Archives For Buncombe County

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On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) rejected the appeal of Ohio science teacher John Freshwater, who was fired for teaching Creationism in the public school system. The case, Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, first made its way through the Ohio courts, where it was ultimately ruled that “the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education had ‘good and just cause’ to terminate John Freshwater’s teaching contract.” When the appeal reached the Supreme Court, the justices rejected it, thereby, allowing the Ohio court’s opinion to stand.

vernon_logoThis case is a recent example of a public school system becoming the playing field for a tug of war match between secularism and religion. According to Americans United (AU), the teacher not only taught Creationism in the classroom, but he displayed and handed-out religious material, and also performed surveys of students’ religious beliefs. AU also notes that the teacher was “accused of using an electronic device (a Tesla coil) to burn a cross into a student’s arm.”

Although the Ohio courts ruled that it was legal for Freshwater to place his personal Bible on the desk, his actions were otherwise out of line. AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said, “Freshwater was using his position to foist his religious beliefs onto impressionable students. The courts rightfully put a stop to that.”

For Pagan and Heathen parents or others practicing minority religions, there may come a time when religion is “foisted” upon their children within the public school environment. In most cases, the situation is likely an unthinking act, and indicative of a changing culture or shift in demographics. Minor missteps do happen and can often be remedied through conversations, education and awareness. Unfortunately, in some instances, such as the Ohio case above, the acts are blatant attempts at promoting a single religion.

The Satanic Temple's Children's Activity Book

Created by The Satanic Temple

Last year, Florida’s Orange County School Board allowed The World Changers of Florida to distribute Bibles to their students. After being sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Central Florida Freethought Community, the school board approved the distribution of other religious material, which now includes pamphlets on Atheism and the Satanic Temple’s coloring book called “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities.”

Similarly, the Madison County School Board in Georgia allowed a privately funded religious monument to be erected outside a high school football team’s field house. According to local news, the statue reads, “Romans 8:31: ‘If God be for us who can be against us?’ and Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.’ ” Last month, the school board was contacted by both the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation and is now facing a potential lawsuit.

In all three of these cases, the intention and, therefore the violation, is very clear. However, not all cases are quite as “cut and dry.” Over the past fifteen years, a national organization called “The Good News Club,” has been establishing after-school enrichment programs within public school buildings. With the growing number of working parents, these in-school extracurricular programs have become increasingly popular, serving a very needed purpose for modern families.

However, The Good News Club is a division of The Child Evangelism Fellowship and has a clear and direct religious initiative. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the club, and others like it, can legally hold after-school meetings within public school buildings. (The Good News Club v. Milford Central High School)  Despite that ruling, the club’s presence continues to spark controversy.

In Portland, Oregon, a large coalition has recently formed with the aim of stopping the Good News Club’s in-school activities. According to The Oregonian, its formation was sparked when Katherine Stewart published her book called The Good News Club: The Religious Right’s stealth assault on American Children.

Due to the SCOTUS ruling, that situation is not easy to legally negotiate. In an interview with The Oregonian, ACLU David Fidanque said, “I don’t know that there is a bright line anymore.” While acknowledging the club’s legal right to be in the school, he expressed real concern saying:

Keeping the government out of religious affairs is the single most important thing we can do to protect religious freedom in this country. If we allow our government institutions to endorse particular religious viewpoints, or even to promote religion in general over non-religion that is a threat to every form of religion.

1969339_231559560385952_2907068694561940975_nEven if The Good News Club is staying within its constitutional rights, Fidanque’s concerns are justified when looking at other similar situations. Growing in popularity in Georgia is another after-school religious club called Rise UP. The organizers make no effort to mask their affiliation with area schools. The website advertises, “Several other local elementary schools expressed interest in starting a similar program. We were excited about the possibility of partnering with these other parents and schools… there are new schools joining the RISE UP! Team as each school year starts – RISE UP! has a total of 9 elementary schools participating!” Did the schools ask to join or did the club ask to use the space?  Does that distinction matter?

Another way school systems intentionally or unintentionally allow religious speak into their public space is through visiting authors. Schools often hold assemblies during which a writer might speak, entertain, and read from his or her latest book. It is a very common occurrence and, in most cases, quite innocuous.

However, when that author writes with a strong religious directive, like popular Christian author Bryan Davis, the assembly could become problematic. Davis’ books reflect a deep connection to his own personal theology. While his work is certainly fitting for church assemblies, is it appropriate for public school children? Is it constitutionally legal for Davis to be speaking about and selling books that openly promote the celebration of one’s “God-given talents” and overtly discuss “faith, prayer and redemption” within the public school system? Interestingly, two of the participating middle schools are in Orange County, Florida, where the Bibles are being distributed.

These are only a few recent examples of cases in which an uncomfortable situation could arise for Pagan, Heathen or other families practicing a minority religion. There are many others situations from the minor missteps by a well-meaning teacher to the blatant promotion of a single religion. On Polytheist.com, parent Niki Whiting described her own encounter:

For a few brief weeks when we sent my son to the neighborhood kindergarten we had to deal with his confusion around the Pledge of Allegiance. I was surprised that this was still said in schools. He came home and asked why the school was trying to make him Christian. Already, in his (then) 5 short years of life, he knew that when people say ‘God’ they are mostly referring to Yahweh. “Don’t they know that the world is full of gods?” he asked. No, no, my son, they do not.

pagans_and_the_law_mainWhile every situation doesn’t need a lawyer, there may be times when a friendly email is just not enough. What should a parent do in such situations?  In her book Pagans and the Law, lawyer Dana Eilers suggests, “A basic understanding of the Constitution, the First Amendment, and their history is essential to grasping the enormity of religious freedom.” Her book lays out the basics as they pertain specifically to Pagans. She writes, “It is highly recommended that everyone read this document, boring as it appears. It is what stands between you and 10 thousand years of discrimination, persecution, and darkness.”

Another resource is Lady Liberty League. Co-founder Rev. Selena Fox has this recommendation:

Documentation is essential. Keep a log with dates and details of what has happened and what has been done to express concerns and get positive resolution. Check into the school’s policies and processes for filing complaints and voicing concerns. Keep a copy of every written communication you make and receive regarding the situation. Share this information with individuals and organizations you contact for help.

While fighting these battles may be difficult, costly and time consuming, not every situation leads to a lengthy court battle. Byron Ballard, who has worked extensively and very successfully with North Carolina’s Buncombe County School Board, found herself in the middle of such a situation in 2011. As reported by The Wild Hunt, the school board allowed Bibles to be distributed to students and a Pagan mother protested. Ballard was an integral part of resolving the tensions and finding workable solutions. Ballard advises looking for allies, adding that some may “come from surprising places.” Some of her allies  have been leaders from mainstream religious institutions. She says:

My best advice is to stay grounded, be persistent and try to really listen to all sides of the issue at hand. This work is about rights and responsibility, about shifting cultures. But it’s actually about making public schools safe places for all children to learn and to grow into caring, compassionate adults.

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

[Photo Credit: Flickr’s Liz cc-lic]

Meanwhile, outside the walls of PantheaCon, I have been busy tending the Wild Hunt’s hearth fires and watching the news….

The sheer number of stories describing the intersection of faith and public education has been overwhelming in recent weeks.  In fact, Americans United (AU) believes that 2013 will be a “pivotal year for church-state separation.”  According to AU, the country’s increasing religious diversity and the recent failures of evangelical Christian politics are fueling the fight to force religion back into public schools.

Since January, five states already have anti-evolution bills “in play” including, Missouri, Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma and Indiana.  AU writer Simon Brown remarked, “The mantra of Indiana state Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) seems to be:  ‘Darn the Constitution, full speed ahead!’”

Just last week, the ACLU of Ohio filed a lawsuit against the Jackson City School District for refusing to remove a portrait of Jesus from Jackson Middle School. The School Board’s justification for non-compliance was that the portrait was a gift.  However, there’s that darn Constitution again. Now, the Jackson City School Board is being sued.

Jackson Middle School

Portrait Hanging in Jackson Middle School

There are similar cases across the country. Whether it’s Creationism, school prayer, religious displays or school vouchers, the challenges continue. As such, it is very easy to get caught up in the contentious discourse surrounding these cases.  From a media perspective, conflicts are considered more “ sell-able” because they stir emotions and keep us tuned-in. The positive outcomes are often quite boring.

As a result, we forget to adequately acknowledge these “happy-endings” or record the positive gains. When one battle ends, another always seems to flare up. It’s much easier to watch the new fires than see the sprouts rising through the ashes of old battles.

However, I have and will always argue that it is essential for all of us, especially those on the front lines, to purposefully acknowledge positive progress; no matter how small, how subtle or how utterly boring. Once in awhile, it’s nice to have the opportunity to do an “end-zone” victory dance and fly a flag or two.  With that in mind, I’d like to update two stories that involved challenges to liberty within the public schools.

Let’s start in the South. One of last year’s top ten stories was the struggle to protect religious freedom within the Buncombe County School (BCS) system of North Carolina. This was the case that began when Ginger Strivelli, a local Pagan mother, challenged the presence of Gideon Bibles in her daughter’s school. Over multiple contentious meetings, the school board finally enacted policies that would ostensibly prevent any First Amendment violations and, in addition, would pave the way for interfaith talks.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

During the early days of this case, I worked as Lady Liberty League’s Media Adviser. As such, I have written numerous case reports and articles; the last of which was just published in Circle Magazine’s latest issue (#112). That article contains the full scope of the Board’s newly enacted policy changes.

Here are some of the highlights. The Buncombe County School Board (BCS) has created a Faith-Based Advisory panel to act as consultant for all faith-based issues. Local Pagan, Byron Ballard, who has been actively involved in this case, now sits on that panel. In addition, the Board encouraged all teachers to celebrate  National Religious Freedom Day on January 16th.  On the first of January, the Board formally announced this intention and stated that all children will watch the newly produced BCS program called: “The 3Rs of Religion.”

Byron has confirmed that the overall progress has continued to be very positive. In fact, for the first time in a year, Byron will not be attending the Buncombe County School Board meeting. We are witnessing the evolution of a community and recognition of social change. However Byron did add:

“I’m cautiously optimistic about the relationship with the county school system, but I am aware that it will have to be monitored forever after. Vigilance, like strong fences, makes for good neighbors.”

Buncombe County’s story may not yet be fully written.

Now, let’s move over to Utah. In November, I reported on the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Davis School District in Utah.  One of its schools, Windridge Elementary, had restricted access to the book In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polocco because of its depiction of gay marriage. The restriction was initially supported by the district and encouraged for all lower grades. In November, the advisory council stated, “Members of our Community Council feel that the book is non-offensive, but agree that it should be restricted.  It can be found behind the Librarians desk.”  Shortly thereafter, parent Tina Weber challenged the legality of the decision which resulted in the ACLU’s lawsuit.

In Our Mothers' Houseby Patricia Polacco

On January 31, the ACLU reported that the Davis School Board has reversed that 2012 decision and put Our Mothers’ House back on all library shelves.  In a letter to the Board’s legal adviser  Assistant Superintendent, Pamela Park wrote, “I agree with and support the Committee’s conclusion regarding the book as follows:

  • Removing the book completely is not a good option.”
  • “We all know many non-traditional families” with students attending our schools.
  • “It could help those children in same-sex families see their family in a book.”
  • “[T]his book teaches acceptance and tolerance.”
  • “The book could help prevent bullying of kids from same-sex families.”
  • “It could be used by families to discuss the issues….” 

Park also confirmed that the book’s presence does not violate Utah educational policies because it’s not used as instructional material. She continues to advise that any parent who feels the book is inappropriate can contact the librarian and have the book restricted from his or her child only. You can read the letter in its entirety here.

The Utah case wasn’t necessarily a church-state issue. The school was restricting Patricia Polocco’s freedom of speech more than violating religious liberty. However, it could be argued that the case did have a religious freedom element. The Board restricted the book based on what could be considered a faith-based opinion. It’s opponents complained that In Our Mothers’ Housenormalizes a lifestyle we don’t agree with.”  Removing the book on such a basis promotes one faith’s value system over another. Facilitating parental choice supports the values of all people; no matter their religion or position on gay marriage.

Celebrating the work done in both Utah and North Carolina, and other similar cases, does not at all detract from the serious nature of defending First Amendment freedoms allowed by the darn Constitution. Nor does it show disrespect for those cases not yet closed.  Acknowledging progress strengthens our spirit and allows us to stand again.  It restores our faith in the American system.  We need this time to breathe.

So, in honor of the work done by those in Buncombe County and Davis County, “Way to Go!” Take your victory lap.

[You can read part one of this entry, here.]

 05. Ginger Strivelli, School Bibles, and Buncombe County Schools: The story began at the end of 2011 when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible. Strivelli, along with local activist and Pagan leader Byron Ballard, and a growing coalition of local residents, made clear that the board needed to remain neutral on matters regarding religion. So began a year of contentious school board meetings, death threats, and mainstream media coverage.

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

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

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

Eventually Buncombe County Schools passed a new religion policy that stressed neutrality, and will allow distribution of religious materials, but only once a year, along with non-religious community groups, and after regular school hours. All of these changes came about because one Pagan mom decided to speak up, and her bravery inspired a community to hold true to the secular and pluralistic principles our country was founded on.

04. Pew Forum’s Landmark Prison Religion Survey (and How That Affects Pagans): In March of this year the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the findings of a 50-state survey of prison chaplains.  The survey, which was endorsed by the American Correctional Chaplains Association, interviewed 730 prison chaplains, and has a lot of interesting things to say about religion in the American prison system. At first glance, there are no major bombshell revelations to drive the news cycle, leading to initial headlines like “a lot of religion goes on behind bars.” However, if you start digging into the data, especially the section on what chaplains think about the inmate’s religious lives‘, there’s a lot there that should be of concern to modern Pagans, particularly Pagans engaged in prison outreach and chaplaincy work.

Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum, who testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights on prisoner’s religious rights in 2008, was deeply involved in this survey and helped shape some of the survey’s questions, and helped shift “the perspective of the main researcher’s goals in ways that I feel benefited our community and minority faiths in general.”

 

chaplains chp4 5

“The inclusion of Pagan & Earth Based religions as a category in the survey carries several huge benefits for us as a community. First, for many years, correctional systems, courts, and other governmental agencies have been able to deny us our rights, by simply making the argument that we either don’t really exist, or that if we do, we are so insignificant in numbers that there is no need to legislate or accommodate in our favor. Now with the survey, that argument is irrefutably null and void.”Patrick McCollum

The data given to us here by the Pew Forum is a boon. Even taking into account the Christian lens through which most of this data was obtained and filtered through, it gives us needed information is discussing and addressing the needs of Pagan prisoners. It underscores the challenges, and affirms what many already suspected: that the Pagan population in prison is growing, that the institutional chaplaincy is disproportionately Christian and conservative in makeup, that extremism (whatever its true extent) is an ongoing concern, and that we simply don’t have the volunteers or institutional muscle in place to properly address prisoner’s needs. Just as it is on the “outside” our growth continually outstrips the pace in which we can train clergy or build institutions and services. In short, we have a lot of work to do.

03. Chaplaincy for Pagans in Canadian Prisons: The controversial move this Fall by Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to retract a paid position for a Wiccan prison chaplain was merely a harbinger of much bigger things. In October the CBC reported that Toews, who oversees Canada’s penitentiaries, eliminated all paid part-time chaplain services, effectively making government prison chaplaincy a Christian-only affair.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews

“Inmates of other faiths, such as Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews, will be expected to turn to Christian prison chaplains for religious counsel and guidance, according to the office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is also responsible for Canada’s penitentiaries. […] Toews’ office says that as a result of the review, the part-time non-Christian chaplains will be let go and the remaining full-time chaplains in prisons will now provide interfaith services and counselling to all inmates.”

Toews’ office said in a statement to the CBC that “[Christian] chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths.” This lead one Sikh chaplain to ask the obvious question: “How can a Christian chaplain provide spirituality to the Sikh faith, because they don’t have that expertise.”

So from this point forth, all non-Christian chaplaincy services to federal prisons must either be provided by volunteers, or the prisoners: Wiccan prisoners, Pagan prisoners, Buddhist prisoners, First Nations prisoners, must all turn to the full-time (Christian) chaplains for spiritual guidance and resources. I wasn’t overly surprised when Toews decided to engage in a little discriminatory Witch-kicking, our community has weathered those slings and arrows for years, but this is something far more audacious. Toews and his office are essentially doubling down, saying that a full-time Christian chaplaincy is enough to handle all faiths, no matter what their history or relationship with Christianity might be. It’s stunning. Whether he’ll be allowed to get away with it is, I suppose, up to the Harper administration and Canadian voters.

02. Census Data From Australia and the UK Show Paganism’s Growth:  In 2011 I reported on efforts in Australia and Britain to encourage more accurate census counts of Pagans by asking respondents to use a uniform Pagan-[tradition/faith] format. This year we got to see the fruits, if any, of these efforts. First, Australia’s numbers came in, with over 32,000 modern Pagans (up from around 29,000 in 2006), then, we got to see the number of England and Wales where over 80,000 individuals identified with some form of modern Paganism (depending on how forgiving you want to be with labels). In addition, the base number of people identifying as “Pagan” shot up to nearly 60,000. This is about double the numbers from the last British census.

sctrfigure1 tcm77 290493

“Compared with the 2001 Census the most significant trends were an increase in the population reporting no religion – from 14.8 per cent  of the population in 2001 to 25.1 per cent  in 2011, a drop in the population reporting to be Christian – from 71.7 per cent  in 2001 to 59.3 per cent  in 2011, and an increase in all other main religions. The number of Muslims increased the most from 3.0 per cent  in 2001 to 4.8 per cent  in 2011.”

These figures point to some success for the Pagan Dash campaign, though they were not the far larger estimates many were hoping for. Still, this shows encouraging growth for modern Paganism, particularly in England and Wales. The growth of Pagan and minority faiths, along with the rapid increase of those who claim no particular religion point toward an imminent re-alignment of the status quo when it comes to matters of faith and belief in the Western world. The new census data will provide a lot of new information for Pagan activists, and for Pagan scholars, and may have repercussions we haven’t anticipated yet.

01. The Rise of Post-Christian Elections in the United States: After the 2012 elections here in the United States I posited that this was a post-Christian election, and that the results could be a glimpse into the future of America’s electorate. Now, as information from the election is further dissected and analyzed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that something significant has indeed shifted in the religious outlook of our voting public. The Public Religion Research Institute calls it the “end of a white Christian strategy.”

Romney and Obama Coalitions vs Age Groups

Romney and Obama Coalitions vs Age Groups

“The foundation of Romney’s base consists primarily of white evangelical Protestants, who constitute 40% of his coalition. Obama’s coalition rests on two very different groups: minority Christians—a group that includes black, Asian, Hispanic, and mixed-race Christians—(31%) and the religiously unaffiliated (25%). […] Notably, Obama’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of younger voters, while Romney’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of senior voters. For example, 26% of Millennial voters are white Christians, compared to 72% of senior voters.”

The unaffiliated were a big chunk of Obama’s religious support, and a whopping 70% of “nones” and 74% of “others” (which would include us Pagans) voted for the President. For all the analysis focused on race or gender during this election, it’s become clear that it is also disastrous for any candidate to so completely alienate non-Christian voters (it should be noted that Obama also garnered nearly 70% of the Jewish vote as well, despite efforts to undermine that support).  The more pluralistic and religiously diverse American becomes, the harder it will be to ignore non-Christian voices.

Sifting through the results from November can start to see the realignments. Hawaii sends the first Buddhist, Mazie Hirono, to the US Senate, and the first Hindu, Tulsi Gabbard, to the House. Washington state approved gay marriage by referendum, an initiative that I paid particular attention to because it would be decided by the religiously unaffiliated majority there. In that piece from September I said that: “it’s Washington that I’m most interested in because of the trends that point to the “nones” in the Pacific Northwest being more like “us” Pagans in inclination and spiritual orientation. If you want tea leaves to read over what a “Pagan” vote might look like, this might be our chance to witness it in action.” 

I think we’re going to see a lot more elections that look like this one. That doesn’t mean that Democrats automatically win all the time, or that Republicans are always doomed to lose, just that the playing field will never again be like it was in the 1980s or 1990s. The slowly shifting demographics have started to turn a corner, and savvy politicians, no matter what their political orientation, will adapt to these emerging realities. Yes, that means reaching out to racial minorities, and women, and younger voters, but it also means reaching out to the “nones” and the religious “others” instead of banking everything on the evangelical Christian vote (or the Catholic vote for that matter).

Welcome to the beginning of the post-Christian American future.

That wraps up our top ten news stories about or affecting modern Paganism in 2012. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join us for another year of sifting through the news and views of interest to our communities. See you in 2013!

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.

David Wiegleb, Heidi Geyer, and Esther Fishman

David Wiegleb, Heidi Geyer, and Esther Fishman

PPR SeekingtheMystery draft2 187x300

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last month, North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli decided to challenge her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible. The school, when challenged, said the policy applied to all faiths, so Strivelli decided to test their commitment to theological neutrality. According to local Pagan leader and activist Byron Ballard, who’s been assisting Strivelli, the school’s tune quickly changed.

Ginger Strivelli

Ginger Strivelli

“We were there to deliver the materials that she was assured would be “made available” in the same way the Gideon material was, right before the winter break. No surprise to find that, in consultation with the system’s superintendent Dr. Baldwin, the principal Jackie Byerly and asst principal Danny Fusco couldn’t do that at all because the central office was reviewing its policy regarding religious materials in schools. They suggested that they would “hold onto” the books, in case the school system needed to review them for appropriate content, once the policy was vetted.”

The school is now officially “reviewing” their policy on distributing religious materials. Since then, Strivelli’s story has been covered by a number of mainstream media outlets, including Fox News, CBC News, the Houston Chronicle, and several others. Due to the intense level of coverage for this issue, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Ginger Strivelli recently received an anonymous death threat.

“Buncombe County investigators are looking into a threatening phone call made to a local woman who made headlines when she criticized a county school for making Bibles available to students. […] Strivelli believes that the threat is related to her speaking out. “It’s definitely related. He (the caller) said he saw me on the news,” she said. “I’m hoping it’s just some idiot trying to scare me into shutting up.” The man called Thursday night, claiming he was calling from Moscow, according to Strivelli. He told Strivelli that he had 20 or 30 people working in this area, and “I was done for. I was dead,” Strivelli said Friday.”

The Lady Liberty League, along with a coalition of local and national Pagan organizations, are coordinating to support Strivelli during this time of trial, and have started a Facebook page for those looking to give aid and support. Here are the Lady Liberty League’s recommendations for those seeking to help.

  • Do prayers, meditations, rituals of Protection, Healing, & Well-being to Ginger Strivelli & her family.
  • Learn more & Post words of support for Ginger & her family on their support page on Facebook.
  • Speak out in support of separation of church & state in comments sections of media sites carrying news and editorials about this issue.
  • Those with interfaith and/or law enforcement contacts in North Carolina interested in working with Lady Liberty League in providing support to the family and this situation should contact: liberty@circlesanctuary.org as soon as possible.
  • Share this email & support page link with others – by email, through social networking sites, on blogs & websites.

Prominent Pagan mom-blogger Mrs. B, from Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom,  who dealt with Christian death threats over a blog ranking contest, says that “there is nothing more frightening than thinking that some nutball is threatening your family.” These threats are part and parcel of any who have the temerity to challenge Christian norms or traditions that intersect with government-funded institutions, and represent a time when their cultural dominance when unquestioned. This is the reactionary shadow side of a religion who feels its dominance fading, the anxiety over changes they can’t control. The hope is always that these threats will amount to nothing, that they are ravings of powerless individuals wanting to inspire fear, but we must practice vigilance and solidarity in the off chance that this is no idle threat.

Our prayers and best wishes go out to the Strivelli family, may they remain safe and free of fear. The Wild Hunt will be keeping an eye open for future developments. In the meantime, you can get the latest from their support page on Facebook, and from Byron Ballard’s blog at The Citizen-Times.

On December 20th, I reported that a Pagan, Ginger Strivelli, was challenging her son’s school in Buncombe County, North Carolina on allowing the distribution of Bibles, claiming that the manner of distribution crossed the line into unconstitutional endorsement. Strivelli, and noted North Carolina Pagan activist Byron Ballard, decided they would test the supposedly open-door policy for the distribution of religious materials as asserted by principal Jackie Byerly of North Windy Ridge school.

“Jackie Byerly, principal at North Windy Ridge, defended the availability of the Bibles. She said they were not handed out, and students had the option to take them. She checked with Superintendent Tony Baldwin and was given permission to make them available. She said the Bibles arrived Monday morning from a local group of Gideons International, and the box containing the books was opened in the main office. Byerly said the students picked them up during their break time. “If another group wishes to do the same, I plan on handling that the same way as I have handled this,” she said.”

So, how did North Windy Ridge school do when presented with boxes of Pagan literature free for the taking? According to Ballard, their tune had suddenly changed when it came to non-Biblical text distribution.

Ginger Strivelli with her rejected Pagan books.

Ginger Strivelli with her rejected Pagan books.

“We were there to deliver the materials that she was assured would be “made available” in the same way the Gideon material was, right before the winter break. No surprise to find that, in consultation with the system’s superintendent Dr. Baldwin, the principal Jackie Byerly and asst principal Danny Fusco couldn’t do that at all because the central office was reviewing its policy regarding religious materials in schools. They suggested that they would “hold onto” the books, in case the school system needed to review them for appropriate content, once the policy was vetted.”

Local news outlets are now reporting on the sudden change of heart, with the Asheville Citizen Times getting Jan Blunt, spokeswoman for Buncombe County Schools, to entertain the idea that perhaps their method of distributing Bibles in a public school wasn’t altogether legal after all.

“This whole thing has raised an issue of were we in compliance with any laws or were we not,” Blunt said. “There’s a lot of gray area. Perhaps we were in the wrong, and that’s why we’re going to review.”

Blunt also noted that a group in New York offered to send them 500 Qurans, and that feedback on their policy has been “mixed.” As for Ginger Strivelli and Byron Ballard, they are vowing to continue fighting and see this through till the end.

“The Earth religions community is frankly tired of dealing with this every few years. As long as any child in a public school system is bullied, coerced or ostracized for the spiritual path of their family and themselves, the situation is not fixed and the school environment is not safe. There will be more media, more “good Christian” people threatening violence, more bullying and “othering” before this is settled. But settled it will be. Of this you can be certain.”

Again and again it seem like certain Christian activists love the idea of inserting religion into the public sphere until it’s made plain that other, competing, ideas will be allowed as well. Then, the value of secularism suddenly reveals itself, at least until the law, or the demographics, change enough to allow them complete religious hegemony.  Pagans (and other minority religions) it seems, are either being invoked to test the resolve of supposedly “open” programs of religious activities that receive governmental funding, or used to prove how open a program is to avoid litigation. As non-Christian practices and beliefs become more and more common, I think we’ll start to see some realignment on the question of religion in public school or local government, until then, local Pagans continue to fight for true equal treatment and inclusion.