from school to finish her Beltane observances.
ADDENDUM: You can find an OBOD thread here in which the father discusses the case and why his daughter was wearing a pentacle on her face.
ADDENDUM II: Some fellow Pagan bloggers disagree with my assessment of the situation in the comments. Hecate says the school “needs to step back”, Cat Chapin-Bishop feels that schools need to make room for “individual spiritual experience”, and Sari doesn’t feel a pentacle painted on the cheek is disruptive to learning. So have I called this one wrong? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
ADDENDUM III: An education student on the OBOD thread, citing the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker vs Des Moines Independent Community School District, says that the parents may indeed have a solid First Amendment case.
“…we just covered educational law on issues like these two weeks ago. Under Tinker law, a student cannot be reprimanded for an expression of free speech unless it explicitly detracts from the learning process (i.e. causes a big disturbance). They also must be warned first before action can be taken. The case at first only applied to dress, but later was upheld in the Supreme Court when students wore armbands in protest at one school. The pentagram on the face falls under free speech under the Tinker case. Since no other students complained, and it should not prevent the teacher from continuing her lesson, it doesn’t meet the disturbance criteria. I believe that, should you wish to pursue it, you have legitimate grounds for a lawsuit.”