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The Australian Human Rights Commission is publishing a new report today on attitudes towards religion, and the results don’t seem to be very favorable for religious minorities in that country.

“Distrust of Muslims and hostility towards homosexuals and pagans remain widespread in Australia, a new Australian Human Rights Commission report to be published today says. […] genuine religious differences have not become any easier to manage. Pagans (nature-based religions, such as Wicca) in particular claim to face prejudice and discrimination.”

The Pagan Awareness Network in Australia has issued a press release on the matter, noting the many challenges that adherents to modern Pagan faiths still face.

“This is something we have been saying for years,” Pagan Awareness Network President David Garland said today. “Imagine going to the Family Court during a bitter custody battle and having to explain under cross-examination that you practice Wicca, or Druidism, or another pagan spirituality. Imagine the stress, fearing you will lose custody of your children simply because you follow a minority religion. Or imagine being at school, and being ordered to take off the five-pointed star you wear around your neck because it is supposedly an “occult symbol”, while your Jewish classmates can continue to wear their six-pointed stars. Not to mention the Christian kids with their crosses, Muslim girls with their headscarves and all the other religious traditions out there. It is absurd that existing anti-discrimination laws don’t protect pagans in this kind of situation.

There were rumblings about this uneasiness towards Pagans in Australia back in September of 2010 when the commission issued a draft of the survey results and gained attention for the stark animus some Australians had towards Witches and Pagans.

Hilda Simpson argues that Christian groups should not be forced to hire ”practising homosexuals, promiscuous heterosexuals or believers in witchcraft”. Witches, pornography supporters and homosexuals dismay Glen and Joy Vonhoff, while Gail Osmak identifies ”fortune telling, sorcery, witchcraft [as] of real concern”. C. L. Miller is more trenchant: ‘‘It would be an egregious mistake to treat the malignancy of witchcraft and its occult devil-worshipping practices as if it were a benevolent, benign and misunderstood belief system … The original anti-witchcraft laws were based on authentic reasons, not whims.”

While some tried to explain away the anti-Pagan remarks as a glitch in the data due to a surplus of “elderly church leaders who happen to be male and anti-Muslim and gays and pagans and witches,” it seems the concern was real enough to make an impression in the final report.

The 2006 Australian census found that there were around 30,000 Pagans in the country, making them a significant religious minority. Or as Pagan Awareness Network puts it: “Pagans outnumber the Sikh, Jain, Quaker and Taoist communities in Australia combined.” Pagans from and in Australia recently made a major impression at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in late 2009, but have also faced a seemingly regular barrage of scorn, hostility, and prejudice from politicians, religious leaders, and media pundits. We shouldn’t forget that despite the fact that Australia currently boasts an atheist Prime Minister, the country’s two dominant political parties participated in an 2010 election-season event that was closed to non-Christians and broadcasted only to Christian churches. So there’s clearly a lot of work to do before modern Pagans, and other religious minorities, are treated with the respect and dignity they are entitled to.

It remains to be seen what recommendations the Human Rights Commission might make to the government on its findings, if any. Once a copy of “Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia” is posted to the Australian Human Rights Commission web site, I’ll update with more information and a link.

ADDENDUM: You can download the commission’s report, here.

Here’s a brief excerpt from their section on Paganism in Australia.

“Paganism is an umbrella term that covers a number of nature-based spiritual traditions. The consultations and submissions revealed significant areas of concern regarding paganism and pagans’ ability to practice their faith in Australia. Pagans believe that the lack of information or understanding of their faith complicates issues; many in the wider community assume that Satanism is a part of paganism, when it is separate and distinct.Recognition was raised as the biggest issue that underlies other matters. According to the Pagan Awareness Network, there are approximately 30 000 people in Australia who follow a pagan or nature-based religion, andthis is confirmed by the 2006 Census, which also shows the significant, recent growth of paganism.”

The study also notes that improving attitudes towards indigenous religions may also benefit modern Pagan faiths.

“Indigenous people’s freedom of religion and belief need to be protected in the same way as those of other groups. At one time recognised as legitimate religions and spiritualities, Indigenous religions and spiritualitiesare now swept up in the blanket-dismissal of pagan religions and beliefs, and are officially disparaged anddiscriminated against by some religious groups in Australia. Coming to appreciate Indigenous religions and spiritualities may assist these groups to re-examine the basis for and practice of their dismissal of pagan spiritualities, which include most of the earth-based, nature, and Wiccan spiritualities current in Australia.

These quotes are just from a cursory scan, I’ll no doubt have more to say on this later.

Top Story: For the third time in recent memory a Canadian citizen has been charged with the obscure ordinance against “pretending to practice witchcraft”. The first concerned Vishwantee Persaud in late 2009 who bilked several people, including a lawyer, out of thousands of dollars, the second, from April of this year, was against Batura Draame of Toronto. Now a third case, involving Brampton resident Yogendra Pathak, has emerged.

“Police say Yogendra Pathak, 44 was “putting it out there that he had the ability to practice magic and by doing that he could solve people’s problems… for money.” … Police say they believe Mr. Pathak was operating for over a year and do not yet know how many people have been conned by his alleged scam. They are urging victims and anyone with information to come forward. Mr. Pathak is charged with fraud under $5,000 and pretending to practice witchcraft.”

Persaud, Draame, and Pathak were all charged under the fraud statutes so why the witchcraft charge? Is it really necessary? Canadian author and philosophy professor Brendan Myers finds the law deeply problematic.

“The key word in the legislation is the word “pretending” (in subsections (a) and (c).) As pointed out to me by my friend in London via private correspondence: the word “pretending” here suggests that the State does not believe that witchcraft could be real: anyone who says they are practicing witchcraft is only pretending. That can potentially include those who say that they are practicing the religion. With this in mind, it’s not difficult to imagine a religiously conservative or puritan judge ruling that anyone who practices the religion of Wicca is “pretending” to practice witchcraft.

Our religious practices are already protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of our constitution and thus trumps the Criminal Code. But a lot will depend on the eye of the beholder here. It is not difficult to imagine a future government much more conservative than our present one, declaring that witchcraft and wicca is not a religion, and that anyone who practices it is “pretending”. Remember, it doesn’t matter if you think it’s a religion: it matters if the law thinks so. I do not know if any judicial precedents have established wicca and witchcraft as a religion in the eyes of the law. So I’ve written to a lawyer that I know, and I await his response.”

While not all Pagans think the law should be repealed, there is a grass-roots movement building to work for the law’s repeal. It should be stressed that all the accused perpetrators were caught and charged with existing laws against fraud, so why has this little-used witchcraft charge been dug up again? What real purpose does it serve other than to sensationalize, muddy the waters of religious freedom, and create potential problems for ethical practitioners of magic and witchcraft who happen to charge for various services? How long before an otherwise ethical magic-worker gets charged due to a vindictive former client? It doesn’t seem so far-fetched a scenario considering the recent frequency this law is getting invoked.

Christine O’Donnell’s Lesbian Paganism-Studying Sister: Andrew Sullivan points to a Mother Jones piece regarding the sister of Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party and Christian Right favorite who recently won an upset primary victory over the Republican party’s preferred candidate. Christine’s sister Jennie is publicly for many of the things O’Donnell is against (like gay marriage), yet is supporting her in her senate campaign. She’s also very different when it comes to religion.

“I have studied and practiced many therapeutic methods, as well as many different spiritual practices, such as; The Eastern Philosophies of Buddhism, Taoism, Sidha yoga with Brahma khumaris and other yoga practices for self realization. Western philosophies of Christianity, Science of mind, Course in miracles, Catholicism, Native American Spiritualities, Judaism, Muslim, Sufi, Ancient Alchemy of the Emerald Tablet, Metaphysics, Wicca, Pagan and many other world spiritualities.”

While it isn’t completely unusual for a family member to back a relative running for office who publicly works against their stated personal positions and interests on various issues, Sullivan wonders if the emergence of this sister might hurt O’Donnell’s standing with the Christians who supported her candidacy.

“Will the Christianist base support a candidate whose sister has studied Wicca and pagan spiritualities and supports marriage equality for gays and lesbians? Apparently, Jennie believes that much that has been written about her sister is untrue.”

It should be interesting to see how the campaign moves forward with this. Will they go big-tent and soften on some of O’Donnell’s past pronouncements on various social issues, sticking to the fiscal populism the Tea Party prefers? That seems to be the direction the political winds are currently blowing, but it remains to be seen if such a move is sustainable if it risks losing Christian voters who want/demand strong stands on social issues.

Witchcraft Worries Australia: A draft report on freedom of religion submitted to the Australian Human Rights Commission apparently ranks Witches as one of the groups that most worries other Australians according to The Age.

“Which groups of Australians most worry other Australians? Muslims, gays and – astonishingly – witches. That apparently anachronistic result appears in a survey of public submissions to a national inquiry into freedom of religion and belief in the 21st century, from which the draft report was submitted last week to the Australian Human Rights Commission … These views do not reflect mainstream opinion; it takes a certain passion and effort to make a detailed submission, so only those most involved or committed will do so. But they provide a fascinating window into contemporary concerns about religion.”

Some academics are concerned the results are dominated by conservative citizens, skewing the results towards the views of “elderly church leaders who happen to be male and anti-Muslim and gays and pagans and witches”. It remains to be seen what recommendations the Human Rights Commission can make from this draft that would please these respondents while ensuring the continued rights and freedoms of Pagan Australians.

A Look At Faeries Who Are Radical: The Texas LGBT publication Dallas Age profiles eclectic gay Pagan group the Radical Faeries. The article looks at their founding and history, but also notes the changes in attitude and inclusiveness they have gone through in recent years.

“But in more than 30 years of existence, the Radical Faeries have evolved — albeit gradually and with difficulty — towards embracing a more sexually diverse membership. Some Radical Faerie groups accept people of all genders and orientations with the idea that anyone who identifies as a faerie is one. However, many older members still require gatherings to be male-only and the issue of inclusion continues to be controversial. “As an oppressed people, gay men [have] had to overcome their own prejudices against women, bi, trans [and] intersex people,” notes Singleton, who at 28, is part of the younger generation of faeries.”

What role will the Radical Faeries play within the Pagan community as it becomes more open and inclusive? Will what was once a gay-male only tradition soon become something far larger and influential?

Fighting Utah Over Peyote Arrests: Religion Clause reports that the Oklevueha Native American Church has filed suit against the state of Utah in Federal Court to stop them from arresting and harassing church members for their use of Peyote.

“The lawsuit seeks to block state and federal law enforcement from arresting or bringing criminal charges against church members who “fear reprisal from both state and federal governments for openly practicing their religion,” court papers state. … The lawsuit was filed in Utah because since 1999, church members here say they have been harassed, arrested and prosecuted for using peyote, court papers say.”

This has been an ongoing issue in Utah, and one that will no doubt bring the issue of religious entheogens to the mainstream media once more. We’ll be paying attention to this case as it develops.

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