Archives For Barack Obama

My latest response at the Washington Post’s On Faith site is now up.

Here’s this week’s panel question:

President Obama’s 10-day Asia trip includes visits to India and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.  The president chose not to visit the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar during his time in India because it required a head covering that his advisers feared would fuel speculation about his faith. A Pew study showed that nearly 20% of Americans believe falsely that the president is a Muslim.

The more Obama reaches out to Muslims, the more his critics are likely to slander him,implying that he is not a Christian.  An example is his April 2009 speech in Turkey, in which he said, “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation, we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” The president’s critics have seized on that statement, insisting that he rejects the Christian foundations of America.  Is Obama stuck between a rock and a hard place? If you were the president, how would you handle this dilemma?

Here’s an excerpt from my response:

“When Obama says we aren’t a Christian nation, he isn’t negating Christianity’s role, for good or ill, in shaping our country’s history. Instead, he is acknowledging that we live in a secular, multi-religious society, where Wiccans, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists, and Christians must all learn to coexist and work together to face our nation’s problems. That secular democracy can work in a country teeming with religious diversity, with no one group (in theory) imposing its moral will on another. The kind of democracy some would like to see “exported” to the Middle East. The moment we abandon our secular democracy so we can call ourselves “Christian America” is the moment we lose any moral higher ground we might have on the world stage when it comes to negotiating with or combating theocracy. In India, where the president just visited, some want to officially make the country a “Hindu Nation” a prospect that worries many Christians and Muslims living there. If we cast off our secular robes, whats to stop India, or Turkey for that matter, from following suit?”

I hope you’ll head over to the site and read my full response, and the other panelist responses, and share your thoughts.

It’s time for the Pagan hysteria watch, where we spotlight some stories and editorials that get a wee bit over-excited in their rhetoric. Let’s start with an obvious source, conservatives defining environmental activism, and agreement with the scientific consensus concerning climate change, as a “new paganism”.

“As many commentators and “global warming skeptics” have observed, climate science has metamorphosed into a religion—or, more accurately, a cult in religious dress. It has its high priests (Al Gore, David Suzuki, James Hansen, Rajendra Pachauri), its sacred texts such as computer models whose inconsistencies and disparities are blithely ignored by the myriads of true believers, its prevailing orthodoxies that cannot safely be questioned or violated…”

Yes, it must be a “religion”, because “more and more evidence is surfacing against global warming claims”, even though the majority of that “evidence” has been overblown and distorted in the media, and the scientific community is being increasingly bullied by activists and politicians for not changing their position on global warming. Maybe they want to prove it’s a religion by producing martyrs? In any case, while times are tough for Al Gore (a “high priest” of the “new paganism”), our current President doesn’t escape accusations that he’s involving us all in paganism!

“For some Americans, Easter is a religious holiday to pay homage to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom they consider to be the Son of God. But for President Barack Obama, this is a day to worship the environmental pagan goddess of ‘Mother Earth.’ No word yet, on whether the government-sponsored pagan worshippers at the Air Force Academy have been invited to attend ceremonies at the White House Easter Egg Roll ceremonies this year.”

When did the traditional White House Easter celebration become a ceremony for Gaia? Apparently when he decided to use environmentally friendly easter eggs in the ceremony! Gasp! Choke!

“A White House announcement Monday said the eggs at this year’s April 5 roll will be made from paperboard that contains no wood fibers from endangered forests, is recyclable and features vegetable-oil based inks and a water-based coating.”

Not paperboard! Nooooo! It’s like “The Wicker Man”, only not.

Of course “pagan” hysteria isn’t relegated to politics or scientific theories, real-live actual Pagans  also spark it. Just look at this bizarre story in the Queensland (Australia) Southern Star, which brings us the shocking story of two Pagan teenagers getting married … with the consent of their parents!

“A TEENAGER plans to marry a schoolgirl in a pagan ceremony next month with the bride’s mother officiating … Holland Park High School student Jenni, 16, said of the handfasting: “We’ll just see how it goes.” Jenni’s mother and pagan high priestess Sue Birch, of Lawnton, will perform the ceremony.”

Shocking! Wait, why is this a story again? Don’t teenagers get married with the consent of their parents all the time? This is obviously not meeting the desired hysteria quotient, better bring in a rabid anti-Pagan nutter to close out the article.

Pagan marriage is not recognised under Australian law, which stipulates those marrying must be 18 years or older. Christian Democrat Party leader and anti-pagan campaigner Reverend Fred Nile said: “(Handfasting) can’t be in any way acknowledged by the state and should not be listed as a genuine wedding. Our party will do what it can to stop pagan weddings and witchcraft or Wicca activities.’’

There we go, that’s better. We wouldn’t want things to get too reasoned and uncontroversial around here. But even if Wicca becomes utterly useless in drumming up hysteria, we’ll still have Santeria and Vodou to exploit.

“Raised in violent ghetto neighborhoods, Ramirez grew up despising his father for his careless disregard of his family. He learned to live like a street animal to survive the cold, harsh streets of the South Bronx. Looking for love and validation, he eventually found it in a new “family” of witches and warlocks who groomed him to become a high priest in their occult religion. Ramirez’s plunge into the dark side reached a boiling point on the night he sold his soul to the devil in a diabolical, blood-soaked ritual. With renewed fervor–and the mark of the beast now cut into his right arm–he actively recruited souls into this “unholy kingdom,” haunting the bars and clubs of NYC by night to find his next victims, including those who professed faith in Christ. His life continued on this dark path for 25 years until God intervened through a larger-than-life dream, revealing Himself for who He really is and snatching Ramirez back from the pit of hell.  Out of the Devil’s Caldron walks you through the dark alleys of the occult religions of Santeria, Palo Mayombe, and espiritismo (spiritualism) while exposing the hidden secrets of darkness.”

There’s always a new “other” to point the finger at, another form of “paganism” to demonize, wouldn’t want the fear and hysteria to die out would we? If we start having civil discussion about these issues, who knows what could happen? Maybe we’d all become Pagans?

Top Story: As post-earthquake Haiti continues to make the news, mainstream media continues to explore the unique and complex religious atmosphere of the small Caribbean nation. Specifically, the relationship of Haitian Vodou with Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity, and the growing chorus of voices that have risen up to defend this oft-misunderstood faith. At the religion-focused interview program “Speaking of Faith”, Krista Tippett re-visits her previously run program on Vodou, adding new content from interviewee Patrick Bellegarde-Smith in the wake of the earthquake.

“After the earthquake, we had a moving and illuminating exchange with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and learned that he lost nine members of his extended family in it. We’ve updated our current program with excerpts from this correspondence.”

SOF’s programs are rich explorations of the chosen topic, and have covered minority faiths like Vodou and modern Paganism fairly and fully. I highly recommend downloading/listening to the re-aired “Living Vodou” episode. Sadly, not all ongoing discussions about Vodou are fair or open-minded. Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher tries to spark a discussion of “comparative theology and culture” with the not-at-all leading or offensive title of: “If Haitian vodou isn’t demon worship, what is?”

“But as a Christian, I don’t believe this is merely a psychological phenomenon. I believe that the vodou entities are real — and malevolent. Despite the syncretism with Roman Catholicism vodou tries to accomplish, there is nothing authentically Christian about it, and I too would think that this religion draws spiritual darkness around its followers and their communities. That does not mean that it causes earthquakes, for goodness sake! But I think it’s a mistake to see vodou as benign or positive. Serious question: if what you see on that photo slideshow isn’t demon worship — demons defined as malign spiritual entities — from a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish) point of view, what is?

But don’t misunderstand him! He just wants to explore “the limits of religious tolerance”, but beware, if you are “always” against passing value judgments on faiths you don’t understand, you might be an enabler of Mormon polygamy. He’s so charming, isn’t he? But wait there’s more! He also issues a dire spiritual warning to a Christian family that is raising their adopted Haitian orphans within the Vodou religion.

“I believe these well-intentioned people are playing with fire. Real spiritual fire.”

Yes, according to Dreher, caring Christian parents should obliterate any sign of non-Christian culture from traumatized Haitian orphans. Luckily the Fitzgibbons’ don’t share his rather narrow view of things.

“[Vodou] is interwoven into every bit of a Haitian person’s life,” said Paula Fitzgibbons, a former Lutheran pastor. “I’m at least presenting them with some part of their spiritual heritage. I can offer them enough that they will be familiar with Vodou when they get to the point of making their own choices about spirituality and religion.”

I’d make a guess as to who was actually more Christ-like, but being a unrepentant Pagan, I’ll refrain. You can read more about the Fitzgibbons family at their blog, “Raising Little Spirits”.

In Other News:

Patrick McCollum v. California: Americans United, who wrote an amicus brief on behalf of Wiccan chaplain Patrick McCollum, weighs in on the controversial WallBuilders brief that alleges the Religion Clauses should only apply to monotheists.

“Based on phony history, Wallbuilders’ court filing asks the 9th Circuit not to consider Americans United’s viewpoint. It states we don’t cite “true history” but a “revisionist history” since we claim the Founders wanted to extend religious liberty for all. Needless to say, the brief is offensive, disrespectful and essentially advocates that the government should feel free to discriminate against all non-Judeo-Christian religions. But what else can we expect from Wallbuilders? The organization’s founder and president, David Barton, is a well-known Religious Right propagandist who for years has pushed a fundamentalist “Christian nation” view of American history. He claims to be a historian, but he isn’t one. He earned a bachelor’s degree in “Christian Education” from Oral Roberts University and then taught math and science at a fundamentalist Christian school founded by his father. Wallbuilders’ brief, like Barton, is a serious joke. And we hope that the 9th Circuit pays it no mind.”

This story continues to seep into the mainstream press. There is still no response from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation concerning recent developments. For all of my past coverage of this ongoing case, click here.

Religious Discrimination or Misuse of Storage Facilities? The Times-Georgian reports that the Carroll County Board of Commissioners has rejected a conditional-use permit for the owners of a Pagan retreat that would have allowed them to keep using storage buildings as temporary residences.

“Robert Crowe asked the board to approve a conditional-use permit for use of his 33-acre tract as a Dragon Hill Retreat STAR (Sacred Tribe of the Ancient Roots) Grove, allowing it to be used in activities of the Church of the Spiral Tree, an “ecumenical pagan church.” The request itself was made by James and Rita Middleton, both members of the Church of the Spiral Tree. As part of the activities of the church on the property, the permit would allow storage buildings that have been used as temporary residences on the property to remain as such. Crowe said he is Native American and he practices certain pagan rituals that by definition are rooted in an “earth and nature-based religion.” Crowe said the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Board recommended denial of the request on Jan. 26 simply because the proposed church would promote activities and beliefs to which the members of the board were opposed.”

While Crow alleges that “personal prejudices” led to the zoning board recommending against the permit, Commissioner George Chambers says that his vote against the permit appeal had nothing to do with religion.

“I don’t take issue with what anyone else’s beliefs are. The issue is a conditional-use permit on the houses,” Chambers said. “It wasn’t an issue of whether or not I agreed with their beliefs or what they do on the land as part of their church. My issue is not with that because the current zoning allows for that. My issue was with the houses.”

So, religious discrimination, or simply a zoning issue? Why were storage facilities being used as temporary housing? The retreat’s web site says that there are cabins and kitchens, so what’s going on? Is this selective enforcement because they are Pagans? Or was this appeal more a CYA maneuver?

The Pagan Circle at the Air Force Academy: While the newly installed stone circle for Pagan cadets at the Air Force Academy has garnered some anonymous “criticism” recently, it has also faced some vocal lashings from Christians who seemingly don’t believe in the equal treatment of religions within government institutions.

“What we label today as ‘pluralism,’ God called ‘idolatry,'” said Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, in a commentary in The Washington Post. “The first commandment from God was, ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’ “To openly violate this most basic law is to invite God’s judgment upon our nation.”

Meanwhile, Bill Donahue, the self-proclaimed advocate for all things Catholic, says that Christians are the real victims in the military (all that pluralism is “chilling” to Christian expression, don’t ya know), and Fox News finds two conservative think-tanks to explain how this incident isn’t really  a big deal.

“It’d be one thing if there was a harmful act, but to have competing symbols, I’m not sure I would put that in the category of destructive behavior,” London continued. “What is being expressed here is the view of the Judeo-Christian as opposed to the pagan tradition.”

You see, it was just a friendly discussion! An exchange of symbols. I’m sure they would agree that a Pagan idol placed within a Christian facility would be equally harmless, just another round in the showcase of competing expressions. You can read all of my stories concerning the Air Force Academy, here.

Skip Having Breakfast With The Family: In a final update, I just wanted to note that while President Obama did indeed attend the Family/Fellowship-sponsored National Prayer Breakfast despite calls for him to boycott, both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the opportunity to indirectly criticize “The Family” and their support of Uganda’s noxious “kill the gays” bill.

“We may disagree about the best way to reform our health care system, but surely we can agree that no one ought to go broke when they get sick in the richest nation on Earth. We can take different approaches to ending inequality, but surely we can agree on the need to lift our children out of ignorance; to lift our neighbors from poverty. We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are — whether it’s here in the United States or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.”

It must have made for some uncomfortable moments over pancakes. To find out more about “The Family”, and why they are so dangerous, you can read my interview with journalist Jeff Sharlet, here.

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

Top Story: Well, that didn’t take long. While many have been pleased with the Air Force Academy’s recent turn towards accommodation for minority faiths in the wake of accusations that an aggressive and pervasive evangelical Christianity was creating a hostile environment for non-Christians, it seems that some aren’t so sanguine regarding recent changes. With national headlines touting a newly installed stone circle for Pagan cadets, some enterprising Christians decided it needed a finishing touch.

“The Air Force Academy, stung several years ago by accusations of Christian bias, has built a new outdoor worship area for pagans and other practitioners of Earth-based religions. But its opening, heralded as a sign of a more tolerant religious climate at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., was marred by the discovery two weeks ago of a large wooden cross placed there. “We’ve been making great progress at the Air Force Academy. This is clearly a setback,” said Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the academy. He is founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and has often tangled with the academy over such issues.”

While Weinstein is criticizing academy leadership for not informing cadets of the incident, he has praised Lt. Gen. Mike Gould for “acting swiftly and decisively” to ensure it doesn’t happen again. As for the act of “desecration” itself, one could argue that since the circle hasn’t been officially dedicated yet (that happens in March), there was nothing to desecrate. But like cheap gifts, it’s the thought that counts. One could only imagine the outpouring of rage had some anonymous Pagans placed a pentacle or Thor’s hammer inside the Christian chapel.

In Other News:

Patrick McCollum v. California: For some more background concerning the ongoing legal battle to win equal treatment for minority faiths in California, check out AREN’s just-posted interview with Patrick McCollum. In it, McCollum addresses many of the questions that have been emerged since this case has gained wider attention.

“Well, first let me say that I do have a legal right to bring this case forward, and that there’s lots of precedent to support that argument. That’s why I am before the 9th circuit court of appeals. Secondly, let me clear the record, the Pagan prisoners also brought this case forward in conjunction with me, and have been Plaintiffs in the case all along. The judge at the District Court level ruled that neither I nor the Pagan inmates had the right to bring it forward, go figure! What’s even more important to note, is that the State’s attorney general’s office, has made the argument that religion in California is two-tiered, and that the five state faiths (the first tiered faiths) are afforded all of the equal rights and protections granted under the Constitution, but that all other faiths including Pagans, are second tier … and are only afforded lesser rights, similar to one another. It is this concept that Pagans and other minority faiths are somehow less endowed, that I am fighting to overcome.”

I’d also like to note that I have contacted the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for an official comment on these latest developments, and have yet to receive any word back.

In a somewhat related note, I’d also like to mention that Patrick McCollum, on Imbolc, was installed to the Executive Board of Directors of a United Nations NGO, Children Of The Earth.

“This organization focuses on international youth utilizing spirituality as a tool, to bring about positive change in approaching many of the world’s problems. There are chapters across the world. While the Executive Board is composed of a small number of people, I feel honored and humbled to be included in the company of such distinguished individuals as a State Senator, the Speech Writer for Dr. Martin Luther King, and other similarly situated persons.”

Congratulations to Patrick! You can find out more about Children of the Earth at their web site.

African Pagans Against Witch Hunts: The South African Pagan Rights Alliance & South African Pagan Council are gearing up  for the 3rd annual “30 days of advocacy against Witch-hunts in Africa” from 29 March to 27 April 2010.

“The 2010 campaign is aimed at petitioning the African Union General Assembly and the Pan-African Parliament, to address the ongoing witchcraft hysteria in Africa, through constructive and humane programmes that seek to entrench and strengthen human rights and human dignity, instead of seeking to suppress witchcraft or ignore ongoing human rights abuses within member countries.”

Supporters of their campaign can sign a petition, or join the Facebook group. Further plans and actions will be announced closer to the start of the campaign. You can contact TouchStone Advocacy for more information on how to help.

Vodouisants Plan Memorial in Haiti: Max Beauvoir, Augustin St. Clou, and other Vodou leaders in Haiti are planning a national memorial service, funeral rites for the estimated 150,000 dead, and a week of scheduled mourning.

A week of mourning is scheduled to begin as early as next week with a service in front of the destroyed presidential palace. The event will include a traditional voodoo funeral rite for the more than 150,000 people who died in last month’s earthquake, said Max Beauvoir, the supreme priest of Haitian voodoo. Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders have also been invited to participate. “We want to honour all those who disappeared, but we also want to make it a celebration of life, so that the people can regain their strength,” Beauvoir told Canwest News Service in a phone interview Tuesday evening. “Because life must go on.”

While Vodou practitioners try to move past this tragedy and begin rebuilding, mainstream media seems increasingly fascinated with this oft-misunderstood faith. National Geographic interviews Wade “The Serpent and the Rainbow” Davis about Vodou, misconceptions, and Pat Robertson. He also anticipates the very memorial service now being planned.

“All people in all cultures honor the dead, and the fact that the sheer scale of the disaster has precluded the possibility of proper ritual burials will be a source of concern and sadness to all Haitians. Perhaps in time some of this grief may be released in a ceremony of national remembrance that will honor all who have been lost. For now the rest of us, the entire global community, must do everything we can to support the living and facilitate the rebirth of a nation that has given so much to the world.”

While some continue to peddle misinformation and lies about this faith, a strong pro-Vodou voice is emerging, and we may find a Vodou in post-earthquake Haiti that is unafraid to confront its critics or exist in the public eye.

Skip Having Breakfast With The Family: A growing number of voices are urging President Obama to either boycott the National Prayer Breakfast, or to use that opportunity to criticize the sponsoring group The Family/The Fellowship, for their support of Uganda’s notorious “kill the gays” bill.

You can read more about “The Family” and their theocratic agenda in my interview with journalist Jeff Sharlet, here. So far it seems unlikely that Obama will snub the prayer breakfast, which has been attended by every president since Eisenhower, but there is a faint hope that he will criticize the sponsors. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

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

The following is a news bulletin from the Pagan Newswire Collective that was posted a short time ago to the Pagans at the Parliament blog by PNC correspondent Ed Hubbard. I’m reprinting it in its entirety below.

(Ed Hubbard, PNC, Melbourne Australia) On December 8, 2009, Obama Administration officials from the Justice and Faith-Based Initiative offices, met with select members of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. It was a small meeting of approx. 50 members from various faiths. Patrick McCollum, of Circle Sanctuary [and Cherry Hill Seminary], one of the principal advocates of Pagan based ministry, was invited to partake and speak during this meeting. He was among religious and spiritual leaders from multiple faiths including Native American, Australian Aboriginals, as well as contingents from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhists communities.

According to Rev. McCollum, the meeting was about how the Obama Administration can advance Interfaith relations in the United States. After McCollum’s discussion, officials from the White House sought him out, to have him meet with top officials of the administration to discuss how to limit discrimination and promote Interfaith education in the United States as well as internationally. Upon his return to the states, Patrick McCollum may be able to meet with members with the Justice department as well as the Offices of Faith Based Initiatives to discuss the many outstanding situations that are currently within the American court system.

This has been an advance forward for the Interfaith cause and for Pagans everywhere.

Needless to say, this is huge news, and a big step forward for the equal treatment of Pagan religions in America. McCollum recently made the news for his lawsuit against the California prison system’s “five faiths policy”, which has gained support from a variety of prominent religious organizations. Before that, McCollum appeared before the US Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, DC, to speak at a briefing focused on prisoners’ religious rights. You can read the remarks he made at that hearing, here. I will be keeping  a close eye on this situation, and hope to bring more news soon.

ADDENDUM: More on the meeting from Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary.

When asked about this meeting, Patrick said “I am thankful that the Obama administration’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships participated in this year’s Parliament, held this meeting, and asked for and listened to input. International interfaith dialogue and collaboration are essential for bringing about a better world.” When asked about the Parliament as a whole, he said, “One of the best things about the Parliament has been meeting leaders from other faiths and creating friendships and alliances that will far transcend this event. It was obvious from the discussions that world faith leaders have common concerns and have moved to a place in history where they recognize the value of working together toward the common good rather than being at odds with each other. This brings me great hope!”

Again, more on this as I have it.

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens. What? You didn’t think I was going to get caught up in one day did you? I have so much more to cover before we can settle down to a more sedate pace!

We start off today with word from Thorn Coyle that Diana’s Grove, a 102-acre Pagan-owned sanctuary in Missouri, is going to sell off the land due to hardships brought on by our current economic climate.

“While blessed with these wonderful supporters who have given so generously of their time, energy, and money, Diana’s Grove Center has nevertheless been suffering under the current economic climate. It’s founders no longer have the energy and stamina required to support their dream, in it’s current form, in these challenging times. They have decided to make major changes before major changes are forced upon them, and will be selling Diana’s Grove. It is their intention, and the intention of the residential and Mystery School staff, to make this transition with as much positive energy and integrity as we can.”

The sanctuary’s founders and care-takers, Cynthea Jones and Patricia Storm, plan to continue currently scheduled programming at the site through 2010, and then continue the Diana’s Grove Mystery School at different locations in the future. They have reassured supporters that the land will not be sold to loggers or developers, and investors will be refunded after the sale. I wish them all the best for the future, and wonder if Diana’s Grove isn’t the only Pagan-owned land that is experiencing increased hardships in our current economic climate. Will the downturn end up rolling back some of the Pagan-owned land advances made in the 1980s and 1990s?

Since I first reported on it, the story of the fired Bath & Body Works employee who claims she was let go after her newly appointed superior found out she was Wiccan has spread like wildfire through the Pagan community with many calling for a boycott of the chain until they resolve the matter favorably. Meanwhile, some have wondered if there is more to this story, or if Gina [Last name removed by request.] was fired (after 8 years) for some sort of negligence or performance issue. I’m not omniscient (yet), so I can’t know for sure, but the complaint does seems rather convincing, and Bath & Body Works have either refused to comment, or have released a canned statement implying that [Last name removed by request] was fired justly.

“My name is Linnea, and I work for Bath & Body Works. I know there’s been a lot of discussion about accusations that one of our managers fired someone due to their religion. I can assure you that once we became aware of the allegations, we immediately conducted a thorough investigation which showed that our internal policies and the law were being followed and that no one had been discriminated against. We are confident that the court will agree with our investigation findings. Bath & Body Works is an equal opportunity employer, and we do not discriminate against race, color, religion, gender, gender identity, national origin, citizenship, age, disability, sexual orientation or marital status. I don’t take this topic lightly and I hope you understand that my company doesn’t either.”

If that isn’t prose written by a lawyer I don’t know what is. So we’ll all have to wait for the trial to learn more about the firing, and make our own personal judgments in the meantime. I doubt it’ll be popping up in the news much until the trial since all parties involved are clamming up. However, an employment lawyer speaking to the Connecticut Law Tribune did say that the Bath & Body Works will either have to prove that  [Last name removed by request] was fired for performance/disciplinary issues (the complaint claims she had a stellar performance record until her firing), or that her beliefs that prompted the time off weren’t sincerely held. Since the latter is a hard thing to prove, you can bet Bath & Body Works is scouring their files for any hint of performance problems.

Speaking of Pagans fired from their jobs, Bath & Body Works isn’t the only employer with an unhappy ex-Wiccan. TechCrunch reports on the case of James Bara, a Google employee who claims he was singled out, had his faith mocked, and was ultimately fired after he came to the defense of a female transgender employee.

“Bara complained about the comments to Sohn, who Bara says turned on him and began to treat him, and the other men in the office unfairly. Bara, who is a member of the Wiccan religion, also said that Sohn made inappropriate comments directed towards him about witches and his religion that made him feel uncomfortable. For example, Sohn would sing The Wizard of Oz’s “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead.” Bara’s employment was eventually terminated by Google after long standing issues with Sohn.”

You can read Bara’s lawsuit, here. Like Bath & Body Works, Google claims the firing was just and did not involve discrimination or any kind.

“After a thorough investigation, we have no reason to believe James Bara was discriminated against or treated unfairly, and we’ll defend ourselves vigorously against these charges. Google values a diverse and respectful workforce and does not tolerate discrimination.”

If Google is liable (and if should be noted that this discrimination didn’t happen at their headquarters, but at an Atlanta-based data center) they’ll be a bit hard to boycott considering their ubiquity on the Internet, nor would such an action really harm the Internet search giant (they aren’t a retail chain dependent on holiday sales). Instead, concerned parties should read the lawsuit, decide if it seems a valid complaint, contact the company with your views, and then publicize the matter on your own site, blog, journal, or newsletter. I imagine Google would respond to an influx of traffic calling them out for this incident.

Turning to politics, last week President Obama attended the The White House Tribal Nations Conference, there he addressed issues of poverty, sovereignty, law enforcement, and education to representatives and leaders from all federally recognized tribes. During a speech he not only referenced his adoption into the Crow Nation, but told leaders that he was on their side.

“I get it. I’m on your side. I understand what it means to be an outsider. I was born to a teenage mother. My father left when I was 2 years old, leaving her — my mother, my grandparents to raise me. We didn’t have much. We moved around a lot. So — so even though our experiences are different, I — I understand what it means to be on the outside looking in. I know what it means to feel ignored and forgotten and what it means to struggle. So you will not be forgotten as long as I’m in this White House.”

Those are some pretty strong words of support, it should be interesting to see how that support develops over his term, and how Native Americans will view the president’s performance on issues important to them. White House spokesmen also stressed that this was part of his ongoing outreach to “all Americans”, does that mean we might see a meeting with religious minorities sooner rather than later?

In a final note, it seems that monotheistic faiths don’t like their forms of animal sacrifice being equated with, well, you know, animal sacrifice. Ever since press have reported that Theodism, and now-famous adherent of Theodism, New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, occasionally partake in a ritual animal sacrifice (in which the animal is then eaten) the Republican councilman has been trying to put the practice in a context people might understand. Before the election he equated it with kosher butchering, which made a Democratic Jewish supporter of his opponent all but call him a Neo-Nazi. Then, after the election, he equated it with the Greek Orthodox tradition of roasting a whole spring lamb on Easter. That got him in trouble with New York’s first Greek-American elected official, Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (a Democrat).

“If Dan Halloran feels the need to explain his religious beliefs to the public, that’s his business. In doing so, he should not mischaracterize the faith of thousands of his new constituents … Easter lamb roasts have absolutely nothing to do with the religious animal blood sacrifices practiced by Dan Halloran. Dan Halloran must immediately apologize to the Greek Orthodox community for his offensive comments as should anyone who is associated with him.”

So, for the record, when an Abrahamic tradition ritually slaughters and eats an animal it is not animal sacrifice. It is only animal sacrifice when Heathens (or possibly Santeros) do it. As for Halloran, he seems done trying to explain his faith to outsiders.

“The fact that my religious beliefs are not mainstream or are not part of what popular culture would consider the norm should have no bearing on my issues.”

Something tells me that despite Halloran’s wishes this isn’t the last I’ve heard of this issue, or the last his opponents will attempt to use his faith against him.

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

Happy Diwali!

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 17, 2009 — Leave a comment

A very happy Diwali to all my Hindu and IndoPagan readers. Diwali, the festival of lights, is a major Indian holiday representing a spiritual new year, and a triumph of good over evil. Depending on the region and tradition, this day commemorates the return of Lord Rama, the birth of Lakshmi, and the Austerities of Shakti (among other events). Celebrants usually light lamps, set off fireworks, play cards, and will occasionally pray to computers to commemorate the day. Of special note this year is that Barack Obama became the first US president to participate in the White House Diwali ceremony.

“Obama became the first US president to personally take part in a White House ceremony for the festival of lights, lighting a “diya” oil lamp inside the executive mansion and bowing respectfully before a Hindu priest. “While this is a time of rejoicing, it’s also a time for reflection, when we remember those who are less fortunate and renew our commitment to reach out to those in need,” Obama said.”

Not to be outdone, the British Prime Minister held a “historic” Diwali celebration at 10 Downing Street. For more information on Diwali and its traditions, check out the informative Hindu Blog.

May you experience happiness and good fortune on this day, and in the year to come.

(Pagan) News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 20, 2009 — 4 Comments

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens.

Our top story concerns a messy divorce, accusations of abuse and child-porn, and the practice of “Wiccanism”. Scott Starnes is being accused by his wife Christine of “using her and the children without their knowledge or consent.” In addition, there seems to be allegations that this is all tied into the practice of Witchcraft somehow.

“Investigators said that Christine Starnes also reported that her husband was studying witchcraft. A Williamston police sergeant confirmed through investigating e-mails and Web sites that Scott Starnes had enrolled in school of witchcraft and had been looking up information on how to cast spells, do evil and “banish a troublesome person.” But there are no charges in connection to any of the witchcraft-related activities, and no immediate indication that any of Starnes’ witchcraft-related interests were in any way illegal.”

After a month-long investigation, child-porn images were found on his computer, though reports of abusive behavior were inconclusive. The police are currently examining the computer for further evidence. According to John Newkirk, Scott Starnes’ lawyer, he is innocent of all charges and this is merely fall-out from messy divorce proceedings. Then again, lawyers are paid very well to say things like that. I would have no trouble writing off Mr. Starnes completely as sick individual if it weren’t for the eagerness of Mrs. Starnes and the police (you can see the list of witchcraft-related items confiscated during the investigation) in dragging the Witchcraft element into this. I’ll be paying close attention to the trial, and the forensic investigation results of the computer, with great interest.

Wiccan comic-book artist Holly G participated in a recent panel at Chicago’s Comic-Con concerning religious themes in comic books. She was joined by two Christians and one agnostic who were also involved in the comics industry. It seems that everyone got along just fine despite the theological differences.

“Remarkably, there were no fights or bitter accusations flung across the table, but rather a unified sense of pride and communion as storytellers focus on spirituality in their work, whether it’s of a religious or metaphysical nature … The panelists were then challenged about their methods of handling faith in their own stories. While the witch talked of unwittingly (and unwillingly) gaining obedient converts through her pagan comics, the pro-life Christian Tennapel talked about the great fulfillment of winning over non-believers. He went on to talk about his most filthy comic, “Black Cherry”, a rated-R mafia, demon story that he billed as his “most religious” book and the most successful among non-believers. The non-Christian audience was drawn to it, he suggested, because of its richly dark, demonic story, but in the process of believing in the tale, were forced to believe in the Christian hierarchy of metaphysical beings. In a sense, this is Tennapel’s way of evangelizing.”

So Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose is gaining us converts? I’m not sure how I feel about that. To see why, you might want to check out some of my previous coverage concerning the intersections between well-known modern Pagans and this not-safe-for-work cheesecake comic.

As plastic “shamans” and various New Age seekers continue to abuse the trust of Native American spiritual leaders, more tribes decide that the best recourse is to shut out all outsiders. That is the case with the Hopi, who have decided to close their annual Hopi Snake Dance to outsiders due to illegal photography and a lack of respect.

“The traditional Hopi Snake Dance, part of an elaborate dayslong ceremony in which tribal members pray for rain, is closed to non-American Indians this year. Mishongnovi village administrator Robert Mahkewa Jr. says illegal photography and a lack of respect for the traditions and ceremonial practices led to the decision to bar non-Indians from this weekend’s event.”

In addition, an editorial from The Native Sun News urges all tribes to restrict access to their ceremonies, saying that the era of outsiders cashing in on their religious practices must come to an end. It truly is a shame that a small population of self-absorbed seekers and con-artists are so damaging relations between Natives and non-Native peoples.

The Washington Post looks at the efforts of Nick Nefedro and the ACLU to overturn a law barring fortune-telling in Montgomery County, Maryland. But unlike previous successful efforts to overturn such bans, Nefedro (a self-described gypsy) isn’t claiming a religious reason that the law should be overturned, a fact that is making local authorities confident they’ll withstand a lawsuit.

“I don’t think it’s strange for us to have laws that protect against fraud,” said Clifford Royalty, zoning division chief in the Montgomery County attorney’s office, adding that “religion has nothing to do with it. He’s not made that allegation in the lawsuit.” “The practice is fraudulent,” Royalty said, “because no one can forecast the future.”

While I wish Mr. Nefedro every success in getting this antiquated law stricken from the books, I think the ACLU should have explored getting a local Pagan involved so that they could bring the religious aspect of these laws into the proceedings. For all of my past coverage of anti-psychic/fortune-telling laws click, here.

In regards to my ongoing look at Pagan periodicals, you might be interested to read this report from the Philadelphia Inquirer on how several smaller religiously-oriented newspapers and newsletters are also falling on hard times.

“They land politely – in mailboxes, not driveways – and deliver their good news gently. “Relics blessed in advance of tour.” “Young Israelis at Medford Camps.” “Our Lady of Pompeii Church Celebrates 100 Years.” “Local Concert Raises $2,600 for Mitzvah Food Project.” But with advertising revenues in decline, these are challenging times for some local religious newspapers – and perhaps the end times for one.”

When pundits and anylists talk about the hard times falling on newspapers and magazines, smaller niche-oriented publications like these are often overlooked. But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of these journalistic undergrounds for gestating and investigating the stories that eventually become “big news”.

In a final note, the snarky political blog Wonkette rightly mocks the absurd and un-sourced rumours among right-wing blogs that Michelle Obama’s mother participates in Santeria rituals.

“Apparently Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother, performs Satanic “Afro-Hispanic” witchcraft rituals, in the White House. Barack Obama is piping mad, because how would this affect his IMAGE? Poorly! This story and all of its quotes are true. Jane Mayer of the New Yorker is one helluva reporter and would never make up something this incendiary. Oh… what is that, Intern Riley?… It’s from Townhall, not Jane Mayer of the New Yorker?… THEN IT’S EVEN TRUER.”

I guess when all else fails, when being called a Nazi doesn’t hold water, you can always accuse the women of practicing witchcraft. Somehow I don’t think this is what right-wing thinkers mean when they talk of holding onto “traditional values”.

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

The answer to will SCOTUS save the San Francisco Peaks (from having treated waste-water snow sprayed on what several Native American tribes consider holy ground) is apparently “no”.

“The U.S. Supreme Court today denied certiorari in Navajo Nation v. Forest Service, (Docket No. 08-846). (Order List.) The 9th Circuit in the case held in an 8-3 en banc decision, that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not bar the Forest Service from approving the use of recycled waste water to make artificial snow at Arizona’s Snowbowl ski resort, which operates on federal land.”

The Save the Peaks coalition have released a statement on the decision.

“The Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari in the Navajo Nation case is unfortunate to say the least.” Stated Jack Trope of the Association on American Indian Affairs who is working together with DNA Legal Services, representing the Hualapai Tribe, Navajo medicine practitioner Norris Nez and Hopi spiritual practitioner Bill Preston. “It means that the San Francisco Peaks, sacred to so many tribes, will continue to be at great risk from the development approved by the Forest Service that allows treated sewage water to be used for snowmaking. It also means that the Ninth Circuit’s narrow interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) – an interpretation which in practice will make that law virtually unavailable to protect sacred lands in the states covered by the Ninth Circuit – will stand.

This is a big deal. It means that questions of how we approach issues of religious freedom and religious rights on land that is a traditional cultural property under U.S. law are dramatically altered (within 9th Circuit jurisdiction). Perhaps the Forest Service have been intentionally dragging their feet in getting the San Francisco Peaks on the National Register because they didn’t want tribal considerations interfering with their sweetheart deals involving the Snowbowl resort?

“The San Francisco Peaks are recognized as a Traditional Cultural Property, although the Forest Service began the designation process several years ago, it has not yet been finished. The Peaks have also been determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, yet the FS has done nothing to finish the process.”

At this point, nothing short of direct intervention from the Obama administration can halt the planned development (which includes clear-cutting 74 acres of rare alpine ecosystem & creating a 14.8 mile long pipeline up the San Francisco Peaks to a 10 million gallon storage pond). In the meantime, there is a chance this issue could come to SCOTUS again, due to different Federal Circuit Courts having different interpretations on the limits of the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“This is a setback, but it is not the end. The Obama Administration still has the authority to stop this development and develop policies to ensure that future decisions are more respectful of sacred sites.” stated Jack F. Trope, Executive Director, Association on American Indian Affairs. “Moreover, other circuits like the Tenth Circuit have interpreted RFRA more broadly and efforts to use that law to protect other sacred places will continue. Finally, the struggle over the San Francisco Peaks and the failure of RFRA to protect this sacred place ought to send the message to Congress that it is time for the lawmakers to approve legislation that would strengthen applicable law so that it will better protect Native American sacred places across the country.”

From a moral and religious standpoint, the question remains, how much responsibility does the Federal government have towards protecting and maintaining sacred lands they have seized from Native tribes? It is an issue we need to wrestle with, because if the government and courts rejects pantheist religious views as valid when considering development, we may lose the right to protect other places from desecration in the future. As for the San Francisco Peaks issue, don’t expect the tribes to go quietly now that judicial recourse has been denied them.

“Our way of life is in peril. We will continue to pray and struggle to safeguard mother earth for our cultural survival.”

I doubt this will be the last time I’ll have to report on this matter.

The Supreme Court is holding a private conference this Thursday to decide if they will review a recent decision in the ongoing legal battle between a coalition of 13 Native American Tribal Nations (and various environmental groups) and the National Forest Service (and a ski resort) over the use of treated (but non-potable) wastewater snow on the San Francisco Peaks. A mountain range that the tribes consider sacred land, and that using waste-water on it would be like putting death on the mountain”. The Obama administration is opposing review of the case, while the petitioners want to remind the government that they have a sacred responsibility towards the land they took from the tribes.

“It is worth remembering that our government took the Peaks from petitioner tribes. It placed the tribes on reservations and pledged to respect their cultures and traditions. It is hardly implausible that Congress passed a law in 1993 providing under these rare circumstances that the tribes’ religious liberty should be respected.”

So far, lawyers and judges haven’t been very respectful towards the tribes opposed to pumping wastewater onto sacred land just so a single ski resort can stay open longer. A Ninth Circuit judge said is was merely a case of damaged spiritual feelings”, while government lawyers have been outright insulting towards Native belief systems.

“Courtroom observers were dismayed by the lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of government lawyers. After a witness described how the spraying of wastewater to make artificial snow would defile the sanctity of medicinal plants gathered on the mountain, a government lawyer asked if the medicine man knew he could purchase herbs at health food stores. A government lawyer also questioned a witness by going down a long list of sacred sites one by one and asking if a particular site was on federal land. In each case, the witness, a Hopi man, humbly replied, “I don’t know.” Eventually, the witness told the lawyer that his culture doesn’t view land in that way, that there is no concept of land ownership. The lawyer did not acknowledge his statement in any way, but instead went back to the list, unapologetically asking the same questions in the same manner.”

You have to wonder if Barack “Black Eagle” Obama of the Crow Nation knows and approves of what Elena Kagan and the Department of Justice are doing in his administration’s name. Will it damage his popularity among Native American Indians, many of whom supported him in the 2008 elections? If SCOTUS decides to hear the appeal, will it be on a Supreme Court that includes Sonia Sotomayor, a judge who is a seeming advocate for the rights of minority religions?

In 1994, Judge Sotomayor ruled in favor of two prisoners who claimed to practice Santeria, a Caribbean religion that involves animal sacrifice and voodoo, saying that “distinctions between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ religions” are “intolerable.”

Whether SCOTUS decides to hear the appeal or not, it could have lasting implications regarding the application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and questions of how we approach issues of religious freedom and religious rights when the land itself is sacred and holy. I’m hoping SCOTUS doesn’t decide to punt on this one, and allows the case to be heard. If not, I guess “screw your sacred land, we want to ski” will be the rallying cry of our government and court system. For more information on this case, check out the round-up of official documents regarding this case at the SCOTUS Blog. You may also want to peruse the official Save The Peaks site.