Top Ten Pagan Stories of 2009 (Part Two)

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 31, 2009 — 3 Comments

[You can read part one of this entry, here.]

05. Jose Merced, Santeria, and Animal Sacrifice: The battles over animal sacrifice, and the legal rights of adherents to Santeria, were in my top ten last year, and things have only intensified since then. The biggest story was the resolution of a case involving a Santero, Jose Merced, who was restricted from practicing his religion in Euless, Texas, due to the town’s animal slaughter laws. Merced, who lost his initial challenge to the law, was backed in his appeal by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and ultimately prevailed in his case.

“If this decision is ultimately allowed to stand, Merced v. City of Euless could be the case that takes the precedent initially established in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah nationwide, clearing the way for legal animal sacrifice in religious ceremonies.”

As sweet as this victory, and the precedents it sets, has been for adherents to Santeria in America, the faith is still a long way away from acceptance or mainstream understanding. One had only to look at the variety of random dead-animal cases blamed on Santeros and Santeras (or other African Diasporic Faiths) as proof that they have a long way to go.

“We are left to guess what “evidence” led the authorities to guess it was a ritualistic matter, and what, exactly, makes them point the finger at “Santeria” or “Palo Mayombe”. While people of “African, Central American, Haitian, Cuban or Caribbean decent” lay low, will we eventually find out it was some disturbed teen? Why only people of color? Is it because these police know that white people never do crazy things and give them a ritualistic veneer? Again, this is a recipe for misinformation, stereotyping, and ultimately, discrimination.”

Perhaps now that we have a new Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, who has publicly stated that distinctions between “traditional” and “non-traditional” religions” are “intolerable”, and has actually ruled favorably on cases involving adherents to Santeria, we can start to see a slow turn-around in the misconceptions and slanders that pass for wisdom among police and animal control officers. But as we enter the new year with yet another lurid Santeria dead-animal case on our hands, that turn-around seems far away and slow in coming.

04. Pagans at the Parliament of the World’s Religions: If there was one event that could point to how far modern Pagans have come in terms of international visibility and relevance in the last twenty years, it would have to be the role we play in the Parliament of the World’s Religions. From a curiosity (and scandal to some) in 1993, to having three Pagans serving on the Parliament’s executive council in 2009. Simply put, our participation and movement toward leadership roles within the global interfaith community in the last fifteen years is extraordinary. We are emerging as a significant world-wide religious movement at a time where our voice and perspective is increasingly relevant and needed.

This Parliament also saw Pagan organizations really reaching out to share the work, discussions, and connections there were being made in Melbourne. With several collaborative efforts being made to give a picture of what Pagan participation in this event was like. Even though there were some mis-communications and controversies in the process, it also made many people feel invested in these events for the first time, and no doubt paved the way for even greater things to come in the future. Modern Paganism is a global phenomenon now, and we are starting to make our voice heard globally.

03. The International Epidemic of Witch Hunts: Thousands of innocent men, women, and children are currently being killed, displaced, and abused because someone, somewhere, believes they practice “sorcery” or “witchcraft”. This state of affairs has grown so large that UN officials are  saying that this is an international problem that is destroying the lives of millions. Far from being a localized phenomenon in “primitive” or isolated villages, witch hunts and witch killings are now global in nature and spreading. Some have stated that this isn’t our problem because the victims aren’t modern Pagans, or that by expressing concern over this trend, we are somehow conflating ourselves with these poor souls, but I think this attitude fails to look at the larger picture. That, as I said yesterday, Paganism is now global, and we have thriving communities in the “over there” places like India and South Africa that are dealing directly with this madness. That we are being naive to think such lunacy could never spread to the “First World”.

“The anger and hardship that cries out for a scapegoat is right here in our backyard. Right now “socialism” or “the government” may be the popular/populist nightmare,  but that can change. A global epidemic of witch-hunts is our issue, not because we share some theological bond with a “witch” killed in Nigeria, or imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, but because we don’t live in an enlightened vacuum, free from the troubles of the “third world” … those of us who are “safe” need to realize that what happens to “witches” in India and Papua New Guinea is no longer a string of  isolated incidents that will always stay “over there”. A “global” problem means it could indeed happen here, and perhaps sooner than any of us would want to admit.”

That fact that churches in America, Australia, and the UK send funds to churches in Africa that engage in witch-hunting only further proves how interconnected this problem is to our homes. Though, to be fair, some countries need no money or encouragement from the West in executing supposed heretics and witches. Luckily some countries, like Nepal, and India, are doing something to reverse this trend, but we need an international initiative of education, aid, and reform if we are to ever see the end of this ongoing tragedy. In the meantime, for those who want to help the witch-children in Africa, two good organizations to send money to are Stepping Stones Nigeria and CRARN (Child’s Right and Rehabilitation Network). In India you can support the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

02. Patrick McCollum’s Chaplaincy Case, and his Meeting With the Obama Administration: In 2008, Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum made this list for his historic testimony concerning the treatment of Pagan prisoners before the US Commission on Civil Rights. His work continues, and this year two events have made McCollum especially newsworthy and important. First, despite some recent setbacks, his ongoing battle to overturn the California prison system’s “five faiths policy”, which limits the hiring of paid chaplains to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American adherents, has gained a coalition of  new allies.

“Though a judge recently ruled against McCollum in February (twice), saying he had no standing to challenge the policy , his federal-court appeal is gaining support from groups like the Anti-Defamation League (PDF) and Americans United (PDF) … Other groups filing amicus briefs in support of McCollum’s appeal were The Interfaith Alliance, the Hindu American Foundation, and Pagan organizations like Cherry Hill Seminary.”

This is a heartening development in the fight to see Pagan inmates afforded the same rights and treatment as other prisoners, one that may finally lead to this case being fully heard in court.

Secondly, McCollum, while at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, managed to meet with Obama Administration officials concerning how to improve interfaith relations, and limit discrimination.

“According to Rev. McCollum, the meeting was about how the Obama Administration can advance Interfaith relations in the United States. After McCollum’s discussion, officials from the White House sought him out, to have him meet with top officials of the administration to discuss how to limit discrimination and promote Interfaith education in the United States as well as internationally. Upon his return to the states, Patrick McCollum may be able to meet with members with the Justice department as well as the Offices of Faith Based Initiatives to discuss the many outstanding situations that are currently within the American court system.”

That McCollum’s strong voice for the equal treatment of Pagans, whether in prison, or out in the world, was heard in the halls of power here in America is an amazing step forward for all modern Pagans and other adherents of minority faiths. A sign that our issues and needs are being taken seriously, and that we are taking our place at the table in larger discussions concerning the role of faith in our society.

01. Dan Halloran Elected: This one was almost too easy. On November 3rd, 2009, Republican candidate Dan Halloran was elected as the next New York City Councilman for District 19. Why is that so special? He also happens to be an adherent of Theodism, and a member of New York’s Pagan community.

Dan Halloran

“While Dan Halloran isn’t the first openly Pagan candidate running for political office, he may be the first to actually have a shot at winning. Halloran, who is running as an “independent” Republican against Democrat Kevin Kim for a seat on the New York City Council, was recently outed as a prominent Theodsman by the Queens Tribune.”

Despite a campaign that was fraught with mud-slinging, rumors, bad journalism, and accusations of sabotage, Halloran emerged victorious, and proved that an out Pagan can win political office, even in the face of adversity.

“Halloran’s win [has] broken down barriers that will greatly benefit future Pagan adherents looking to get involved in the political process. It has proven that while no race in the near future will be easy for an “out” Pagan, in the right circumstances we can win.”

As if to further prove that point, in addition to Halloran’s historic win in New York, we also learned this year that Jessica Orsini, Alderwoman, 3rd Ward, City of Centralia, Missouri, is a Hellenic polytheist reconstructionist, and that the city of Asheville is happy to elect a post-theist Unitarian-Universalist to their city council. It drives home a message that the “broom closet”, if you want any real part in shaping our culture, should be a thing of the past. That if we stand up, even under bad circumstances, and just be who we are, we can, and will, succeed. It won’t be easy, and we won’t win every time, but if we are to embrace our movement’s future and move it forward, we have to be honest and proud of our identities.

In the words of Harvey Milk:

“You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.”

Here comes the future folks, let’s get ready for it.

That wraps up my top ten news stories about or affecting modern Paganism in 2009. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join me for another year of sifting through the news and views of interest to our communities. See you in 2010!

Jason Pitzl-Waters