Archives For Arkansas

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

Beebe, Arkanasas makes national news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huntsville, Time magazine and making a stand

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

 

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

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

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

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

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

Carol Kirk [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]

Carol Kirk [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]

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

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

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

A Virginia city council speaks out in favor of diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.]

Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

Seekers TempleThis past week we reported extensively on the case of the Seekers Temple in Beebe, Arkansas, where allegations of a religiously biased local government exercising its power against a Pagan family have reverberated through our interconnected community. Now, it seems that a City Council meeting scheduled today in Beebe might mark the next flashpoint in this increasingly tense situation. Quote: We have been notified by a brave young Pagan girl that her mom is involved with a group of Christians who feel they must save Beebe, AR. from the Devil.  This group is planning to be at City Hall on Monday, June 23 at 6:30pm to combat us with our attempt to be recognized by the City Counsel. We would like to invite everyone to attend this meeting in the hopes that such a presents will keep things from getting out of hand.  We pray that the Christians AND Pagans will be Civil and polite and that our numbers alone will encourage the Mayor to rethink his position against Pagans.” We will keep you updated on this story as it continues to develop. 

Covenant of the Goddess

Covenant of the Goddess

Wiccan/Witchcraft credentialing and advocacy organization Covenant of the Goddess (COG) has launched a national survey to get feedback for a revisitation of their mission. Quote: “We are including a link to our national survey addressing our current Covenant of the Goddess Mission.  The Covenant of the Goddess(CoG) was founded in 1975.  Almost 40 years later, we would like to revisit our mission. To that end, we are surveying our membership and the Pagan/Wiccan community at large to determine whether these goals have been achieved, or should remain and/or whether others should be added. The survey is completely anonymous and should only take a few moments of your time.  Your input is really needed!  We will provide a report of the outcome (summary) data at the next CoG annual meeting in August 2014. Deadline for submission of this survey is July 20thPlease feel free to share the link to this survey to others in the Pagan/Wiccan community at large. We need feedback from all of you!!” The link for the survey is right here.

[Photo Credit: Damh the Bard]

[Photo: Damh the Bard]

On June 14th we reported on the installation of a commemorative Blue Plaque for “father of modern Witchcraft” Gerald Gardner. That article ended with a questions, which English figure would next receive that honor? Well Asheley Mortimer, trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation, does have some ideas on that front. Quote: “A Blue Plaque is a marker for an historic moment, at the Centre For Pagan Studies we see it as a duty to ensure that as individuals like Doreen Valiente and Gerald Gardner pass, inevitably, from persons of living memory to figures of history the place they take in history is their rightful one, the blue plaques add to the positive wider public perception of Pagans and demonstrate that their achievements are every bit as life-changing and important to the world as historic figures from the mainstream […] As for who is next . . . it doesn’t have to be a witch at all, we are thinking about other figures from the Pagan community such as the druid Ross Nichols, and the like . . . , Alex Sanders and Aliester Crowley have also been mentioned as has Stewart Farrar . . . . basically we’re very open to suggestions . . . “ Do you have a suggestion? You can contact the Centre For Pagan Studies here.

In Other Pagan Community News:

Sabina Magliocco at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies. (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Sabina Magliocco at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies. (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

  • I hope everyone had a good Summer Solstice (or Winter Solstice if you live ’round Australia), here’s how the Patheos Pagan Channel marked the holiday.
  • Hungarian Pagan band The Moon and The Nightspirit have a new album coming out! Quote: “We are happy to announce that our new album, “Holdrejtek” will be released on August 15th on Auerbach Tontraeger/Prophecy Productions. In tandem with “Holdrejtek”, our early albums, “Of Dreams Forgotten and Fables Untold” (2005), “Regő Rejtem” (2007), and “Mohalepte” (2011) will be re-issued in digipack format with revised layouts.” Here’s the label website.
  • The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions have announced the open bidding process for the next parliament. Quote: “We are pleased to announce the opening of the bid process for a city to host the 2017 Parliament of the World’s Religions. A Parliament event showcases ways in which religions shape positive action to address the challenges of our times, and seeks to develop new tools for implementing those actions in the years to come.” As The Wild Hunt has noted on several occasions, modern Pagans are deeply involved with the council and the parliament, and we will be keeping an eye on this process as it moves forward.
  • So, after your crowdfunding project gets everything it has asked for, what do you do next (aside from fulfill the funded project itself)? Morpheus Ravenna ponders the question. Quote: “I’m contemplating other ways to give back to the community out of the funds that are continuing to come in. I would love to hear from you. What else would you like to see as a next stretch project?”
  • Struggles between the Town of Catskill in New York and the Maetreum of Cybele continue. Quote: “This time the Town of Catskill is bringing suit against us for refusing a fire and safety inspection. (To clarify: this is actually a separate – though related – issue from the ongoing property tax case). Cathryn represented us and she did an excellent job. There was a different attorney representing the town this time (NOT Daniel Vincelette), this one was just as much of an obnoxious bully, though. He was accusing us of running an illegal Inn, pointing his finger at Cathryn and making aggressive gestures.” You can read our full coverage of the Maetreum’s tax battles with the town, here.

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

[The Wild Hunt has an update on the alleged religious discrimination against Seekers Temple in Beebe including an interview with temple High Priest Bertram Dahl.] 

More details emerge in the conflict between Mayor Mike Robertson of Beebe, Arkansas and a Pagan church. High Priest Bertram Dahl said the city of Beebe welcomed him, his church, and store to relocate to the town with open arms – until they found out the church wasn’t a Christian church. Now the mayor claims Dahl’s Seekers Temple and metaphysical store cannot open due to zoning issues. In our interview with the Dahls they say it has nothing to do with zoning and everything to do with religious discrimination.

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

Bert and Felicia Dahl, along with their two children. [Photo credit: seekerstemple.com]

Beebe area Pagans asked the Dahls to relocate from El Paso, Arkansas to Beebe as it was more centrally located. The Dalhs agreed and in early 2014 they made the move. While looking for a place to live and host their church and store, the couple met Mayor Robertson and explained their plans to relocate their church. The Dahls had found a property that looked promising. It had a home and a large detached garage that could be used for their church and store. After talking it over with the mayor and seeing the other businesses and churches on all sides of the property, the Dahls made the purchase.

They then tried to rent out the city park for a Pagan Pride event and Dahl says that’s when things started to go wrong. Beebe Parks Manager, Lynn Hatcher, realized the couple was hosting a Pagan event and that the church would be a Pagan church. Although he had not even applied for permits yet, Mayor Robertson wrote a letter to Beebe Code and Zoning Officer Milton McCullar saying no conditional or special use permits should be given to Dahl. That same day, the city’s code officer sent a letter ordering Dahl to cease and desist.

City Attorney Barrett Rogers said in an interview with KARK that Dahl could not open the church or store because his residential property was not “zoned commercial, which is what’s required for a place of worship or a retail business.” Yet the city codes reveal the property is zoned R2, which means while the property is not zoned to allow for a store, a church or other non-profit would be allowed if a conditional use permit were issued.

Dahl said he has tried to apply for a permit, but the mayor’s office said he wouldn’t be approved for a permit and wouldn’t provide him with the permit application. When KARK asked Mayor Robertson about the paperwork, he said that “there was no permit he could apply for.”

Dahl says he asked for help from his alderman, but he refused. When the alderman was contacted by KARK, he said, “That man’s God is not my God.”

The mayor, city attorney, and city zoning officer declined to comment.

It’s not only city officials that have been unhappy with a Pagan church and store opening in Beebe. The Lighthouse Pentecostal Church, located across the street from the Dahls, first tried converting the Dahls. When that didn’t work, the Dahls say the church turned to harassment. Lighthouse Pentecostal erected a working lighthouse to shine a beam of light into the Dahl’s house. The Dahls asked church leaders to stop shining the light into their house. When that didn’t work, they appealed to church members during a gathering at Lighthouse church. A week later, Lighthouse church leaders filed a complaint against Bertram Dahl and he was arrested on disorderly conduct and harassment charges. Dahl’s first court date is July 9th.

Interview with Bertram Dahl
Cara Schulz: You noted in your account that the Pagan community in Beebe asked you to move your church and store to Beebe so it would be more convenient for the surrounding Pagan community. About how many Pagans live in, and around, Beebe?

Bertram Dahl: There is no way to answer this question, as their numbers are hidden to most for fear of persecution. Many that come to us in private, would never show their face as a Pagan to the public. This is in fact why we do what we do, so people will not feel the need to hide any longer and our children will not suffer what we do.

CS: Has the local Pagan community supported you in any way during this time? Have they attended City Council meetings? Have they donated for legal defense?

BD: We get letters and calls, but we shall see who is willing to stand with us at City Hall on June 23 at 6:30pm. As for donations, they are few and small. Most Pagans do not have money and we understand that. We ask for letters to be sent to Priest@SeekersTemple.com and donations to be sent to PayPal account SeekersTemple@yahoo.com or to the temple address, made out to Seekers Temple, 608 E. DeWitt Henry Dr, Beebe, AR. 72012.

CS: Beebe is a small town, just under 8000 people, so everyone in town must know something about this situation. How has the town reacted? Do you have non-Pagans willing to stand with you?

BD: We have many non-Pagans contacting us in support, but as we said, we shall see who will stand at the City Hall meeting.

CS: Let’s back up to when you first decided to move to Beebe. When you were looking for a location for your store and temple, did you check on local zoning before you purchased your property? Or are you renting?

BD: We did even better. We talked to the mayor. He was aware what we were looking for and what we were doing. He welcomed our church and even sold us three couches for the new home (he owns a furniture store). The problem is, he never bothered to read our card or go to our webpage until we bought the property. He now says if he had known what we were, he would not have helped us and would have stopped from moving here.

CS: Could you rent a store in the downtown area of Beebe? Would this solve the zoning issue?

BD: This is in fact the latest move in the mayors shell game. He condensed the zoning answers until it got down to “we zone individual properties”. This move is being stated by him now for the simple fact that he knows we put all we had into this place and can not afford to own two places. The fact is, the zoning doesn’t stop us here, but is requires him to say yes. We meet the zoning.

CS: Let’s turn to the church you say is harassing you. Are they still shining a spotlight into your home?

BD: They are now shining it above our home and temple. This still is harassment, but its like “accidentally” bumping into someone you are not suppose to be bothering. They also leave pamphlets in our yard in the middle of the night. We have been told the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church requires its members to send their children to their private school and that they control them [sic] member finances. We are being informed they are in fact a cult. We have no proof of this, but it would explain some things.

CS: In your write up of the events, you note you went into the church during a church service and explained the situation and asked members to talk to their Pastor and elders about stopping the harassment. You were then arrested. What’s next in your criminal case and do you have legal representation?

BD: I go to plea “Not Guilty” on July 9. I do not, nor can I or the temple afford representation. We don’t even have a public representative at this moment as even our alderman has been ordered to ignore us by the mayor and has publicly stated “That man’s god is not my God”, showing just what side he is taking in this.

CS: I read a comment of yours that you don’t have legal representation for the alleged harassment, discrimination, and civil rights violations you have outlined due to lack of finances. Have you attempted to contact the ACLU, the Lady Liberty League, or any other legal aid?

BD: We have sent our case to the ACLU, LLL, and the FBI, among a few others. So far it is a civil matter and nobody has taken the position to defend us.

CS: The mayor, police, and other city officials seem to be providing a united front against the open practice of Paganism in Beebe, do you believe you can still resolve the situation outside of a courtroom?

BD: That is and always has been our hope. We never wanted this to become a public thing. We have only reached out because I am now facing the possibility of $2,000 in fines and a year in prison. The city wants us to shut up and go away and they will not even hear us.

CS: Why do you continue to stay in Beebe? Or are you considering moving to a new location?

BD: We were invited here by the people. It is in fact a good location, and we now have all of our money tied up in this property. We could not move if we wanted to and frankly see no reason we should have to.

CS: Is there anything about your situation that you feel it is important for others to know, which hasn’t received much notice?

BD: What is important is that ALL Pagans learn to stand up for their rights. We are a peaceful people with dreams and families and we have the right to exist like anyone else. If we hide in our broom closets and allow ourselves to be ignored, then we deserve nothing better. Our children are counting on us to make the world a better place for them. I do not intend to let them down. If I am persecuted, jailed or even executed, my children and grandchildren will at least know I did my best.

CS: How can people help you?

BD: We ask that people educate themselves about who we are. We ask that they stand with us at the Beebe City Hall on June 23 at 6:30pm and every fourth Monday after until we are heard and/or send a letter that they want us open to Priest@SeekersTemple.com and/or donate to PayPal accountSeekersTemple@yahoo.com or to Seekers Temple, 608 E. DeWitt Henry Dr., Beebe, AR. 72012

Timeline of events
June 2013 -The Dahls begin searching for a home in Beebe, where they can relocate their Seekers Temple and store.

Aug 2013 – They contact Beebe Mayor Mike Robertson about moving “a church” into one of the buildings on a prospective property. Mayor gives verbal approval.

January 2014 – The Dahls contact Beebe Parks Manager, Lynn Hatcher, to rent a section of Beebe City Park for Arkansas Pagan Pride. They direct Hatcher to the Temple website, letting him know it is a Pagan church and Pagan event. Hatcher says entire park rents for $600 for a weekend, but the group would get smaller rate due to needing only one pavilion and only for one day.

February 2014 – Hatcher informs the Dahls the rate for them for one day and one pavilion would be $600. Dahls decline to rent park.

February 2014 – The Dahls move to Beebe

February 5th, 2014 – Mayor Robertson sends a letter to Beebe Code Officer Milton McCullar saying not to issue a use permit to the Dahls, even though Dahls haven’t yet applied for a permit.

February 5th, 2014 – The city of Beebe issues a Cease and Desist order to the Dahls to shut down all aspects of Seekers Temple.

February 6, 2014 – The city of Beebe issues a Denial of Permit to Open to the Dahls, backdated to Feb 5, 2014. Dahls have not yet applied for a permit.

Feb 7, 2014 – Dahls meet with Beebe Mayor Robertson. Mayor says the Dahls would not be “opening a Pagan anything” in Beeb. A church and store not allowed in R-2 zoned areas even though they are. Dahls are not allowed to address the Town Council.

March 14, 2014 – Dahls attempt to apply for a city permit to open church and store. City Clerk Carol Crump-Westergren, after speaking with the mayor, says they are not allowed to apply and can not speak to City Attorney Barrett Rogers.

April 2014 – Lighthouse Pentecostal Church, located across the street from the Dahls, begins its proselytizing efforts to the Dahls.

May 2014 – Lighthouse Church builds a working lighthouse and begins to shine the light into the Dahl’s home day and night.

May 2014 – Dahls ask Pastor of Lighthouse church to stop shining light and is ignored. They ask for meeting with elders and are ignored.

May 21, 2014 – Bertram Dahl talks to members of Lighthouse Church as they gather for services, asking them to speak to their church elders about ending the harassment they are receiving. Police officers later tell Bertram Dahl he’s no longer welcome on church property.

May 28, 2014 – Bertram Dahl is arrested for disorderly conduct and harassing communications after a complaint is filed by Lighthouse Church elders.

June 17, 2014 – A Beebe alderman responds to media inquiry about the Dahl’s situation with, “That man’s god isn’t my God.”

 

 

The Arkansas Times, at their blog, notice that there’s something going on in the town of Beebe.

“Heard of the Seekers Temple? If not, I expect you will before long. It’s a pagan temple and store that says it has run into a slew of headaches in attempting to pursue its business and religion in Beebe, Ark. Bertram and Felicia Dahl, the high priest and priestess of Seekers Temple, have this extensive account, “Problems in Beebe.” They say Beebe officials had welcomed their move from El Paso until they found out they were pagans.”

As the Arkansas Times noted, the Dahl’s narrative is eye-opening, and a reminder of how local officials can work against you if they don’t like who you are, or what you believe.

Seekers Temple“Mayor Robertson said that we were not zoned for a church or business, so we pointed out two churches across the street.  He said that our side of the street is not zoned for it, so we pointed out commercial property for sale next to us and a business out of a barn next to that and a business out of a house next to that (run by our alderman).  He said that the business zone ends at our property and was not allowed from there on down, so we pointed out a business next to us on the other side, run out of a home.  He said that in Beebe, they zone individual property and ours was not zoned for it, so we ask what we had to do to get it re-zoned.  He said we do not have enough parking, so we pointed out that we have more parking than some of the restaurants in town and much more than the other businesses run out of homes.  He said there was no way we were having our church there, so we ask about just opening the store and keeping our group as a small in-house meeting of friends.  He admitted that he can not stop us from having friends over, but that he would be watching and he would break it up if we had too many people over (true to his word, police sit and watch our house often).  He said we would have to speak with the city attorney about opening a store and what we could have in it and he would have that person call us (this never happened) and that was the end of our meeting.  We have ask many times since then, but he has not granted us another meeting.”

It gets worse, as there have been accusations of continual harassment by a local Christian church, and the arrest of Bertram Dahl when he tried to appeal to the church on their own property.

“On 2014 May 21, as the members of the church were gathering, I walked into the church and ask for there attention.  I told them what was going on and how the Pastor (which is who we thought the Bishop was at the time) and the Elders were ignoring our pleas.  I asserted that we did not believe they would all approve of what was going on and ask for their help in talking to their church leaders about not harassing us.  I left the church and went home in the hopes of having a meeting with some of the members and finding a solution.  Instead of having members show up, I was ask to come out of my home by three police officers and told we were no longer welcome at the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church.  The officers told me I would have to take the matter to the courts and they left.  I have not been over there since.   

    The next week, to the day, 2014 May 28, two officers came and arrested me for Disorderly Conduct and Harassing Communications.  This had been filled by Jason E. Scheel (who had in fact harassed us) and John Scheel (whom we have never met nor talked to).  The City must have informed Mr. Scheel that they were coming to arrest me as is evident by his sitting in a car across the street watching me be arrested (may I also point out at this time that they did NOT read me my rights).  We had to pay $320 to get me out of jail with a plea date of July 9.”

On the Seeker’s Temple’s official Facebook page, they further clarify their current status.

Seekers Temple house (Google maps).

Seekers Temple house (Google maps).

“Thank you to all the people who are giving us suggestions. We need to be clear on a few things that seem to be confusing.  We are not a new temple trying to open. We have in fact been open, and legal, for over five years. The reason Beebe is an issue is because we moved here.  We do not have the money for a legal battle and that is why we are asking for your help. We need letters saying you want us open in Beebe and we need people to stand with us at city hall to show that the public wants us to exist. All of this is spelled out at www.seekerstemple.com/problems-in-beebe . Please, before you comment, go read the story.  And truly, thank you all for taking your time to get involved at whatever level you are able. Blessed Be you All.”

Unlike other cases, I don’t think this is one where the local mayor will be easily pressured into grudging tolerance. As the Arkansas Times points outMayor Mike Robertson has some firm ideas of who should be in control (ie Christians). 

“Please remember in the coming November election for leaders of this nation to elect only those who will stand firm doing the will of God and not their will. If placing God or the simple mentioning of his holy name in this newsletter is offensive to some; so be it. I do not and will not apologize, ever, for giving him the praise he is due for all that he has done for our blessed country. Not now, not ever in the future, should we turn our backs to our creator.”

So what happens next? The temple is asking for fiscal, legal, and local support to help them navigate this seeming attempt to run them out of town through the exercise of “soft” power.

“We are asking that people show up at City Hall at 6:30pm on the fourth Monday of each month until we are heard and/or donate to Seekers Temple by mail or at PayPal account SeekersTemple@yahoo.com and/or write your letter of support in opening our temple and store in Beebe, AR. and send it to our address or by email to Priest@SeekersTemple.com”

The Wild Hunt is currently seeking an interview with Bertram and Felicia Dahl, and we should hopefully have that up later this week. In the meantime, it sounds like Arkansas Pagans have problems in Beebe, and it may be time for national Pagan organizations to step in and offer help.

As speculated this morning, the West Memphis 3 have been released from prison in an Alford plea that allows them to be released maintaining their innocence, while still being considered guilty by the state of Arkansas.

Damien Echols talking to the press. Photo by Heather Crawford at KATV.

Here’s an official statement from Damien Echols on his release:

“To all my friends and family, my attorneys and advocates, and to those of you from every corner of this earth who have stood beside us these long years, please know that I will forever be indebted to all of you for helping me to become a free man. Each and every day I was the beneficiary of acts of kindness and humanity from people of all walks of life, of all ages, nationalities, religions and political persuasions. The enormity of the support Lorri and I received throughout this struggle is humbling.

I have now spent half my life on death row. It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars. I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence. Sometimes justice is neither pretty nor is it perfect, but it was important to take this opportunity to be free.

I am not alone as there are tens of thousand of men and woman in this country who have been wrongfully convicted, forced into a false confession, sentenced to death or a lifetime in prison. I am hopeful that one day they too will be able stand with their friends and family to declare their innocence.

This whole experience has taught me much about life, human nature, American justice, survival and transcendence.

I will hopefully take those lessons with me as I embark on the next chapter in my journey and along the way look forward to enjoying some of those simple things in life like spending Christmastime, Halloween and my birthday with those I love.”

Pagan journalist, media critic, and academic Peg Aloi, who has been covering this story for years, released a statement to me on hearing the news.

“Like many Pagans, I’ve been following this case since 1996, when the first documentary film came out. It’s impossible to overstate how important PARADISE LOST was in raising awareness about this case, or how controversial it was. Many viewers were convinced after viewing it that the West Memphis Three were innocent and had been railroaded; but many other viewers thought justice had been done. Certainly that is the sign of an effective documentary film that allows viewers to take in the events and make their own decisions; anyone who has yearned for justice in this case can’t help but be grateful to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for their part in documenting this case. It’s hard for me to believe these men have been freed. I hope whatever surreal feelings that Damien, Jason and Jessie and their loved ones are having now will very quickly give way to celebrating their hard-won freedom.”

Despite the drawbacks of the deal, this is a historic moment, one that helps put an end to a dark period in America. There will most likely be a glut of media and attention on this deal soon, and I will try to bring you the most relevant coverage in the days and weeks ahead, but for now I am glad the WM3 have been freed. For some of my past coverage on this case, click here.

Top Story: The Awl investigates allegations that millions of dollars in United States government funding to Christian NGOs, specifically Samaritan’s Purse, is being used to directly fund aggressive and shameful missions to “evangelize to and convert the trapped, weak and suffering.”

“…our research into the hush-hush tag team efforts of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and Samaritan’s Purse found millions of USAID dollars going to Samaritan’s Purse aid stations in Haiti. Their mission: a coordinated effort by BGEA chaplains to evangelize to and convert the trapped, weak and suffering.”

Reporter Abe Sauer notes that Franklin Graham (president of Samaritan’s Purse), son of Christian evangelist Billy Graham, is especially fixated and obsessed with eliminating Vodou in Haiti.

“…in the case of Samaritan’s Purse, whose Haiti work is being heavily funded by the taxpayer-funded USAID, it could be to “take back their country from voodoo, despair, and sin,” one of the charity’s stated goals for the “Festival of Hope.” As Graham said of Haiti in his address at the Festival, “…the biggest need is the spiritual need.” (Graham and his crew are especially obsessed with the elimination of voodoo, as it comes up again and again in Purse literature. A recent personal update on work in Haiti from Franklin Graham himself reads, “Through our partnership, the three original churches have been able to establish 28 more—including one in a village that was infamous for voodoo….”) Video of the heavily promoted fundraising event has been erased from the Samaritan’s Purse website as a result of our questions to USAID.”

They note that Samaritan’s Purse, working hand-in-hand with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), is able to benefit from government funds by skirting along on paper-thin technicalities, confirmed by USAID officials, but who seem to lack the political will to do anything about it. This is a stark confirmation of several isolated reports and allegations regarding the activity of missionaries in Haiti. It’s bad enough that some Christian groups are taking advantage of the chaos in Haiti in order to win souls, but now it seems we’re paying for it as well.

No Pagan Drivers for Lowery: Former Democratic state Representative John Lowery is being taken to court by Eugene Keeler after he was allegedly fired from Premier Well Services (owned by Lowery) for being a Pagan only hours after being hired. Keeler has the backing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and is being heard by a judge who’s dealt with Lowery before.

The EEOC case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, which could be interesting. When Wright ruled that a winter solstice display could be put up on the state capitol grounds — along with the traditional nativity scene — Lowery led the Arkansas Legislative Council denouncement of her decision, saying, “When this is allowed to happen in high places by people in authority societies become chaotic, economies collapse and nations are taken over by other nations.”

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette interviewed Selena Fox of Lady Liberty League about the case, though the article is behind a paywall if you want to read it. It should be interesting to see what happens in this case, hopefully it will be reported more widely, and more accessibly, than it has so far.

Do Religious Symbols Count Even If You’re a Racist? The Jewish Chronicle notes that a jailed racist, convicted of inciting racial hatred in the UK, had his Thor’s hammer pendant confiscated because it had “fascist meaning and neo-Nazi overtones.” After a complaint, it seems that Michael Heaton, an Odinist, had the pendant returned. The piece closes with a quote from a CST (Community Security Trust) spokesperson that seems to imply that, in their opinion, Odinism doesn’t meet the “relevant criteria” for equal treatment as a religion.

A CST spokesman said: “Norse and Odinist symbolism features extensively in Nazi and Pagan circles. Legislation on religious rights can make questions such as this a complex matter. But you might well question if this kind of symbolism should meet the relevant criteria.”

While I personally believe that Heaton is a vile, foul, sad, criminal, his odious beliefs don’t wipe away his rights under the law. To call into question whether genuine religious symbols appropriated by racists are still valid is to glide down a slippery slope that would eventually ban all religious symbols. Also, for an organization like the CST, who are watchdogs against antisemitism, to conflate Nazism and Paganism in such a casual way is troubling, to say the least.

The Boundaries of Civil Religion: Former Wild Hunt guest contributor Lee Gilmore, author of “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man”, writes an essay for the USC blog The Scoop about the recent memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting, and reactions (or non-reaction in some cases) sparked by the opening invocation of Dr. Carlos Gonzales.

The media response–or rather the general lack thereof–was telling. Those motivated to comment publicly on the blessing were mainly conservatives troubled by its implications. For example, Brit Hume of Fox News was baffled, saying, “By the time it was over with, he had blessed the reptiles of the sea, and he had prayed to the four doors of the building, and while I’m sure that all has an honorable tradition with his people, it was most peculiar.”  TheWashington Examiner went much further and called it a “a stark statement of  pantheistic paganism” and “a blatant violation of church and state.”

Glossing over the apparent hypocrisy–the biblical references in Obama’s eulogy did not seem to touch off a similar nerve–perhaps Gonzales’ invocation can be read as a vague nod to a loose, politically correct “spirituality” appealing to the so-called “liberal elite.” Yet the left wing of the blogosphere also had little to say about Gonzales’ invocation. (There was some insightful discussion from this vantage point taking place on a popular and intelligent Pagan blog called the Wildhunt.)

Gilmore notes that many American aren’t used to being taken outside “a generic and lightweight form of ceremonial deism,” as was done by Gonzales’ Native blessing. A transgression that may have sparked the absurd over-reaction is some quarters. She also touches on the “othering” of religious minorities in the United States, such as was done in this case, and that mainstream journalism has done a poor job in enlightening the public to their worldviews. The whole essay is worth a read, and you should check it out.

Seeing the Future in Russia: The AFP reports on the popularity of doing fortune telling in Russia between Christmas and Epiphany, and why that tradition endures to this day.

Psychologist Svetlana Fyodorova puts the faith in fortune-telling down to Russians’ close links to their pagan past. “Russians love fortune-telling because it frees their subconscious,” she told AFP. “As compared to Europe, in Russia Christianity is young and the traces of a pagan traditions can still be felt here,” she said.

Something that no doubt worries the Russian Orthodox Church, who are increasingly testing the waters of social control now that they are ascendant once more. With signs of a crack-down against religious minorities intensifying, those who look for signs in the wax, or throw shoes out the window, should be careful.

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

Did talk of a mother’s (alleged) adherence to Wicca cause her to lose custody of her child? That is the allegation of Andrea Hicks, who said that Chicot County Circuit Judge Robert Vittitow improperly considered her religious views in his ruling.

“In her appeal of Chicot County Circuit Judge Robert Vittitow’s decision, the mother noted Vittitow described Wicca in his opinion letter as ‘a religion, movement, cult or whatever it that may be.’ The judge also wrote that while the mother testified she was only joking when she told the boy’s father that she was involved with Wicca, the ‘court believes she is much more involved than she would lead us to believe.'”

Hicks’ first appeal was denied, even though the two dissenting judges believed that the ruling ‘impermissibly considered’ her faith. You can read the opinions of the judges on the appeal court, here (Andrea Hicks v. Joshua A. Cook). Now, somewhat unsurprisingly, a motion to rehear the appeal has been denied with the same justices dissenting.

“In a dissenting opinion Wednesday, Hart said Circuit Judge Robert Vittitow interrogated the mother about the practice of Wicca and made an explicit finding that she was practicing Wicca in his written order. Even if the mother did practice Wicca, “there is absolutely no evidence that practicing Wicca was in an way harmful to the child,” Hart wrote. Hart also accused the child’s father of making “vile and slanderous” statements in his response to the petition for rehearing…”

It is becoming blatantly obvious that a miscarriage of justice is happening here. Why don’t a majority of the Appeals Court judges see it too? The Arkansas Blog has a possible theory.

“Judges Robert Gladwin, David Glover, Wendell Griffen and Pryce Marshall formed the all-male majority in favor of the mother losing custody. Judges Jo Hart and Sarah Heffley formed the all-female dissent.”

So a guy accuses his wife of being a witch in court to a male judge and wins custody, and when the decision is appealed, it, and a subsequent petition for a rehearing, are voted down across gender lines? I’m no patriarchy conspiracy theorist or anything, but this stinks to high heaven. Judge Jo Hart obviously thinks so too.

“As the appellant points out, this court committed a clear error by ignoring the obvious fact that the trial judge based his change-of-custody decision in large part on his finding that the appellant was a participant in some nefarious “cult.”

…As I stated in my dissent, even if it were proven that the appellant was a practicing Wiccan, that conclusion can have no bearing on the decision to change custody. The majority makes a clear mistake of fact because there is absolutely no evidence that practicing Wicca was in any way harmful to the child or even that there were any practices conducted in the child’s presence. Accordingly, this cannot be a reason for changing custody.

… Finally, I am compelled to mention that the appellee’s intemperate response to the appellant’s rehearing petition was not only inappropriate but was vile and slanderous. He argues, among other things, that the majority was correct to allow the trial court to make a custody decision based on his perception of the appellant’s religious beliefs because not all religions are worthy of constitutional protection. He denigrates Mormons, asserting that “Mormons practice incest and child marriages,” and proclaims that “Wicca is a cult, not a religious belief.” He admonishes that “this court is committing a grievous error if it allows cult activities to be protected” and that the “trial judge appropriately ruled in this case after carefully considering the facts.” In light of the appellee’s further illumination of this issue, I simply cannot say that the trial court’s decision was “appropriate.” I lament that this court has accepted the appellee’s invitation to embark on a grand inquisition.”

This case needs some national attention, and some serious legal muscle, immediately. If this is allowed to stand, you better not be a Pagan thinking of getting a divorce in Arkansas any time soon.