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Last night the Buncombe County School Board in North Carolina unanimously passed a policy regarding prayer, religious activities, and the distribution of religious materials by students in their schools. It was the culmination of months of activism that began when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible. Strivelli, along with local activist and Pagan leader Byron Ballard, and a growing coalition of local residents, made clear that the board needed to remain neutral on matters regarding religion. Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog, who has covered previous meetings on this issue, has posted her impression of last night’s events.

Ginger and Sybilsue Strivelli (Photo courtesy of Fox News).

Ginger and Sybilsue Strivelli (Photo courtesy of Fox News).

“When it came time to vote everyone was on edge. I can only imagine this is what it’s like in a murder trial or something. The board got hung up about the word neutrality and whether or not it should be replaced with the word unbiased. The Fundies were clapping and whooping because I think they thought the vote would get tabled again. Honestly, I am not sure what they were excited about because the Americans United rep said that the words meant the same thing and wouldn’t change the policy in any way. Personally I thought they might table it again too the way they were hung up on one dang word and I was panicking a bit. Fortunately they voted. And it passed unanimously.

So what does this mean? As of now school officials have to remain neutral in regards to religion. They can still have their prayer over their lunch, wear religious jewelry, and have awesome bumper stickers on their cars. They cannot lead children in prayer (it must be student led), no distribution of materials, and no promotion of any specific religion. There is still more work to be done with the policy, including implementing the policy, but for now we can take a deep breath and move on to the next bit of work. I think I am going to request being a volunteer with the County schools acting as a consultant in regards to religions in the schools. There was something said about that at a meeting with Mountain Area Interfaith Forum.”

At the Strivelli Family Support Page on Facebook, Ginger Strivelli, expressed that there were “lots of loopholes” in the policy, and that concerned citizens would “have to stay on watch forever to keep them honest.” This sentiment was also expressed by Byron Ballard, who posted at her Citizen-Times blog the night before the vote.

“Sadly, even if the board approves the two policies tomorrow night, it still won’t be over. We will have to police the system for years to come, calling, demanding, emailing. Every time a child whose parents practice a minority religion is othered or belittled or otherwise bullied because of that–someone will have to contact the system and demand that something be done.”

Missing from the policies passed last night were guidelines on the distribution of religious materials by outside groups, the issue that initially sparked this saga. That matter won’t be taken up formally until next year, when the board will consider allowing a yearly religions fair open to all faiths. It is assumed that until then, distribution of religious materials by any group won’t be allowed, though Strivelli and Ballard’s calls for constant vigilance will no doubt be required to make sure that remains the case. We’ll keep you updated of future developments in this matter when they arise.

student says kids have told her they can't sit near her or be her friend because she is pagan. #avlgov
@APippinger
Angela Pippinger

For Pagans and other adherents to esoteric, indigenous, or non-Christian minority faiths, what has happened in Buncombe County should be an object lesson in the importance of being vocal, engaged, and active in supporting our equal treatment. Ginger Strivelli has risked personal attacks, a death threat, and ostracization in the name of protecting her children, and making sure local government works for the benefit of all citizens, not just the Christian ones. Modern Pagans have come very far since we first emerged into the public eye back in the 1950s and 60s, but we still have a long way to go. Even in seemingly cosmopolitan enclaves, many hold misconceptions about what our religions are like. This is why it’s so important to stand behind these brave individuals when they step up, in addition to supporting organizations like the Lady Liberty League who provide on-the-ground assistance and advice. Together, we can slowly change our culture into one that is open and welcoming to modern Pagans.

Tonight, the Buncombe County School Board in North Carolina is scheduled to vote on a new policy regarding the distribution of religious material in public schools. This vote, if it happens, will be the culmination of controversy that began this past December, when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible.

At the time, the school defended their policy of distribution for religious materials, saying it was open and neutral, but when tested with Pagan books the school’s tune quickly changed. The Buncombe County School Board now said their policy was under review, while Strivelli received a death threat for speaking out. On February 2nd, the school board held a meeting to unveil (but not vote on) a new distribution policy for religious materials. In a packed room, a climate of fear and anger held sway, according to Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

For awhile there seemed to be a balance of people who supported and opposed the policy. But then some preachers got up and made direct personal attacks to Ginger. They claimed she was the only one with a problem with the bible distribution. Little do they understand how many pagans in the county that fear coming out and speaking up. And after that meeting, I completely understand!  Then it got even worse when a preacher spoke up that only bibles should be allowed in schools. And that is when the preaching began. People after people felt the need to quote scripture. One guy even read from the bible and stated that if we were real pagans that our ears would burn after listening to the scripture.

All through this we quietly sat and allowed people to speak their minds. While I fully support freedom of speech, this was quite difficult. It was off topic. It was all about the “us vs them” mentality. I wanted to speak because it had been so long since anyone from the pagan community spoke. But I was scared. Yep, you read that right. The hostility was so thick that I wasn’t sure that I could handle standing before those people and be subject to a possible attack. When Ginger spoke about her feelings of being bullied and that she was the only one brave enough to stand up to the masses, the crowd rebuked her. The same crowd we respectfully allowed to speak their minds now could not handle her speaking her own. I will speak at the next meeting. I have things to say and I need to stand by my desire for a strong interfaith world by standing up and speaking.”

That entire contentious meeting was recorded by the school board, and you can listen to it in short excerpts if you’d like to wade through it all. Regarding the proposed policy that will be voted on tonight, it states that school officials  “while acting in their official capacities shall not use their positions to endorse, promote, or disparage a particular religious belief, viewpoint or practice.” It also requires ongoing training to staff, and to have principals consult the superintendent over any instance that might violate the Constitution. Ginger Strivelli, and local Pagan activists, will be in attendance to speak up in favor of the new policy, and document the proceedings. Local activist and Pagan leader Byron Ballard posted yesterday about the preparations she is making, and what she plans to say at tonight’s meeting.

“…maybe I’ll talk about bullies and bullying because we had plenty of examples of that at the last meeting. And maybe I’ll talk about how deeply ashamed I am of grownups who use their religion as an excuse to dominate and intimidate children. How humiliating it is for me–as a parent, as a mountain woman–to hear a young child say to an adult: You are going to burn in Hell. We used to have good manners here. We used to respect our elders–even when they didn’t earn it.”

Meanwhile, Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog will be live-tweeting the meeting.

I am excited and yet still nervous. I guess that's normal when you feel like walking into the lion's den.
@APippinger
Angela Pippinger

“I have spoken with the Communications committee at the BoE and I will be taking my laptop and will be able to live tweet the event. Please follow my Twitter account or follow the hashtag #avlgov to watch the public commentary portion of the meeting as well as the outcome of the vote. During the live tweeting I will not be able to respond to tweets but if you use the hashtag, you can freely discuss amongst yourselves what is happening. Depending on my ability to plug the laptop in the while will dictate how long I can tweet for. I simply won’t do it from my phone during public commentary, my thumbs were killing me last time. If I cannot plug in, I will tweet the public commentary as long as my battery will hold out.  I will tweet from my phone the outcome of the vote. I won’t leave anyone hanging!”

Finally, Selena Fox and the Lady Liberty League has sent out a blessing to Strivelli and her supporters.

“Lady Liberty’s Flame of Freedom & the Strength of the Sacred Oak be with you during Tonight’s meeting & in times to come in this quest for upholding separation of church & state and for fair & equal treatment of those of differing religions & belief in the Buncombe County, NC public school system!”

Our thoughts and prayers go out to our Pagan brothers and sisters fighting the good fight in North Carolina, and all those who would stand with them in the name of equality and upholding the separation of church and state. The meeting is scheduled to start at 6:30pm EST tonight, so tune in to Angela Pippinger’s Twitter feed for the latest word. We will update this post once we have word of the vote.

ADDENDUM: Angela Pippinger’s account of last night’s meeting is now up. In short, the board postponed the vote for another month, so it was another round of public comments.

“Now I am sure you all are curious as to the outcome of the voting. Well. There was no vote. Chairperson Rhinehart stated that they wanted to work on the policy a bit more and create procedure for handling religious literature specifically. They felt that it would be better to vote on a policy and procedure instead of handling this matter in bits and pieces. To be honest, this didn’t thrill me too much. It felt more like a stonewalling move than an actual step forward. Perhaps I am wrong.

The next meeting will be held on April 12 and they are supposed to vote that night. Initially I panicked because it falls on the last week of tax season and I am afraid I won’t be able to go. But really, I can’t not go at this point so I will be there again. I may or may not speak, will depend on the amount of stress I am under at that time. I will be live tweeting the event, it’s too important of an issue.”

I highly recommend reading her entire account. You may also want to check out Patti Wigington’s blog at About.com, as she was also at the meeting.

This past December, North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible. The school claimed their policy of distribution for religious materials was open and neutral, but when tested with Pagan books the school’s tune quickly changed. The Buncombe County School Board now said their policy was under review, while Strivelli received a death threat for speaking out. Last night, the school board held a meeting to unveil (but not vote on) a new distribution policy for religious materials. In a packed room, a climate of fear and anger held sway, according to Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

For awhile there seemed to be a balance of people who supported and opposed the policy. But then some preachers got up and made direct personal attacks to Ginger. They claimed she was the only one with a problem with the bible distribution. Little do they understand how many pagans in the county that fear coming out and speaking up. And after that meeting, I completely understand!  Then it got even worse when a preacher spoke up that only bibles should be allowed in schools. And that is when the preaching began. People after people felt the need to quote scripture. One guy even read from the bible and stated that if we were real pagans that our ears would burn after listening to the scripture.

All through this we quietly sat and allowed people to speak their minds. While I fully support freedom of speech, this was quite difficult. It was off topic. It was all about the “us vs them” mentality. I wanted to speak because it had been so long since anyone from the pagan community spoke. But I was scared. Yep, you read that right. The hostility was so thick that I wasn’t sure that I could handle standing before those people and be subject to a possible attack. When Ginger spoke about her feelings of being bullied and that she was the only one brave enough to stand up to the masses, the crowd rebuked her. The same crowd we respectfully allowed to speak their minds now could not handle her speaking her own. I will speak at the next meeting. I have things to say and I need to stand by my desire for a strong interfaith world by standing up and speaking.”

Ginger pointed out that she has felt bullied. Crowd told her she didn't have to be here.
@APippinger
Angela Pippinger

Regarding the proposed policy, it states that school officials  “while acting in their official capacities shall not use their positions to endorse, promote, or disparage a particular religious belief, viewpoint or practice.” It also requires ongoing training to staff, and to have principals consult the superintendent over any instance that might violate the Constitution. Local activist and Pagan leader Byron Ballard called the proposed policy “fair,” but also commented on the atmosphere of the meeting, saying it “was like an audition for preachers,” and that many in attendance seemed “desperate and fearful.”

As for Ginger Strivelli, she bravely faced the crowd, telling them that “I am the only one who is courageous enough to stand up to your bullying,” and that “this is not a church [...] this is a public school board meeting.” What she is doing is not easy, but her work, along with the work of Byron Ballard, is slowly changing the culture in Buncombe County. Next month the school board will likely vote on the new rule, Byron Ballard suggests sending them an email of support.

@ You could send them an email of support. Put "I support Policy 652" in the subject line. http://t.co/B5xhhxOt
@ByronBallard
Byron Ballard

I am expecting an official response from Ginger and Byron’s media liaison on last night’s events, and I will post that here as an update once I receive it. You can be sure I will be keeping an eye on this situation, and will report on any progress or developments.

UPDATE: The Lady Liberty League’s Education Task Force has issued a press release with statements from Selena Fox, Byron Ballard, Ginger Strivelli, Lady Miraselena, and Lady Arsinoe Meri Ma’at. Here’s Selena Fox’s statement on behalf of the Lady Liberty League:

“Having liberty and justice for all in this country may be in the Pledge of Allegiance, but it is not an automatic reality. The large volume and intensity of sectarian religious rhetoric in the February 2nd meeting proves the necessity to have a religiously neutral public school policy, It also demonstrates that, all of us, need to be vigilant and willing to work together to make this happen wherever discrimination occurs. And, we have been very pleased to see that Pagans and those of other beliefs have been collaborating, networking, and speaking out in favor of the separation of church and state in this Buncombe County public school situation. We ask that you continue to send support to Ginger, Byron, and others who are on the front lines of this quest. We will post any updates on the Strivelli Family Support and Lady Liberty League Facebook pages.

In her statement, Ginger Strivelli simply adds: “Thanks to everyone who has been giving us support.”