Wiccan Priest Becomes Center of Religious Debate in Huntsville Alabama

Heather Greene —  June 29, 2014 — 30 Comments

On June 26, the Huntsville, Alabama City Council scheduled a regular monthly meeting to address typical city issues. The meeting, as always, was slated to begin with an invocation offered by a community member. On the schedule for June 26 was Blake Kirk, a local Wiccan priest and interfaith advocate. Two days prior to the meeting, the council secretary published the agenda online. That is when the trouble began.

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

According to reports, “concerned” citizens immediately contacted council members regarding Blake’s invitation to speak. This community pressure led to the Council excusing him from service. Blake’s name was removed from the agenda and the meeting moved forward, opening with a moment of silence.

Several hours later, the local news media reported on the story. “No Wiccan Priest for Huntsville City Council Prayer” wrote AL.Com, the first outlet to break the story. While the immediate situation has generated considerable buzz, it is actually part of much larger story; a saga that has been ongoing since 2012. In fact, this was not even the first time that the Council invited Blake to read an invocation.

Huntsville is not the homogeneous small southern town one might assume. According to Blake there are two Hindu worship centers, two Buddhist groups, several mosques, two or three Orthodox congregations, several Catholic parishes, a whole lot of Protestant Christians, and, what he believes, is the oldest Jewish congregation in Alabama. As for the Huntsville Pagan community, the population is small, made up mostly of solitary practitioners who gather occasionally for small social gatherings.

Black and his wife, Carol, are from the Oak, Ash and Thorn tradition. In 1996, they founded the Tangled Moon Coven in Clarksville, Tennessee but eventually had to move due to their military careers. Then in 2011, they settled in Huntsville where Blake took a civil service position and Carol began studying with Cherry Hill Seminary. As part of her course work for the Masters of Divinity program, Carol became involved with Huntsville’s active interfaith community and hospital chaplaincy.


Blake Kirk [Photo Credit: B.Kirk]

Not long after the Kirks arrived in Huntsville, the City Council’s invocation policy was legally challenged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Prior to spring 2012, the city council had offered only Christian prayers despite the relative diversity of its population. By May, the city opted not to waste money with a lawsuit and, based on legal precedent, instituted a policy that welcomed invocations from different faith traditions.

To help identify local faith leaders, the council turned to Presbyterian minister Frank Broyles and Huntsville’s Interfaith Mission Council (IMC). At that very same time, the Kirks were working on a project with IMC. Blake says:

After Carol and I discussed the idea, I went to Frank and volunteered to offer an invocation, pointing out that if they really wanted to demonstrate diversity, it didn’t get much more diverse than having a Wiccan involved …Frank agreed.

Rev. Broyles scheduled Blake for the Jan. 23, 2014, meeting and added his name to the agenda as “Blake Kirk, a leader in earth-based spiritual communities.” The meeting took place without incident. Blake read the following invocation:

O gentle Goddess and loving God, we pray tonight that You will bless this Council with wisdom and judgment so that they may make sound decisions for the governance of our city. And further, we pray that You will visit upon these chambers an atmosphere of comity and peace, so that all who are here tonight to make their views known may do so in an air of civility and respect, without needless rancor or hostility. These things we ask of You as children do of their loving parents, trusting that You will give unto us those gifts that we truly need. Amen.”

Blake admits that the prayer is not overtly Pagan but he didn’t want the moment to be about him. He says:

Giving the invocation for something like a city council meeting is not an occasion for demonstrating how cool one’s religion is, nor how different it is, nor to engage in behaviors calculated to shock one’s audience. It’s a very small part in a formalized structure that is as rigid in its way as kabuki theater.

There was no complaints or backlash; the meeting continued on as planned. Then, about three weeks ago, Rev. Broyles invited Blake to read once again. He agreed and was scheduled for the June 26 meeting.

On June 24, the Council’s secretary called Blake to verify his name and title for the agenda. That had not happened earlier in the year. Blake says, “Without thinking much about it, I provided her with my name … and preferred title.” This time the agenda read, “Blake Kirk, priest of the Oak, Ash and Thorn tradition of Wicca.” This wording is what sparked the controversy within the community.

Carol Kirk [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]

Carol Kirk after speech at Vietnam Women’s Memorial [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]

Over the past two days, several large organizations have become directly involved in the debate. The FRFF sent a letter to alert the Council to the “serious constitutional violations committed.” Demanding a response by Aug. 1, FRFF asks that both Blake and an Atheist be allowed to speak.

Americans United also contacted the Council directly explaining, “the U.S. Constitution does not permit local governing boards to bar anyone from giving a pre-meeting prayer on the basis of religion. Nor may anyone be barred from speaking because of the prejudices of the members of that community.” As quoted in the AU press release, senior litigation counsel said, “The city may not treat Wiccans as second-class citizens.” AU has also asked that Blake’s invocation be rescheduled, wanting a response within the next 15 days.

Both organizations reference the recent SCOTUS ruling: Town of Greece vs. Galloway (2014) rules legislative prayer as constitutional with certain limitations. As pointed out by both organizations, the SCOTUS decision states that cities must “maintain a policy of nondiscrimination.” In addition, the decision reads:

It would also be unwise to conclude that only those religious words acceptable to the majority are permis-sible, for the First Amendment is not a majority rule and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech.

The Huntsville City Council violated both stipulations when it excused Blake from service. City Attorney Peter Joffrian admitted to AL.com that the “dis-invitation” was prompted by community pressure. He also said, “We decided to pull back, to do some education maybe, and to introduce him more gently at another time.” Joffrian was unavailable for further comment.

Fortunately for the Kirks, they have not received any personal backlash. Since the story broke, they themselves have been contacted by several Pagan organizations. Cherry Hill Seminary, where Carol is a student, released a statement which reads in part:

Cherry Hill Seminary supports Carol and her husband Blake as they are pulled into public scrutiny by the viral effect of online media.  We know Carol to be an exemplary student with an honorable record of military service, nursing and service to their communities.  We encourage reasoned dialogue among all parties involved locally.  We also admonish the Huntsville City Council to refrain from inappropriate discrimination, and also to recognize the diversity represented by their one in four citizens who do not identify as Christian, understanding the strength and beauty which that diversity brings to the region.

Lady Liberty League, who has been following the case closely, said:

Blake and Carol, of the Oak, Ash and Thorn Wiccan tradition, have served the Pagan community for many years in Alabama and Tennessee. Both are U.S. Army Veterans and active in interfaith work. Join us and others in sending blessings of spiritual strength and well-being to them as they work to have a positive resolution emerge soon that upholds equal opportunities for Wiccan clergy and those of other religions in doing opening invocations for meetings of the Huntsville, Alabama City Council.  May this situation be a transformative teaching moment for Huntsville and beyond about the need to uphold Equality, Liberty and Justice for All.

Blake and Carol are both overwhelmed by all the recent attention. Although Carol herself has been doing public work as a Wiccan and as an Army Veteran, this was Blake’s first time “performing a public religious function outside of Pagan event.” He adds:

I’m doing this because if we ever want to reach a point where being a Pagan is just another religious choice, no more remarkable in general conversation  than it would be to admit to being Jewish or Lutheran, we have to start becoming engaged with the society we find ourselves living in.  …  This simply looked like the first good opportunity to do that that came along.

The Kirks hope that this issue is quickly resolved locally and amicably without the need for legal action. Blake told AL.com, “I expect the decision was made with an intent to do the right thing for what [the Council] thought were good reasons, but, whatever their intention, it becomes overt religious discrimination.” Carol adds, “We are still trying to come to an equitable resolution here at home, but we are also committed to making certain this does not get swept under the rug.”



Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    This is exactly why these meetings shouldn’t start with prayers. And it’s also exactly why, as long as they do start with prayers, it’s important to have Pagans involved. Blessings on Mr. Kirk. Thanks, Heather, for another important post.

    • Biolochic

      I disagree, they should start with prayer – it helps them to calm and center beforehand. But, the prayers should reflect ALL of the citizens. I’ve also heard some lovely Atheist “prayers”.

      • Deborah Bender

        For many people, a moment of silence fulfills the same purpose.

        • Biolochic

          Agreed. My form of prayer is sometimes casting spells, sometimes meditating and feeling the connection to the universe, sometimes being in nature and fully embracing nature, and sometimes being grateful for my wonderful children.

      • Daikan

        “He/she who tries to please everyone, pleases none.”

        • Biolochic

          That’s from my favorite Aesop’s fable “The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey”. No one is trying to please everyone. It’s about tolerance, not agreeing or pleasing.

  • Munsee

    I don’t know why anyone is surprised – these are the same vicious and bloodthirsty yahoos who condemned an innocent man to death for being wiccan and reading Aleister Crowley (Damien Echols). They’re not even decent christians, come to think of it – I don’t know what they are – but this isn’t even remotely surprising for Arkansas.

    • Kira

      This incident took place in Alabama, not Arkansas.

  • I do not know the Kirks, but from their words here we could not ask for wiser, more level-headed representatives of our religious traditions. Calm, peaceable, and persistent–a powerful combination in defense of freedom.

    I hope they can sense the support and good wishes of our community and of the gods as they stand firm.

    • blakektn

      Actually, Cat, we CAN feel it. And it helps a great deal knowing that all that support is out there. We didn’t really want this issue to come up in this way, or right at this time. But now that it has, we’re not prepared to walk away and just pretend it didn’t happen.

      Because it’s not just Wiccans and Pagans were doing this for. If any one person’s rights are trampled on, EVERYONE else’s rights are placed at risk.

      Blake Kirk

      • mptp

        Thanks for doing it, Blake!
        (from the guy you had dinner with before his trip to the ‘Stan in 2010).

      • ChristopherBlackwell

        It always takes guts to be on the front line since you are personally taking some risk. Yet without someone doing this, nothing will ever change. The status quo likes things to stay the same so it is always something of a fight.

        As You say, if this can get done without a court case, so much the better. The results are better when you leave room for a win win situation so that the city government can come out looking good as well.

        I am ready for the news photo of you and the council members smiling and shaking hands.

      • Best of luck to you both, Blake….the frightened Christians could not ask for a more reasonable and civil representative of pagan life than the two of you! You know I’m burning the midnight beeswax out here in Washington for best intentions!

        • blakektn

          There was never any doubt in our minds about that. Thank you.

      • Peter Dybing

        I delt with something like this in Florida, the advise of Selena Fox was over the top helpful, Talk to her or I would be happy to forward the advice off line.

        • blakektn

          Selena got in touch with us by e-mail on Friday, and we spoke at length with her by telephone on Saturday. She has been very helpful already.

      • Maya

        It seems the time has come for us to step out of the mists. Thank you for standing up for religious diversity and utilizing the situation to educate the larger community despite the personal inconvenience. It takes time, energy, and courage. Bless you with all three!

        • blakektn

          It’s been time for a while now. Just wish we had more people out there willing to do it. The two of us are fairly fortunate, as there’s not a lot people can do to us in retaliation at this point if they decide they really dislike what we’re doing.

          • Maya

            Yes, the more people who can come out of the broom closet, the better. Some of us have less to risk than others and I suppose it is up to us to lead the way. But if we do not stand up for our rights, we will not get them, as shown by the many liberation movements that have made strides in our lifetimes.

  • Moonlotus

    For the record, Clarksville has only one “e” in its’ spelling. I live here.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    What most irks me is that the “concerned citizens” have no public face. They are not taking part in the debate but lurking behind the scenes using the politics of secretive pressure to get their way. I must add moral cowardice to the indictment against them.

    • Veracity

      I agree. If the City Council has to face the public and the Kid’s have to face the public, I see no reason why these “concerned citizens” should not face the public if their convictions are so strong.

      I despise that phrase; concerned with what exactly? They don’t have to say, do they? They don’t have to give their names, show their faces, risk being criticized or barred or take consequences of any kind for their actions.

      • Veracity

        Autocorrect error: Kirks not Kid’s.

      • blakektn

        Ah, but the “concerned citizens” are not really acting on their convictions; they are reacting based on their fears. If Carol and I ARE acting from conviction in seeking to maintain the rights that the Constitution says that ALL of us enjoy, then which of us has the stronger foundation on which to make a stand?

        We’re in the right here, the “concerned citizens” are in the wrong, and sooner or later, we’re going to be vindicated.

        Blake Kirk

        • Veracity

          I look forward to the day. 🙂 It sounds like the council was caught with little time to react and perhaps didn’t want to give a platform to these “concerned citizens.” I hope the “dis-invitation” becomes merely a short postponement. And that communication and education in the community will triumph over fear and secrecy.

          I really appreciate your words, in both the article and your posts here, and I think you and Carol are using the right approach. May the outcome be a true interfaith understanding.

          Greetings from West TN!
          Lisa in Trenton

  • Jonathan Dexter

    SILLY people, DO NOT fear what you DO NOT understand…….. So many bigots in the world that CLAIM to be CHRISTIAN….. Rant over

  • Obsidia

    If our letters would help, please let us know where to write! The United States was formed for all people being treated equally,

    • blakektn

      A letter to Mark Russell, the president of the Huntsville City Council, would not be amiss, especially if you can put it in sober, rational terms. Angry and impassioned is nice, but talking simply and honestly about issues like the obligation of government to defend the rights of all citizens in the face of unthinking prejudice is even better. His e-mail is on the city website, which isn’t coming up for me at the moment.

      • Obsidia

        Thanks! Will do. Sounds like a good project for Independence Day. I will keep it short, succinct and heartfelt.

  • Anna Calhoun

    Blake, I couldn’t agree with you more about needing to engage society to help bring peace and understanding so that religion is no longer a barrier and Pagan becomes a comfortable term. Kudo’s to you, we will certainly be sending out positive energies to you and yours as this process gets worked through.