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On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) rejected the appeal of Ohio science teacher John Freshwater, who was fired for teaching Creationism in the public school system. The case, Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, first made its way through the Ohio courts, where it was ultimately ruled that “the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education had ‘good and just cause’ to terminate John Freshwater’s teaching contract.” When the appeal reached the Supreme Court, the justices rejected it, thereby, allowing the Ohio court’s opinion to stand.

vernon_logoThis case is a recent example of a public school system becoming the playing field for a tug of war match between secularism and religion. According to Americans United (AU), the teacher not only taught Creationism in the classroom, but he displayed and handed-out religious material, and also performed surveys of students’ religious beliefs. AU also notes that the teacher was “accused of using an electronic device (a Tesla coil) to burn a cross into a student’s arm.”

Although the Ohio courts ruled that it was legal for Freshwater to place his personal Bible on the desk, his actions were otherwise out of line. AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said, “Freshwater was using his position to foist his religious beliefs onto impressionable students. The courts rightfully put a stop to that.”

For Pagan and Heathen parents or others practicing minority religions, there may come a time when religion is “foisted” upon their children within the public school environment. In most cases, the situation is likely an unthinking act, and indicative of a changing culture or shift in demographics. Minor missteps do happen and can often be remedied through conversations, education and awareness. Unfortunately, in some instances, such as the Ohio case above, the acts are blatant attempts at promoting a single religion.

The Satanic Temple's Children's Activity Book

Created by The Satanic Temple

Last year, Florida’s Orange County School Board allowed The World Changers of Florida to distribute Bibles to their students. After being sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Central Florida Freethought Community, the school board approved the distribution of other religious material, which now includes pamphlets on Atheism and the Satanic Temple’s coloring book called “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities.”

Similarly, the Madison County School Board in Georgia allowed a privately funded religious monument to be erected outside a high school football team’s field house. According to local news, the statue reads, “Romans 8:31: ‘If God be for us who can be against us?’ and Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.’ ” Last month, the school board was contacted by both the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation and is now facing a potential lawsuit.

In all three of these cases, the intention and, therefore the violation, is very clear. However, not all cases are quite as “cut and dry.” Over the past fifteen years, a national organization called “The Good News Club,” has been establishing after-school enrichment programs within public school buildings. With the growing number of working parents, these in-school extracurricular programs have become increasingly popular, serving a very needed purpose for modern families.

However, The Good News Club is a division of The Child Evangelism Fellowship and has a clear and direct religious initiative. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the club, and others like it, can legally hold after-school meetings within public school buildings. (The Good News Club v. Milford Central High School)  Despite that ruling, the club’s presence continues to spark controversy.

In Portland, Oregon, a large coalition has recently formed with the aim of stopping the Good News Club’s in-school activities. According to The Oregonian, its formation was sparked when Katherine Stewart published her book called The Good News Club: The Religious Right’s stealth assault on American Children.

Due to the SCOTUS ruling, that situation is not easy to legally negotiate. In an interview with The Oregonian, ACLU David Fidanque said, “I don’t know that there is a bright line anymore.” While acknowledging the club’s legal right to be in the school, he expressed real concern saying:

Keeping the government out of religious affairs is the single most important thing we can do to protect religious freedom in this country. If we allow our government institutions to endorse particular religious viewpoints, or even to promote religion in general over non-religion that is a threat to every form of religion.

1969339_231559560385952_2907068694561940975_nEven if The Good News Club is staying within its constitutional rights, Fidanque’s concerns are justified when looking at other similar situations. Growing in popularity in Georgia is another after-school religious club called Rise UP. The organizers make no effort to mask their affiliation with area schools. The website advertises, “Several other local elementary schools expressed interest in starting a similar program. We were excited about the possibility of partnering with these other parents and schools… there are new schools joining the RISE UP! Team as each school year starts – RISE UP! has a total of 9 elementary schools participating!” Did the schools ask to join or did the club ask to use the space?  Does that distinction matter?

Another way school systems intentionally or unintentionally allow religious speak into their public space is through visiting authors. Schools often hold assemblies during which a writer might speak, entertain, and read from his or her latest book. It is a very common occurrence and, in most cases, quite innocuous.

However, when that author writes with a strong religious directive, like popular Christian author Bryan Davis, the assembly could become problematic. Davis’ books reflect a deep connection to his own personal theology. While his work is certainly fitting for church assemblies, is it appropriate for public school children? Is it constitutionally legal for Davis to be speaking about and selling books that openly promote the celebration of one’s “God-given talents” and overtly discuss “faith, prayer and redemption” within the public school system? Interestingly, two of the participating middle schools are in Orange County, Florida, where the Bibles are being distributed.

These are only a few recent examples of cases in which an uncomfortable situation could arise for Pagan, Heathen or other families practicing a minority religion. There are many others situations from the minor missteps by a well-meaning teacher to the blatant promotion of a single religion. On Polytheist.com, parent Niki Whiting described her own encounter:

For a few brief weeks when we sent my son to the neighborhood kindergarten we had to deal with his confusion around the Pledge of Allegiance. I was surprised that this was still said in schools. He came home and asked why the school was trying to make him Christian. Already, in his (then) 5 short years of life, he knew that when people say ‘God’ they are mostly referring to Yahweh. “Don’t they know that the world is full of gods?” he asked. No, no, my son, they do not.

pagans_and_the_law_mainWhile every situation doesn’t need a lawyer, there may be times when a friendly email is just not enough. What should a parent do in such situations?  In her book Pagans and the Law, lawyer Dana Eilers suggests, “A basic understanding of the Constitution, the First Amendment, and their history is essential to grasping the enormity of religious freedom.” Her book lays out the basics as they pertain specifically to Pagans. She writes, “It is highly recommended that everyone read this document, boring as it appears. It is what stands between you and 10 thousand years of discrimination, persecution, and darkness.”

Another resource is Lady Liberty League. Co-founder Rev. Selena Fox has this recommendation:

Documentation is essential. Keep a log with dates and details of what has happened and what has been done to express concerns and get positive resolution. Check into the school’s policies and processes for filing complaints and voicing concerns. Keep a copy of every written communication you make and receive regarding the situation. Share this information with individuals and organizations you contact for help.

While fighting these battles may be difficult, costly and time consuming, not every situation leads to a lengthy court battle. Byron Ballard, who has worked extensively and very successfully with North Carolina’s Buncombe County School Board, found herself in the middle of such a situation in 2011. As reported by The Wild Hunt, the school board allowed Bibles to be distributed to students and a Pagan mother protested. Ballard was an integral part of resolving the tensions and finding workable solutions. Ballard advises looking for allies, adding that some may “come from surprising places.” Some of her allies  have been leaders from mainstream religious institutions. She says:

My best advice is to stay grounded, be persistent and try to really listen to all sides of the issue at hand. This work is about rights and responsibility, about shifting cultures. But it’s actually about making public schools safe places for all children to learn and to grow into caring, compassionate adults.

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

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

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Part of Southern culture is a deep loyalty to one’s Alma mater. That loyalty is often synonymous with kinship, sister or brotherhood and community. Although this deep attachment is most obvious during big sporting events, it lasts long after the lights are dimmed on any playing field.

"William J. Samford Hall" at Auburn Univ. [Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan, via Flickr/Wikimedia CC. lic]

“William J. Samford Hall” at Auburn Univ. [Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan, via Flickr/Wikimedia CC. lic]

For that very reason, Dr. Katharyn Privett-Duren was all the more devastated when she found out that her position as an english instructor at Auburn University (AU) had been terminated without a given reason. Not only was she an employee but also a three time Auburn graduate. When she was in her 30s, with a GED, three children and divorce papers in hand, she earned a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. She says:

As an alumni, myself, I cannot reconcile such an action against my deep loyalty to my university …  I have been, in effect, disowned by the very institution that created me as a teacher and a scholar without any more ado than that given to a stranger.

In the local Alabama Pagan community and in the blogosphere, Dr. Privett-Duren is better known as Seba O’Kiley, the Southern Fried Witch. She has been a spiritual leader, Pagan teacher and blogger for years. However, until May, her two identities were, more or less, kept separate. Religion is generally not discussed. A former English Department colleague Dr. Robin E. Bates said:

In the Auburn English department, faculty and staff don’t discuss religious feeling openly. I think that, for  most, this is because it is a publicly funded school and many feel that faith has no role in the workplace there … No one discusses religion with students, because it’s outside the purview of the job as teachers of English, and discussion of anything personal like religion would be considered unprofessional.

While some colleagues, like Dr. Bates, knew Dr. Privett-Duren’s religion and even followed her Pagan blog, the College of Liberal Arts administration did not. Due to the alleged “hush hush” circumstances surrounding her termination, Dr. Privett-Duren believes that her religion was, in fact, the cause. She explained:

They [administrators] found out when a colleague complained about me to the Dean’s office. I have never been allowed to know the details of that complaint and it (apparently) was unfounded and dropped. Soon thereafter, the Dean asked that I not accompany my committee of which I was a member for our meeting with the Dean. He did not want me there. From that moment, it escalated.

Seba O'Kiley

Seba O’Kiley or Dr. Katharyn Privett-Duren

The initial problems arose in the fall of 2013 but, as she noted, appeared to have been dropped within a month. In fact, in April 2014, Dr. Privett-Duren was honored with the English Department’s teaching award for the 2013-14 school year. In addition, she was being considered for a promotion to a permanent lecturer and for a grant to establish online class material.

However, things turned sour that very same month. On April 4, the administration sent Dr. Privett-Duren an email informing her that she was “was not selected” for the grant. Her department chair admitted that he was “surprised by the decision which was made outside the department.” She was unable to obtain any further information about the decision-making process.

A month later, Dr. Privett-Duren was sent the termination letter with no further explanation. Within days, she contacted her chair, the administration and the Affirmative Action/EEO offices. During that time, she was neither able to gain an audience with the Dean, nor learn the conditions of her termination.

Frustrated and confused, Dr. Privett-Duren turned to the American Civil Liberties Union. Within days, the organization returned her letter stating, “We have reviewed your request for assistance and concluded that your situation raises serious questions about the possibility of discrimination with your company.” However the ACLU also added that her complaint did not constitute a civil rights issue and recommended that she contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

On June 16, she filed a charge of religious discrimination and ageism with the EEOC in Birmingham. The organization is currently investigating her case and, she is waiting for a response. She says:

How do I feel about the whole thing. I feel betrayed–not by my department, as I understand that their hands were tied, nor by my students, who didn’t know nor care about the status of my religion. I feel betrayed by the red tape of administration that did not protect me from the machination of Dean’s Aistrup’s decision and by the refusal of the Provost’s office to investigate it. The unprecedented act of terminating an employee without regard to work record, the opinion of the supervising faculty or the simple (ethical) step of allowing that employee the right to meet with the dean of the college is nothing short of a witch hunt. 

While Dr. Privett-Duren was communicating with officials at the school and with these outside agencies, her students launched their own protest in the form of an online petition. By June,142 students of many faiths digitally signed a request to “Bring Dr. PD Back to Auburn University.” While the petition doesn’t directly address the reason behind her dismissal, it does highlight her reputation as a popular, well-loved teacher. Former student Sam Christensen said, “I don’t know anyone who disagrees with the petition. I can say that I would be surprised if there was serious student opposition to it, I haven’t known many professors as universally liked by students as her.”

Many of these students didn’t find out that “Dr. PD” was Pagan until the petition was made public. Former student Casey Jo Berland, a practicing Christian, said, “Kat kept her religion completely hidden from her students. I had absolutely no idea until after the semester was over and I called her for advice. And even then she was hesitant to open up about it.”

Dr. Privett-Duren’s hesitation to discuss her religion was more about professionalism than about fear of discovery. All of the interviewed students and faculty agree that Auburn’s climate is generally more progressive as compared to many other locations in Alabama or the Southeast. The University was even home to an active Pagan student organization, Pantheon, for years.

More recently, the town itself has become host to the only Pagan Pride Day event in the state. In fact, Auburn Pagan Pride Day is held at the Arboretum on the University campus. APPD organizer and longtime resident Linda Kerr says, “I’ve lived here since 1983, and have been Pagan here since 1988, and have never had any issues due to being Pagan. I worked at Auburn University for 25 years, and never had any trouble there either.” She holds the Pagan pride event on campus because, “the site is beautiful and lends itself well.” However, APPD is not endorsed or sponsored by the University in any way.

Kerr’s comments, however, were corroborated by other Pagan residents and students. Former Pagan AU student, Jillian Smith, actually applied to the university upon encouragement from Dr. Privett-Duren. She said:

Kat told me how open-minded and accepting AU was, allowing for a great deal of personal expression, pursuance of personal interest and acceptance of differing viewpoints when well presented. She spoke of AU as forward-thinking, encouraging of new ideas, and a supposed melting pot of creed, race, color, religion, sexual orientation, and so forth. This was not only a driving point for my application to AU, it was also the kind of community environment in which I wanted my son to be raised — an environment of AU “family” and “All in.”

Despite this progressive climate and academic environment, Dr. Privett-Duren still maintains that her termination was related to her religion. She says that the University is located in the very conservative South and that administrators are sometimes not as open-minded as the professors working in the departments. As she points out, her termination came from the college administration, who didn’t know about her religion prior to last fall, and not from her department head, who did.

Unfortunately, the University declined to comment due to this situation being “a personal employment matter.” Both the AA/EEO department and Dean’s office responded similarly saying that they are unable to speak publicly in such cases.

Dr. Privett-Duren

Dr. Privett-Duren in her garden

Therefore, the investigation into Dr. Privett-Duren’s termination and her allegations of religious discrimination now rest entirely with the EEOC. In the meantime, Dr. Privett-Duren has begun other projects. She will be teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary and at another online university. She is writing a memoir about life as a witch in the south and has already sent a fiction project to a publisher. In addition, she is the newest, regular writer at Crone Magazine. Her column, which begins this October, is aptly called “Southern-Fried Crone.”  Dr. Privett-Duren says:

As a direct result of my termination, I have been forcibly outed by the process. For over a decade, I existed in fracture:  Seba O’Kiley, the country witch versus Dr. Privett-Duren, the academic. That fracture has healed from the chaos.  What I am now is quite a force of nature, and for that alone, I am grateful. I am now whole, a witch/teacher/mother/academic with no apologies.

Regardless of the outcome of the EEOC investigation, Dr. Privett-Duren says that she will keep fighting. She loves Auburn University and the students that call it home. With the spirit of “War Eagle” in her tone, she says, “I just want my job back. I just want to teach.”

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.

This story begins in 2002. Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan and member of a local Unitarian Universalist congregation in Virginia, approached the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to be included in a rotating lineup of local clergy who gave opening prayers/invocations at board meetings. Simpson was rebuffed by the County’s lawyer, saying that due to the “polytheistic, pre-Christian” nature of her faith they could not honor the request. So, starting in 2003, a lawsuit was filed.

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Cynthia Simpson

“The Chesterfield County Board opens its meetings with an invocation given by invited local clergy whose names are drawn from an official list that the County maintains. Virtually all the clergy who have delivered invocations represent Christian denominations. The County denied our Wiccan plaintiff’s request to be added to the invocation list on the ground that Wicca is “neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities,” and therefore it does not fall within “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” At the time of the denial, several of the county-board members made statements mocking the Wiccan faith. AU and the ACLU filed suit in federal court on December 4, 2002, alleging that disallowing non-Christian clergy from presenting invocations violates the Constitution. In November 2003, the district court held that the exclusion was unconstitutional. The defendants appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and in 2004 AU and its cooperating attorneys briefed the appeal. Oral argument was held on February 3, 2005. Unfortunately, we drew a very conservative panel (Judges Niemeyer, Wilkinson, and Williams) that, on April 14, 2005, issued a unanimous decision on the defendants’ behalf. The court reasoned that Marsh v. Chambers permits municipalities to limit prayer-givers to the Judeo-Christian tradition. We filed a petition for rehearing on April 26, 2005, but it was denied shortly thereafter. We filed a petition for certiorari on August 8, 2005, but it was denied on October 10, 2005, thereby concluding the case.”

Simpson’s case, and the Darla Wynne case (also a Wiccan), would go on to help advocates of public government prayer craft policies that ensured things stayed in comfortable Judeo-Christian territory so long as the prayers were not sectarian in nature. This “Christian only, so long as you don’t say ‘Jesus'” status quo (or the “Wiccan-proof policy” as I liked to call it) endured until the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“In essence the Court ruled that Greece’s prayer program was non-coercive and fully reflective of American historical tradition and the town’s own cultural heritage. If a legislative body employs sectarian prayer to “lend gravity” to its proceedings and does so in a way that is non-threatening, then religious prayer before a governmental meeting does not violate the Establishment Clause.”

While the SCOTUS ruling opens the door for sectarian prayers, it also notes that having a policy of full inclusion is constitutionally vital in such circumstances.

“Justice Kennedy writes the majority opinion for five Justices.  He concludes that the prayers are constitutional, because they aren’t overly sectarian or overly coercive.  It’s enough that the Town of Greece opened the prayer opportunity up to everyone, and allowed anyone to say anything.  It doesn’t matter that the prayers ended up being overwhelmingly Christian in tone and in number — that wasn’t the Town’s fault.  And it doesn’t matter that citizens attending these meetings may have felt pressure to pray — they had no solid reason to feel any such pressure.”

So the SCOTUS case that involved a sectarian Wiccan prayer, built on lower court decisions that involved Wiccan prayers, now comes full circle and returns to Chesterfield County.

ACLUVA_logo1“The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent county leaders a letter Thursday stating that the county’s policy must be changed to allow any person from any faith to pray before public meetings for the county to comply with the First Amendment. The county will consult with its attorney on that particular point, but County Administrator James J.L. “Jay” Stegmaier acknowledged that another portion of the policy prohibiting prayers specifically praising or opposing one religion appears at odds with the Supreme Court’s new guidance. In a shift from its previous guidance that prayers be generic, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Supreme Court’s decision that local governments ‘cannot require chaplains to redact the religious content from their message to make it acceptable for the public sphere.'”

You can read the full letter from the ACLU and AU here.

So here is where the rubber hits the road on the Supreme Court’s prayer idealism. The notion that sectarianism within a government context is OK so long as it’s an open sectarianism. Can the court enforce a truly inclusive model, or will it fail on the local level as politicians and Christian activists scramble to find some way of enforcing a Christians-only policy? Will we finally see Cynthia Simpson give a Wiccan prayer in Chesterfield County, and if we do, does that mean that we’ve won a victory? Will inclusion bring acceptance and understanding, or will its symbolism only reverberate within our interconnected communities? Whatever happens, it looks like we might find out.

Here are some updates on stories previously mentioned or reported on at The Wild Hunt.

Hollicrop-589x1024At Patheos, Holli Emore, Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, writes about her meeting with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, as part of an interfaith proclamation that was issued for the month of January. Quote: “I don’t support Haley politically. But that is not the point; politics is not what brought us together on this occasion. Once elected, Haley became my governor, and I am deeply grateful for her support of interfaith work. To our knowledge, South Carolina is the only state in the U.S. to acknowledge the importance of religious plurality and issue a formal proclamation. Haley may understand, better than any other governor in the nation, that nurturing diversity will strengthen us, not just spiritually, but also economically and in the public sector.” Last month, Wild Hunt staff writer Heather Greene wrote about Gov. Haley’s proclamation, and the role Emore (as a Pagan) has played in South Carolina’s interfaith community.

marianne-williamson-smilingBack in December I noted the Congressional candidacy of New Age superstar Marianne Williamson, author of the immensely popular self-help book “A Return to Love.” Now, the Religion News Service has a piece up about her “prayerful” bid for political office. Quote: “With about four months before primary elections, Williamson is seeking to tap into widespread discontent and disillusionment and apply her own brand of well-packaged, transformational wisdom to stoke ‘a people’s movement. It’s the people who have to intervene, because the political status quo is part of what has taken us to where we are,’ Williamson said in an interview this week, highlighting corporate money as a primary cause for the present state of affairs. ‘It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment.’ Williamson launched her campaign in October. She wants to end the status quo of capitulation to corporate money in politics and encourage an engaged, loving electorate.” With the recent retirement announcement of Democrat Henry Waxman, who currently holds the contested California seat, what was once a long-shot now seems somewhat more likely.

religion-50-year-change-Figure2We talk a lot about the “nones” here at The Wild Hunt, those folks who refuse to be pinned with a religious label, and who have experienced rapid growth in recent years. The ongoing question is: what will their ascent mean for our society and how we conceive religion’s role in it? Americans United points to some new data from Baylor University researchers, which shows the United States becoming more religiously diverse, including the rise of “nones” and “others.” Quote: “The proportion of Americans who identify with “Other” religious traditions has doubled, an increase that is closely tied to the increased immigration of Asian populations who brought non-western religions (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam) with them. While still a small proportion of the overall population, they contribute greatly to the increased religious diversity of the American religious landscape. In 20 states, scattered in the Midwest and South, Islam is the largest non-Christian religion. Judaism is the largest non-Christian religion in 15 states, mostly in the Northeast, and Buddhism is the largest religion in 13 western states. In Delaware and Arizona, Hinduism is the largest non-Christian religion, while in South Carolina it is the Baha’i.”

blog-jesusinschool-500x280_1At the end of January, I profiled how a Buddhist student was harassed by the Christian majority at a public school district in Louisiana, prompting litigation from the ACLU. Since then, the story has exploded across the Internet. Now, prominent culture blog Boing Boing points to an ACLU-penned petition to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking for a federal investigation. Quote: “No child should be subjected to the type of humiliation that our son has endured. The Department of Justice has the power to end this unlawful religious discrimination at schools in Sabine Parish and set an example for the rest of Louisiana— but we have to make sure they take the case. Please join us in calling on the Department of Justice to launch an immediate investigation into this unlawful religious discrimination so that no other child has to go through the harassment that our son has endured.” We will keep you updated as this story develops.

President Obama at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast.This past Thursday was the National Prayer Breakfast, for those who missed it (that would include me). You can read President Obama’s full remarks, here. Quote: “Now, here, as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion.  And, yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too — because religion strengthens America.  Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.” As I’ve pointed out in the past, despite the bipartisan good-naturedness and calls for religious freedom, the National Prayer Breakfast has deeply problematic elements for anyone who isn’t a Christian. Activist groups have called on politicians, to seemingly no avail, to boycott this event. At least the existence of gays and non-believers was invoked this year. Maybe we’ll actually get to a point where it’s robustly interfaith too.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

For culturally conservative Christians in the United States a familiar topic of discussion is how the Supreme Court “took God out of school” and the subsequent moral/intellectual decline landmark decisions like Engel v. Vitale had engendered in American society. For decades, activists have been trying to erode legal barriers in government-funded learning institutions, hoping for a return to Protestant Christian moral hegemony in the classroom. These efforts are almost always couched in terms of “freedom,” but time and again when conservative Christians do gain unchallenged control over a school district the result isn’t freedom, but harassment and bullying of any who don’t toe their line. Such is the case at Sabine Parish School Board in Louisiana.

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“When my stepson, who has been raised a Buddhist, enrolled in the sixth grade at our local school, Negreet High, it became personal, and I could no longer turn a blind eye to the very real harms that occur when school officials violate the separation of church and state. My stepson started at Negreet in the same class as one of my children. By the end of the first week of school, he was having serious stomach issues and anxiety. We couldn’t figure out why. In the mornings, my wife would pull over on the side of the road as they approached school so he could throw up. At first, we thought he was sick and we let him stay home. Soon it became apparent that this was not a cold, but something much worse. Our children informed us that their teacher had been chastising and bullying my stepson for his Buddhist beliefs.”

Yes, as a new federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU alleges, the stepson of Scott Lane was singled out by teachers, and bullied for the crime of not being Christian in a Christian dominated area.

download“The lawsuit said Roark has ‘repeatedly taught students that the earth was created by God 6,000 years ago, that evolution is ‘impossible’ and that the Bible is ‘100 percent true.’ She also regularly features religious questions on her tests such as “Isn’t it amazing what the ______ has made!!!!’ When the Lanes’ son ‘did not write in Roark’s expected answer (LORD), she belittled him in front of the rest of the class.’ While studying other religions, she also has told students that Buddhism is ‘stupid,’ the lawsuit said.”

You see, religious freedom, for many of these Christian activists, means freedom to be Christian. In an editorial for the ACLU, Lane lists some of the ways the Christian-dominated staff threw their weight around, including distributing anti-Pagan/occult propaganda.

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“When we went to the school to meet with the principal, we saw a large picture of Jesus over the school’s main doors, a Bible verse on the school’s electronic marquee, and numerous religious posters and pictures on the walls. Religious images and messages are displayed throughout the school, in fact. – We learned from our children that official prayers, typically led by the principal or teachers, are routinely incorporated into class and school events like assemblies, and sporting events. The school even requires students to attend “See You at the Pole” each year, where they must take part in prayer and worship. – We discovered that school officials were distributing religious literature to students. For example, one of our other son’s teachers passed out copies of a book from the “Truth For Youth” program, a revivalist ministry. The book included the entire New Testament of the Bible as well as cartoons that denounce evolution and trumpet the evils of birth control, premarital sex, rock music, alcohol, pornography, homosexuality, sorcery, and witchcraft.”

The complaint, which can be seen here, came only after speaking to the Superintendent, being told that maybe another school with “more asians” would suit them, and finding that even that school regularly promoted Christianity.

“My wife and I were floored. I tried to point out that the “Bible Belt” was not a separate country and that we were still entitled to religious liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution. She would have none of it, however. She asked whether my stepson had to be raised as a Buddhist and even suggested that he “change” his faith to better fit in. To add insult to injury, the next day, the Superintendent sent a letter to Negreet’s principal, which he read to students over the intercom. The letter thanked Negreet’s teachers and principal for maintaining their religious values and influence in the school.”

Some of my evangelical Christian friends decry the idea of a “naked” public square devoid of faith, endorsing instead an inclusive model that would allow all faiths to share their beliefs in an open and safe manner. To that, I can only answer that such a policy would never work so long as demographic dominance allows “quiet” power to stifle all dissent and diversity. These Christian believers, left to their own devices, do not grow a pluralistic, multi-faith, shared utopia. Instead, non-Christians are routinely silenced, harassed, and forced into closets (or worse, forced into lying about their own belief systems). When non-Christians dare to assert rights they are supposed to have in these settings, the result is often shock, outrage, and attack. Meanwhile, Christian activists claim the mantle of oppression for any limitations put on them in the public square, ignoring their treatment of non-Christians where they dominate.

The saddest thing is that this case does not exist in isolation. Conservative Christian dominated areas are continually pushing for a “freedom” that means coercive proselytization and harassment of outsiders.  They don’t seem to understand that making public government-funded school events happen at sectarian churches is alienating. They truly don’t get it, or if they do, don’t care. If this case does anything, I hope it can smash open the hypocrisy and silence over what Christians call religious freedom, and what that would actually look like if minorities weren’t forced to file lawsuits in order to get a harassment-free education.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway could have far-reaching affects on prayers and invocations made before government and state-sponsored events. At its heart is the question of government endorsement of a particular faith, and whether sectarian prayers overwhelmingly weighted towards one faith can be made so long as a fig-leaf of neutrality is maintained in written policy. I have written about this case before, and how modern Pagans have been deeply intertwined with the development of the “model invocation policy” being challenged and with this case itself.

“In just a few seconds’ time during the April Town Board meeting, Jennifer Zarpentine made Greece history. Zarpentine, a Wiccan, delivered the first-ever pagan prayer to open a meeting of the Greece Town Board. Her hands raised to the sky, she called upon Greek deities Athena and Apollo to ‘help the board make the right informed decisions for the benefit and greater good of the community.’ A small cadre of her friends and coven members in the audience chimed in ‘so mote it be.’”

Senator Marco Rubio

Senator Marco Rubio

Now, with the case on the Supreme Court docket, “friend of the court” briefings have been trickling in, most notably from a bi-partisan group of United States Senators (over 30 Republicans and one Democrat), and from a coalition of states lead by the Attorney Generals of Indiana and Texas. The first, spearheaded by Marco Rubio, seems to argue that the Supreme Court upholding (or expanding on) the Court of Appeals verdict in this case could eliminate the Establishment Clause carve-out for a paid government chaplains (as established in Marsh v. Chambers).

“This Court should eliminate the uncertainty and affirm the strong constitutional footing on which legislative prayer stands. In a nation of broad religious diversity, the best means of ensuring that the government does not prefer any particular religious view in the context of legislative prayer is to allow all those who pray to do so in accordance with their own consciences and in the language of their own faiths.”

In essence, Rubio and the other senators are playing the religious freedom card, hand-waving away the fact that Greece’s “neutral” policy “virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint” according to the appeals court judges. However, even more problematic is the brief submitted by 23 states, which not only argues that sectarian prayers before government meetings to be upheld, but raises the bar in terms of challenging prayer policies.

“The amici States urge the Court to re-affirm the central holding of Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 792 (1983), that legislative prayers are permissible as “simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country,” and to disclaim any role for the so-called endorsement test when it comes to analyzing legislative prayer practices. The Court should also consider using this case as an opportunity to clarify Establishment Clause doctrine more generally by requiring a showing of religious coercion as a touchstone for proving any type of unlawful religious establishment.

In other words, government-sponsored prayers should not only have an Establishment Clause carve-out, individuals should have to prove “religious coercion” in order to bring an establishment of religion challenge against a government body. Such a high bar would throw current precedent on Establishment Clause challenges into chaos. It would also mean that rather famous cases involving Pagans, like Darla Kaye Wynne’s successful struggle against the town of Great Falls, South Carolina, would most likely have been thrown out. Because how, exactly, does a religious minority prove coercion in a town dominated by Christians set on praising Christ before every function?

Justice Brennan

Justice Brennan

Marsh v. Chambers, a SCOTUS decision which both the States and Rubio’s coalition places front-and-center in their amicus briefs to argue the Establishment Clause does not apply to government-sponsored prayer, featured a telling dissent by Justice William J. Brennan and Justice Thurgood Marshall that spoke directly to the question of coercion.

“The “primary effect” of legislative prayer is also clearly religious. As we said in the context of officially sponsored prayers in the public schools, “prescribing a particular form of religious worship,” even if the individuals involved have the choice not to participate, places “indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion. . . .” Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 (1962). More importantly, invocations in Nebraska’s legislative halls explicitly link religious belief and observance to the power and prestige of the State.

In short, the coercion is already happening, but it is being ignored in the name of tradition. These State Attorney Generals, and Senators, and conservative Christian organizations like the Family Research Council, and the Liberty Institute want desperately for that coercion to continue, and indeed, for it to be trumpeted as “freedom.”

“Courts that impose religious “neutrality” categorically exclude certain religions that require the use of those prohibited terms and violate the mandate of the Establishment Clause that all persons be treated equally by the government, regardless of religious creed.”

In short, making Christians not say “Jesus” before government assemblies and functions hinders their freedom. Somehow.

As I’ve noted before, the outcome of this verdict will likely decide the fate of opening invocations before government meetings. Will the “model invocation policy” used by Greece (and several other towns) be allowed to stand? If so, we can look forward to a huge groundswell of sectarian Christian prayer being instituted across large chunks of the United States. After all, this model policy clearly states that public bodies are “not required to extend any extraordinary efforts to include particular minority faiths” and  “no apology is necessary for the demographics of the community that the public body serves.” This could be a chilling roll-back of advances by religious minorities, and those who hold no religious affiliation at all.

Rev. Kevin Kisler prays prior to the start of a Greece, N.Y., Town Board meeting in 2008. Photo: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Rev. Kevin Kisler prays prior to the start of a Greece, N.Y., Town Board meeting in 2008. Photo: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

I’m hoping that the Supreme Court is prudent here, and commits no drastic change to our understandings of the Establishment Clause, though I’m less optimistic since their Voting Rights Act decision. Recent rulings in the 2nd and 4th Courts of Appeals should be respected, and their understanding of how invocations slanted towards the largest demographic can create the appearance of establishment (and coercion) listened to. The current Supreme Court is made up of Roman Catholics and Jews, two religions that once fought very hard against the unthinking privilege of the Protestant Christian majority. Now, there is a chance to make the United States a truly pluralistic nation, not one that claims to be pluralistic, but looks the other way in the name of tradition.

Whatever happens, modern Pagans, and all religious minorities, should pay very close attention to Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Before I begin this week’s topic, I would like to acknowledge that today is Father’s Day.  As with Motherhood, becoming a father is transformative and the beginning of a life-long journey.  A very happy Father’s Day to all that walk that path offering a piece of themselves to the next generation.

Courtesy of Flickr's fruity monkey

Courtesy of Flickr’s fruity monkey

Now back to our regularly scheduled program….

Tomorrow is the 50th Anniversary of the SCOTUS ruling on the Abington School District, Pennsylvania vs.Schempp case.  What’s that?  This 1963 Supreme Court case is considered to be a major historical marker in the on-going struggle to affirm religious equality within American public schools. The Schempp ruling was an indicator of a coming cultural revolution and an acknowledgement of America’s diverse religious tapestry.

In 1956 Ellery Schempp, a 16-year-old student at Abington High School, became increasingly frustrated with the school and state policy that required students to read daily Bible passages in home room.  Ellery and his family were Unitarian Universalists and minorities in their Pennsylvania community.  The Bible readings conflicted with their personal religious beliefs.

Ellery Schempp

Ellery Schempp

One day in protest Ellery stood up and read from the Qur’an.  He was immediately sent to the Principal’s office and disciplined. But the story doesn’t end there.  With the help of his father and the ACLU of Pennsylvania (then Philadelphia), Ellery sued the Abington school district. The case worked its way up through the courts.  It was eventually merged with another similar and more famous case involving the controversial Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an Atheist activist and founder of American Atheists.

Finally, the Schempp case reached the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).  On June 17, 1963 the Court declared it unconstitutional for public schools to require mandatory Bible recitation and other similar religious activities:

Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment by Congress of any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day — even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents. (from Cornell Law School)

Pennsylvania and several other states had to immediately “scrap” the laws that mandated student participation in religious recitation activities.

The Schempp case set a legal and cultural precedent that upended the widely-accepted place of religion in public education. But it was not the first case of its kind. In an interview with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, First Amendment Scholar Steven K. Green said:

…as we mark the anniversary of these seminal decisions, we should acknowledge that they were not cases of first instance; rather, they built on a long-developing body of jurisprudence that was affirming the centrality of religious equality and church-state separation to our nation’s democratic system. 

In the brief interview, Green discusses America’s historical battle for religious equality within public education. The earliest cases were brought to trial by Catholics who didn’t want their children reading Protestant-based Bible passages or prayers.  In 1869, Ohio became the very first state to officially declare unconstitutional the practice of forced Bible recitation in public schools.

As the American population became more religiously diverse, the issue evolved beyond a Catholic- Protestant polarity. The Schempp case exposed the reality of religious diversity in the United States and opened up a new dialog concerning the separation of church and state.  And it did so as the country began to experience a dramatic social change.

Abington To Appeal Newspaper

Since the 1963 ruling there have been countless protests, backlash and legal maneuvers on all levels to bring school-sponsored prayer back into the classroom.  In the early 1980s former President Ronald Reagan proposed a new constitutional amendment that would officially allow voluntary public school prayer.  It failed to pass. Green says:

So long as lawmakers believe they can gain mileage by manipulating the school prayer issue, then there will be no end to prayer and Bible reading proposals. These efforts are cynical as they play on fears and misperceptions among religious conservatives about the Supreme Court’s holdings. Students enjoy many freedoms of religious expression in schools, but enforced religiosity is not a cure for society’s ills.

Here at The Wild Hunt we have and will continue to report on any such school cases that directly involve Pagans and Heathens (e.g. the Buncombe County situation in 2012).  However, all such cases are pertinent to all parents with school-age kids.  Legislative policies affect every child – not just the one whose parents spoke up.  What is going on in my school district?  What are my state’s policies on religion in public school?  Rev. Selena Fox, co-founder of Lady Liberty League, once said, “Having liberty and justice for all in this country may be in the Pledge of Allegiance, but it is not an automatic reality.”

Here are three very recent related cases:

  1. On June 1st in Liberty, South Carolina, Roy Costner IV paused his prepared and approved high school valedictorian speech to recite The Lord’s Prayer.  He told the media that “This is what God wanted me to do.” The event was not school-sponsored. Therefore no disciplinary action is being taken against Roy or the school.
  2. On June 13th Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law the so-called “Merry Christmas” Bill (H.B. 308).  It protects the free expression of religion, through symbols or holiday greetings, regardless of faith within public school settings. To date the new law has provoked little opposition.  The ACLU of Texas has declined to comment.
  3. On June 13th Americans United attorneys sent a letter to an Ohio school district warning them to keep creationism out of the school system. The Springboro district has planned to introduce controversial subjects such as global warming, gun rights, pro-life vs. abortion, and creationism vs. evolution.  Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United said, “Any public school contemplating teaching creationism might as well just hang up a giant banner that reads “Sue Us Now.”

There are many challenges out there and many that have yet to be addressed. Is it constitutional for religious organizations to hold services in school buildings on the weekends?  What about school vouchers and the wording of the “Pledge of Allegiance”?  Can religious clubs advertise and hold functions during school operating hours?  Is it possible to teach religion historically in a secular format without crossing the constitutional line? These are some of the questions that pop up time after time.

As a way of honoring the 1963 SCOTUS decision, Pennsylvania’s legislature has declared June “Public School Religious Freedom Month.”  While you go about your day tomorrow, take a moment to reflect on religious freedom in public education and the importance of the Establishment Clause in your own life.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  mksfly

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s mksfly

The Schempp ruling paved the way for Pagans and Heathens to be able speak out and protect the rights of their growing children. It allowed for the birth and growth of groups like the Lady Liberty League who use their resources to protect the religious freedoms of Pagan children within the public school systems.  Today our children are not forced to read The Lord’s Prayer.  But perhaps more importantly, we can readily recognize the problem when and if it occurs and we have the language and backing of SCOTUS when we say “That’s wrong.”

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case stemming from sectarian prayers before local government meetings in Greece, New York. At the heart of the case is the question of if a policy regarding invocations can be pluralistic and inclusive in letter, but not in spirit.

Rev. Kevin Kisler prays prior to the start of a Greece, N.Y., Town Board meeting in 2008. Photo: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Rev. Kevin Kisler prays prior to the start of a Greece, N.Y., Town Board meeting in 2008. Photo: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

“Town officials said that members of all faiths, and atheists, were welcome to give the opening prayer. In practice, the federal appeals court in New York said, almost all of the chaplains were Christian. [...] Two town residents sued, saying the prayers ran afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition of the government establishment of religion. The appeals court agreed. “The town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint,” Judge Calabresi wrote.”

This is a very big deal. One that strikes to the very heart of a “model invocation policy” peddled by conservative Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF – formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund). The thesis is that sectarian prayers (rather than the “ceremonial deism” that permeates many government bodies) are constitutional so long as the written policy is inclusive of all faiths. However, they calm nervous Christian government officials worried about an influx of religious minorities by noting that no special efforts to be inclusive are necessary.

“If a public body implements a legitimately neutral policy and procedure to invite local clergy from established congregations in its community to offer an opening invocation, that public body is not required to extend any extraordinary efforts to include particular minority faiths. In other words, no apology is necessary for the demographics of the community that the public body serves.”

In short, opening invocations can overwhelmingly reference Jesus Christ, and they can send invitations only to “established congregations” (ie brick-and-mortar churches) so long as they include a religious minority who inquires/complains. Something I’ve dubbed the “include a Wiccan gambit,” which is exactly what Greece, New York did.

“In just a few seconds’ time during the April Town Board meeting, Jennifer Zarpentine made Greece history. Zarpentine, a Wiccan, delivered the first-ever pagan prayer to open a meeting of the Greece Town Board. Her hands raised to the sky, she called upon Greek deities Athena and Apollo to ‘help the board make the right informed decisions for the benefit and greater good of the community.’ A small cadre of her friends and coven members in the audience chimed in ‘so mote it be.’”

For a time, this gambit seemed to work in the lower courts. Then, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals both handed down rulings that called into question whether this invocation tokenism could really offset a regular schedule of Christian prayer.

“We conclude, on the record before us, that the town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint. This conclusion is supported by several considerations, including the prayer-giver selection process, the content of the prayers, and the contextual actions (and inactions) of prayer-givers and town officials. We emphasize that, in reaching this conclusion, we do not rely on any single aspect of the town’s prayer practice, but rather on the totality of the circumstances present in this case.

The town’s process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint. Christian clergy delivered each and every one of the prayers for the first nine years of the town’s prayer practice, and nearly all of the prayers thereafter. In the town’s view, the preponderance of Christian clergy was the result of a random selection process. The randomness of the process, however, was limited by the town’s practice of inviting clergy almost exclusively from places of worship located within the town’s borders. The town fails to recognize that its residents may hold religious beliefs that are not represented by a place of worship within the town. Such residents may be members of congregations in nearby towns or, indeed, may not be affiliated with any congregation. The town is not a community of religious institutions, but of individual residents, and, at the least, it must serve those residents without favor or disfavor to any creed or belief.”

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

These cases, and the “model invocation policy” itself, are haunted by the involvement and activism of modern Pagans. It isn’t just that Greece included a Wiccan sectarian prayer among thousands of Christian prayers. The ADF’s policy blueprint was partially constructed around two 4th Circuit cases involving public prayers and modern Pagans: Simpson v. Chesterfield County, the case that helped create the so-called “Wiccan-proof” invocation policy, and the Darla Wynne case, in which a Wiccan from South Carolina won a battle against sectarian government prayer. These two cases helped set the precedents that advocates of sectarian prayer have been navigating through, and their efforts at mob-rule prayer sectarianism will finally be tested by America’s highest court.

How will the court decide? It’s hard to say. SCOTUS took a pass on considering the similar 4th Circuit decision, letting their decision stand, but they may have simply been waiting for a case that would suit the Court’s needs better. For the most part, the modern Supreme Court doesn’t like to corner itself into making sweeping decisions, and it could be that the justices see a needle-threading solution to the issue at hand. Then again, we could be in for another “ministerial exception” moment where broad new freedoms are outlined and defined. At this point it’s anyone’s guess, but I’m sure advocates on both sides of this issue are readying themselves for a fight that could shape invocation policy for a generation.

 

On April 22 and 23rd Hugoton Public Schools of south-western Kansas sponsored an in-school assembly called “Dinsosaur Lyceum.”  Designed for middle and high school students, the hour long assembly offered a detailed introduction to Paleontology and Earth Science complete with a mobile museum containing dinosaur skeletons, fossils and other pertinent replicas. On the surface the concept is excellent especially when you consider that rural Hugoton is a 3 hour drive from the nearest natural history museum.

D3-Public-Auditorium

However, there is one big problem. The program was developed and hosted by The Creation Truth Foundation (CTF), an organization whose purpose is to help bring about “a return to all of realities of Biblical Creation” through education.  According to its mission statement, the non-profit’s goal is to combat what founder Dr. Thomas Sharp repeatedly labels a growing “paganistic” lifestyle in America.  “The West has become Pagan,” he warns, using the term pagan as a synonym for secular.  Together with his colleagues, Dr. Sharp has produced “a host of support materials and services to aid your delivery of a sound science curriculum based in Biblical Creation.”

A week prior to the Hugoton assemblies, the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri received a complaint from a concerned Hugoton citizen whose identity has never been publicly revealed. Shortly after, the ACLU’s Legal Director Doug Bonney and Attorney Heather Weaver sent a letter to Superintendent Mark Crawford calling for the immediate cancellation of CTF program.

Based on the review of the website of the Creation Truth Foundation, the ACLU is concerned that these mandatory school assemblies will spread creationism to the Hugoton Public Schools in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Unites States Constitution…

We respectfully request that the District take immediate and concrete steps to remedy these problems.  The first step would be to cancel the planned mandatory school assemblies now set for next week.

Despite the ACLU’s strongly worded request, the Board did not cancel the assemblies. CTF arrived in Hugoton that weekend, made some local Church appearances and set up its mobile museum.  On Monday and Tuesday, CTF ran the school assemblies in the morning, and then in the evening opened the auditorium up for public presentations.

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Superintendent Mark Crawford
Hugoton Public Schools

It appears that Superintendant Crawford was undaunted by the ACLU’s threat.  In fact, he fired back telling the Topeka-Capital Journal that, “he had a duty to show his students ‘how to handle a bully.” He also corrected the ACLU saying that the events were not mandatory but not one student or faculty opted out.

The Hugoton controversy has attracted a good-deal of media coverage much to the displeasure of the School Board. Crawford insists that the Board has nothing to hide.  He explains that CTF’s presenter, Matt Miles  was instructed to avoid mention of “creationism or any topics related to the age of the Earth or the Bible, according to district officials”  and has signed a memorandum as such. However, he did confirm that the public evening programs would indeed have Biblically-based content.

Despite his confidence, Crawford refused to allow any non-school personnel into the school day assemblies to verify his account.  As a result, the ACLU remains unconvinced.  Bonney stated, “The opportunity for a constitutional violation is too high because their whole evangelical reason for being is to promote Biblical creationism.”  Now, the ACLU is requesting all communication, documents and CTF materials in order to assess the legality of the situation.  Did the school system violate the Constitution?  The ACLU wrote:

Even if Miles never overtly mentions the Bible or creationism…public schools are not permitted to present students with false information, which the legitimate scientific community has universally rejected, as part of an anti-evolution, pro-creationist effort.

Matt Miles Creation Truth Foundation

Matt Miles
Creation Truth Foundation

Can a Christian missionary – a passionate believer in and teacher of creationism – lecture public school students on dinosaurs without crossing the line?  Yes, it is possible for someone to keep from spewing religious rhetoric in inappropriate situations. I can talk about herbs, for example, without discussing their magickal properties.  However, it is not my personal mission, nor the mission of my employers to teach about herbs. So the question remains: did Matt Miles, a man whose life and career are focused on the promotion of creationism, censor himself?

To date, Hugoton’s Superintendent has done an impeccable job of holding his position with the public.  However, he did make one statement that feeds the cynically-minded.  Of the school assemblies, Crawford remarked,  “… parents and citizens here in this community want their children to also be curious about other viewpoints of creation and origin.”  Did the assembly mention these other viewpoints?

Hugoton is a small close-knit rural town. After scanning online comments from locals, I do believe that Crawford has strong community support.  CTF Pastor Matt Miles himself was in fact a resident of the city at one time. However, whether or not Hugoton citizens believe in creationism is not the point.  The teaching of any Biblical-based concepts violates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. While CTF is perfectly within its right to share its material, its fantastic mobile museum, and its beliefs within the private sector, the organization cannot do so in the public schools.

hugotonschoolFortunately for Kansas and similar states who have been struggling with this issue for decades, America’s public education curriculum is undergoing a national change.  Over the last few years, an organization made up of educators and administrators has created something called the “Common Core Standards. (CCS).”  The goal is to strengthen American education by developing consistency across the country in the basic disciplines of language and math.  Its popularity has led to several independent organizations creating additional “tack on” programs for science, art and world languages.  Individual states can elect to adopt the programs.  To date, Kansas is one of the 45 states* that has indeed adopted the CCC as well as the science program, which, incidentally, teaches evolution and not intelligent design.

I’m personally undecided as to the overall merits of the CCS from an educational standpoint. However, such a program does shift the center of accountability. As such, the new national standards may help to curtail the attempts of these radicals to push religion into the public schools under the pretense of science. CCS won’t stop the extra-curricular activities like the Creation Truth Foundations assemblies.  But it may make it easier for a wolf to be called a wolf no matter what clothes he is wearing.

lt is important for Pagan parents or anyone who supports religious equality in the schools to remain vigilant and to be aware of these smaller religious freedom cases.  I will be watching as the Hugoton situation plays out.

*The five states that have not adopted the CCS are Texas, Alaska, Minnesota, Virginia, and Nebraska.