The “Wiccan-Proof” Invocation Model

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 13, 2011 — 61 Comments

As various government bodies in the United States navigate what is and isn’t a violation of restrictions against the endorsement of a particular religion (aka the separation of church and state) when giving an opening invocation, two models have emerged. The first model says you can have sectarian prayer (ie specific invocations to named deities or powers) so long as everyone is invited to participate, and the second model says that only nonsectarian (ie generic invocations to “god”) prayers are acceptable. Conservative Christians activists generally favor the first model, while secular civil liberties organizations broadly prefer the second. Between these two poles a variety of variations have been tested, often in the courts.

In many cases modern Pagans, specifically Wiccans, have been caught in the tumult of what is and isn’t permissible. For example, there’s the “include a Wiccan” gambit to protect yourself from accusations of “open” invocation models that seem to only invite Christians (though mere randomness sometimes isn’t enough), and then there’s the “we don’t want to include a Wiccan” model famously undertaken by Chesterfield County, Virgina. In that case a rotating sectarian model was challenged by a Wiccan when she wasn’t allowed a turn, the county board changed their policy to nonsectarian during litigation and that seemed to be enough to make exclusion of minority faiths permissible. This “nonsectarian monotheist invocations only” policy seems to have made an impression as it is now being emulated by Frederick County, Maryland.

“Board members voted 3-to-2 on Thursday to invite religious leaders to attend their meetings to invoke “divine guidance” for the commissioners and their deliberations. The religious leaders must be ordained and affiliated with a monotheistic religion with an established congregation in Frederick County. Their prayers must avoid referring to any particular religion, denomination or sect.”

The restriction to only “monotheistic” faiths is echoed in local coverage as well. An NBC Washington headline specifically called it the “Wiccan-Proof Prayer Policy.” Here’s what County Commissioners say about their new policy in a press release.

The Frederick Board of County Commissioners today approved an invocation policy to allow prayer at certain of its meetings, consistent with the Chesterfield County, Va., invocation policy upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. […] “We do not believe there would be any disagreement from the majority of Americans that we are still ‘one nation under God,’ as we say in our pledge of allegiance, and that it says on our dollar bill, ‘In God We Trust.’ Our policy does not mandate a one-county religion or endorse any religion over another, but we do acknowledge our Creator.”

While one commissioner was against the new policy because it didn’t allow sectarian prayers to Jesus, he is no doubt mollified by the reassurance that no polytheist will be allowed an invocation. Since the Chesterfield County policy went all the way to the Supreme Court (who refused to hear the appeal) no doubt many will see this path to exclusion as legally bulletproof. The only reason it hasn’t been more widely adopted by conservative Christian-dominated government bodies is that they hate nonsectarian prayer almost as much as they hate non-Christian religions. Indeed, at this moment the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, who ruled in the Chesterfield case, is hearing case on the legality of sectarian prayer on a supposed open first-come-first-served model.

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, the senior judge among the three hearing Thursday’s arguments on appeal, at one point said that the county’s policy seemed geared to favor the “faith of a majority of residents in the county.” “The result of the policy is that the prayer is overtly sectarian,” Wilkinson later said. […] Katherine Parker, the attorney for the residents who sued the county, said that despite the wording of the county policy, the real effect — as shown by the prayers that have been prayed — was to advance Christianity by the county government.

If the 4th Circuit paves the way for more sectarian prayer, will the Frederick County Government change policy? Is wink-and-a-nudge nonsectarianism enough? Either way, government officials seem to be ensuring that only monotheist lips utter prayers at meetings. Whether these models will ultimately remain “Wiccan-Proof” remains to be seen.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Ben

    That makes me sick, it's not Wiccan proof, it's polytheism proof!

  • Deb

    I still don't understand why there are prayers at government meetings at all. What part of separate do these people not understand?

    Hearing a prayer to my gods would not in any way prevent deeply christian members from forcing their faith into law. If anything it will just anger them and firm their resolve to remove my rights in any manner they can come up with. They should skip the prayers all together and do their non religious job.

    Perhaps we should spend a bit more time focusing on keeping all religion out of government.

  • Sunfell

    This might sound awful, but I would be happy if ALL invocations- religious or not- were permanently banished from public meetings. There is no place for religion- ANY religion- in government. Its inclusion never ends well.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      This might be the most fruitful route for non-Abrahamic religions to take. It's like prayer in public schools; they could still be doing it if the sectarians hadn't run out of control with it.

      Conservative Christians will complain that this is a further removal of God from the public square. Boo-hoo. They should be more aware that excesses from their own ranks is bringing it about.

    • elnigma

      Doesn't sound awful. Start the meeting after a bang on the gavel and right on time.

  • dashifen

    I guess I'm the devil's advocate on this one. I have no problem with prayer at government meetings. When I ask members of a government to separate church and state, I don't expect them to separate church and self. I know that if I were elected to office, I wouldn't be able to separate my Pagan identity from my public one because they'd both be an integral part of myself. Since I don't think that I could create this separation within myself, I don't think I can ask others to try and do it for themselves.

    My preference would be that these invocations be made private. If a group of elected officials wish to pray together or be blessed as one, more power to them, but if an atheist wish to avoid said blessing, then they can. This has the added benefit of keeping things personal so Christians who prefer to name Jesus during their prayers can do so while others can pray to their Creator or seek the blessings of Janus as they begin the process of their work.

    • badocelot

      Agreed. While I'm a staunch liberal and secularist in my politics, I don't think spiritual people should have to act like we're half-ashamed of it. Unfortunately, that seems to have become the common wisdom for liberals, who then wonder why deeply-religious conservatives are so wary of our agenda.

    • Jennifer Parsons

      Some people have sensibly suggested to simply have a moment set aside for a silent prayer or meditation of each council member's own. That way, all are quietly served: Pagans could invoke the gods of their choice, Atheists and Agnostics could abstain, Christians could thank Jesus, Muslims could remind themselves that there is one god and Muhammed his prophet, and so forth.

      What I do love is that now that laws have gotten around this controversy by making these prayers "nonsectarian" but prerequisitely monotheistic (and therefore, um, sectarian), we'll now hear howling from Christian conservatives on how our country is becoming so PC you can't even say "Jesus" in a county board meeting.

      To the boards of Frederick County, Maryland and Chesterfield County, Virginia: I have no problem with hearing you pray to Jesus in your meetings. The problem arose when you seemed to have an issue with me, for example, entreating the guidance of the Norns, or perhaps Zorya, in the same meeting. If I can live and let live, why can't you do the same?

      • Kullervo

        How many polytheists are there in the US? How many of them do we need in government in order to feel proportionately represented?

        • grimmorrigan

          According to Barton and many of his ilk, monotheism is the definition of religion.

          • Kullervo

            Fortunately, Barton is not a part of any state's or the federal judiciary.

          • vanye111


          • Kullervo

            He would have a long way to go, my friend.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            MIke Huckabee thinks the sun shines from Barton's boxers, and Huckabee is among the more plausible of Republican contenders for the 2012 nomination. (Which, to be fair, includes Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich, so being relatively plausible isn't that touch…)

          • embreis

            Huckabee just announced he won't be running for president, for which whatever Gods oversee such things be praised. Of course, some of the other candidates are as bad or worse.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I understand some of them have also drunk the Barton kool-aid.

          • Dana Corby

            Perhaps they should all use the Agnostics' Prayer from (IIRC) "Creatures of Light and Darkness?"

            Our Father who art in Heaven,
            If you are our father and do in fact live in heaven,
            Hallowed be thy name,
            If you have a name and any desire to see it hallowed…

          • Father???????

          • Dana was paraphrasing from memory. The actual version from "Creatures of Light and Darkness" by Roger Zelazny can be found at

        • Jennifer Parsons

          Thank you for pointing this out– and even if more polytheists were elected, we'd probably still have griping about how too many of them were Reconstructionists, or Unitarians, or whatever.

          I don't have a problem with being represented by a monotheist (or an atheist, come to think of it), because my religion matters very little to my political beliefs. I want my rights to religious expression and equal protection under the law to be upheld, but I imagine that most people do. To assume that all monotheists are hostile to my religious expression is both prejudiced and silly— just as it's silly to assume that I'll agree in lockstep with any other polytheist that's elected, simply because I may agree with that person that all the universe is full of the gods and ancestors.

          • Kullervo

            I'm just saying, I don't have the data at hand, but I doubt that polytheists–Hindus included–even make up half a percent of Americans. There's no legislative body I know of that's big enough for us to reasonably expect that it will reflect diversity at anywhere near that level of granularity.

            So the Democratic backstop is to make sure that individual rights of minorites are protected by the courts. and I don't see whose rights are being denied by civic nonsectarian monotheist prayer. There's no Constitutional right to inclusion, validation, or acknowledgement. There's not even really an individual right to separation of church and state. There's a right not to have your tax dollars spent on religion, but this isn't really that.

          • Jennifer Parsons

            True, no law guarantees "inclusion, validation, or acknowledgement," though the 14th Amendment does state, among other things, that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

            Keep in mind this entire problem began when a Pagan wanted to reasonably (i.e., no one was harmed, religious sensibilities excluded) express her religious beliefs in a local government meeting. This right had already been accorded to other citizens of different religions, but was not extended to her.

          • Kullervo

            Sure. Look at my comment above–I definitely think the 14th amendment's equal protection clause is the right way to deal with this kind of thing, as opposed to freedom of religion. If you're going to rotate sectarian prayers, you certainly can't constitutionally exclude Pagans.

            But I do think the local government can constitutionally institute a general policy of nonsectarian monotheist prayer at their meetings without trampling on the equal protection clause. Unless it's actually intended to discriminate against multitheists.

          • Jennifer Parsons

            Fair, but what that means is that if a local polytheistic citizen or group of citizens do point out that forcing the nonsectarian prayers to be monotheist by excluding them, then they have the right to challenge that ruling.

            Requiring prayers to be nonsectarian AND monotheistic is still just too problematic– would I be excluded, for instance, if I invoked "the gods," rather than a single god, even though it's nonsectarian for me (I usually worship the Celtic and Slavonic pantheons, and would use a term to include the deities of Abramic religions)? I can appreciate the restriction to monotheism as an attempt to make prayers nonsectarian, but it's wound up excluding people rather than including them.

            So, this ruling is either not doing what it is originally intended to do, and must be revised, or it was created to specifically exclude others. Either way, it's ineffectual at anything other than keeping out Pagans, Hindus, some Vodouisants, and others whose religions do not neatly fit the "monotheist" definition.

          • Kullervo

            Nowhere do you have a right not to be "excluded." The right to equal protection is not the same as the right to not feel left out on the playground when everyone else wants to play a different game.

          • Jennifer Parsons

            I don't think the playground metaphor applies here.

            What this means is that even if I'm elected to a county board like the one in Chesterfield County, Virginia, I can't lead a prayer invoking "the gods"– even though I'm a member of that board, a citizen of that county, even though others who aren't even members of that board have been allowed to lead prayers and even though this tradition of opening with a prayer began in the good faith of acknowledging the role of religion in the lives of citizens.

            This problem doesn't sound like a game that I only I want to play. It sounds more like a game where the rules are changed in the middle so I can't play at all, just because all the other kids suddenly decide they don't like me for some inconsequential reason.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Kullervo, US Supreme Court case law says otherwise. Prayer and flag salutes in public schools were offensive in just this way to Jehovah's Witnesses, and were banned on that basis.

          • For the record, the most recent data that I've seen shows the US Hindu population to be around 0.5% of the population, and the US "Neo-Pagan" umbrella to be a little higher than that. So let's just say approximately 1%. In contrast, Jewish people account for approximately 1.7% of the US population. It's really a pretty close figure when you think about it.

            And yes, specifying that a religion must be monotheistic to "count" is indeed a violation of the prohibition against establishing religion…as it creates a designation akin to the concept of "religio illicita."

          • Kullervo

            And yes, specifying that a religion must be monotheistic to "count" is indeed a violation of the prohibition against establishing religion…as it creates a designation akin to the concept of "religio illicita."

            Sure. But that's not what I am saying at all.

            I am saying that nonsectarian monotheist prayer, even if Constitutionally impermissible because of the establishment clause, does not violate any individual polythist's personal Constitutional rights.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            You're dead wrong. Categorical exclusion of this sort is a violation of the Establishment Clause and equal treatment under law. I fear you are projecting your personal indifference to such matters onto a law that reads differently.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            One need not assume all monotheists are hostile to your religious expression to recognize that *these* monotheists clearly are.

      • Crystal7431

        "…we'll now hear howling from Christian conservatives on how our country is becoming so PC you can't even say 'Jesus' in a county board meeting."
        Made me think of this:

    • Ursyl

      These people don't have places of worship or homes where they can express their religious side? Why is it unreasonable to expect that which is inherently private to remain so when on government time?

      Is it separating your spiritual side from yourself to do a job without praying and leading prayer for all present?

      • sarenth

        Except religion isn't private, and it is, to me, kind of unrealistic to expect it to be. People want to separate politics from religion, religion from public life, and that simply does not work. To my life, my religion informs all of my choices, as it does for most anyone. If what you're saying is "why don't we remove public prayers in government and religious admonitions from our currency" then I might be behind you. I would definitely argue with you on whether religion, however, is an inherently private thing.

  • Dennis Nock

    i believe this mess has gotten out of hand . if they want to silently pray as everyone sees fit , thats ok , but prayer at a public govt. meeting is unconstitutional. and thier stipulation about being monotheist and a locally sanctioned church seems to me is too.this policy excludes all duothiestic and polytheistic religions . from what i've seen and heard about this issue , the best route is no prayer at public govt. meetings period , no exclusions . that way no one can get thier nose out of joint . Kilm

    • Kullervo

      that way no one can get thier nose out of joint

      Except for people who think that civic religion is good for civilization.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        One could argue that civic religion is good for civilization, but one could argue much more cogently from both history and current events that mixing church and state is a terrible idea. Thus the benefits of civic religion need to be gathered without harm to separation of church and state. Which they could be but for representatives of the dominant majority controlling the expression of civic religon in a death grip that gets peeled back item by item over the decades. It's reasonable to begin to question just what the worth of civic religion is if it is the focus of incessant battles over religious equality. (The fact that you personally want to drop out of the fight doesn't mean it won't continue.)

        This represents a reversion for me. During three decades as a Humanist I was flatly opposed to any form of government prayer. When I became Pagan I thought, hey, maybe this isn't so bad if my faith can get in on it. Cases like this are pushing me back to my old position of doing away with it.

        • Thanks for this. I have been aware of the idea that monotheistic prayer is somehow acceptable in government, historically because it included a variety of Christians and Jews, with the idea that that represented the population of the governed. I wasn't aware of expressly anti-Wiccan or anti-polytheistic versions of this policy. With clearly-expressed prejudice, it really should be possible to challenge in court, excepting that people schooled in this policy are the judges.

          What has helped the cause of the fight against the five-faiths policy in California, as you have written, has been that Hindus and Jews have joined forces against the policy, though Jews are one of the "five faiths." The earth-centered religious groups may be a small minority, but there are many others that may be willing to stand up with them as they see such behavior as a general threat to religious freedom in the US.

          I live in a community where the governing body just "bangs the gavel" and gets on with it, as someone said. Gee, you know, lightning has not struck them down for it yet. I works just fine.

    • Ursyl

      That they feel the need to pass such a law in order to restrict whom may lead a public prayer at governmental functions proves that prayer does not belong at government functions. This law sets out to favor one type of religion over other types, a clear violation of the First Amendment.

      • sarenth

        It does not *prove* that prayer belongs or does not belong at government functions. All it proves is their bias, and their blatant disregard for other religions.

  • Guest

    Aren't "civic religion" and "ceremonial deism" the things Barton is using to try to argue that his brand of Christianity is obviously meant to be the state religion? Like when he says that by "nature's god" they really mean "Jesus Christ"? Not saying they're inherently bad ideas, just pointing out the application of them often leaves much to be desired.

    Plus the idea that its not really sectarian if it's monotheist because "practically everybody" in America is monotheist is, in my opinion, kind of like saying separate drinking fountains isn't really racist because most people are white. My fear is that just as "separate but equal" is anything but I have a feeling that "non-sectarian but somehow still explicitly monotheist" will be likewise.

    Kind of like how all of these "libertarian" conservatives never had a problem with civil marriage until the LGBT community advocated for same-sex civil marriage. Then all of a sudden civil marriage is this big ugly statist monster in our bedrooms who's head must be chopped off. Like how they used to have sectarian prayers until a Wiccan wanted to pray, then sectarian prayers are mysteriously a terrible idea. Funny how that works.

  • Guest

    Someone should go to one of these "non-sectarian prayers" and invoke the Goddess. Then when they try to complain that your prayer is sectarian remind them that classically god (in the deist, non-sectarian sense they're supposedly talking about) has no gender so therefore it should be just as appropriate to refer to "god" as "goddess" or even "it". If they try to insist that you're just a Wiccan trying to circumvent their attempts to keep Wiccans from praying at their meetings you should remind them that their concept that the deist god has to be referred to by male pronouns is a sectarian one. Then just sit back and watch the fireworks.

  • Lori F – MN

    Why can't they just have a moment of silence before the meeting for each member to recall their duty to them constituants?

  • Alex Pendragon

    I do not understand how Pagans, of all people, do not understand how our constitutional protections against State-sanctioned establishment or promotion of ANY faith protect ALL of us from the tyranny of the majority. When a majority Christian governmental board of any kind is allowed to treat me differently because I am one of those "devil worshiping witches", then my constitution has failed me, and will fail all of us in the end when we descend into sectarian hell.

  • I agree with those who say that a moment of silence is the most appropriate course of action. That is the only way I see for nobody to have their constitutional rights infringed. However; I also realize that for some people that will never be acceptable because they feel that this nation is a Christian one, even with a Freedom of Religion clause.

  • Well, I went to the "Country Board Considers Wiccan-Proof Prayer Policy" page and left the following comment (which I only see if I am logged into facebook?):

    De facto theocracy happens with Five Faith policies — first they identify external enemies and then they (nice-nasty) fight for dominance between the denominations regarding what family values are, what the parameters of debates are, what Christian "is" in our part of the world, and who is top dog politically, socially, and financially. They don't do it through violent religious wars anymore, but the end game is still all about money and power (the wrong kind of power).

    Five Major Faith policies (monotheism only) pander to religious majoritarianism and religious majoritarianism has The Forces of Good™ vs. The Forces of Evil™ dualism at its roots. Notice the trademark. Only one denomination of the right monotheism is supposed to "win." That's the unspoken assumption or bet. It's just a sneaky way of kinda sorta establishing religion while keeping up appearances of a monotheistic brotherhood all while we know there are multiple predictably-surprising cracks in that facade the size of the Grand Canyon (e.g. the rampant Islamophobia of today).

  • Perhaps having "In Go we Trust" on the $ bill isn't doing it much good at the moment? This is just one area that the christian fundies are trying to flex their muscle. From what I can see of the big picture – including here in Australia, the fundies are beoming more afraid of muslims taking over, but as many are afraid to speak out against them, they are targeting pagans, who they see as easier targets. And I have to ask, who holds the trademark on "The forces of good & evil"? Thats a bit scary.

  • I'm still in the separation of church and state camp. The authors of the Constitution did NOT hold a group prayer first, although the Theists among them likely sent up frequent prayers for patience.

    • J__

      Wiccans have the Drygton prayer. That SOUNDS pretty monotheist. I'm sure we could probably find a few "all gods are one god" Wiccans lying about the place to wind em up with *cheeky grin*

  • If they want to pray, have a moment of silence, or they can meet before the official opening of the meeting and have their own prayer circle, just like that group of kids did at my high school. They used to meet at the flag poll before the official start of school and pray. Heck, lets see some Wiccans showing up just before these meetings to pray too, and invite the Hindus and other polytheists along too! There is a UU congregation in Frederick, MD, invite them as well!

    • Cathryn Bauer

      I have never understood why a simple moment of silence cannot be the standard way to begin a meeting.

  • Pitch313

    Are Wiccans such bad citizens that we need to "wiccan-proof" political life against them?

  • Guest

    Funny how they missed the part about making silent prayers in the closet and how those who preach loudly on the street corner already have their reward.

    On a strange aside, I was never Christian and I never even met one until I was 16. Actually I suppose I more than likely did meet some before that but they were never vocal about it and certainly never witnessed. I actually didn't even know what Christianity was until I was 18, it was just never a subject of interest or anything anyone made a big deal about. Maybe that has to do with growing up in the Southwest? I don't know.

    I just wish more Christians (and everybody else too frankly) were like the one's I encountered back then: so quiet about their religion they blended into the woodwork and got on with their lives.