Pagans: Now With Actual Holidays

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 18, 2011 — 55 Comments

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee has added four Pagan holidays to its calendar, meaning an excused absence can be obtained by students for religious observances. A local-interest story on the adoption of these holidays in the Tennessean has since been picked up by USA Today and the Associated Press.

The Vanderbilt policy says students must be excused from classes and other academic activities on days when their religious traditions put restrictions on labor or forbid it outright, like Eid al Fitr for Muslims and Yom Kippur for Jews. It says professors, department chairs or deans can decide if absences will be excused for religious days that are not “work-restricted,” including the Wiccan and pagan days. “This is a mechanism to let faculty be aware of these holidays, that there may be students approaching them, for example, to reschedule an exam, to make up a day of coursework or something like that because they are choosing to observe their religion on that day,” Vanderbilt spokeswoman Princine Lewis said Tuesday. “And that’s an agreement that would have to be worked out with the faculty member.”

Local conservative commentator Roy Exum has decided this is just another example of liberal decadence at Vanderbilt.

“Now I’m all for Freedom of Religion, but when pagans and witches are accorded center stage at a school where tuition is now nearly $50,000 a year, the crazies are clearly running the insane asylum. […] Before there were holidays like Yom Kippur for those of the Jewish faith and now the Muslim holidays of Eid al Fitr are included, but don’t you think a bunch of pagans dancing around a maypole “to symbolize the mystery of the Sacred Marriage of Goddess and God” is a little over the top?”

I love it when people profess to love freedom of religion, and then talk about how the principle is being taken too far. Meanwhile, response from modern Pagans has generally been very positive at this forward step towards acceptance and accommodation. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, a longtime advocate for the equal treatment of modern Pagans, struck a hopeful note on receiving the news.

“I am thankful that Vanderbilt University has expanded its diversity accommodation calendar to include some Wiccan and Pagan holidays.  It is my hope that universities, colleges, and other institutions will be inclusive of Wiccan and other Pagan traditions of those in their campus communities as well – and that accommodation of holidays extends not only to students, but to faculty and staff.”

Fox was also interviewed by the Associated Press on this story, along with Marijean Rue, a graduate of Vanderbilt’s Divinity School, who is a Witch in the Tangled Woods Tradition.

Rue, who also worked as a Vanderbilt employee after graduating, she felt comfortable telling other people her religious beliefs and felt Vanderbilt was a progressive campus that was welcoming to all religions. The addition of the holidays is a supportive sign to pagan students and faculty by the university, she said. “You feel like people aren’t going to say, ‘You’re just making this up,'” Rue said. She said young college students who are exploring religious beliefs like paganism could feel more secure in expressing themselves on campus. “When an authoritative body comes out and says, ‘We accept this,’ it really makes people feel safer,” she said.

The adoption of Pagan holidays to the list of holidays for which a student can take an excused absence has been a quietly growing phenomenon in the United States. In 2007 Marshall University in West Virginia added Pagan holidays to  its list, sparking national coverage in the process. Last year, the New Jersey State Board of Education added the eight Wiccan/Pagan “Wheel of the Year” holidays to its “official” list, while North Carolina passed a law requiring all school systems and public universities in the state to allow two excused absences per year for religious observances.

While some may feel this is political correctness run amok, it is simply a long-overdue acknowledgement that modern Pagan religions are, in fact, valid religions. Religions that have holidays and observances, and are legally recognized by the United States government. Universities like Vanderbilt and Marshall are simply codifying a reality that already exists at institutions all across the United States, that Pagan students are receiving excused absences for their holidays. Listing them simply streamlines the process of having to achieve permissions. As Pagan religiosity is further mainstreamed, no doubt Pagan faiths who don’t follow some version of the “Wheel of the Year” will also seek, and be granted, recognition as well. For those who criticize or oppose such measures, it’s simply another instance of their Christian privilege coming into play.

Jason Pitzl-Waters