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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.

 

It’s election day here in the United States, and most Americans are glued to their news sources of choice to see who will guide this nation for the next four years. In addition, control of our Senate, and the outcome of several local ballot initiatives will decided this day, making for an exciting evening for those invested in our democratic republic. Many American Pagans, like every other group in this country, also find themselves deeply invested in our political process if my Facebook wall is any indicator, and so they should, as the very notions of democracy, of a republic, originated in pagan thought, in pre-Christian societies.  Thomas Jefferson, a key architect of America’s religious freedoms, was proud that our country, in principle, encompassed “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” 

So on this election day, as we wait for the results to roll in, let’s focus on some electoral/election stories of interest to, or involving, modern Pagans.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, shortly after voting this morning in Wisconsin.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, shortly after voting this morning in Wisconsin.

  • The ever-politically active Starhawk shares some final thoughts on the election, making her endorsements, but also stressing the importance of voting in general. Quote: “Still need inspiration?  Consider the sixty years women struggled to get the right to vote.  Think of those suffragists on hunger strike, force-fed through tubes, lying in rat-infested prisons—they want you to vote!  Think of the civil rights workers in the South, risking their lives to register voters, think of the three who were murdered in 1964, Shwerner, Chaney and Goodman.  They want you to vote!”
  • A Witch-Doctor from the Kenyan village where Barack Obama’s father is buried says his reading predicts our current president will win in a landslide. Quote: “Mr Dimo, who claims to be 105, says that the mystical items dispute news that the election will be a close call.  Pointing to a white shell, he declared: ‘Obama is very far ahead and is definitely going to win.'” I’m sure Nate Silver won’t argue too much with that prediction.
  • AlterNet digs up some rather embarrassing assertions from Republican Massachusetts State Senate candidate  Sandi Martinez, including how popular children’s shows of the 1980s will turn you towards Witchcraft. Quote: “On her cable access show in 2004, Martinez warned that trick-or-treating, Harry Potter books, and the “new age images” presented in 1980s-era programming such as “The Smurfs” and “The Care Bears” could destigmatize the occult and leave children vulnerable to the lure of witchcraft.” Awesome. Well, good thing there aren’t any Witches in Massachusetts … oh, wait.
  • An activist is trying to engage the Buddhist-derived mindfulness movement in politics, and voting. Quote: “If meditation can calm hyperactive kids, ease the pain of drug addicts and tame the egos of Fortune 500 CEOs, it can surely help a stressed-out and polarized country choose a president, says the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams. An artist and veteran activist from Berkeley, Williams is the force behind MindfulVOTES, a nonpartisan campaign that she believes is the first attempt to mobilize mindfulness meditators.” Here’s the MindfulVOTES website.
  • It looks very likely that Tulsi Gabbard, the Democrat running for Congress in Hawaii’s 2nd district, will win her race and become the first Hindu to serve in the United States Congress. Quote: “It is clear that there needs to be a closer working relationship between the United States and India. How can we have a close relationship if decision-makers in Washington know very little, if anything, about the religious beliefs, values, and practices of India’s 800 million Hindus?” How exciting!
  • Meanwhile, you do know there’s a Heathen running for Congress this election, right? New York’s Dan Halloran, a conservative, Republican, Tea Party politician, is facing off against Grace Meng in the newly drawn 6th Congressional District. There hasn’t been too much non-partisan polling for this race, so each are holding up their internal polls to claim the race is will be won by their campaign. Odds are long for Halloran in this Democratic-leaning district, but who knows for sure? You can read my pretty extensive coverage of Dan Halloran here.
  • Let’s not forget the same sex marriage-related initiatives being voted on today, and the role “nones” might play in how those races turn out. However, Saumya Arya Haas, a Hindu and Vodou priestess, reminds us that nobodies vote on gay marriage should matter. Quote: “American is not a religion; it is a nation. We claim to hold certain truths to be self-evident. That means some truths should be a given — not debated, not voted on. Given. By virtue of being a citizen of this country, each American should have access to the same rights. Instead, we have created, in America, in the year 2012, a priestly caste of people who believe that their interpretation of certain Scriptures should be used to decide others’ fate.”
  • Americans United is fed up with the IRS not enforcing the ban on partisan endorsements from the pulpit, exclaiming “enforce the law already!” Quote: “This is a critically important issue for our democracy. We already have serious problems with vast amounts of money being dropped into campaigns. Imagine how much more devastating it would be if every house of worship jumped into elections, too.”
  • Finally, Jason Mankey over at Patheos reminds everyone that voting is “ours.” Quote: “Voting is one of the great legacies of ancient paganism. All democracies have a bit of classical paganism in their DNA, even when they don’t want to admit it. Want to make your Evangelical uncle’s head explode today? Remind him that democracy began in a town dedicated to the Goddess Athena! Democracy and the vote are our legacy as Pagans!”

No matter who you vote for, don’t forget to vote, and honor the struggles, and origins, of our political system. We’ll check in post-Election Day to what the results might mean for modern Pagans.

Oh, and yes, I already voted. Oregon has a mail-in system that’s quite convenient.

In June of this year, I featured a guest post from Literata Hurley, a Wiccan priestess and theaologian, who had just been denied clergy status in the state of Virginia, despite meeting all stated legal requirements (clergy in Virginia must register with a circuit court to perform legal marriages). Arlington County Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson, told Hurley at the time of her application that there were unstated “other things” preventing his approval and that he didn’t “feel” she qualified.

“She left and came back with the Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson said that they were not going to approve me. I asked if it was because we don’t have a building. He said, “Yes, you don’t have a building, and there were a few other things.” I asked him if he would give me a written list of the reasons I was being denied. He refused; he offered to show me the relevant section (Sec 20-23) of the Virginia Code. I assured him that I had read the Code, and asked again if he would give me more specific reasons I was being denied. He said that approving these applications was at his “discretion” and that he didn’t “feel” I met the qualifications, but he wouldn’t tell me how. He told me that I could apply to another court in another county but that he thought they would probably give me the same answer.”

That attitude started to change after Americans United For Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the Arlington circuit court, with the court responding that it had all been a “miscommunication” between the clerk and Hurley. Having got that response, Hurley returned to the Arlington County Circuit Court, and applied again.

Literata Hurley with authorization.

Literata Hurley with authorization.

“She [the clerk] had to go get approval from someone else; she said that the person who wrote the reply to Americans United for Separation of Church and State had to review my new application and paperwork. That took a little while, but she came back and said that it was approved, and then it was a matter of paying the fee, taking an oath to uphold the Constitution and the Constitution of Virginia and to do my duty fairly and impartially, and then I got the official authorization!”

So after an journey of several months, one that included the aid of Pagan elders like Circle’s Selena Fox and Assembly of the Sacred Wheel’s Ivo Domínguez, Jr., in addition to the support of her ordaining body, Order of the White Moon, and a letter from Americans United, Arlington County, Virginia finally did what it was supposed to have done back in June: authorize a Pagan clergyperson to perform legal weddings. Hurley says that she hopes this will open the doors for other Pagan clergy looking to get their authorization, and lays out the paperwork she brought with her on the day of her approval.

For anyone who wants to apply in Arlington in the future, here’s what I took with me: Certificate of Ordination; Letter of good standing (to show that I am “in regular contact” with my religious organization); Certified copies of the articles of incorporation of the Order of the White Moon, the most recent business filing with California showing that the Order is still active; Copies of the letter from the IRS granting OWM its 501(c)3 tax exempt status and the most recent filing with the IRS showing that OWM is still active and exempt; Letters of support from Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, Ivo Dominguez Jr. of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, and Sacred Circle bookstore, attesting to my standing as a priestess and the ministry I do; and a letter of support from a coven sister who also lives in Arlington, because the court insisted that I show “a connection between [my] ministry and the Arlington community.”

Despite the completely unnecessary hassle and delay, this is in important step forward in making sure that Pagan clergy are recognized even if they don’t adhere to the “church and pews” model many Americans are comfortable affirming. In the past, Pagan clergy in Virginia would travel to a different circuit court when denied in Arlington, now this doesn’t have to be the case. I urge clergy in the area to make sure this miscommunication is never repeated, and that when you travel to Arlington for authorization remind them that they approved Literata Hurley on this day. My thanks to Literata for her work here, and to the elders who supported her, and Americans United for defending her legal rights.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

XKCD by Randall Munroe

XKCD by Randall Munroe

  • Considering how many times Wicca has been called the “fastest growing religion in America,” by both supporters and detractors, the latest XKCD comic reminds us to not get too wrapped up with the numbers, because they can be deceptive.
  • At Religion Dispatches John Morehead writes about Burning Man, and the fear it generates of an “alternative Pagan social order.” Quote: “For evangelicals like Matthews, Burning Man embodies deep-seated fears which can also be seen playing out in other aspects of American culture. Many conservatives fear that America is undergoing decay, and this is taking place in the spiritual realm as well. A lingering economic malaise, coupled with our continued cultural fascination with apocalyptic scenarios, provides a context in which Burning Man functions as a Rorschach test.” The whole thing is worth a read.
  • The University of Texas at Austin has published a new psychology study in the June issue of Child Development that shows a “reliance on supernatural explanations for major life events, such as death and illness, often increases rather than declines with age.” Study lead author Cristine Legare noted that “the data, which spans diverse cultural contexts across the lifespan, shows supernatural reasoning is not necessarily replaced with scientific explanations following gains in knowledge, education or technology.” 
  • The Americans United Wall of Separation blog critiques efforts by Focus on the Family (FOF) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to carve out exceptions for religious bullying at public schools. Quote: It attempts to carve out an exemption for protected “religious” bullying. In several states, Religious Right groups have attempted to exempt bullying and verbal harassment based on sincere religious beliefs. In other words, a fundamentalist Christian kid can harass a gay student as much as he wants as along as he sincerely believes what he is saying. Some yardstick there!” You can read the FOF-ADF document, here.
  • A married couple’s strife leads to arson, and hospitalization for both. Both admit on the record to having marital issues, yet the headline, and part of the article, is about how the wife believes in Voodoo due to past instances where she called the police with, quote, “bizarre accusations.” There doesn’t seem to be anything Voodoo related with this incident, so why include in the headline? Seems prejudicial to the wife, and distorts what could be a tragic, and sadly common, case of domestic violence escalated to extreme levels.
  • Rev Dr Peter Mullen must live a small, sad, life. How else can you turn watching the opening of the opening ceremony of the Paralympics into a concern-trolling editorial about how we’re descending into Paganism? Quote: “But then I looked further and thought, at least, that I glimpsed a little of what this confusion says about modern society. We are indeed eclectic. And the old word for this, when applied to widely held beliefs and practical behaviour was “paganism” – the worship of many gods: that mountain of confusion classically represented by the panoply of argumentative deities on Olympus. Only an eclectic contemporary paganism could allow the godless Big Bang to walk hand in hand with the sacred flame.” Seriously. Can someone take this guy out to a movie or something?
  • The Republican National Convention is now over, and I know everyone wants to talk about Clint Eastwood’s interview with Invisible Obama, but I wanted to point out this exploration of Tuesday night’s closing invocation by Samuel Rodriguez, a member of the radical spiritual warriors of the New Apostolic Reformation. Quote: “Blessing the convention was National Hispanic Leadership Conference President Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who has served as an apostle in C. Peter Wagner’s International Coalition of Apostles and has extensive ties to Wagner’s movement.” I’ve covered this movement quite a bit over the years, and their ascendancy/integration within the Religious Right is troubling for those hoping for a “big tent” religious conservatism, or a more moderate conservative Christianity.
  • Erynn Rowan Laurie, author of “A Circle of Stones” recently completed a pilgrimage to Ireland, and she has posted the first installment of her write-up. Quote: “Our visit to both of the wells was held in a deluge. I think every well we visited while we were in Ireland, with the exception of Brigid’s Well in Mullingar, was rained on. We certainly connected with the watery side of Brigid’s powers during our pilgrimage! Prayers were offered for Brigid’s blessing on our work, offerings were made, and intentions set in the pouring rain. I remembered all my friends and the folks who had donated to my travel funds for the pilgrimage at her well, offering prayers for them, as well.” I look forward to future installments!
Northumberlandia (Banks Mining/PA)

Northumberlandia (Banks Mining/PA)

  • We carved and shaped a giant goddess image into the earth, but please don’t think it’s Pagan, says a spokesperson. ”Northumberlandia is just a lady, she doesn’t represent anything, but I think it’s understandable that people have their own interpretations.” Chas Clifton retorts: “Check back at one of the quarter or cross-quarter days.”
  • For those inspired by Aristophanes classic play Lysistrata, you might wonder, do sex strikes really work? Slate.com says “yes,” but mostly as way to draw attention to an issue. Quote: “The Togolese group cites as its inspiration a strike organized in 2003 by a women’s peace group to encourage the end of the Second Liberian Civil War. (The effort was chronicled in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.) Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace did force an end to the war, but their tactics were more complicated than a simple sex strike: They also staged sit-ins and mass demonstrations, which were arguably far more effective than the sex strike. Leymah Gbowee, the leader of the peace group, wrote in her memoir that the months-long sex strike had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention. Until today, nearly 10 years later, whenever I talk about the Mass Action, “What about the sex strike?” is the first question everyone asks.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Here are some updates on stories The Wild Hunt has reported on previously.

Teaching Paganism in British Schools: On Sunday I deconstructed the sensationalist Daily Mail’s assertions regarding the teaching of Paganism in British religious education courses, specifically in Cornwall. I pointed out that there is no hard-and-fast mandate requiring schools to insert Pagan religions into their curriculum, and that the RE advisory council is exactly that, advisory. Still, why let facts and reason get in the way of a good rant? That’s seems to be the position of conservative Catholic columnist Christina Odone, who uses the story as a jumping-off point to rail against any who dare place non-Christian faiths on equal ground with Christianity.

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

How long indeed! It seems that individuals like Odone are all for pluralism when it’s the other groups being tolerant and inclusive, but watch the knives come out when Christians are asked to make a bit of room to allow differing views. You know things have gone off the rails when a columnist makes The Daily Mail seem restrained by comparison (heck, even The Christian Post simply rewrites The Daily Mail’s article with no further editorializing).

The Problem With Passive Distribution: Last week I reported on the latest developments regarding the Buncombe County School Board in North Carolina’s policy regarding religion in its schools. The new policy passed at that meeting 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. However, the larger question about the distribution of religious materials by non-student groups was tabled until next year, with talk of a religion fair of sorts where local churches could distribute literature. Now, advocacy group Americans United weighs in on that idea, warning the school board to tread carefully.

Can we really expect that future incidents of favoritism in distribution would not occur? What would happen if a Muslim group tried to drop off Korans, or Hindus left the Bhagavad Gita? Would local residents and the school board be open to letting impressionable minds read literature from minority faiths or anti-religion groups? There is absolutely no need to allow outside organizations to engage in “passive distribution” of materials at public schools, plus one would like to think that the school board has better things to do with its time than deciding whether or not a copy of the Satanic Bible is appropriate for students. […] Getting religious materials into student hands is simply not a void that public schools should fill.”

Local activists have noted that constant vigilance will be needed to make sure schools don’t seek out loopholes to their new rules, or try to create an unfair distribution policy once the glare of national attention is off of them. For more on the school board’s new policy, check out the two-part post from local Pagan activist Byron Ballard. She wisely notes that “we won’t be resting on our laurels but we will take a breather and figure out the next steps. Because it ain’t over. Not by a long shot.”

A Brief Update on the “Occult” Library Filtering Case: Back in January I reported on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri against the Salem Public Library, accusing the institution of  unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.'” I’ve taken a keen interest in this case as I believe there shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided. Since my initial report there hasn’t been much word as the case slowly worked its way towards trial, though Religion Clause does have a brief update on the city of Salem, Missouri being dismissed from the lawsuit.

“…a Missouri federal district court dismissed as to one defendant a free expression and and Establishment Clause challenge to the Internet filtering policies of the Salem, Missouri public library.  Plaintiff, who was attempting to conduct research on Native American spirituality and on the Wiccan Church claimed that the library’s policy of blocking religious websites categorized as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal skills’ while allowing access to the websites of more mainstream religions” was a content and viewpoint-based restriction on speech and has the effect favoring one religious viewpoint over another in violation of the Establishment Clause. The court dismissed the city as a defendant finding that the city retained no control or oversight over the library that was governed by a separate Library Board. The suit however will move forward against the Library Board and the library’s director.”

So not much has changed other than the city itself being removed from the case. I posted this update because I want to keep this story, which I think is very important, fresh in our minds. The results of this case could have far-reaching implications for adherents to Pagan and minority faiths looking for information in federally-funded institutions, and may even change the Internet filtering industry itself. Once the trial starts, or there’s more information to be shared, you’ll find it here. Oh, there is one other thing, the Library Board did file a response in March, which you can find here. They, naturally, deny all the allegations (seriously, “deny each and every allegation” is repeated at length).

Spotlight on Project Conversion (Spoiler: He Didn’t Actually Convert): Amanda Greene writes a profile for the Religion News Service (RNS) on Andrew Bowen’s Project Conversion, which I’ve mentioned a couple times previously here at The Wild Hunt. The goal, “convert” to 12 faiths in 12 months, including Wicca, and share what he’s learned. The RNS piece constructs the story as a personal journey through tragedy (his wife’s ectopic pregnancy that had to be aborted), the 12 religions were each there to help him “find faith in humanity.”

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

“…the 29-year-old Lumberton resident doesn’t call himself by any of the 12 faiths he practiced for a month at a time last year […] It was an obsession – his personal intervention. […] Bowen was one of the best students of Wicca Greenville resident Melissa Barnhurst has had. “He gave it a lot more than some students who’ve come to me wanting to become Wiccan,” she said. Meanwhile, his wife worked as a labor and delivery nurse at a local hospital. Things were hard financially, at times, because Bowen wasn’t working.”

Interestingly, this personal journey isn’t even referenced in the “about” page of Project Conversion, or his bio, which claims that “theology is a playground” to Bowen. Project Conversion caused some controversy in the Pagan community for what was seen as a too-blithe tourism through the Wiccan faith, nor did his account of an experience he had with some from-the-book “shamanism” he engaged with in 2003, do much to reassure folks. Bowen mentions in his Paganism wrap-up post the “firestorm of criticism” he received, and how he managed to rise above it all and find the true meaning of Wicca. In a sense, Bowen is just another “embedded” journalist, tasting our wares, and passing his judgment from a limited engagement. Very few such arrangements ever end up with the writer or journalist converting, but does lead them to have stories to tell at parties about that time they did a Pagan ritual.

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

In April of 2007 the Bush Administration agreed to a settlement that paved the way for approval of the Wiccan pentacle to be engraved on government-issued headstones and markers, bringing to an end a campaign that lasted a decade, one that saw casual anti-Pagan demagoguery morph into government policy. Nearly five years after that historic settlement, the number of grave markers with the pentacle emblem, according to iPad-formatted news magazine The Daily, has risen dramatically.

Photo by Alex Brandon (AP)

Photo by Alex Brandon (AP)

“Since its addition in 2007 to a list of recognized tombstone icons, the pentacle has begun popping up on grave markers at Arlington and other government cemeteries alongside crosses, Stars of David and Muslim crescents. “There’s been a large increase over the past few years,” Jeanet Ewing, co-founder of Northern Virginia Pagan Network, told The Daily. “We’re up to near 80 grave markers nationwide.” The symbol can be found on five Arlington headstones, including that of Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Huffard, a Vietnam veteran who died in 2009, and Army Spec. Charles Heinlein, who was killed in Iraq in 2007.”

While I’m very happy to see our Wiccan veterans properly honored, and glad that The Daily decided to shine a spotlight on this issue, I’m troubled by the comments made by Department of Veterans Affairs staff.

…the proposed new emblem must represent “the decedent’s religious affiliation or sincerely held religious belief system,” the Veterans Affairs’ website states. “It can’t just be someone making up a religion,” department spokeswoman Josephine Schuda told The Daily.  As for the inclusion of Wicca, which involves the worship of a horned god that critics have likened to a Satanic figure, as well as a more benign goddess figure, Schuda recalled that the decision entailed considerable debate. “Essentially, it boiled down to the issue of whether Wiccan beliefs constituted a religion,” Schuda said. “It took a little while, I’ll say that.”

With all due respect to Ms. Schuda, it wasn’t a matter of debate, it was a matter of litigation and intense public pressure that got the pentacle approved. For nine years the VA ignored filed requests, “lost” applications, punted, and stalled. The Pagan community marshaled every interfaith ally it could, and was met by continual stonewalling.  In that time, several other emblems were approved, while outright misinformation was given to Pagan applicants. It wasn’t until Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, with the help of Americans United, took the government to court did things progress, and even then the VA tried to have the case dismissed, or delayed with the promise of policy changes.

Ultimately, it wasn’t internal “debate” that won Wiccan veterans the pentacle, it was the discovery of damning evidence by Americans United.

“Lawyers familiar with the case said that some documents suggested the VA had political motives for rejecting the pentacle … During his first campaign for president, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush told ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ in 1999 that he was opposed to Wiccan soldiers practicing their faith at Fort Hood, Tex. ‘I don’t think witchcraft is a religion, and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it,’ he said. Lynn, of Americans United, said references to Bush’s remarks appeared in memos and e-mails within the VA. ‘One of the saddest things is to learn that this wasn’t just a bureaucratic nightmare, there was a certain amount of bigotry,’ he said. ‘The president’s wishes were interpreted at a pretty high level. . . . It became a political judgment, not a constitutional judgment.’”

In short, the “debate” over “whether Wiccan beliefs constituted a religion” really came down to the VA interpreting George W. Bush’s infamous “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion” comments as a directive. Faced with a courtroom showdown where this evidence would be presented, the VA agreed to settle. A settlement that was agreed on because it won us what we wanted in the first place, the approval of the pentacle as an emblem of faith. An emblem that now graces nearly 80 markers and headstones.

As the old saw goes: You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. The VA’s approval of the Wiccan pentacle didn’t come about because of internal theological debate, it came about because Wiccans, Pagans, and their allies, fought hard for it. Litigation ended up being necessary, and it was only after litigation was filed that we saw any forward progress from the VA. Any other interpretation belittles the decade of activism, hard work, and struggle that occurred. Considering the fact that some emblems were approved in the space of two weeks during the ten years the Wiccan pentacle was being considered ,“It took a little while, I’ll say that,” may set a new standard for understatement. So never forget what it took to get us here, and lets hope that a FOIA request will someday unearth all those “debates” over the pentacle.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There’s been quite a bit of discussion this year concerning when sectarian prayers in the United States are permissible in a governmental setting. We’ve had the drama of the “Wiccan-proof” prayer policy in Frederick County, Maryland, and Lancaster, California’s voter-approved sectarian policy, which has withstood one legal challenge so far. Both of these prayer policies are hoping that a stated commitment to broad inclusion will protect them from litigation, but a new ruling in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals seems to have thrown some doubt on the idea that simply saying you’re inclusive while showcasing predominantly sectarian Christian prayer is acceptable.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled 2-1 that the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ preference for Christian prayers violates the constitutional separation of church and state. […] The record in the case indicates that 26 of the 33 invocations given from May 29, 2007, until Dec. 15, 2008, contained at least one reference to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, Savior or the Trinity. The appellate court majority said government favoritism in religion is wrong. “Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal,” wrote Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson, “and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

If this ruling should withstand a Supreme Court challenge, it could change the tactics of groups like the Alliance Defense Fund, a main proponent of the inclusive sectarian model. They know that these sorts of policies favor the religious majority, typically Christianity, and that religious minorities will be drowned out in a sea of invocations to Jesus. A point brought up in the 4th Circuit’s ruling.

…the Board clarified that the prayers were “not intended, and shall not be implemented or construed in any way, to affiliate the Board with, nor express the Board’s preference for, any faith or religious denomination.” Instead, the stated goal of the policy was to “acknowledge and express the Board’s respect for the diversity of religious denominations and faiths represented and practiced among the citizens of Forsyth County.” Despite that language, the prayers repeatedly continued to reference specific tenets of Christianity. These were not isolated occurrences: between May 29, 2007 and December 15, 2008, almost four-fifths of the prayers referred to “Jesus,” “Jesus Christ,” “Christ,” or “Savior.”

What’s the problem with this? It creates a environment of intimidation and unspoken preference for one religious point of view in a place that is supposed to serve and be open to all citizens regardless of their religious preferences.

On Joyner and Blackmon’s account, the overall atmosphere made them feel distinctly unwelcome and “coerced by [their] government into endorsing a Christian prayer.” Blackmon claimed that she felt compelled to stand and bow her head because of the Chair’s instruction to stand and because of the audience’s response. Joyner offered a similar account, believing that if she had failed to comply, it would have “negatively prejudice[d] consideration of [her] intended petition as a citizen appearing for public comment.” Both characterized the prayer as sectarian, with Blackmon referring to it as including a “one-minute sermon.”

This puts into doubt the legal fig-leaf of Lancaster, California’s token inclusion of non-Christians. While the court ruled that the prayer policy of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners is not necessarily unconstitutional, the overwhelmingly Christian nature of the sectarian prayers helped “create an environment in which the government prefers — or appears to prefer — particular sects or creeds at the expense of others.” If your prayer policy is open, but 4/5’s of your prayers are to Jesus, then you’re creating an atmosphere of preference that (perhaps inadvertently) endorses one type of religiosity over another.

It should also be noted that the 4th Circuit’s decision referenced two cases they previously heard involving Pagans and prayer. Simpson v. Chesterfield County, the case that helped created the so-called “Wiccan-proof” prayer policy, and the Darla Wynne case, in which a Wiccan from South Carolina won a battle against sectarian government prayer. In fact, the Alliance Defense Fund’s “model invocation policy” was designed after these two cases involving Pagans and sectarian prayer earned national attention. So this is a new wrinkle of constitutional needle-threading that proponents of sectarian prayer at government meetings will have to address. The “include a Wiccan” gambit may not work if the rest of the prayers overwhelming endorse Christ. Will those who desperately want to invoke Jesus be able to stomach balancing that out with non-Christian prayers? Expect future challenges to address this very issue. Frederick County, Virginia may now technically be open to polytheist invocations, but they are under the 4th Circuit Court’s jurisdiction, so they better watch their balance.

Yesterday the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals published their ruling upholding a California district court’s decision to deny Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum standing in his case against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. McCollum’s case centers on the State of California’s “five faiths” policy. This policy limits the hiring of paid chaplains to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American adherents. While the state of California and the judge’s rulings made so far argue that McCollum doesn’t have standing to bring this case to court, that assertion is challenged by a number of legal advocacy groups and faith organizations. One of those groups, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who filed a joint amicus brief in support of McCollum, sent me this statement regarding the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

“We are deeply disappointed by the court’s ruling.  Based on procedural technicalities, the court has allowed the California prison system to continue rank discrimination against Wiccan prisoners and chaplains.  The Constitution requires all persons to be treated equally regardless of what their religion is.  California’s practice of only paying chaplains of certain faiths, while requiring chaplains of other faiths to work for free, is religious discrimination that plainly violates the Constitution.” - Alex Luchenitser, Senior Litigation Counsel, Americans United for Separation of Church and State

In addition to Americans United, a number of prominent Pagan individuals and organizations have been weighing in on this latest development. Reclaiming co-founder, author, and activist Starhawk was one of the first to respond, making plain her deep disappointment in the ruling.

“I am deeply disappointed in the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling.  This is terrible setback for the rights of Pagans and of all prisoners to religious freedom.  I have personally experienced just a taste of the harrassment and obstacles placed in the way of those who would serve Pagans in the California prisons.  (See my account of a visit) Patrick McCollum has been tirelessly fighting for their rights for many years now, and I know he’ll continue, but more than ever he needs our support.  You can contribute at the Patrick McCollum Foundation web site.”

Patheos Pagan Portal Manager Star Foster said she was  “disheartened by the decision” but firmly believes “that the CA Dept. of Corrections policies are unconstitutional and will be changed.” Foster further noted that “this fight isn’t just about Wicca, and it doesn’t stop here.” Archdruid Kirk Thomas, speaking on behalf of Ár nDríaocht Féin, said they could “only express one reaction to this news – profound disappointment.” Thomas and the ADF say they “pray that equal treatment for all California prison inmates, regardless of religion, will eventually win the day.” California-based Pagan chaplain Joseph Nichter was “saddened and angered” by the news, and emphasized that Patrick McCollum “needs your help and support.”

Two groups that have worked very closely with Patrick McCollum over the yars, the Lady Liberty League and Cherry Hill Seminary also spoke out yesterday. Jerrie Hildebrand, Special Issues Coordinator and PR Coordinator for Lady Liberty League joined others in expressing disappointment in this ruling, and vowed that “the quest for religious freedom and equality will continue.” Holli Emore, Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, released the following personal statement on the matter.

“In my tradition we hold sacred the balance of Ma’at, the principle which governed every aspect of ancient Egypt, and the goddess who stood by the scales at the weighing of each person’s heart after passing from this life. Patrick McCollum has spent so many years of his life seeking maat for all of us, including teaching for Cherry Hill Seminary, which supports Patrick’s fight for justice.  What does it take for the scales to return to a balance for Patrick and the Pagan inmates he has served these many years?  Only a week ago I wrote about my own decision to push back against those who would have marginalized my religion.  My situation is barely significant in comparison to Patrick’s long-running court case, but the lesson is clear: if we do not stand for our rights, with integrity, we will lose them.”

We still await word from Patrick McCollum on the matter, though he is outside the country right now and hard to access. I’m in contact with the Patrick McCollum Foundation and once I receive any formal statement, I will post it here. For now, what path McCollum and his lawyers might pursue remains an open question, though some think a Supreme Court appeal may happen. The Firefly House clergyperson David Salisbury, based in Washington DC, said his organization is ready to rally to McCollum’s side should a SCOTUS appeal go forward.

“Living in the nation’s capital, we are all too familiar with the legislative and political obsticles that have slowed the progress of equality for all. We were disappointed to learn of the 9th Circuit ruling and hope that McCollum’s legal team will press on. Should this matter be brought to the Supreme Court here in DC, our community will be ready to support this fight in the district.”

It’s clear that Patrick McCollum’s tireless work on behalf of Pagan rights has won him the support and admiration of a large cross-section of the Pagan community. The question now is how Pagans can best leverage that support towards ending California’s discriminatory policy, and fulfilling the constitutional promise of equal treatment under the law. As more reactions come in, you’ll be able to find them here at The Wild Hunt.

ADDENDUM: Statement from T. Thorn Coyle and Solar Cross on the ruling.

A controversy is brewing in King, North Carolina over the flying of a Christian flag at the city’s community veterans memorial. Amid protests and threats of litigation, the city council reached what they thought would be an acceptable compromise solution.

“The King City Council approved a policy Monday night that eventually would allow a Christian flag to fly again at a memorial at the city’s Central Park as a part of a limited public display of religious flags recognized by the U.S. military. Members of the Army Chaplain Corps wear four symbols on their uniforms — the Christian cross, the Jewish tablets and Star of David, the Buddhist dharma-chakra and the Muslim crescent, said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the U.S. Army. There are also 41 religious symbols that can be placed on grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery. The city’s new policy will lay out which flags and symbols would be displayed at the memorial.”

But proponents of the Christian flag, formed into the newly-christened “King Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Foundation”, are threatening a lawsuit should the wrong kind of flags be allowed to fly.

Many of the foundation’s members are concerned that the city may allow religious flags such as the Muslim Crescent and Star flag, the satanic flag and Wiccan flag, all of which are recognized by the U.S. military, to be flown at the memorial, James said. “There is room for expansion for this memorial,” James said. “No one has asked for another flag to be put up there. But someone asked for our flag to be taken down.”

A local television station’s report on the matter is even more blunt.

“The question we’re raising now is the possibility of having say, the Wiccan flag flown or the Satanic flag flown, which are recognized by the U.S. military — or a Muslim flag flown over a U.S. veterans memorial,” group leader Stephen James said.

First, if they are only going to fly approved VA emblems of faith, then they wouldn’t have to worry about a “Satanic flag”, but yes, Islam and Wicca both have emblems approved by the Veterans Administration. In fact Wiccan, Pagan, and Muslim military personnel have all died in the line of duty for the United States, something that doesn’t seem to matter all that much to the Christian flag proponents. It seems to be all or nothing for them.

“The complaint would be filed with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings only if a majority of people attending a public meeting at 6 p.m. Nov. 22 about the proposal objected to it, said Stephen James of King, an organizer of King Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Foundation. The group was started Monday night by about 25 people. “But we will have that option (filing the complaint) ready if we need it,” he said.”

Further, as pointed out by Americans United, local Christians are already scheming ways to make sure no faith other than Christianity gets a turn under the compromise agreement. A public meeting is scheduled on November 22nd to lay out the details of the compromise, but I can’t see this going anywhere except into the courts. If Americans United feels that the policy is too restrictive they’ll sue, and if the policy is too open the King Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Foundation will sue. That the mere possibility that Pagan (or Muslim) military personnel might be honored in King, North Carolina would trigger a lawsuit shames every veteran who fought or died for our country’s religious freedom. This is all about Christian triumphalism, and very little to do with the men and women we’re supposed to be honoring tomorrow on Veteran’s Day.