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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 

 

To remember what it was like to be young and questioning and full of excitement. I think that is one of the greatest things we can learn – Chaplain Mary Hudson, Syracuse University.

In Part 1 of “Pagans on Campus 2014,” we looked very generally at the Pagan student experience on American college campuses, as well as the role played by Pagan student associations. While opportunities for positive community building are increasing, students do not attend college to simply engage in religious seeking. Campus life revolves around scholarly pursuits, most of which are very demanding on a student’s time.Today we look at how students balance or integrate their spiritual work into their busy academic careers, and where they find guidance and resources.

[Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr]

Do you feel your chosen spiritual path is an integral part of your academic studies, or is it entirely separate?

The answer to this question varies greatly and is dependent, in part, on a student’s course of study. For example, Caity Wallace, a math major at Drexel University says, “I don’t find [that my major] integrates well with my religious life. That combined with my fear of losing respect for my faith (or having faith – STEM fields tend to favor Atheism in my experience) means I take care to keep those parts of my life distinct.”

On the other hand, Angela Riveiro, a Horticulture major at the University of Georgia (UGA), says, “While I did not intend it, my … major does fit into my focus on Nature. Learning to be a steward of the land and how to grow plants fits nicely with my spiritual beliefs.”

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Similarly, fellow UGA student Sarah Morgan sees a definite connection between her education and her Pagan practice. Morgan says, “Psychology is really making strides in the more holistic ways of healing. We are learning a lot about meditation, visualization and… their benefits to mental health.”

Several of the interviewed students acknowledged only “tangential” connections between their spiritual beliefs and their studies. Jackson Elfin, for example, is a creative writing major at Ball State University (BSU). He notes that his Heathen practice is “handy for providing subject matter,” and that he often “prays to Bragi, Lord of the Poets” while writing.

Rachel Tyburski, president of Penn State’s Silver Circle, says, ” I do not try to keep my studies and faith separate, though they often seem to be … I let faith and school fall in place where they decide.”

Finally, for some students the boundaries between religious life and academics don’t exist exist at all. Jessica Dinsmore, a biochemistry and molecular biology major at UGA, says, “I’ve never seen my religion and my studies as two separate entities, because both are an important part of who I am.”

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

Nick Nelson, a double major in Religion and Anthropology at BSU agrees, saying, “Religion is one of my passions.During class, I study religion as a cultural phenomenon; privately I explore religion in a more spiritual sense. It fascinates me from each angle.”

Veloblom Vigjaldrsdottir, a graduate student at Nazareth College says:

I would say faith is incorporated into every way you walk. I may not directly relate each piece of paper I write on or each lecture I sit through as word from the gods. However, I believe that the Asatru path … is one where you are meant to be the best you can in everything you do and honor the ancestors that have fallen before you by continuing the tradition of determination and strength. That is how I carry my faith and that is how I honor my gods and ancestors.

When you do find time to practice or study your religion, what is your focus? To whom or what do you turn?

Dr. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a Polytheist, blogger and adjunct history instructor, acts as adviser to the Pagan Student Union at Skagit Valley College, Whidby Island Campus. Lupus observes:

Given the demands of college life, and of community colleges in particular … there is often neither as much time nor opportunity to engage in some of what [students] would like to with Paganism as they might wish. As a result, this creates an intensification of some experiences when they can happen … [It] causes the occasions to be “more special” because of their much-appreciated rarity.

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

All of the interviewed students did admit to either having limited time to practice or limited access to resources. Suretha Thacker, a Wiccan practitioner at Georgia Gwinnett College, says, “I have an altar and make an effort to celebrate Sabbats. I would like to be more involved, but I don’t have the time yet.” Dinsmore, who is exploring Shamanism, admitted that she often askes “ancestral spirits for guidance and teachings” because she doesn’t have access to relevant books, and has “yet to find a Shaman on a similar path.”

Despite any imposed limitations, most students are, in fact, engaging in some form of religious work. Wallace says, “I’m almost always studying my path. That’s one of my hobbies, … I get most of my teachings from books, the Internet and podcasts. I just downloaded 30 episodes of Selena Fox’ Circle Cast.”

In many cases, the campus-based Pagan student organizations are able to assist with resources and spiritual education. For example, UGA’s Pagan Student Association (PSA) holds weekly workshops that explore different Pagan paths and practices. In the past, subjects have included herbs, crystals, energy healing, shielding, Magick 101 and holiday lore. PSA has also invited practitioners from other religions to promote interfaith education and tolerance.

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

In doing this work, a Pagan student organization becomes more than a community center. It can be an informal coven or religious study group. Like UGA, the Rutgers University Pagan Student Association (RUPSA) holds a variety of events to enhance Pagan student practice. Recent graduate Paul Blessing found his path, Omnimancy, through an RUPSA forum event. Blessing is now an active practitioner and attends weekly meetings with a local Omnimancy group in New Jersey.

While Blessing eventually found and chose a structured Pagan tradition, most of the students said that they were more or less self-taught. Elfin, a practicing Heathen, finds his best resources online, saying “[On the Internet] there are people with similar faiths that I can learn a bit from, pick up tips or ideas for liturgy.”

Due to its near universal availability, the Internet is filling gaps when local resources and connectivity are lacking, or when free time is scarce. Students can download podcasts, read blogs or communicate over social media at any time and across space. Heather Sky Cybele, a Purdue University graduate, believes the Internet is “the biggest asset” for young Pagan students today.

What role does the Internet play in your religious education and spiritual growth?

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

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

Without a doubt, Facebook is the single biggest player in helping young Pagans stay up-to-date and connected to other students and friends. Morgan says, “Social media … keeps me informed about upcoming meetings, lets me meet new people and also allows me to learn a lot more than I ever could have on my own.”

Outside of Facebook, the most common sites used were Tumblr, Twitter, Yahoo Groups, Meetup.com and YouTube. Blessing says that YouTube “provided a tone of informative videos on practically every topic under the sun.”  Wallace called Meetup.com a “low-investment way to meet local Pagans” when she was visiting Maryland.

Students also look to religion-specific sites for information and connectivity. Vigjaldrsdottir visits Slavorum.com in order to stay in touch with “some of the Slavic faith individuals so that [she] can compare traditions and see the evolution of [her] own.” Similarly, Sky Cybele uses the popular Pagan information site, Witchvox.com, to connect with Pagans around the country, specifically when traveling.

What about traditional media resources? All of the students said that they do not read print magazines, for enrichment or entertainment. Wallace explains, “The cost coupled with the frequency of moving makes reading them difficult.”

Heather Sky Cybele [Photo Credit: H. Sky Cybele]

Heather Sky Cybele [Photo Credit: H. Sky Cybele]

In place of print magazines, young Pagans are turning to blogs and other digital publications for their Pagan or religious reading material. Sky Cybele regularly reads the blogs on the Pagan Channel at Patheos. Elfin says that he also enjoys reading blogs like Raise the Horns, but he doesn’t have as much time as he would like.

Riveira currently follows over 10 different Pagan blogs and websites, adding, “It was through various websites that I found my local groups and information … Young people can learn about their chosen paths without having to put themselves at risk or at a disadvantage of those around them.”

What disadvange? Is it one of age or experience? Do young Pagans feel lost in the greater community or ignored by older generations? In the third and final part of this series, we will examine the relationship between elders and this younger generation. We will also look forward into tomorrow to see how they envision the future.

Our fathers had their dreams; we have ours; the generation that follows will have its own. Without dreams and phantoms man cannot exist.” – Olive Schreiner

We often spend much of our time listening to community elders, learning from experience and absorbing the collective knowledge of past generations. While this is time well spent, it is often at the expense of looking toward the future; toward the growing the minds that will eventually inherit our projects and cradle experience in their hands.

[Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr]

In a three-part series “Pagans on Campus 2014,” The Wild Hunt will look to the next generation – the youth who are just starting out as independent adults and, more often than not, as Pagans. The campus environment is one place where young Pagans can first stretch their wings, test the limits of learned belief and discover new paths of knowing. With the help of a students and adult advisers from around the country, we will examine what it is like to be Pagan on Campus in 2014.

Part I: Community on Campus

“Being Pagan on campus feels a lot like playing Russian Roulette. Most people are simply curious, but there’s always that one person who has to “save” you once they find out about your religion’s beliefs,” says Sarah Morgan, a Druid and psychology major at the University of Georgia (UGA)

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

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

Despite the presence of that “one person,” all the interviewed students reported a relatively positive and supportive environment at their schools, all of which are secular institutions that vary in size and funding. The main differences in religious support can be found in the size of the campus Pagan community and the degree of Pagan activity. As far as UGA, Morgan says, “[It] actually has a lot of people from all different backgrounds,” and one the highlights for Pagans is the very active UGA Pagan Student Association (PSA).

Pagan students groups, clubs and associations have been coming and going for the last few decades. The presence of a strong campus Pagan group can open the doorway to information and community support as students work through their experience and spiritual searching. Pagan chaplain Mary Hudson of Syracuse University says,

The students have changed little [over the years] but their access to information has. They come with more questions and more information, good and bad … Their focus is about soaking up as much information as possible but also about finding community. Many students are now coming from Pagan families but the majority of them are still trying to find a place to belong. The campus Pagan groups are often the first community that they have ever been exposed to.

The survival of such groups is wholly dependent upon the enthusiasm and dedication of its student members. Paul Blessing served two-years as president of oldest continually running college student Pagan club in the country, the Rutgers University Pagan Student Association (RUPSA).  Blessing, a Visual Arts major, was introduced to his chosen practice of Omnimancy through the RUPSA. Of the campus experience, he says,

I’ve heard stories from friends that dormed about disapproving roommates. [However] I did enjoy a very friendly interaction with the club’s adviser, who told me she was herself at one point Wiccan … There was even a dean at Rutgers who was himself a practicing Druid of several years.

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

Paul Blessing [Photo Credit: P. Blessing]

Rutgers is unique because its association has been around since 1994. Jeff Mach, one of its earliest members, said, “I think [RUPSA] has honestly persisted because stubborn survival is part of its character. It came together in the face of great opposition, and brought together a uniquely diverse, even for the Pagan community, group of people. There’s a real feeling that [PSA] has something to offer.”

Similar to Rutgers, Purdue University has a long-lived, active student association called PAN, or the Purdue Pagan Academic Network. Heather Sky Cybele, a former Anthropology student, says, “I moved out to Indiana and started attending Purdue for graduate school. There I found PAN and like-minded individuals. I finally learned that I am not crazy and I started to use the word ‘Pagan’ to describe myself.”

SkyCybele

Heather SkyCybele [Photo Credit: H. SkyCybele]

Of the organization, she says, “It’s a great place for Pagans to exchange ideas and learn from each other.” She adds that “there is also a thriving Pagan community in town and a Pagan store.” Since graduating, Sky Cybele has continued to advise and assist PAN and Purdue’s Pagan students. PAN sponsors events on major Pagan holidays, has regular meetings and, over the past two years, has attended ConVocation in Detroit.

Taking support in a different direction, Syracuse University has shown institutional acceptance for its Pagan students. In 2010, Henrick’s Chapel appointed a Pagan chaplain, Mary Hudson and, then in 2013, the school allowed the installation of a dedicated ritual space on the main quad. Veloblom Vigjaldrsdottir, an Asatru practitioner and recent Syracuse graduate says, “I experienced a very open and friendly environment. [At Syracuse] people would ask about tradition. They were genuinely curious and it led to larger discussions where each of us found ourselves more comfortable and changed.”

Vigjaldrsdottir now attends graduate classes at Nazereth College in Rochester where there are no religious activities or supportive clubs. She says, “Thankfully I have kindred of my own in my hometown and through Mary Hudson I have found other like-minded Pagans in my area.” The positive support found within the university environment can carry forward after a student graduates.

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

Nick Nelson [Photo credit: N. Nelson]

While most schools do not have the history of community or institutional acceptance found at Rutgers, Purdue or Syracuse, many schools do have smaller, growing Pagan student clubs that are working to serve the population. One such school is Ball State University (BSU), which houses the inclusive Society for Earth-Based Religions (SER). President Nick Nelson, a Buddhist and double major in Anthropology and Religious studies, says “there needs to be a lot more accurate discussion on what other people believe starting at an early age.” Currently SER offers open Tarot readings to any student as a part of an attempt to build a stronger campus presence. Nelson says, “outreach is a priority for the coming year.”

Jackson Eflin, a creative writing major and Heathen at BSU, says that there isn’t much community outside of SER. He adds, “There aren’t really any Heathens in the area beyond me and a few friends and we’re not really organized enough for a structured practice.” Despite the relatively small community presence, neither BSU student has experienced or witnessed any backlash due to religion. Eflin says,”No one ever seems to mind that I’m Pagan. They either don’t care, are casually interested or are approving.”

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Jackson Elfin [Photo Credit: J. Elfin]

Like BSU, Drexel University has a small active Pagan alliance (DUPA). President Caity Wallace says, “I try to make sure that there are enough activities on campus for fellow Pagans. I’ll admit that I don’t think we do enough, but I’m going to try to be more aggressive this coming year about programming.” Wallace admits that she often goes off campus to attend events and to experience rituals performed by those more experienced in public events.

For those attending universities without Pagan groups, the only option is to “go off-campus.” Suretha Thacker, a Wiccan and International Business major at Georgia Gwinnett College, says, “Pagans are a nonentity on campus … there are 6 organizations dedicated to Christianity and 1 to Islam … [But] I can wear a pentacle and no one really notices. My experience is that most people don’t know what Paganism is or are unable to recognize symbols of Paganism.” Suretha finds her spiritual community outside of campus life.

Whether or not there is an organized group, all of the students reported that there has been, in their experience, little to no significant backlash for Pagans on campus. While some keep their religion relatively quiet, others are more actively involved in Pagan campus activities. However, not one professes to living in the proverbial broom closet.

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

Suretha Thacker [Photo Credit: S. Thacker]

The most common complaint from all of the students was the occasional Christian literature left in a window or Pagan group’s mailbox. Angela Riviero, a UGA student, recounted the story of Pagan student who was being harassed due to religious belief. The situation “had to be taken to the police and ended in a restraining order.” She adds, “But that has been the only problem.”

Another relatively new, but equally important, facet of the Pagan campus club is an online presence. The Internet helps keep students connected and helps them stay connected long after they have graduated. Most of the mentioned Pagan associations have, at the very least, a Facebook presence. Some, like Penn State’s Silver Circle, also maintain websites. Others have gone further. Paul Blessing made a YouTube channel and Twitter account for the RUPSA and Sky Cybele notes that PAN maintains a Yahoo mailing list.

Many more schools have student groups varying in size, type and activity. Some others are Penn State University, M.I.T., University of Texas-Austin, New Mexico State University, Eastern Illinois University, Utah Valley University, Oberlin, Appalachian State University, Georgia State University, University of Southern Maine and Eastern Michigan University.

In the second part of the series, we will focus on academic and spiritual study. What religious activities are important to Pagan students and their groups?  How do they maintain their spiritual practice or education while focused on the demands of academic work?  In part three, we will discuss Pagan student needs and the obstacles they do face. Do they reach out beyond the campus?  And how do they envision the future of Paganism and its place in their lives?

This month the Smithsonian Channel will be airing an hour-long television pilot for a series called Sacred Sites of the World. The show was developed and produced by Tile Films, one of Ireland’s top documentary filmmaking companies. As suggested by the title, the series seeks to explore the historical, religious and cultural significance of sacred sites located around the world. As part of this process, and perhaps unique to the series, producers will also be demonstrating how these ancient sites and associated religious beliefs are still honored and held sacred by many in contemporary culture.

Beaghmore Stone Circle [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

Beaghmore Stone Circle [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

Writer and researcher David Ryan said, “Director Stephen Rooke and I, along with the rest of the creative staff in Tile Films, have a strong personal interest in history, archaeology, religion … It’s the reason why we do this work in the first place.” Tile Films has produced other successful documentary series focusing on religion and history such as The Lost Gods.

The Sacred Sites’ pilot focuses on Ireland and tells the tale and progression of religious experience through its sacred sites. The program includes striking aerial images of cairns, dolmens, stone circles and temple mounds. It moves smoothly between these images, live-event footage, dramatizations, and interviews with a variety of academic experts including scientists and historians. One of these experts is folklorist Dr. Jenny Butler whose work is focused, in part, on connections between ancient beliefs and modern day Paganism in Ireland.

The show also includes interviews with modern Pagans, including footage of an authentic Lughnasadh ritual performed by the Owl Grove, a Druidic group from Rosenallis, County Laois. Member Jane Brideson describes the experience:

[The crew] spent time with us, asked questions to further understand our beliefs and were respectful of the way that we work. We explained … that we worked within a sacred space. They respected that by filming the whole ritual from outside the circle and being very unobtrusive. Once the ritual had ended the Grove gathered to share food and drink. Later filming recommenced and parts of our ritual were filmed again from within the circle with our consent. The whole experience was very positive for everyone involved.

The Arch Druid of Owl Grove, Mel Lloyd agreed saying, “The filming was exhilarating and very interesting for us all. We met with and had several conversations with the production team prior to the filming. So by the time the day arrived they we were all on very good terms with each other.”

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

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

During the show, the Owl Grove is performing its Lughnasadh ritual as an example of how modern day Pagans still honor the ancient Irish God – Lugh. At several points in the show, producers highlight the fact that rituals are still held to honor the ancient ways, Gods and historic sites.

The filmmakers share past footage from the Bealtaine Festival of Fires, formerly held on the Hill of Uisneach, County Westmeath. In this segment, people dance near a large bonfire of hay and wood. Researcher David Ryan says, “Different groups were present, and not all were Pagan. Large numbers of ordinary festival-goers attended for the spectacle and the popular music event that accompanied the fire performances.”

Another segment shows a crowd gathered on the Winter Solstice to witness the natural spectacle that occurs within the ancient Newgrange temple mound in County Meath. Outside this 5000-year-old sacred site, travelers gather to experience an extraordinary annual, ancient event that signifies the return of the sun. In one shot, several of the visitors appear to be performing a ritual act to herald or call-in the solstice sun.

While Sacred Sites: Ireland does explores religion and respectfully incorporates modern day Pagan practice, the show is a purely secular, academic-style program. Its focus is as much on explaining ancient religious practice and culture through history and science, as it is an introduction to the sites themselves. At points, the temples even seem to be simply a jumping-off point to discussing changing ancestral beliefs, landscape and traditions. As such, Sacred Sites: Ireland sits very delicately and precariously wedged between history, science and religion.

Carrowkeel Passage Tomb [Screen shot Sacred Sites Ireland]

Carrowkeel Passage Tomb [Photo still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

With that secular and scientific focus, Sacred Sites: Ireland ‘s may not for everyone. However the producers have made a significant effort to respectfully include the modern usage of these sites in their discussion.  They have also attempted to show the beauty and spiritual power within these ancient sites and, in doing so, have demonstrated a definite respect for both ancient and contemporary religious beliefs. Bideson believes that the program will be excellent viewing for both Pagans and non-Pagans alike. She says,

I am always interested in the way Pagans from different paths work and celebrate and I hope that the programme will give others a glimpse into the Owl Grove and how some Druids in Ireland practice … it [also] shows us doing what we actually do rather than the practices that many non-pagans would like to associate us with. 

If the Smithsonian Channel picks up the series, Tile Films plans to continue the process of exploring the many sacred sites around the world. Ryan says,

The locations for future shows still have to be finalised, but provisionally we are planning to focus on sites in Greece/ Turkey, Italy (ancient Roman sites), Malta, Egypt and Central America (Mayan sites). We hope to continue to include sites that remain sacred in the present day, and film the associated pagan rituals. Thus far we have been in touch with a number of different pagan groups in relation to the above, and so far all seem interested in participating.

When asked if they are considering any U.S.-based sacred sites? Ryan said, “Yes, we’d certainly consider Native American sites in the U.S., and the Smithsonian have indicated they’d be open to this. Any site in theory could be included so long as it is ‘sacred.’”

The pilot, Sacred Sites: Ireland, will air July 7 at 8 p.m. Eastern on The Smithsonian Channel. It will also be available to stream via the website.

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

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

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

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

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

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

IMG_0691

Blake Kirk [Photo Credit: B.Kirk]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carol Kirk [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

In recent months, a controversy has been brewing around the name and the acronym for the militant Islamic group Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham (DAASH). The most common English translations of that name are The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. More commonly, the militant group is referred to in the media as ISIS. Both the translations and the common acronym have caused significant frustration for many, including Pagans.

A  New York Times article, dated June 18, explained the problem from a linguistic perspective. The Arabic name, Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, is not effectively expressed in the most commonly used translation: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The jihadists’ mission, as reflected by their Arabic name, is to create a caliphate that incorporates a far larger region than the modern countries of Iraq and Syria. The translated name, and its acronym ISIS, do not clearly relay the group’s intent.

By NordNordWest, Spesh531 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons] Red indicates areas controlled by ISIL; Yellow indicates areas claimed by ISIL

By NordNordWest, Spesh531 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons]
Red indicates areas controlled by ISIL; Yellow indicates areas claimed by ISIL; White indicates the rest of Iraq and Syria

The New York Times writer suggests that “the already familiar ISIS abbreviation could simply be said to stand for The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.” The Arabic word al-Sham defines that larger region, not limited by modern national borders. The area includes Cyprus, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and southern Turkey. Using the Arabic term al-Sham accurately pinpoints the group’s intent. However, this word is unfamiliar to the casual English-speaking reader and, consequently, does not solve the problem of masked intent.

Additionally, even with this minor adjustment in translation, the acronym ISIS is still viable. Either way, it is regularly being used in mainstream media reporting, including major outlets such as the BBC, The Huffington Post, CNN, NBC, The Los Angeles Times and others. The Washington Post writes:

[We have] been referring to the organization as ISIS, shorthand for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This is how most news organizations that operate in English began identifying the outfit when it emerged as a dangerous fighting force two years ago, launching terror strikes and carving out territory amid the Syrian civil war.

While the Times suggestion solves one issue, the continued use of the acronym ISIS itself poses an entirely different problem for Pagans and Heathens who venerate the Egyptian Goddess of the same name. The Fellowship of Isis (FOI), a worldwide organization, made this public statement:

We are a multi-faith organisation dedicated to the feminine aspect in all religions, and have a priesthood whose manifesto is one of peace, tolerance and respect for all spiritual expression … It is disturbing and confusing to our members and the general public who know of our organization when media use the acronym ISIS for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militia.

On June 20, the Huffington Post UK reported that the Pagan Federation sent in a letter asking that the news outlet stop using the ISIS acronym. The published letter reads:

We are writing to you on behalf of our members to express concerns over the use of the acronym ISIS which is currently being used when mentioning the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Greater Syria) militia, and would request that the acronym ISIL, which has established usage elsewhere in the world be used.

The reason for this request is because the acronym ISIS is likely to form an inadvertent association in the minds of hearers between Sunni jihadists and followers of the goddess Isis, with the potential for harm to innocent people from a completely unrelated religion.

Holli Emore, director of Cherry Hill Seminary and writer at Patheos’ Wild Garden blog, is the founder and Priestess of the Osireion Temple in South Carolina.  Emore says that she is “disinclined to feel alarm at the acronym ISIS being bandied about in the mainstream news this summer.” She adds:

It is a bit disconcerting to hear the name of one of my goddesses regularly repeated in the international news, and such terrible news it is!  And yet I note that “Isis” as a name or acronym is found in lots of places.  There is isis-online.org, the Institute for Science and International Security, and isis.org, home of the International Species Information System.  Many university campuses use an online student network called ISIS which stands for the Intercampus Student Information System.  Interestingly, here in South Carolina there is a Department of Education system-wide database called Osiris. 

Like the names of many ancient deities, Isis is found as a designator for many organizations, products and activities. Emore adds:

What all of this tells me is that the great mother goddess of ancient Egypt, whose worship stretched to all parts of the Roman Empire (a piece of a temple of Isis has been found in the Thames River), is a ubiquitous archetype in the mind of at least the western world.  The Mistress of All Magic has so infused our imagination that those who never had a thought for Pagan religion feel it natural to adopt her beautiful name…

However, in this particular case, the organization is a terrorist group with violent intent based on religious extremism. Its mission to create a caliphate has no connection, symbolic or otherwise, to Ancient Egyptian mythology. It is just happenstance. In fact, the group itself and the local communities use the acronym DAASH.

The goddess Isis.

The goddess Isis. [Public Domain Image]

As noted by the Pagan Federation’s letter, there is a third translation option. Some agencies are now calling this group The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Like al-Sham, the somewhat-antiquated word Levant refers to the larger Middle East region making it a better translation of the original Arabic. As such, the group’s acronym becomes ISIL. Currently the U.S. State department, President Obama and other governments worldwide are using this translation and its corresponding acronym.

The Associated Press has itself opted to use ISIL and The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in its own work. It also recommends that particular translation and usage in its AP Stylebook. However the change overall is slow in coming. Many writers and media outlets have adjusted to using “the Levant” but still use the acronym ISIS. In its press release, the FOI has put out a call out to editors asking:

We respectfully request that your organization from this point forward refer to this group by its other accepted name, I.S.I.L., Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and require that your correspondents and guests do the same. 

Despite the continued discussions and declarations of name translation changes, the extremist group is still most readily recognized and now even marketed with the acronym ISIS. Recently several companies, mostly out of Indonesia, have begun selling clothing and paraphernalia, over the Internet, that display the militant organization’s logo with the acronym ISIS. According to a CNN report, one of the shirts reads: “We are all Isis.” The same article quotes Delma Institute researcher Hassan Hassan as saying, “Using merchandise to market itself as ‘cool’ is a one of the common propaganda tools ISIS uses.” Facebook has been removing these sites but sales continue elsewhere.

Art and Photo by Lady Pythia.  It was posted publicly online as part of her call-to-the-media to stop using the acronym ISIS.

Art and Photo by Lady Pythia. This was posted publicly as part of a call-to-the-action to stop using the acronym ISIS.

Because the group and its supporters appear to have embraced the acronym themselves, the debate over the name extends well-beyond simple media usage. As for members of The Fellowship of Isis, the Pagan Federation and other individuals who are unsettled by use of the acronym ISIS, this struggle may be more difficult than originally expected. Emore is trying to look at the situation differently and toward a brighter future. She says:

A fragment of Osireion liturgy (which derives from the ancients) is the line “we know you, we know your names.”  A name is sacred and powerful, but it seems to me that the media does not know Aset’s name, nor her strength.  May she soon work her magic to bring calm to the turmoil of the Levant.

On June 7, Rev. Kathryn Jones, a Wiccan minister from Uniontown, Penn. announced her candidacy for state representative in the 51st District. Rev. Jones is running on the Green Party ticket against Democratic incumbent Timothy S. Mahoney. Although this will be her first time running for public office, Jones has had years of experience working around and with the structure of local politics.

Rev. Kathryn Jones [Campaign Photo}

Rev. Kathryn Jones [Campaign Photo}

Since 2010 Jones has been an active presence in city and county prisons, where she performs general ministerial duties for local Pagan inmates. As noted in a Pittsburgh Tribune article, county officials have, in the past, fully recognized and supported her work. Commissioner Vincent Zapotosky said, “We all have a right to worship the God of our choice.”

Then in fall 2013, local officials began to reject her requests to enter the very prisons that she had already visited. In May 2014, Jack Henekes, the local district attorney and a member of the county prison board, told the Pittsburgh Tribune that Rev. Jones was denied access because her religion “is not federally recognized.”

Although these verbal attacks focus on her Wiccan practice, Jones believes that religion is not really the issue. Over the past decade, she has become an outspoken political activist in Fayette County. She joined the local Occupy movement and is currently fighting “the construction of a new $100 million prison facility to be funded by taxpayers and contracted out to for-profit corporations.”

Jones firmly believes that religion is just a reason to stop her activist work. She says, “Being refused the opportunity to minister to Pagan inmates is why I am [now] running for office.” She sees her candidacy as the next step in her personal crusade to make the local community a better place. She explains:

Our community is falling apart.  We have lost too many of our young people to gun violence and drug overdoses, while the rich get richer and the poor fill the prisons for profit.  …  I am fighting decades of corruption in an area that votes 60%+ for Democrats and where Obama lost [twice]. I am fighting apathy and poverty and illiteracy.

The 51st District of southwestern Pennsylvania is a region with a long coal mining history. It has been a Democratic stronghold for years. Rep. Mahoney has been the district’s state representative since 2006 and, before him, other Democrats have won the seat since 1969. Republicans do not even regularly offer opposition. Jones says that if she doesn’t run, Rep. Mahoney will run unopposed once again.

For years Jones herself was a Democrat but, over time, she became disillusioned with the local political scene. She says, “The [region's] Democratic Party has done a disservice to our community and to the national Party in general.” She adds that they are “way too corrupt” and only want “perpetuate the status quo.”

Kathryn Jones during local Occupy protests. [Photo courtesy of K. Jones]

Kathryn Jones during local Occupy protests. [Photo courtesy of K. Jones]

Jones believes her district needs change and needs it now. She told the Tribune, “We just need a two-year break to catch our breath and find a different direction, because the direction we are going is nowhere.”

At first she looked to the Tea Party for support because, like herself, it wants to see Mahoney out of office. However Jones quickly realized that she, “could not overcome the social issues divide.” Then a friend told her to contact Jay Sweeney, chair of the Green Party of Pennsylvania. After speaking with Sweeney, Jones says that she “found a home.” She likened the feeling to first finding Wicca in the mid-nineties.

The state’s Green Party fully supports her candidacy. Sweeney says, “The Green Party is Wiccan and Pagan friendly … I don’t anticipate any backlash, but, will certainly cite our values if necessary to defend any such controversy.” Those values include a “respect for diversity” which includes religion and spirituality. These ideals are incorporated into the Party platform.

After filling out a questionnaire and meeting with representatives from the Green Party of Allegheny, Jones attended the Party’s June 7 state committee meeting in Bethlehem. She says that the delegates asked probing questions but nothing out of the normal. Sweeney agreed saying:

Kathryn has been clear about her religious beliefs.  I would say she was universally accepted.  The only question was a clarification in regard to her position as a minister. Someone wanted to know if she was a UU minister.  A member immediately raised an objection to any question regarding religion.

Along with being the first Wiccan candidate to run, Jones will also be the first third Party candidate. And if elected, the first woman to hold that particular office for the 51st District. She says that the pressure is now on. She wants to be a good representative of the Green Party and of the Wiccan community, saying, “I don’t want to let down either group.”

Kathryn Jones performing a local wedding ceremony.

Kathryn Jones performing a local wedding ceremony. [Photo Courtesy of K. Jones]

To help deal with the pressure, Jones regularly taps into her spiritual beliefs and training. She says that she is in a “constant state of meditation” which help maintains balance. She also regularly uses Viking runes. As she explains, “there are days when I wonder,’What have I done?’ or ‘Why am I doing what I’m doing?’” The runes and meditation bring her back to a center point so she can focus on her goals.

One of these goals is to show her community that regular people can run for office on a shoestring budget. Whether she wins or loses, she wants to prove that individuals can be heard and can make a difference in politics.

Currently Jones is working on the petition needed to add her name to the district ballot. She is confident that she’ll have the needed 300 signatures by the July 31 deadline. She and her campaign team are aiming for 500 just in case there are any questions. In the meantime, Jones will be setting up the back-end logistics to run her campaign, raise funds and garner support. Her focus is now on social media outreach and the petition.

Supporting her is a group of dedicated volunteers made up of locals from all faith back grounds. Jones has yet to experience any backlash from the community due to her religion. The local press has covered her campaign with interest and curiosity. Jones says there there have been some light jokes about “bonfires in the parks, but that has been it.”  Local Wiccan Priestess Lady Annabelle of Grove of Gaia, says:

It is good to see someone who is openly Wiccan run for public office in Pennsylvania. It sets a standard for other Wiccans to lead and become candidates for State Representatives themselves, or seek other government roles … Her chances depend on how she presents herself. It will be interesting to see if she is successful as this would suggest that PA voters can look to the substance of the candidate, regardless of her religion.

Once Jones collects the needed signatures, her name will go on the ballot for the November 2014 election. At this point, it is too early in the process to know if she will receive any real resistance due to her religion but Jones says that she is ready for anything. She welcomes a public debate, open conversation and whatever else may come.