Archives For Heather Greene

Much has already been said about the current crisis in the Middle East. For decades, a violent tragedy has been playing out between Israel and the Palestinian territories. The death toll continues to rise, year after year, as the headlines pile up.

When cutting through all political propaganda, cultural biases and angry rage, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, at its very simplest, a struggle over land rights and nationhood. It is a battle that has been fueled by hardened mistrust and stubborn resolve.

"Damaged housing gaza strip april 2009" by Marius Arnesen - Flickr/CC lic./Wikimedia

“Damaged housing gaza strip april 2009″ by Marius Arnesen – Flickr/CC lic./Wikimedia

As the bombs drop, most of the world watches the struggle play out through the international media. In recent months, there have been countless reports of mass casualties as Israeli bombs fall on residential areas killing Palestinian families and destroying schools. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that there have been over 1900 Palestinian deaths, most of which were civilian. The United Nations Human Rights Council is readying to take legal action against Israel for war crimes.

Over the last 66 years, Israeli actions have caused significant economic suffering for the Palestinian population, including the 1000s of Palestinian refugees, who now live in camps throughout the region. Yesterday, The New York Times featured an article on Belal Khaled, a Palestinian photojournalist who has turned many of his photographs into expressive works of art. He, and other artists like him, consider themselves to be part of the resistance to the Israeli occupation and aggression.

At the same time, Hamas has recently been accused of stationing itself and its weapons purposefully within residential areas. On Aug. 5, an NDTV Indian news crew reported that Hamas had launched rockets from a field near its hotel in Gaza. NDTV only published the article and corresponding video after its crew was safely out of the area. The article reads, “Just as we reported the devastating consequences of Israel’s offensive on Gaza’s civilians, it is equally important to report on how Hamas places those very civilians at risk by firing rockets deep from the heart of civilian zones.”

Shai Ferraro, an Israeli Ph.D. candidate in history and student of modern Paganism, similarly reported: “Hammas official television is telling families who live near homes of Hammas terrorists in Gaza to stand on the rooftops of the houses … and become martyrs. This is while Hammas leadership itself is safely ensconced in bunkers under Gaza’s main hospital.”

Still classified by the U.N. as a terrorist organization, Hamas is an Islamic extremist group that has a long history of supporting and promoting acts of violence.Since its inception in the 1990s, Hamas has been responsible for countless suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. Recently, the organization released a music video calling for the elimination of the “roaches” – Zionists and Israelis. It was allegedly made to scare Israelis.

In a climate of such disordered violence, the fundamental disagreements between the people themselves – the Israelis and Palestinians – are buried beneath rubble, ashes and blood. The majority of both populations want the comfort and community that comes with nationhood, including dedicated lands on which they can raise their families, govern their lives and enjoy their culture unimpeded by prejudice, restrictions and threats of extermination. However, all the world sees is failed diplomacy, violence, fear and hate.

Unfortunately, the international media has not helped the situation. In an article entitled, “Israel, Gaza, War & Data,” writer Gilad Lotan demonstrates how one single bombing event can have a number of different headlines and, ultimately, story angles. It is sensationalized media propaganda at its best, and the truth is wedged somewhere in between it all.

As such, the opinion-making process has managed to polarize an already volatile situation. The crisis in Gaza is complex and cannot be reduced to a good-versus-evil scenario, despite the efforts of the media. Max Fischer at Vox.com offers the most comprehensive, balanced explanation of the struggles between these two peoples. His article “The 11 Biggest Myths About Israel-Palestine” discusses various common “facts” that punctuate international debates, including both the truths and lies within them. He breaks the myths down into short digestible, well-explained essays. For example, Fischer says:

Myth #2: This is not, despite what your grade school teacher may have suggested, a clash between Judaism and Islam over religious differences. It’s a clash between nationalities — Israeli and Palestinian — over secular issues of land and nationhood.

Myth #9: Things are basically peaceful during periods of relative calm …. Periodically the situation will escalate so rapidly, with such relatively slight provocation, and to such a level of severity, that the rest of us can’t ignore what every Palestinian and many Israelis already know: the conflict may be quieter some days than it is on others, but it is still active, still destroying lives and communities, and still scarring these two societies every day.

To take a closer look at the realities of living within the walls of this crisis, we turned to several Pagans and Heathens living in Israel. Neferasta, a 26-year-old Kemetic Pagan Priestess, suffers from PTSD caused by previous conflicts. She says, “PTSD is not talked about but dealing with difficult memories from events that create trauma get worse in wartime. When I hear alarms, I feel lost, detached, confused. It brings me back in time to the war zone.”

Neferast, who currently lives in Haifa, was in the army during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and served as a police officer with the Israeli Defense Forces. She says, “It’s really hard for me to talk about it, I’ve seen people die in front of my eye, those horrible images haunt my dreams.”

Moon Daughter

Moon Daughter

Moon Daughter, an eclectic Pagan from Moshav and co-organizer of the country’s yearly Mabon Festival, says,

For most Pagans in the west, war is a theoretic notion. They have never experienced it. As I took my sleeping 2-year-old in my arms and tried to walk calmly to the closest bomb shelter, my earliest memory came to life, being with my mother and neighbors in a bomb shelter when Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur on 1973. I was four.

Moon Daughter calls upon her spiritual beliefs in attempt to understand what is happening within her country. She says:

For a pagan and a champion for peace, war in confusing and its outcomes are heartbreaking. It is a violation of the Goddess’ gifts of love and life. I keep remembering that ancient peaceful Goddess civilizations were ruined by warlike religions and either had to resort to violence as well, or perish.  Where does that leave me when I have rockets raining down on my home? I think of all the women and children on the other side and wish for all peace loving people everywhere would unite against this patriarchal culture of war.

Illy Ra, a Kemetic Pagan living in the small town of Kadima in central Israel, has become frustrated with the polarizing of opinions caused by the sensationalized international reporting. She says:

Many are not aware that by posting propaganda, they are promoting war and violence on both of the sides by using blame discourse. What is blame discourse and how does it promote war? This discourse focuses on each side blaming the other, and searches for faults as a method to win or cause damage to the other. Here comes the bystanders’ role in this war. By participating in blame discourse, through the posting of propaganda that breeds hate, the international community causes people from these countries to cling to extreme views and believe peace is unachievable.

As Illy Ra sent her response, bomb sirens and blasts were heard. All of that happening during a supposed cease-fire.

Shai Feraro, has also been experiencing the violence firsthand and recently reported on Facebook:

Woke up in 3:28 a.m. to a rocket siren here in the northern city of Haifa. No boom tonight, but the concentration of petrochimical/oil industries in the Bay of Haifa makes it a desirable target for the terrorists. Still that is nothing compared to the daily nightmare citizens of southern Israel experience, with countless attacks a day.

While we all watch from our seats across the oceans or continents, we can only know the truth from what is reported to us by the international media or by friends and family in the region. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach any Pagans within the Palestinian territories. However, as is the case with many of the Islamic regions, Pagans are very well hidden. As one person told us, “it would be dangerous for a Pagan to come out of the broom closet in that culture.” This was corroborated by our contacts in Cairo.

Photo from the Vision Camp Facebook Public Album

Over a six-day period in late July, peace workers from both Israel and the Palestinian territories attended a “vision camp.” During that time, over 50 people gathered in the West Bank to hold vigils and discussions about the crisis. The camp was called “We refuse to be Enemies” and eventually inspired the social media activist tag #werefustobeenemies. During the 6 day retreat, the group developed a vision statement which reads, in part:

As peaceworkers from Israel, Palestine and various other parts of the world, we have been holding a peace vigil in the middle of a war in the West Bank over the last several days. We are gathering here under very simple conditions, creating community life, sharing from our hearts, in silence and in tears, in the midst of shootings and bombings. We are bearing witness and trying to stay in Grace. We have been faced with this senseless killing every day….

What we all agree on is: Enough! Stop this killing. No solution can come from war! Each innocent victim of this war is one too many! We refuse to be enemies. We are calling out to all parties: Stop this war! Our feelings are beyond words, but we can no longer be silent. The civil population is being lied to on both sides, and the world is mostly silent and misled by the media…

We have decided to step out of our personal identification and look beyond all the different worldviews toward the fundamental healing of trauma. Compassion is not a question of worldview! Compassion is the emergency call of planet earth and the heart of humanity… 

During our interview, Illy Ra had the same message. “When will this war end?” she wondered aloud. She asks everyone to “avoid blame discourse” and only “promote human solidarity and peace.” She says, “How can this be done? By doing anything else, from global meditation, prayer and candle vigils for hope, anything positive that causes human hope and not human despair.”

While the civilian peace efforts continue, the current cease fire is nearing its expiration. Unfortunately, the two governments have yet to figure out how to put aside their pride, mistrust and weapons to find a compromise that would peaceably enact their people’s wishes in a workable form. As Max Fischer wrote, “Myth #11: Everyone knows what a peace deal would look like.”  Until that can happen, the coldest and, possibly, only knowable truth in this crisis is that generations of people, in two richly diverse world cultures, continue to suffer at the hands of unending conflict.

 

The immigration of unaccompanied minors is not new to the U.S. border patrol or the country as a whole. However, as reported by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, the number of these children has more than doubled over the past year from 31,491 to 62,998. According to reports, the recent wave is due to an increase in refugees from Central American countries. Many of these children are victims of domestic or civic violence, drug wars and other forms of extreme abuse. Obama has called the problem an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Refugee Teenager [Courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle]

In recent months, the immigration story has been all over the news as the American political engine steams ahead in its attempts to grapple with the crisis at its southern borders. Although the number of incoming children has dropped significantly since June, officials expect the number to rise again once the heat of summer wanes. Even if that doesn’t happen, there are still many children living in U.S. or Mexican detention facilities and shelters waiting for something, anything.

Will these young refugees be deported back to the violence and strife of their homelands? Will they ever see their families again? Will they be allowed to stay in the U.S. and, if so, what will become of them once here?

In spite of the “urgent humanitarian situation” and any failings in the immigration system, hope does find some of these children. In recent months, the U.S. Government has sent a large number of unaccompanied minors into communities that already have large, thriving Central American immigrant populations. With the help of a sponsor, these children can start school and a whole new life.

In one such town in Georgia, a public school system is readying itself for another large influx of Central American refugees. The Dalton City Schools of northwest Georgia has created a special program to assist unaccompanied immigrant children adapt to their new life. The “Newcomer Academy,” established within the city’s Morris Innovative High School, was specifically created to cater to children who have fled Central America. School Official, Caroline Woodson told a local news station:

Really the big challenge for our students doesn’t even come with academics. It comes with feeling safe and feeling that they have adults they can trust.

Over the past year, Georgia alone has received over 1,100 immigrant children. Other states, such as Florida and Texas, have also received large groups of these children. With the help of state-funding, private advocacy groups, personal sponsors and extended-family members, the children are acclimated to the classrooms and given a new “lease on life.”

However, not every child can find a sponsor, can reconnect with family, or has the resources needed to open an entry point into U.S. system. For those children left behind or those yet to arrive, there are organizations advocating for their care, raising funds for legal fees, and performing community outreach to raise awareness.

Fence with prayer ribbons [Courtesy T. Thorn Coyle]

Fence with prayer ribbons [Courtesy T. Thorn Coyle]

For example, in Arizona, the Florence Immigration and Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP) provides “free legal services to men, women, and unaccompanied children detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Arizona.” Similarly, in Texas, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) “promotes justice by providing free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families and refugees in Central and South Texas.” In California, an organization called Pangea strives to “stand with immigrant communities and to provide services through direct legal representation, especially in the area of deportation defense.”

To continue the work, these nonprofit advocacy organizations need money. Recently, several Pagan groups have come out in support of these organizations’ efforts to protect the rights of unaccompanied immigrant minors. Using their own voices, these Pagans are attempting to amplify a message of need.

On June 20, Come As You Are Coven (CAYA) launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for FIRRP in Arizona. Priestess Amata Maia writes:

We are looking to create a miracle for the many unaccompanied children who have been crossing the border into Arizona and Texas. These children are fleeing the gang violence in Central America and Mexico.  Many of them have lost their families to this violence and are trying desperately to escape the same fate. Currently there are so many children coming in that they are being warehoused like cattle. 

The fundraising goal was set at $500 and has raised, to date, $815.

T. Thorn Coyle leading prayer [Courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle]

T. Thorn Coyle leading prayer [Courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle]

On Thursday, T. Thorn Coyle participated in a vigil outside the San Francisco Federal Building with other community religious leaders. The group gathered together to ask Obama to expedite the immigration processes for unrepresented children and to draw attention to the crisis. Coyle read the vigil’s opening prayer. In retrospect, she said:

[I] called upon Demeter to give us strength. I called on she who knows what it is to grieve for a child, and she who perseveres. And I asked Tonantzin, Goddess of the Americas, to bless and protect the children. I then led a chant to these Goddesses and to the children at the border.    

In addition to a diversity of faith leaders, the vigil was attended by several children and adults who had survived the crossing. They also spoke out, sharing their lived horrors and tears of suffering. Thorn recalls:

A young man approached me to thank me for being there. I’d seen him singing along with my chant. He was the child of a deportee … I listened to the testimony of a family only recently escaped from El Salvador. They were all in tears. The father refused to work for the drug gangs and was killed. The women of the family were raped, and threatened. They are staying with a brother and may still be returned. 

Coyle was not the only Pagan at Thursday night’s vigil. Claire “Chuck” Bohman, an Interfaith minister and Reclaiming Witch, was also there to lend an ear and voice. She said:

The truth is that the vast majority of us are immigrants here. One side of my family were German immigrants who first migrated to Canada and walked across the border before they settled on a farm in Ohio. In a different time and place, the children of the border could have been my grandmother. I invite you to take a breath and connect with your ancestors. How is it that they came to live on this land? Who did they displace when they settled? 

Both Bohman and Coyle expressed compassion for the children but also a sense of civic duty. Bohman says:

The problems in these countries are connected with NAFTA and US foreign and economic policy. We have an obligation to these children and it’s time for the U.S. government to act … Obama has the power to intervene and we join together across our differences to call for justice for these children and justice for immigrants.

Coyle agrees, saying “This is our problem. We helped create this situation and we are honor bound to deal with the results. That is what adults do.”

Claire "Chuck" Bohman With Rev. Israel Alvaran [Courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle]

Claire “Chuck” Bohman With Rev. Israel Alvaran [Courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle]

Solar Cross Temple has begun raising money to help RAICES fund the mandated legal processes that enable unaccompanied minors to leave detention centers and enter U.S communities. Coyle also emphasizes that there are other ways to get involved. The California Endowment is digitally collecting letters of support for the “border children.” Vigils continued to be held across the country, like the one in San Francisco or the one held last night by Humanity is Borderless. Coyle also recommends contacting local governments about “offering homes to children locally” or finding ways of supporting those communities already open, such as Dalton, Georgia.

Coyle has hope saying, “In my heart, I know that we can learn to treat one another better. We can act from our true strength and offer one another compassion.”

 

Before eating, do you stop and pray? If you do and you happen to be in Mary’s Gourmet Diner, you may be gifted a 15 percent discount on your total bill.

marys1

Originally called, Breakfast, Of Course, Mary’s Gourmet Diner, a family-run operation, has always had the reputation of a warm, atmosphere with fresh, made-to-order, farm-to-table food. Its popularity eventually caused the restaurant to outgrow its small space. It moved to its current location in the “art district” of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 2012, The Huffington Post described Mary’s as having a “A Bohemian cool atmosphere serving vegan/organic/locally sourced cuisine.”

Over the past week, Mary’s has received unprecedented attention due to a single Facebook post that went viral. On July 29, Jordan Smith dined at the Winston-Salem restaurant and was surprised when her bill included a “15 percent public prayer discount.” After snapping a photo of the bill, she posted it to her Facebook page and sent it to friends at an Orlando-based, Christian Radio Station. Z88.3FM posted the photo on its own Facebook timeline:

 

Since that initial posting, the story has gone viral, inciting both passionate praise and criticism. Opponents argue that the restaurant is violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states in Title II:

All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin. 

Supporters are partially area-residents who have enjoyed the diner for years and know the owner and her family well. Additionally, support comes from advocates for public prayer, who are heralding the discount as a “win” in the battle for public displays of religion. As written by one Facebook commentor, “Thank you for keeping up the “good fight” against the liberals and democrats who have tried to undermine this great country by removing God from our lives!”

Due to this recent whirlwind of media hype, Owner Mary Haguland’s original intention has gotten completely lost or simply buried underneath the country’s on-going, very contentious, religious-freedom debate. The problem is illustrated by a Christian Post article entitled “Ring Up the Prayer Discount.” It reads:

Mary’s Gourmet Diner has an official policy of giving diners a special savings if they “pray publicly” before chowing down. The restaurant has reportedly offered patrons the holy discount for four years.

As Haguland has repeatedly said, the “prayer discount” is not an official policy; it is a gift given by the wait staff.  As quoted in the Huffington Post, Haguland says, “It’s [something] we only do when we’re moved to do it.”

Secondly, the restaurant has been granting the discount for four years, as noted by The Christian Post, but it is not a “holy” discount as suggested. In other words, the intent was never to encourage a specifically religious act. In an interview with The Blaze, Haguland says, “For me, every plate of food is a gift. And I never take that for granted and when I see someone in a restaurant honoring their gratefulness at my table … it touches my heart.”

Haguland was unavailable for an interview, but her daughter, Lily Pickett, spoke with us. Pickett reiterated that the intention of the discount is not at all religious. She says, “It is spiritual” and that they “honor everyone’s way of praying.” When creating the discount, her mother had hoped to encourage people to “take a break from their busy days and give thanks.” When asked if Pagans and Heathens could be gifted the 15 percent, Pickett said without hesitation, “Yes.”

In a recent Facebook post, Haguland reacts to the negative publicity by directly emphasizing all of these points:

 

Regardless of positive intent or the question of constitutional legality, the debates rage on with many other questions being asked. For example, one Facebook user posted: “How [does] she know when someone is simply having a moment of silence without bowing their heads? How can she claim to know when someone is meditating unless one looks like they are praying?” Others question the morality of rewarding the prayer act. Still others wonder: “What if I pray after the meal? Do I still get the discount?”

Due to recent legal battles over public prayer, it is not at all surprising that the restaurant’s actions have become the center of this media frenzy. The problem stems partly from the use of the word prayer itself, which has very specific cultural connotations. In addition, the bill reads, “15 percent discount for praying in public.” This is one of the phrases commonly used in that political debate.

Pickett acknowledged the issues with the word prayer but added, “We use the term to mean mindful meditation.” Despite the intent in meaning, public assumptions have been made. Compounding the problem is the diner’s location in a generally conservative southern state or the so-called “Bible Belt.”

In response to continued public comment, Haguland posted a second message on Facebook:

This says it all: ‘Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough & more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. IT CAN TURN A MEAL INTO A FEAST, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.’ -M. Beattie

While Haguland herself is Christian, she continues to stress, over and over, that the owners and staff support the diversity of life, including religion. They encourage anyone visiting, including Pagans, Heathens, Atheists, Hindus and whomever, to thank their Gods, the Earth or just take a moment to be grateful for the gifts of abundance.  If you’re caught, you just might get the discount.

UPDATE (Aug. 7 2014): Mary’s announced that it has completely eliminated the 15 percent prayer discount. As reported by a local paper, Owner Mary Haguland made this decision after being contacted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She fears a lawsuit. Although FFRF says that it did not threaten to sue the restaurant, the FFRF President did inform reporters that they have won similar legal cases in the past.

 

A Blessed Lughnasadh

Heather Greene —  August 3, 2014 — 1 Comment

This week, many modern Pagans are observing the summer festival of Lughnasadh, also called Lammas or Lughnassa. One of the yearly fire festivals, Lughnasadh marks the first of three harvest celebrations and, traditionally, honors Lugh, the Celtic god of light and many talents, and his foster-mother, Tailtiu. The day is often celebrated with feasting, songs, games, thanksgiving and the reaping of the first fruits or grains of the season.

wheat

[Photo Credit: Sybarite48, Flickr/CC]

This Friday night when I break bread with my coven and give thanks to the Earth and the gods for Summer’s first fruits I won’t be dwelling on whether or not the celebration of Loaf-mass is a Christian or a Pagan one. I will be reflecting on the chain of beliefs that links me to my nominally Christian ancestors in the Middle Ages and my pagan ancestors before them. Over the last two thousand years some have tried to break that chain but the sabbats have always been far too strong for that. – Jason Mankey, “First Fruits: A Sorta Christian Feast,” From Raise the Horns.

In Druidry, Lughnasadh is a time for the community to come together in celebration and playful competition, to take a moment to rest from the labor of the summer’s work in the fields and enjoy the first fruits of that labor, to show off the skills and talents that we’ve been cultivating all year. The gods know, we spend enough time in this society with our noses to the grindstone! Even when that work is joyful and fulfilling… it’s still work. So this holy day is a time for playfulness and relaxation, a moment to pause during what is for many the peak of summer’s heat — to seek the relief of cool shade, sweet mead, strong beer and the cheer of good company. – Alison Leigh Lilly, “Lughnashadh, Honoring the Harvest Through Grief and Gratitude,” From her blog.

The long days of Summer are beginning to draw in as we make our way towards Autumn. The first harvest is being collected as the golden fields give up their gift of abundance and John Barcleycorn is cut down at the knee. I always have mixed emotions at Lughnasadh. On one hand this festival is really the culmination of what it’s all about. On the other hand for me this marks the height of Summer, between Lughnasadh and the Autumn Equinox the temperature drops, Autumn begins, and the nights start to get noticeably longer. I’m a child of Summer, and you won’t hear me complaining about the heat we’ve been enjoying, so lengthening nights are never something I look forward to. But let’s stay in the moment and honour the gifts of the Earth, honour the falling corn … -Damh, the Bard, “A Tale For Lughnasadh

Owl Grove performing Lughnasadh Ritual [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

Owl Grove performing Lughnasadh Ritual [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

In many ways what Lugnasadh marks is the start of harvest season – soft fruit will come in over the end of summer, apples and nuts come later in the year through to the final, bloody harvest of Samhain when livestock were traditionally slaughtered. The exact process of your harvesting will vary depending on landscape, climate, that year’s weather, traditions and so forth. It is in many ways the unpredictable nature of harvest that underpins the earth based religions. We do not know what we will get from one year to the next and can only hope the gods will be kind to us. – Nimue Brown, “The Grain Harvest,” Pagan Square.

The Waters and the Wild is the title of the night-time parade on Sunday 3rd August. Inspired by the famous Yeats poem The Stolen Child and the feast of Lughnasadh, the spectacle will see the ancient Celtic deity Lugh return to lure people away from their normal and structured present to a time and place of wild abandonment. To The Waters and The Wild will feature hundreds of costumed performers, nature-themed floats, special-effects and live music. The parade is expected to attract 30,000 spectators to Waterford’s medieval streets and is the result of three months of design and construction. – Waterford Today, “Tribute To Yeats At The Centre Of Ireland’s Biggest Street Parade” (The Waterford Spraoi International Street Arts Festival, 1st-3rd August)

It is harvest time. The fog has rolled in, a heavy blanket from the San Francisco Bay. It does this every year around this time. I give thanks for the harvest, for the fog, for Margot [Adler's] life. My heart and mind are quiet. Waiting. I feel curious about what things are yet to come. May your harvest match in sweetness whatever may feel bitter. The scythe cuts all things down. But new things grow. – T. Thorn Coyle, “Sickle: Harvesting Life” From her blog Know Thyself

Happy Lughnasadh to all those celebrating this season.  And, to all of our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, a very happy Imbolc.

Over the past few months we have been reporting on several stories involving religious freedom challenges. Here are updates on those stories:

Beebe, Arkanasas makes national news

On June 17, we reported that Arkansas resident Bertram Dahl had been denied the necessary permits to open a Pagan temple on his property. In addition, he was harassed by a neighboring Pentecostal church and, eventually, arrested on charges of disorderly conduct.

Bert and Felicia Dahl, along with their two children. Photo credit - seekerstemple.com

Bert and Felicia Dahl, along with their children. [Courtesy of the seekerstemple.com]

This past week, the national news picked up Dahl’s story. On July 28, The New York Times published the article, “Pagan High Priest Finds Few Believers Inside City Hall.” The writer recounts Dahl’s situation, including the standing-room only June 23 Beebe City Council meeting, in which the issue was publicly debated. As reported by The New York Times, Mayor Mike Robertson told the crowd that this was a zoning issue only and had nothing to do with Dahl’s religion.

However, Dahl remains unconvinced and has pledged to continue his fight for the right to openly practice his faith. As proof, he cites a 2010 government newsletter in which the Mayor Robertson says:

It is my opinion and the Beebe City Council’s that government leaders must pray to God as the true leader of the nation and that a nation cannot exist if they are not one nation under God trusting in God as the leader. It is my opinion government has allowed non-believers far too many liberties taking God out of our daily lives … Please remember in the coming November election for leaders of this nation to elect only those who will stand firm doing the will of God and not their will. If placing God or the simple mentioning of his holy name in this newsletter is offensive to some; so be it. I do not and will not apologize, ever, for giving him the praise he is due for all that he has done for our blessed country. Not now, not ever in the future, should we turn our backs to our creator.

Due to continued conflicts with the city and the church’s harassment, Dahl has recently been denied entrance into a local prison to offer clergy services to inmates. On the Seeker’s Temple website, he writes::

This has left the inmates in this prison without teachings and without religious representation. We are reviewing other avenues to help them during their incarceration, but until this is resolved, we are unable to carry on with our normal responsibilities to these inmates. We are very saddened by this news and by the ripple effect the actions of the city and the church are having.

Despite the hostile atmosphere, Dahl has not backed-down. He currently is “selling Pagan items out of his garage and holding the Seeker’s Temple meetings in his own home.” He wrote:

The crowd of people who showed to support us [at the meeting] was impressive and we are grateful and humbled by it … We want to also say think [sic] you to all of you who have called and written and donated to show your support.  We are not giving up!

On Aug. 3, the Seeker’s Temple will be hosting a First Harvest Celebration (Pagan Family Reunion) in Beebe City Park. The invitation to this family-friendly event says, “All Pagans and groups are invited to show our Pagan pride and unity to this town.”

Huntsville, Time magazine and making a stand

On July 22, Time online magazine picked up Carol Kirk’s Wild Garden post on religious freedom in Huntsville, Alabama. Carol is the wife of Blake Kirk, the Wiccan priest who was excused from reading a prayer before a town council meeting.

 

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

As we reported in June, the city of Huntsville recently adopted an inclusive legislative prayer policy in order to keep within the legal limits of constitutional law. It had been operating under this policy for at least a year. However, when “concerned citizens” discovered that a Wiccan Priest would be speaking, they pressured the council into removing Blake from the agenda.

On July 18, Carol, who writes for Patheos’ Wild Garden, published an article called, “Here I Stand.”  Near the end of that post, she says:

At some point one needs to decide whether or not something is worth fighting for and whether you can afford the consequences of that fight. As Martin Luther said in his famous speech; “I cannot and will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other…”  My husband and I decided that this was a battle worth waging and that, like Luther, we could not back down and go against our own conscience in this case.

Time magazine Online republished this article within its Patheos news feed.

Carol Kirk [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]

Carol Kirk [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]

In the shadow of this very public city council story, Carol was also making her own headlines. On July 12, she received her Masters of Divinity in Pastoral Counseling from Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS). Carol is now the second student, after Sandra Harris M.Div, to be conferred this degree. Dr. David Oringderff, department chair and her adviser, said, “Having worked with Carol as a professor and academic adviser for much of her academic career, I can attest to her diligence, dedication and academic excellence.”

As stated in the CHS announcement, Carol is no stranger to hard work and taking a stand. During the Vietnam War, she served as a nurse in a MASH unit. In 2013, she spoke at a “storytellers” ceremony at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington D.C.  Her dedication to community service, local interfaith work and pastoral counseling were partially the inspiration that led to Blake’s decision to offer his own services to the city council.

On July 10, Huntsville held its first city council meeting after the controversy began. At that time, the council opted to continue with the inclusive legislative prayer program despite continued debates. At the July 24 meeting, a local Hindu man read the opening invocation. Whether or not Blake will be invited back in the future remains to be seen.

A Virginia city council speaks out in favor of diversity

Back in May, we reported that Priestess Maya White Sparks had been excused from reading tarot at a local Front Royal, Virginia store. Several “concerned citizens” felt that the readings were inappropriate for the town’s main street and put pressure on the store’s owner. In contemplating the situation, Sparks found an outdated town code that prohibited fortune-telling and other magical practices.

When she challenged this code, a new conversation began in Front Royal. Should that antiquated code be removed or rewritten?

Main Street, Front Royal VA [Photo Credit: milknosugar/Flickr]

Main Street, Front Royal VA [Photo Credit: milknosugar/Flickr]

Over the past few months, a variety of residents, as well as councilmen, have spoken for and against removal of the code. As we reported on June 11, opponents were most vocal during the May 27 town council meeting. Then on June 23 town attorney Douglas Napier recommended the “removing” of the ordinance. Councilman Hrbek said that he had issues with it due to its derogatory language. He added, “It was written in a different time; a time that thankfully has past.” These speeches and comments can all be seen on Front Royal City Council’s Vimeo channel. 

During those first few meetings, the council pointed out another city ordinance, which actually permits fortunetelling with the proper licensing. This ignited a secondary debate. Can the city tax and regulate spiritual counseling?

At the July 14 meeting, Kelyla Spicer, a local Druid, addressed that very question. She points out that priests and ministers are not required to pay licensing fees in order to provide spiritual counseling. Why should Pagan spiritual counselors have to pay that fee?

At this point, the council has agreed that the original offending code, which bans fortune telling, should be removed immediately. The second issue is still being addressed. However, town attorney Douglas Napier told a local paper, “There are other court decisions around the country that says [sic] it cannot regulate [fortunetelling] as a professional occupation because there’s no commonly accepted standards that fortunetelling is any sort of profession.” Councilman Eugene Tewalt was quoted as saying, “I’m tired of listening to these people talk about it.”

On Aug. 11, the City Council will hold a public hearing to discuss the issues at hand.  The announcement reads: “All interested citizens are invited to attend these hearings to express their views.”

 

 

 

When people think of anthropological museums, they might recall the famous British Museum in London, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Smithsonian in WDC, or New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. Very few people would consider Atlanta, Georgia home to a place that cradles any of the treasures of ancient civilizations. But it is. Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum is one of the country’s top small anthropological museums. Its area of focus has captivated local Pagans and Heathens for years.

[Photo Credit: Monika&Jim/Flickr]

Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University [Photo Credit: Monika&Jim/Flickr]

Founded in 1919, the Carlos Museum has been growing its collection of art and cultural artifacts for nearly a century. Its beginnings can be found with a collection of Asian works brought back by Methodist missionaries in the 1870s. Over time, Emory University grew and along with it, the museum. Today it houses over 16,000 art objects from “ancient Egypt, Nubia, Near East, Greece, Rome, ancient Americas, Africa, and Asia as well as a collection of works on paper from the Renaissance to the present.”

In displaying these pieces, the museum says, “[We show] meticulous care for the legacy of ancient civilizations and the learning opportunities innate in each artifact.” In its Greek and Roman exhibit, you might see a marble “Statue of Venus” (Roman, fourth century B.C.E.) In its Asian exhibit, you might find the red sandstone “Figure of Ganesh” (India, eighth or ninth century).

Over the last 15 years, the Carlos Museum has become known particularly for its impressive and sizable ancient Egyptian collection. Originally, the exhibit centered on artifacts acquired in the 1920s, including the oldest Egyptian mummy in the Americas. Then, in 1999, its collection grew substantially after the purchase of 145 artifacts from the now-closed Niagara Falls Museum.

Most of new pieces were funerary in nature including, in part, 10 mummies and 9 coffins. The items had originally been acquired by a collector in the 1850′s and placed on display with what, National Geographic called, a “tacky, freaks of nature”  exhibit at the old museum. After examining the pieces, Emory professors discovered that one of the artifacts was the lost mummy of Ramses I. Emory returned the mummy to Egypt “as an act of goodwill.” An Canadian Egyptologist told National Geographic:

Ramses was from northern Egypt, and the family’s god was Seth, the god of storms. The night of the reception [to open the new exhibit] there was a powerful storm, with thunder and lightning and hail; a tornado just missed us. It was a very unusual storm for Atlanta. I think it was Rameses, letting us know that he’s happy to be going home.

In addition to its remarkable permanent collection of ancient cultural artifacts, the Carlos Museum also sponsors exhibits that celebrate contemporary cultures through art. For example, in 2012, the museum sponsored an exhibit on Tibetan Sand Mandalas created by Buddhist monks. A talk was given called, “Reflections on Artistry, Spirituality and Community.”

In a similar exploration of spirit and expression, this year’s visiting exhibition is called “Grandfather Sun; Grandmother Moon: Wixárika Arts of Modern Western Mexico.” In a press release, the museum says:

[The Wixárika's] stunning beaded objects and pressed-yarn “paintings” span the sacred to the secular, from prayer bowls used on their pilgrimage ceremonies to masks made expressly for collectors. Brightly colored, precise, dynamic and detailed, these works depict their sacred sacrament, the peyote cactus, the deer, the sun and the moon, shamans, maize plants, jaguars and scorpions.

 

Prayer Bowl [Courtesy of the Carlos Museum]

Prayer Bowl [Courtesy of the Carlos Museum]

This new exhibit celebrates the Wixárika people, “often known as the Huichol, the indigenous people of modern western Mexico.” The museum explains that local artisans often sell copies of their sacred objects in order to maintain their lifestyle and culture, and to remain on their lands. The museum goes on to explain:

The Wixárika strive toward balance in themselves, between humans and nature, and in the spirit world. Their ritual life is oriented toward maintaining harmony. All phenomena are considered interrelated– particularly humans, maize, deer and peyote– and interchange forms. For instance, in mythic times deer became the peyote cactus, which now is “hunted” on the annual pilgrimage to the northern deserts. Shamans (mara’akame) mediate the natural balancing of the cosmic realms and the transformations that occur in other realities. Art is used in rituals, its bright colors meant to attract the attention of the spirits that are believed to control all natural phenomena including rains, the crops, time, and the sun and moon.

As the literature and its employees will remind you often, the museum’s primary purpose is one of education and conservation. With the help of Emory University faculty, museum curators work to provide a public resource and learning center, as well as a student research and teaching facility. The museum offers regular lectures, symposia and brings in special exhibits, like “Grandfather Sun; Grandmother Moon.” For children, they offer camps and classes. This fall’s lineup includes subjects like reading Egyptian hieroglyphics, an introduction to the sacred heroes of Mayan culture, or the Manifestations of Vishnu.

For those not in Atlanta or those not able to attend events, the museum sponsors blogs managed by archaeologists in the field. Currently the museum’s website is hosting “iSamothrace: Framing the Mysteries in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods.” In June, several archaeologists blogged from Israel on “iTell Halif.” Last winter, the Senior Curator of the Egyptian collection and the assistant curator of Egyptian Art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, both blogged from a dig “iMalqata.”  In addition, the museum maintains an online in its digital gallery.

Pre-Columbian incense burner, Costa Rica [Photo Credit: Madman2001/Flickr]

Pre-Columbian incense burner, Costa Rica [Photo Credit: Madman2001/Flickr]

It doesn’t stop there. The Carlos Museum also sponsors podcasts that “use works of art in [its] collection to spark conversations between distinguished members of Emory’s faculty … Each podcast brings together experts from different disciplines to look at museum objects in new and unusual ways.” Past podcast topics include: “The Shock of the New: Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and the Religious Imagination,”  “The Power of the Goddess,” “Seeing Shamans,” and “Drinking with a Siren.” These interdisciplinary podcasts have won local awards. For the younger set, the museum has created Odyssey – an interactive journey into the ancient worlds.

Not everyone has the means or ability to visit the sacred sites of the ancient worlds in order to enhance religious practice, or to experience the beauty of distant cultures. Not everyone can witness first-hand the lands that were once, and still are, attributed to their own Gods, or experience the powerful rituals and cultural expressions of indigenous societies. Fortunately for those living in the American southeast, the Carlos Museum attempts to bring a taste of those wonders to Atlanta. Through the the cultivation of ideas, conversation and research, the museum gives locals and visitors the opportunity to explore and to be inspired by the spirit and culture of ancient worlds and modern cultures through its art.

On July 11, the Italian organization Unione Comunità Neopagane (UCN) was born after 2 long years of planning. A result of Progetto articolo 8 (Project Article 8), the UCN brings together a diversity of Pagan associations under one organizational structure in order to support Pagan practice within the greater Italian culture. Its ultimate goal is to establish official legal recognition for “Neopaganism as a heterogeneous religion” according to the laws of the country.

Dolomite Mountains, Italy [Photo Credit: philipbouchard Flickr]

Dolomite Mountains, Italy [Photo Credit: philipbouchard Flickr]

Italian Pagans are, generally, solitary practitioners. However, over the last decade, there has been an increase in community building and public events. UCN President Anna Bordin, a priestess and initiate of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple, explains, “We started gathering together and forming Associations and Study Groups on many subjects related with Paganism.”

Bordin lists some of this work as including “the annual meeting of Trivia in Milan, the annual Council of Witchcraft and Druidry in Biella, the Beltane Festival,” and the birth of many new groups and covens of different paths such as Bordin’s own Cerchio Italiano di Avalon. Many associations have supported workshops with international teachers, such as Phillys Curott, Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone, Kathy Jones, Vivianne and Chris Crawley. She adds:

Something that happened in these last years has been the constant increase of demand from the pagan community of ‘services’ such as handfastings, sacred unions, wiccanings, baby namings, requiems etc… many Italian pagan authors have written several books on Paganism that have been published by the newborn pagan publishers.

Paganism has grown in the country and the demand for resources and community has increased accordingly. Bordin says, “Following this thread two years ago we started working on a project for the recognition of Neopaganism as religion, or as a composite religion, bonded by principles, festivals and practices.” This work led to the formation of the UCN.

UCN President, Anna Bordin [Photo Credit: Martina Pace]

UCN President, Anna Bordin [Photo Credit: Martina Pace]

The organization was founded by the coming together of nine distinct associations and groups, including Argiope (Venice); Circolo dei Trivi (Milan);  L’Antico Trivio (Naples); Corvo Nuvola (Milan); Clan Duir – Antica Quercia (Biella);  Il Cerchio delle Antiche vie (Arezzo); La Ruota d’Oro (Rome); Le Intagliatrici (Milan); and Il Corvo e la Civetta (Piacenza). These groups range in religious practice but agree on three founding principles, as borrowed from the Pagan Federation International, and other organizational guidelines.

At this time, the group is home to mostly Wiccans, Druids and electic “Neopagans.” However, membership is open to anyone who agrees to the organization’s ideals. UCN recognizes that Paganism in Italy is quite diverse. Bordin notes that the country has a very unique and rich history that nurtures a connection to its long religious roots. She says:

It is not rare that some groups celebrate their rites in pre-Christian, Celtic or Roman, but also Etruscan or Greek, places of worship … Our territory was a melting pot of ancient cultures, a crossroad among Romans, Greeks, Etruscan, German populations and many others. Here we have also had the Mysteries of Mithra, Isis, etc. Ancient mystery religions and ethnic practices were melted at that time, as it happens now with Neopaganism. So also the Wiccan and Druidic practices are strongly integrated with the local folklore. Italian magical traditions have now found a new frame to express themselves in

None of these minority religious practices have recognized status in Italy. While the country does have a deeply embedded religious history and various entanglements with the Catholic Church, modern Italy supports the religious freedom of its citizens. In legal terms, the state and the Catholic Church are two entirely separate entities, as stated by the 1948 Italian Constitution and reinforced by legal revisions in 1984.

Italian Pagans of any kind are free to practice privately or publicly provided they do not break any secular Italian law. However, this practice is largely considered an activity, like a sport or party. Bordin says, “We can meet in public and celebrate our own rites and ceremonies, asking permission [from] the town Council only if the rites are performed outdoors in public places. Sometimes for bigger events we need to ask permission as a ‘cultural’ meeting.”

Bordin doesn’t like that. She does not want to have to hide the religious nature of her festival or ritual. That is where the the UCN comes in. A organization can enter into an agreement and become the representative of a “denomination” allowing for legal benefits, including the operation of schools, access to state funding and the right to perform legally-recognized marriages. In 2012, both a Buddhist organization (UBI) and Hindu organization achieved this coveted status.

Handfasting [Photo Credit: Michela Horvath]

Handfasting [Photo Credit: Michela Horvath]

However, not everyone believes that legal credentials are important. Pagan Pride Italia (PPI) has opted not to join the UCN and, additionally, is now protesting its work. PPI believes that the formation of the UCN is unnecessary and counter to the eclectic nature of Paganism. President Vanth Spiritwalker says, “There are the reasons why we don’t want to adhere to it, and then there are the reasons why we are taking action to protest against it.”

PPI doesn’t want to join because, in its opinion, the benefits to be gained through organizational formation are negligible. Italian Pagans already have religious freedom as stated in the Italian Constitution. Pagans can already freely practice, organize and hold public events. PPI also points out that all lawful marriages are ultimately civic, regardless of a religion’s legal stature, even the Catholic ones.

Spiritwalker adds, “What the project is actually doing is something different. They are creating a church” that requires certain hierarchical structures and limitations on practice that conflict with the eclectic nature of the Pagan experience. In addition, PPI is concerned that, with a country full of solitaries, the UCN is only allowing groups and associations full membership status.

530315_10151274153392645_813335934_nThose are the reasons that PPI is not supporting the UCN. However, the organization is also actively protesting for an additional reason. Spiritwalker says:

It is in anyone’s right to create a church … the problem arises when they are doing so choosing a name for themselves that says that they are speaking for every Pagan in the country. This is not only wrong, but creates a lot of potential problems by conveying a representation of the community which is different from the truth. Since we believe that what really gives you rights is social recognition, which means educating people so that they are aware of your existence, of what you do and of your rights. Giving out wrong information can only hinder social recognition, not helping the community in general.

PPI is encouraging Italian Pagans to use the hashtags #nochiesapagana #freepaganism and to post a photo of themselves saying, “I am Pagan. UCN doesn’t represent me.”

The UCN Board is aware of PPI’s complaints. In response, Bordin says, “We are using the word Neopagans to avoid misunderstandings, as there are many Pagans in Italy that don’t follow the principles of the PFI. We don’t want to unify all the paths in one, but to be strong in our differences working on a common base.” The UCN only claims to represent a “heterogenous denomination,” to use the government’s language, that is based solely on or limited only by its three founding 3 principles and its mission.

Bordin also adds that UCN does have plans to add a stronger solitary membership program. The Board is inspired by the structure of the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and its full inclusion of solitary practitioners. In fact, UCN has taken many of its cues from international organizations. Along with CoG, the UCN plans to model its teaching practices and festival organization around the work of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. As mentioned earlier, it borrowed the Pagan Federation International‘s membership principles.

At this point, the UCN is a nonprofit organization. Over the next 3-4 years, it will attempt, as Bordin says, “to become a juridical personality (or charity.)”  She says, “If we gain the juridical personality, Neopaganism will “exist” as a non-recognised religion …The next step will be moving from a non-recognised religion to recognised religion, with the start of a long process.” This process could take as long as 20 years.

It may not surprise anyone that the word “God,” “Almighty God,” or similar, is written into the constitution of all 50 states. In most cases, such words are found in the preambles and in the, often required, oaths of office. The mention of “God,” or the like, is used predominantly in reverent thanks or acknowledgment of a divine goodness.

However, what most people do not realize is that eight of the states also include a religious component to a citizen’s eligibility to hold public office and, in two cases, to testify in court or serve on a jury. These states include Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. While the language of each state’s “religious test” is slightly different, the ultimate idea is the same. In all cases, the laws exclude the Atheist from participating in officials roles. Beyond that and depending on one’s beliefs, these constitutional regulations could potentially exclude many citizens of minority faiths, including Pagans and Heathens.

[Photo Credit:  roberthuffstutter/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: roberthuffstutter/Flickr]

The states of North Carolina, Maryland and Tennessee use language that most closely connotes a Christian or an Abrahamic religious worldview. Maryland’s constitution reads, “no religious test shall ever be required” to hold office, “other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God.” The other two constitutions state that persons who “deny the being of God,” or “Almighty God,” as termed in North Carolina, are ineligible for public office. Tennessee goes a step further saying, “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” A “future state of rewards and punishments” refers to heaven and hell.

In four states, the constitutional restrictions are worded with a more expansive concept of deity. In South Carolina, Texas and Mississippi, persons are ineligible for public office if they “refuse to acknowledge” or “deny the existence of” a Supreme Being. In Arkansas, the limitation is imposed on people who deny the “being of a God.” In all four cases, the language used allows for a broader interpretation of deity and, ostensibly, could include some Pagans and Heathens.

Pennsylvania‘s constitution deviates from the other documents in that it reverses the burden. It states:

No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.

In this case, the state does not explicitly exclude persons who deny “a God.” However, it does imply that it could potentially happen. An acknowledgment of the “being of a God” and a heaven and hell secure one’s ability to be appointed. In that sense, the statement is a legal warning or even a compelling suggestion.

Additionally, two states include a religious test for jurors and those testifying in court. In Maryland and Arkansas, the constitution prohibits any persons who deny “the existence of God,” in Maryland, or “the being of a God,” in Arkansas, from testifying in court or serving on a jury.

While all of this may be frustrating and troublesome, the reality is much less bleak than at first glance. In Article 6, the United States Constitution clearly states:

no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States

Additionally, the 14th Amendment states:

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 deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

In 1961, a Maryland Atheist challenged the “religious test” requirement after being excused from his appointment as a notary public.The famous case, Torcaso v Watkins, worked its way through the courts and eventually landed at the Supreme Court of the United States. The justices ruled in favor of Torcaso stating, “This Maryland test for public office cannot be enforced against appellant, because it unconstitutionally invades his freedom of belief and religion guaranteed by the First Amendment and protected by the 14th Amendment from infringement by the States.”

The 1961 Supreme Court ruling rendered the state religious tests unenforceable. However, the constitutions were never changed. Fifty-three years later, Maryland’s Declaration of Rights still makes the following statements:

Art 36 … nor shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefor either in this world or in the world to come.

 Art. 37. That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.

Much of this language appears to be legal “left-overs” and wording from the original state constitutions; some of which were adopted prior to ratification of the U.S. Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1791). In fact, some states, such as Arkansas, still disqualify people from serving in public office if they have have engaged in a duel. This evolutionary editing process may explain, in part, the oddities and religious language still found in many of the constitutions

"Hamilton-burr-duel" by Illustrator not identified. From a painting by J. Mund. - Lord, John, LL.D. (1902). Beacon Lights of History. Vol. XI, "American Founders." (London: James Clarke and Co Ltd. Republished as a Project Gutenberg eBook, 2004-01-08. eBbook no. 10644.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hamilton-burr-duel.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hamilton-burr-duel.jpg

“Hamilton-burr-duel” by Illustrator not identified. From a painting by J. Mund. – Lord, John, LL.D. (1902). Beacon Lights of History. Vol. XI, “American Founders.” (London: James Clarke and Co Ltd. Republished as a Project Gutenberg eBook, 2004-01-08. eBbook no. 10644..[Public domain via Wikimedia]

As Pagan lawyer Dana Eilers points out in her book Pagans and Law, there is a common misconception that America was colonized to grant religious freedom to all minority faiths. Unfortunately, the difficult reality is that our country was filled with much religious intolerance, exclusivity and violence. Eilers says, “Given the dark and barbaric miasma of our past, the enormity of the American experience in separating religion and government represents a landmark event in human history.” In this statement, she not only refers to American history, but also to world history. (Chp. 8, God and Government)

Eilers then quotes a Supreme Court statement saying, “The Fathers of the Constitution were not unaware of the varied and extreme views of religious sects … They fashioned a charter of government which envisaged the widest possible toleration of conflicting views. Man’s relation to his God was made no concern of the state.” (Chp. 8, God and Government)  While Founding Father Thomas Jefferson may have mentioned the Muslim, Jew, Hindu, pagan and Christian in his work, other early lawmakers may not have been as progressively aware.

During that early period, the use of the word “God” or “a God” or “Supreme Being” may have seemed inclusive enough to satisfy the new American concept of religious diversity. For example, Maryland’s original 1776 constitution required a person interested in public service to declare “a belief in the Christian religion.” This was later changed to “God” in 1851 in order to be more inclusive by contemporary cultural standards.

While these historical details do explain why religious language, like “in the year of our Lord,” appears sporadically in state constitutions, it does not explain how 8 state constitutions have maintained a religious test to qualify someone for public office. Regardless of the historical aspect, such a test has been unconstitutional for centuries.  How, in the early revisions of the state constitutions, did those religious tests survive? How have they been overlooked all these years? More importantly, how have they remained unchecked since the 1961 Torcaso case or more recent legal contests?

Eilers explains, “they need to be tested individually…that is … each of them must be challenged.” Furthermore, each state has to be willing to engage in its process to change the constitution, a task that is long and difficult. That has yet to happen.

 

 

[Author's Note: Special thanks to Pagan lawyer Dana Eilers for taking time to offer insight and expertise on the subject.]

The cultural negotiations concerning religious freedom in the public sphere are continuously peppering America’s daily socio-political dialog. As our country becomes more diverse, or more open about its diversity, with respect to religion, the violations or perceived violations of the “separation of church and state” become more numerous and more of a burden on any given population. Most recently legislative prayers were the focus of this debate. SCOTUS ruled and the dialog shifted.

[Public Domain Photo]

[Public Domain Photo]

However legislative prayer hasn’t been the only point of contention in the past month. While town meetings stole the spotlight for a time, the debate over religious expression within public schools has recently flared up in several states. Here are two issues brought to the forefront this summer.

Student Religious Liberty Act

In June, both North Carolina and Missouri adopted a student religious liberty act, similar to one already in place in Mississippi. According to the North Carolina legislature, its Senate Bill 370 is:

An act to clarify student rights to engage in prayer and religious activity in school, to create an administrative process for remedying complaints regarding exercise of those student rights, and to clarify religious activity for school personnel.

Missouri House Bill 1303, known as the Missouri “Student Religious Liberty Act,” has the similar aim. It states in part:

A public school district shall not discriminate against students or parents on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression. A school district shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and shall not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.

The two bills were hotly debated over a period of months. Regardless of any complaints, they were eventually passed and signed into law. On June 19, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrary signed SB 370 after a landslide victory in both the state House and Senate. Similarly, on June 30, the Missouri bill was passed with overwhelming legislative support and then signed by Governor Jay Nixon.

In both cases, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made the same protest statement:

Students’ rights to voluntarily express and practice their faith in the public schools are already well-protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Students already have the ability to pray and express religious viewpoints and attempts to statutorily protect those rights is unnecessary. (Press Statement May 6, 2014, ACLU – NC)

The ACLU contends that the additional law will only add confusion and potentially lead to “the excessive entanglement of school personnel in religious activity while ostracizing students of different beliefs.”

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

Byron Ballard, a North Carolina resident who has worked very closely with her local school districts on issues of religious freedom, agrees adding:

It will change things because it will embolden people to be even more belligerent than they already are. It will make the school day more difficult for teachers … This is an “open carry” prayer law. Certainly it applies to anyone who wants to pray, so there are Pagans in the state who are pleased to see it. But we are such a minority that this law will continue to serve the majority Protestant Christians in the way they have always been catered to in NC and elsewhere. It codifies the Protestant Christian privilege that is endemic in the public square.

Credits For Religious Education

On June 12, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed House Bill 171, an act that “permit[s] public school students to attend and receive credit for released time courses in religious instruction conducted off school property during regular school hours.” In a guest post on Cleveland.com, State Rep. Jeff McClain – R applauded the passage of the bill saying:

The Ohio legislature made great gains last week when it comes to protecting the moral and educational rights of our students … these types of programs have a positive impact on children. They help to create a constructive outlet where students can learn morals and manners in an educational environment. I would argue that it makes one a better student and certainly a more respectful one.

The ACLU of Ohio disagrees. In December 2013, they testified against the legislation, calling HB 171 “misguided.” They clarify that the law allows credit for “purely religious instruction, whether done via a private school, place of worship or other non-entity.” The complaint goes on to say, “A public school providing credit for purely religious teaching unquestionably violates [the First Amendment government neutrality] mandate … House Bill 171 is replete with practical and constitutional problems.”

In 2012, a similar statue brought legal action in South Carolina. In the case Moss v. Spartanburg Cty School District, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) challenged the City of Spartanburg’s issuing of credit for religious education during “released time.” The case worked its way through the courts to the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the city issuing credits for religious instruction. In the summer of 2012, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case leaving the lower court’s ruling as final.

Ohio is now the second state behind South Carolina that will issue educational credits for religious classes attended off-campus during “released-time.”  While no-school funds can be used to support the religious instruction, the schools do have say on which external classes quality for credit. Could a Pagan or Heathen organization offer such education to its own children for school credit? As pointed out by the ACLU of Ohio, the potential for legal entanglements is very high.

“It is clear that Pagan elders need to listen to the young and new, or the young and new will bring change regardless.” – Jeff Mach, Rutgers University alumnus.

In the final article of our series “Pagans on Campus 2014,” we discuss the challenges and hurdles that lay before young Pagans as they reach out beyond campus life and beyond the comforts of the Pagan Student Association. If backlash is not the biggest problem, what is? The students also share their thoughts on the future of Paganism as a whole. What would they like to see as they continue their religious journey over next twenty years?

[Photo Credit: Visha Angelova/ Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Visha Angelova/ Flickr]

What is the biggest obstacle facing young Pagans as they explore their chosen spiritual paths?

Mary Hudson

Mary Hudson

Syracuse University Chaplain Mary Hudson says, “Being young and not finding teachers or mentors that are willing to work with them. Students are hungry for learning and they are full of energy. I have heard many young Pagans talk about being frustrated for not be treated well.”

Hudson’s comment was echoed by other advisers who regularly interact with college Pagans. Jeff Mach, a Rutgers University graduate, says, “It is incredibly hard to get taken seriously while you’re young and everyone in a position of power tends to assume you don’t have enough life experience to know what you’re doing.”

Interestingly, Pagan students did not cite this as an issue at all. The biggest obstacle for most of the them was the attaining of valid religious and spiritual information. Nick Nelson, president of Ball State University’s Society for Earth-based Religions (SER), said, “Young pagans need access to quality and accurate information on Paganism. That means more than just books.” He believes that young Pagans have limited opportunities to experience ritual or interact with other Pagans outside the small campus sphere. He adds, “The leaders of Pagan [organizations] have to be creative in how they are getting information out there for younger members.”

Sarah Morgan, UGA [Photo credit: S. Morgan]

Sarah Morgan, UGA [Photo credit: S. Morgan]

Sarah Morgan, a Druid at the University of Georgia (UGA), wishes there was more available information on non-Wiccan practices. She says, “I think the biggest obstacle for young Pagans is for them to find a Path that truly fits them … You don’t have to follow a specific path word for word. You don’t always have to be Wiccan.” Morgan says that most authors who write specifically for young people are Wiccan. She adds, “We need more options out there.”

It may seem surprising that in a so-called information age it is the information itself that is the biggest obstacle. Several Pagan students specifically said that the Internet is as much of an hurdle as it is an asset. Jackson Elfin, a Heathen studying at BSU, explains “The Internet can breed things that are erroneous and dangerous, and teens have a risk of finding things that are unsafe/untrue … a big need in Pagan education is learning how to sort out the good stuff from the bad.”

Sabine Green, adviser of New Mexico State University (NMSU) Pagan Student Association, notes, “Students are at a pivotal point in their spiritual journey … it is so important to find valid teachers and traditions. It is vital that [elders] help steer the up-and-coming generation to explore and stay safe.” Green feels that guidance is absolutely essential because one of the biggest dangers for young Pagans is exploitation.

Looking at the greater Pagan experience, what would you like to see happen over the next 20 years?

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

Several of the students would simply like to see global acceptance of the various religious practices that fall under the Pagan umbrella. Wiccan student, Suretha Thacker, says, “I would like to be able to say, ‘I’m off to celebrate Lughnasadh,’ and have no one give me a puzzled look.” Heather Sky Cybele, a recent Purdue graduate, has a similar dream saying, “I would love to see Pagans be open about their religion, just as Christians and Jews are, without being considered crazy.”

Morgan adds, “Many Pagans are becoming a lot more comfortable with coming out … this allows young Pagans to not only feel accepted but also lets them have the resources to grow on their Paths.”

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Elfin would also liked to see greater acceptance. He adds, “The establishment of spaces for Pagans is important … I know that gaining land is a way to survival because no matter how much we talk about legislation or representation, the religion game is ultimately landocratic.” Looking into the future, Elfin sees Pagans gaining more prominence by owning more land on which to practice and celebrate.

With land ownership and event sponsorship come structure and organization. Most of the young Pagans interviewed want to see cohesion and community-building in the coming years. Nelson says, “It will be much easier for a united Pagan community to gain public acceptance rather than every denomination working individually.”

UGA student Angela Riverio adds, “I feel that part of the reason that we hide so much is because we are divided and that makes us more vulnerable. Separation of practices is perfectly fine, but when a group is being pressured by an outside force, making allies really helps.”

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

Many of these students, like those at UGA or BSU, are coming from a campus environment that supports a well-structured, supported Pagan association that thrives within a cultural microcosm. Such a level of community organization may be difficult to find or replicate beyond campus life. However, with the growing development and interest in campus Pagan groups, this next generation of Pagans might be “growing up” with an entirely different understanding of community-building, including the benefits and downfalls of such work.

Caity Wallace, president of Drexel University’s Pagan Association (DUPA), says, “Pagans tend to be a decentralized, somewhat religiously anarchist lot, which is great for a lot of things, but it doesn’t lend itself to helping a new cohort enter the community.” She would like to see more strides in community organization that assist new seekers, both young and old.  Wallace adds, “Right now I’m seeing the community splintering a bit … However I’ve also been seeing the community be more aggressive about policing itself … and that gives me hope. So in the next 20 years, I see us becoming a much more diverse group, with more accountability.”

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

Paul Blessing, former president of Rutgers University Pagan Association, says:

Honestly Paganism appears to be simmering down … It’s becoming more of an accepted form of religion, and with that comes a sense of mundanity. This could be good or bad. On the good side, it will allow more people to explore Paganism without fear of negative social and familial consequences … On the other hand, I have to admit, I’m kinda afraid of Paganism getting “old and fat” like the rest of mainstream religions.

There were several other wishes for the future, including the embracing of technology and the building of community centers. Two students turned a critical eye on their own generation in expressing the hope that more young Pagans develop an interest in learning. Veloblom Vigjaldrsdottir, an Asatru student at Nazareth College, explains, “The more you understand your faith and beliefs, the more you understand yourself … Sadly younger Pagans that I meet don’t tend to share that ideology.” She finds that trait primarily in “elderly adults” who convert to Paganism. Vigjaldrsdottir hopes to see a strengthening of the bridge between the various generations so that “we can learn collectively.”

As the African proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Dr. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, adviser to the Pagan Student Union at Skagit Valley College, Whidby Island Campus, says:

To anyone who considers advising such a group … never underestimate what might be possible if you simply ask. We have been able to secure funding [from the school] for attendance of some of our students [to] the Polytheist Leadership Conference … It has been an excellent opportunity to … do something of lasting importance and meaning for members of our community.

Chaplain Mary Hudson adds, “The young Pagans are the future and what we teach is what we will harvest. The students are smart, they are informed in ways that we never dreamed and they are eager to be full, productive members of Pagan communities. Accept their enthusiasm and be honest with them (not brutal) and enjoy the ride.”

 

To read the previous two articles:

Pagans on Campus 2014, Part 1: Community and Pagan Student Organizations

Pagans on Campus 2014, Part 2: Practice and Resources