Wiccans Enter the RFRA Public Debate in Georgia

Heather Greene —  March 18, 2015 — 21 Comments

ATLANTA, Ga – It has been a year since we looked at the current debates over RFRAs or Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. In 2013, we reported on a Kentucky bill that had been prompted by concerns over the safety of Amish Buggies. In March 2014, Arizona’s infamous “anti-gay” bill was making news, and eventually vetoed. This past summer SCOTUS ruled in the Hobby Lobby case, raising awareness of the application of RFRA laws within society.

These are only three examples of a far reaching legislative battle over the boundaries and practical exercise of religious freedom. Basically, the debate comes down to whether we need more precise legislation to protect religious freedom or whether the state and federal constitutions are enough.

In the past month, the debate has flared up in the deep south. Up until February, there were two proposed “religious freedom” bills before Georgia’s state legislature. Representative Sam Teasley’s (R-Marietta) HB218 called “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act,” and State Senator Josh McKoon’s (R-Columbus) SB129 called “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

When SB129 was approved by the Georgia State Senate on March 5, Teasley abandoned HB218 and joined in supporting McKoon’s bill as it moved into the House. Opponents are calling this bill the harshest state RFRA yet, because the bill is very open-ended in defining burden and religious exercise. For example, the bill reads:

‘Exercise of religion’ means any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief, including but not limited to the practice or observance of religion under Paragraphs III and IV of Section I, Article I of the 74 Constitution of this state or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, or the use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise. [71-76]

The recent Senate approval raised the volume on the conversation, bringing out some new players, including Atlanta-resident Elton John. He said, “[SB129] claims to protect religious freedom and encourage tolerance. In reality, it encourages the same discrimination that’s haunted the South for too long.” John goes on to explain how the bill will target Atlanta’s LGBT community, calling it “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” that will only “institutionalize the hate some people hold in their hearts.”

On March 11, the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, based in Washington state, published its own response to the Georgia bill. High Priest Dusty Dionne wrote:

We thank the state of Georgia for its forward thinking and dedication to religious freedom. It has been a reality long-held by Wiccans that the laws did not extend far enough toward our own exercise of religion [50-15A-2. line 71] to be truly encompassing of our freedom to worship. The original Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as passed by our illustrious president Bill Clinton, was a landmark move that opened the door for minority religions, and small local churches to have more safety to worship within their communities than ever before. This new bill will create sweeping changes that will open the doors for the Wiccans within Georgian communities to worship, work, and LIVE their religion to its fullest.

Dionne goes on to list a number of ways in which the Georgia RFRA will support Wiccan religious practice and lifestyles, including the growing of sacred plants and “multi-partner relationships.” Dionne told The Wild Hunt that in no way is that list of potential protections exhaustive.

Logo Aquarian Tabernacle Church

Logo Aquarian Tabernacle Church

Dionne’s sent his article to all Georgia state senators as well as the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC). On March 13, AJC writer Jim Galloway responded in a post titled “An Unusual Voice enters the religious liberty debate.” Another local news site picked up on the story in a post titled, “Georgia’s Religious Freedom Act is Opposed by Elton John, But Supported by the Wiccans.”

It wasn’t long before ATC’s article began to pick up momentum in cyberspace. One writer said that the statement “will go down in the Annals of the History of Bluff-Calling,” and that he hopes “the Aquarian Tabernacle Church pushes this as far as they can.” A Heathen blogger simply said, “Honor to the Wiccans who came up with this one” and then contemplated whether Heathens should “try some humorous responses to discrimination as well.”

As Dionne’s article cycled around, Georgia Wiccans began to speak out, and many questioned Dionne’s approached. Atlanta-resident and blogger Sara Amis responded saying, “We can fight for our own,” pointing out the number of Wiccans present in the state. In “Pray Naked Re-Dux,” Amis wrote, “Dusty Dionne … greets this news with less hostility than I, also with a list of new freedoms the law could grant to Wiccans. (But he left out naked rituals in public! an oversight I’m sure.)” Having followed this debate since its beginnings, Amis goes on to say:

The Georgia state constitution already offers very robust protections to religious expression, even more than the First Amendment. Unnecessary laws are generally a pack of trouble on principle, and many people feel…I am one of them…that the only “protection” this will actually offer is for bigots in mainstream faiths.

Other Wiccans voiced direct frustration with ATC’s efforts. Like Amis, blogger and Wiccan Priestess Lydia M. Crabtree is opposed to RFRA legislation, but she expressed real concerns over the strategies used by the Washington-based ATC. She said that they “are confusing the issue.”

Agreeing with Crabtree is local Wiccan Priest Matthaios Theadoros. He said that he believes the article is “well-intended” but that he “uncomfortable” with the methodologies. Theodorus said, “Instead of working to undermine RFRA, I think it is only going to cast suspicion on Wicca.” He explained:

They are seeming to set up Wicca as one that participates in polyamory and insinuates some sort of questionable herb use. Though some Wiccans may be polyamorous, it is disingenuous to suggest that it is an inherent part of the religion. To suggest Wiccans should be exempt from urine or blood tests on the basis that Wiccans do not want others having our essence is going to come off as foolish at best and suspicious at worst considering that part comes after a section on allowing the use of certain herbs that cannot be locally grown

As Amis pointed out, the AJC reporter seemed to be “confused about whether [the ATC article was] a hoax.” And that was the overriding sentiment present in local reactions. Was ATC serious? Was it a hoax? Was it bluff? When asked, Dionne confirmed that he was indeed serious and explained:

If the bill goes through, this will be part of what we will be coaching Wiccans to accept as part of their rights, and then we will start dealing with winning the court cases, and that will cement our rights. Change can be made, and if they give us a framework of law that they think is going to give them exclusive religious rights, then what we are going to do is set our beliefs into that framework, and we legally should have the same expansion of our rights.

Dionne pointed out that this type of work is part of the ATC legacy. Peter Pathfinder was instrumental in past religious freedom battles. Dionne, now as the High Priest of the Keepers of the Gate ATC Mother Church, High Summoner of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church Intl. and Consort to the Arch Priestess Belladonna LaVeau, is compelled to pick up that baton. When asked why the Georgia bill and not the many others being proposed in other states, he said, “I am new in my position. Give me some time.”

And, there are many other RFRAs being debated currently. Americans United (AU) recently published an report on the various bills that have either “picked up steam” or “stalled out,” including the Federal RFRA.

As for Georgia’s bill, the debate rages on. Proponents continue to defend SB129’s non-discriminatory basis, and that it’s only purpose is to protect “people of faith” and their right to practice.

Opponents argue that the RFRA has nothing to do with religious freedom. Just yesterday, Georgia Unites Against Discrimination held a rally on the steps of the capitol to protest this point. Like many others, the group stresses that the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution are more than enough to ensure religious freedom in Georgia.

[Photo Credit: Ken Lund /Flickr]

State Capitol [Photo Credit: Ken Lund /Flickr]

However, there is one detail being overlooked in this entire conversation – one that may be of particular interest to Georgia’s Pagans and others practicing minority religions. The proposed bill references “Paragraphs III and IV of Section I, 19 Article I” of the Georgia constitution as the marker of the state’s religious freedom laws.This portion of the constitution reads, “Each person has the natural and inalienable right to worship God…”

Because of its open-ended language, SB129 actually nullifies that particular criteria. It defines the “Exercise of Religion” as “including but not limited to the practice or observance of religion under Paragraphs III and IV of Section I, Article I of the Constitution…” In other words, while the new bill may open doors to discriminatory behavior, abuse and similar stated issues, it also appears to be serving to undermine a section of Georgia’s state constitution that is, in the end, problematic itself.

The Georgia House is scheduled to vote on SB129 on April 2.

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.
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    While it can be annoying or — in the South — even evocative of unpleasant history to have out-of-staters involve themselves in one’s “stuff” I think Matthaios Theodoros overstates his case against the ATC document. Nowhere does ATC say polyamory or ganga is the norm in Wicca. It is indeed the RFRA bill that extends its protection beyond actions compelled by religious authority. ATC is simply pointing out what that means in certain contexts.Of course Elton John is right. The actual intent of that provision is to permit people whose conservative Christian churches do not actually command them to discriminate against BGLTQQIA to do so anyway and claim religious sanction. IMHO the direct rebuttal and the ATC approach both have their place: Argue on the known ground that the opponent stands on, yes, but also show what the proposal lets The Other do and suggest you might do it.

    • Matthaios

      I’m not entirely sure where to start on your first sentence except to simply say that this isn’t about out-of-staters involving themselves in our “stuff”…especially because Dusty and Belladonna are originally from Georgia.

  • John Ross

    I’m very proud and supportive of Dusty and the ATC. Well spoken and well done. When legislation supports individual expression of belief, it can’t help but serve us all. Let we pagans, and they Christians (or whoever) each live lives distasteful to the other. Let us each reap the social and economic consequences and benefits of our preferences. BUT, let neither side use the power of the state as a weapon against the other. That principle is the heart of the RFRA, and it’s a principle I support without reservation.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      This is a stirring statement but I’m not sure whether you are for or against RFRA. Are you willing to let Christians “live lives distasteful” to us including discrimination in the marketplace against BGLTQQIA? With respect, we can’t get the power of the state out of the picture. If a wedding photographer or a wedding-cake baker refuses service to same-sex couples, the state supports one side or the other.

      • kenofken

        I see two underlying points which are not mutually exclusive. I oppose the RFRA and the motivations behind it. At the same time, if they insist on passing it, I want to make sure they eat every last piece of fruit that tree bears.

        • dustydionne

          Congratulations on understanding my exact motivation.

  • Many Pagans have worked long and hard to have our voices heard, in the media and by politicians. Sadly, I’m not sure we’ve worked as long and hard on having the wisdom to know what best to say, once we’ve got that attention.

    • Northern_Light_27

      It’s not easy to do this kind of concentrated religious freedom trolling when you’re also trying to be accepted as “just like everyone else”. There’s a reason why the Satanic Temple is uniquely positioned to do this in a way that Pagan groups aren’t.

      • And the difficulty with trolling is being mistaken for a troll. I may not be working to be seen as “just like everybody else,” but I’d really rather not be represented by trolls.

        I find this disturbing in a way that I did not find the recent attempt to revive the ACOW.

        • kenofken

          ACOW wasn’t really much of a threat to our public image so much as an insult to our intelligence. As for the ATC, satire may or may not always be the best way to engage an issue, but I’m not comfortable with the idea that Wiccans should self-censor for the sake of cultivating some sort of unimpeachable safe and mainstream image for our movement.

          The sort of half-joking “scare tactics” employed in this instance have proven to be one of the most effective tools in the struggle for true religious freedom and church/state separation in this country.

          There are battles to be won in court, but nothing runs Christian dominionists off the road like a good game of chicken. “You want religion in all of the public sphere? Fine, but guess what we’re bringing to the picnic”? It works, and Satanists and atheists shouldn’t be the only ones “cleared” to use it, because the underlying issues affect all of us.

          Much of what was written clearly has a tongue in cheek aspect to it. Some has a ring of truth to it. Polyamory is not a commandment of any sort in Wicca the way it was in the old Mormon church, but it is an aspect of our community, and I don’t have a problem supporting their rights publicly, as a Wiccan. I also proudly acknowledge and support the traditions of ritual (and recreational) nudity in our movement.

          They’re not the central legal battles of our community, but if Georgia is foolish enough to make religion the Ring of Power over all other considerations of law, they better believe we’re going to use it as well as they do.

  • g75401

    Face it, whatever religion you profess, it is a CHOICE you made. If we stand by and let people who made a CHOICE bully people who didn’t, we are no better than the most bigoted xtian on the planet.

  • Diana Sinclair

    This may all sound wonderful to some, but mark my words: this bill is for Christians ONLY. Once Wiccans, pagans. Goddess worshippers or whoever demand the right to public expression of their faith (be it nudity, open relationships, ritual drugs, denying cakes for confirmation parties or whatever) you can bet your cauldron that the State of Georgia will clamp down on any of those expressions of “religious freedom” faster than you can say “Scarlett O’Hara”.

    • kenofken

      Of course it is intended for Christians only, but if it passes into law, the legislature has no control over how it is applied in the real world. That falls to courts, and attempts to favor one religion over another always fail in court if the litigants stay the fight. The South has a tradition of not believing that the 14th Amendment applies there, but it does, and so any door created for Christians opens for the rest of us.

      Moreover, the geniuses in the Georgia legislature have specifically written this bill to make it much harder for the state to prevail in maintaining any regulation or restriction against someone who asserts religious belief in any way. It basically says “If we, the State of Georgia, fight someone on a religious freedom claim, we do so with both feet nailed to the floor.”

      Let’s look at just one of these hypotheticals: The “certain herbs” obliquely referenced. We’ll presume they mean marijuana, though it could also encompass things like Ayahuasca used for spiritual ends. More than one or two Wiccans I know smoke. None that I’ve ever met consider it integral to their religion. It’s not a sacrament or central in any way to mainstream Wicca. Guess what though: Under Georgia’s bill, it doesn’t have to be. If a litigant says it’s part of their religious beliefs, it is, and it’s every bit as valid as a Muslim’s dietary laws or five daily prayers.

      Now, Georgia left itself an out. They can still restrict an activity if they prove a compelling state interest. That means they have to demonstrate a Damn Good Reason to restrict a religious activity, not just a rational or defensible interest. Assuming they do that in the case of marijuana, they still have to demonstrate that the law – prohibition in this case – is the least restrictive means to serve that interest, ie public safety. It’s gonna be hard to show that prohibition is the least restrictive way to address those concerns, now that states have legalized the herb for both medicinal and recreational use, and arguably have shown better outcomes than prohibition ever did.

      • dustydionne

        I was not talking specifically of Marijuana. I was more speaking of the herbs (such as buttercup) that hit the homeland security lists as possibly dangerous after 9/11 and the animal parts are specific to the many Wiccans who practice reclaiming animal fetishes from road kill. No more getting in trouble for a hawk wing. (And smoking Marijuana, though not what I was talking about when speaking of herbs, IS a Wiccan tenant. It’s one of the 8 paths of Power “Use of drugs and potions”)

        • Freeman

          The prohibition of raptor parts is Federal, so you will still need your CDIB card and DOI permit if you have a hawk wing or whatever.

          • dustydionne

            Ita the same as we have seen in Washington, Colorado, and Alaska, with legalizing marijuana. The ban on Marijuana is federal, as well. It is, in fact, classified in the least useful, most harmful catagory a drug can be put into: Scedule 1. Right next to heroin. So in the same manner, it will be up to the federal government to step in and enforce a law that suddenly will be counter to the state law. The Fed isn’t always keen on that, even though you are correct about the federal prohibition.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I wish I could be as optimistic about the Feds. In Barack Obama and Eric Holder we have two guys who know first hand the absurdity of marijuana prohibition and the dangers of heroin, and we have in the DEA an agency that has lost all credibility except among die-hard law enforcement and secular puritans like William Bennett. The configuration is different relative to raptor wings: The bird protection lobby is respectable and the top Feds have no familiarity with religious use. It could be a lot more uphill. (Not that marijuana was an easy glide; legalization agitation has been around for fifty years.)

          • kenofken

            Marijuana prohibition is not going to end because of any religious rights argument or because the Feds decide to do the right thing. It will end because of money. There is no support left in the culture to imprison vast numbers of people over marijuana, and there is less and less public money available to maintain that insane infrastructure even if we wanted to.

            On the other end, the people in the marijuana trade are not the minorities and counterculture hippies the establishment loves to hate. They are, increasingly, the CEO and venture capital class, ie People Who Count.

            States and their congressional delegations are not going to sit idly by and allow their old Skull and Bonesmen from Yale, the guys who buy their elections for them – go down in some federal prosecution for their investments in the Next Big Thing.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            You’re certainly right about whose oar is in these waters. Here in Ohio we have three or four legalization propositions heading for the ballot, and rather to my own surprise I’m planning to vote against the best organized one because it sets up a growers’ monopoly.

  • Wolfsbane

    I’d like to announce the William Tecumseh Sherman Savannah Campaign Memorial Asatruar Viking Church Burning March Scheduled to start this November 15th in Atlanta and ending in Savannah whenever we get there or until we run out of accelerants.
    I encourage everyone to come out and burn one for Billy. 🙂

    • kenofken

      I don’t know. I suspect laws against arson would meet even the strict scrutiny standard Georgia wants to impose on itself 🙂