Archives For California

Wiccans and the larger Pagan community had a major victory lately. We got a talking head on the Fox News network, Tucker Carlson, to apologize on-air for sensationalist, distorted, and false remarks involving Pagan religions. A mix of quick-moving Pagan advocacy organizations and a groundswell of outrage from the community as a whole made them (or at least Carlson) re-think their earlier comments. We should feel good about this. We got an apology, and Fox News now knows that pushing that particular outrage button might have negative PR consequences (and no matter what you think of Fox News, they are in the business of adding viewers, not subtracting them).

That story had its genesis in a bit of good news, the University of Missouri recognizing the validity of Wiccan/Pagan holidays. Likewise, another bit of good news, a challenge to California’s “Five Faiths” prison chaplaincy policy being revived by the 9th Circuit Court, inspired a newspaper columnist to take aim and set phasers to “offend.”

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders: You mad bro?

“In its wisdom – and yes, I am being ironic – the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling Tuesday that revives a California inmate lawsuit to force the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to hire a paid, full-time Wiccan chaplain. [...] When I read the complaint that Wiccans aren’t treated the same as adherents to mainstream religions, I figure that’s what you get when you join what for some is a do-it-yourself theology. It’s like atheists suing because they aren’t welcome in church.”

That’s Debra J. Saunders, a conservative columnist for the generally center-left oriented San Francisco Chronicle. She plays a role, the conservative gadfly for the lefty media outlet she inhabits (conservative-oriented outlets often do the same thing, running a “token” liberal, it’s a well-worn method to engage/inflame readers). Just like Fox News, Saunders saw a story that she could frame as an outrage, distorted the facts just a bit, then let fire.

“If I turn into a frog over the weekend, I take back this column. Until then, I’m just a chump who pays taxes so the Ninth Circuit can pull rabbits out of hats.”

Ms. Saunders is a professional, and she knows what she is doing. She welcomes your ire, she feeds on it. She uses your angry e-mails and letters as confirmation that she’s doing her job correctly. Her job isn’t to win more readers by appealing to a broad base, her job is to make you mad. Then, when you do get mad, she uses your angry letters as further fuel for her antics.

you-mad-bro-

“I thought I would share this letter because it does three interesting things. First, it wrongly argues that editors would reject any opinion piece that is derogatory toward a religion. That’s ridiculous. Just ask the Catholic church. Second, it demonstrates a special brand of tolerance — a brand that wants to censure dissenting opinions, without even noticing that its demand for censorship is in itself intolerant. Third, it is anonymous. So much for the force of one’s convictions.”

What she’s doing is trolling. Professional-grade trolling, and we shouldn’t feed into it. Unlike Fox News, there’s little to be gained from her apology, and getting angry at her is exactly what she wants. WIth trolls all you can do is ignore them, and refuse to engage with them. As members of a minority religion we have to be savvy about which battles we pick, and we have to realize when someone is goading us into a conflict because they want that conflict, because it actually benefits them to have us mad at them. Debra J. Saunders is a bottom-feeding troll who wants Pagans to be mad at her, but the best thing we can do is simply encourage people to not read, support, or interact with her. We gain little from acting against her, and we have much bigger battles to fight, so leave the troll alone.

Yesterday the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the case of Hartmann v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation which clears the way for a direct challenge to California’s discriminatory “five faiths” policy. This policy limits the hiring of paid chaplains to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American adherents. Judges stressed that while the prison did not intentionally limit the religious rights of Shawna Hartmann, Caren Hill, and other Wiccan inmates, the neutrality of California’s chaplaincy policy could be challenged. 

Central California Women's Facility (CCWF)

Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)

“Although the state is not required to “provide inmates with the chaplain of their choice,” it must use neutral standards when deciding how to spend money on prisoners’ religious needs, said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. California prisons have long employed chaplains for Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews. After American Indian inmates sued the state in 1985, the prison system began providing spiritual advisers for them [...] the court said the women may be able to prove that the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is violating the constitutional ban on a governmental “establishment of religion,” which prohibits a state from endorsing one faith over another. That ban requires the prisons to use “neutral criteria in evaluating whether a growing membership in minority religions warrants a reallocation of resources,” the court said in a 3-0 ruling.”

This ruling is part of a larger effort by Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum to nurture cases that would challenge the policy after the 9th Circuit Court upheld a lower court decision stating he doesn’t have standing. McCollum told The Wild Hunt back in November of 2012 that “if the court rules that those inmates who are on that case do have a right to a chaplain then I can walk right back into the court and forget the ruling made by the 9th Circuit or anybody else.” Now, with the way cleared for a direct challenge to California’s policy, McCollum has released the following statement.

Patrick McCollum with California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier and aide (08/25/12)

Patrick McCollum with California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier and aide (08/25/12)

Today I bring good news after a long fight. And while the fight is not over, the victory I have the privilege of sharing is significant and particularly meaningful to me.

This morning, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that if the allegations presented in the Complaint filed in the case Hartman v California Department of Corrections are true (which they are) that the California Department of Corrections violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by not having hired a paid Wiccan Chaplain at the California Correctional Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California.

As many of you know, I have led the fight in this quest for nearly twenty years to establish equality for Pagan prisoners nationwide and an equal right to our own paid chaplains under the law. There have been many difficult and challenging twists and turns in this battle to expose the truth in this matter, and many personal hits on the part of myself and my family to sustain it. And while I say little about the sacrifices made to bring justice, just the commitment and the loss of irretrievable years of one’s life in litigation taking on the system is in itself wearing.

It has not been easy!

I have always known that the only way to change discrimination and misinformation against our community, is to take it on openly and to refuse to accept anything other than success.

 As with all court battles, there are still many issues to work out and lots of hard work still ahead, but the tide has turned, and it has turned in our favor, thank the Goddess!

 I’d like to thank our attorneys, Jones Day of San Francisco, who believe in this cause and have never given up, and I’d also like to thank Dr. Barbara McGraw who has argued our cause diligently from the very beginning. Without their combined help, none of this would have ever happened.

I’d like to also thank the inmates, Hartman & Hill, and all of the other incarcerated Wiccan sisters and brothers who have continued to have the courage to stand up against a flawed system in which they too have sustained continuous adversity and hardship for merely standing up for their faith. Today’s ruling is a testament to their commitment, and and to the sincerity of their beliefs.

Let us all remember, that united we can transform ignorance and hatred in the world into understanding and beauty, and that it only takes one voice to start a chorus. Let us each rise up and be that voice!

In addition, the Patrick McCollum Foundation, an organization formed to support Patrick McCollum’s work as an activist and interfaith ambassador, released the following statement yesterday at the publication of the ruling.

This morning, the 9th circuit published its opinion on a prison religion case involving Wiccan inmates: Hartmann and Hill v. the CDCR, et al.. Procedurally, the case is only at the complaint stage, but the court’s ruling is very significant because the court ruled that the facts alleged in the case are sufficient to state a First Amendment Establishment Clause claim under the U.S. and California constitutions on behalf of Wiccan inmates.

The complaint alleged that the five faiths policy, which permits the hiring of chaplains in only five faiths (Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, and Native American), “favor[s] some religions over others on a preferential basis” and that the CDCR defendants do not apply any “neutral, equitable, and unbiased criteria” to determine chaplain hiring needs or other religious accommodations for inmates of various faiths. The court concluded that if, during the course of the case, the Establishment Clause allegations are proven to be factually correct, the CDCR would be in violation of the Establishment Clause for its five faiths policy chaplain hiring policy. (The court affirmed the dismissal of the other claims largely on procedural grounds: First Amendment Free Exercise, Equal Protection, and RLUIPA.)

David Kiernan of the Jones Day law firm, which handled Patrick McCollum’s case, argued the case before the 9th circuit pro bono. Barbara A. McGraw also served as a pro bono attorney on the case.

This is a major victory for those wanting to change California’s chaplaincy policy, and create better access and resources for inmates. The struggles of religious minorities in American prisons, particularly Pagans, has been well-documented here at The Wild Hunt. Noted Pagan leaders like Starhawk have personally experienced the poor treatment and lack of respect our religions often receive from prison officials. Recent studies have shown that minority faiths can make up significant percentages of a prison population, and according to the women in this lawsuit, Wiccans outnumber Jews and Muslims at their facility, two faiths that are accorded funds for paid chaplains.

This ruling, in the end, isn’t about paying a Wiccan chaplain, or a Pagan chaplain, it’s about access. Volunteer chaplains, especially those outside the dominant Christian paradigm within our prison system, often face a number of hurdles. Ease of access is often decided arbitrarily, and with little knowledge of the faiths being serviced. While some Pagan chaplains are able to make headway, those are isolated instances, and on the whole there is “endemic” discrimination against Pagan prisoners. The Wild Hunt will be keeping track of this case, and will keep you posted as new developments occur.

 

Meeting the Pagans

Stacey Lawless —  February 14, 2013 — 8 Comments

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in four years. She moved up north for a while and we fell out of touch, so when she moved back we had some catching up to do. The last time we’d seen each other, I was calling myself Heathen and thought that I might become a Freyrswoman. Needless to say, I had to explain that my spiritual journey had covered some ground since then. The strange thing was, as we talked, I realized that it felt like far longer than four years since I last lifted a horn in blót – even though I never lost contact with my local Heathens, and attended a blót as a guest only a few months ago. I also told my friend about getting ready for PantheaCon, and the contrast between how I felt about PCON and how I felt about my own Pagan past gave me some food for thought.

The road to PantheaCon opened for me in December, just a few weeks after my rayamiento. My Tata (Palo godfather) announced that he was going to be on a panel about minority religions and the media (“Setting the Record Straight: Pagans and the Press”), and checking the schedule, I saw that Jason Pitzl-Waters was also on that panel. I wound up getting into an online conversation with Jason about PCON that left me thinking I just had to try to go. Crowds aren’t my favorite, but I was thrilled about the Giant Pagan Event, plus I had the sense that here was a door that I had to try to get through. When my boyfriend agreed that yes, we should go, I was stunned (he’s so much more of a hermit than I am). We bought the various necessary tickets and made the plans and I’ve been thoroughly excited since . . .

But the funny thing is, I can’t quite figure out why I’m excited. I mean, it’s great to be stepping out, finally, into the wider world of Pagandom, meeting people, experiencing different traditions, and delighting in the gathering of the tribes. I find it very ironic, though, that I’m entering this world not as a Pagan, but as a Palera. For whatever reasons of destiny or personal quirks, I never found an expression of Paganism that resonated well with me, or provided a good vessel for my hopes, fears, personal growth or spiritual yearnings. I confess I got rather frustrated with the search, too, and there were more than a few times when I was tempted to write the whole thing off. And apparently the process left a few scars, because I realized the other day that although my identity is still oriented towards Paganism, in a general way, I think of you guys as “you guys” and not “us.”

This is an uncomfortable thing to write, not least because I’m writing it here on The Wild Hunt. The flip side, though, is that I am writing about it on The Wild Hunt, at the same time I’m talking about heading out to PantheaCon. Clearly, those scars don’t run all that deep. And I suppose this could mean that I’m going to PCON to find out why I’m going to PCON – that this is the part of my journey where I get to discover what Pagan things are like outside of my little corner of the Southeast.

There are definitely worse quests to undertake. And I do have some concrete goals and desires for PantheaCon which will keep me busy. There’s the glorious opportunity for networking, for example. I think Pagans and the African Traditional Religions are, or at least should be, natural allies in the contentious religious environment of the U.S., and I hope I can accomplish a little work to that end, even if it’s just swapping a few email addresses. Given that I’m going to meet the redoubtable Wild Hunt-ers in person, I anticipate this will be pretty fun and effective.

I want to see how the other ATR practitioners on the schedule present our religions. And, speaking of events on the schedule, I’m hoping to learn more about how different Pagan groups are doing Ancestor veneration and spirit-work. (Healing the dead, and healing with the aid of the dead, are old interests of mine that I now have the tools to pursue in earnest – and I may be on the verge of becoming something of an evangelist for Ancestor veneration. But that is definitely a topic for another post.) The Circle of Bones ritual, in particular, looks intriguing.

I’m completely stoked about the fact that I’m finally going to be able to meet friends in person who I’ve only ever known online. Also, this is the big opportunity to introduce my boyfriend to my Tata and some of the other folks in my Palo community, which is a small triumph considering we can’t afford to travel to the West Coast very often. And, of course, there’s that  one panel I simply must attend . . .

Roads opening, doors to walk through, quests to undertake. That does sound kind of Pagan, doesn’t it? I’ll be making notes on the journey, and will no doubt write about the adventures when I return. If you’re going to be at PantheaCon too, look for me – my hair’s not blue anymore but is still spiky, and you can’t miss the spiral tattoo on my neck. Come on over and tell me your story. I’m here for the gathering of tribes, after all, and I do want to meet you.

 

[The following is a guest post from Patrick Wolff. Wolff is a professor of religious studies and holds a PhD in the history of religious thought. His interests include studying religion and Romanticism, playing Classical and Celtic music, and reading science fiction/fantasy literature. Spiritually he's either openly eclectic or hopelessly muddled, depending on who you ask.]

The ninth annual Conference on Current Pagan Studies met at Claremont Graduate University in the city of Claremont, California on January 26-27. This is a unique academic conference, not only for its topical focus on Pagan Studies, but for its inclusion of both academic and non-academic Pagans as presenters. Both the conference theme and the selection of keynote speakers exemplified the desire to, as the tagline of the conference website puts it, bring “Academia and Community Together.” The conference theme, “Pagan Sensibilities in Action,” covered not only ritual and spiritual practice but history, art, social justice, environmental concerns, psychology, politics, and other topics. The theme reflected a concern that is current in many religions, a desire to explore the implications of one’s theology (or thealogy, or theoilogy, as the case may be) in all aspects of life.

The two keynote speakers embodied this theme, one a recognized scholar in the fields of folklore and anthropology and the other an activist with experience fighting for social justice as well as service through disaster relief and emergency care. Dr. Sabina Magliocco, Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Northridge, and author of numerous books including Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America and Neo-Pagan Sacred Art and Altars: Making Things Whole, presented a lecture titled “The Rise of Pagan Fundamentalism.” Joking that she hoped to avoid being tarred and feathered, Magliocco identified two tendencies of Pagan Fundamentalism, both of which centered on the concept of belief. As a broad religious phenomenon, fundamentalists in all religions insist on a literalist interpretation of foundational texts, and demand conformity of belief as the primary marker of a genuine religious identity. Those who do not share these essential beliefs are viewed with suspicion, or rejected as imposters.

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

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

The first belief is in the literal historicity of the foundational narrative of paganism as an unbroken stream flowing from the ancient past to the present. This “received” view of Pagan (particularly Wiccan) history, shaped by Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner, holds that the Old Religion persisted throughout the centuries amidst persecution, passed down as a closely guarded secret to initiates into the present day. However, when subjected to the scrutiny of critical historical scholarship, the foundational myth of pure Paganism transmitted through the ages was revealed to be lacking in solid historical evidence. Revisionists, most notably English historian Ronald Hutton, author of Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, contended that Wicca was better understood as a new religious movement than as a preserved ancient one. Counter-revisionists, such as Ben Whitmore, author of Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft, have objected that Hutton overstated his case, ignoring or minimizing evidence for continuity in the transmission of Wicca (to which Hutton has replied in his article “Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History” in the most recent issue of Pomegranate). The claims of revisionist historians can come as quite a shock to Pagans who never had reason to question the received myth of Pagan origins, and while many were open to the new perspective, others experienced a crisis of cognitive dissonance which was countered by an uncritical insistence on the literal truth of the myth of pagan origins and a dismissal of, or attack on, revisionist arguments. Since the revisionist perspective presented Wicca as an eclectic, creative religious movement influenced by other forms of occultism and Romanticism, those most opposed to it were often those whose Paganism was heavily invested in the claim of possessing secret knowledge passed through carefully guarded secret initiations. This debate over Pagan origins is not merely an ivory tower discussion, since how Pagans view their past will shape their future.

The second tendency that has emerged in Pagan Fundamentalism is a belief in gods and goddesses as literal spiritual persons, formulated as a reaction against the emergence of humanistic paganism and panentheistic or archetypal interpretations of the divine. However, Magliocco argued, historically Wiccans have varied greatly in their theology, and found unity not in right belief, but in common practice. Against this non-dogmatic tradition of finding shared identity through ritual, Pagan Fundamentalists seek to exclude those who do not hold to their “orthodox” pagan belief in the nature of the gods. This is problematic, Magliocco argued, because it imported a criteria from the dominant Abrahamic faiths that was ill-suited to the ritual-focused nature of Paganism.

Why has belief emerged as a critical identity marker now, when it did not function this way in the past? Magliocco pointed to several reasons, such as a desire legitimate Paganism as a “real religion” in the eyes of adherents of other religions (which comes as a result of the growth in size and influence of Paganism), and a quest for certainty in a tumultuous marketplace of religious ideas (a motivating factor in the fundamentalist strand of all religions). But her third reason pointed to what would become a theme throughout much of the rest of the conference: the role of the Internet, and particularly comments on blogs, that dank and murky lair of trolls, where insults fly freely and rational reflection is beaten down by bombast. The Internet tends to encourage “enclaves of idiosyncratic views,” unchallenged by real-world interaction with those holding differing views, and provides a veil of anonymity that allows abusive behavior that would not be tolerated in face to face interactions. After her presentation, one questioner raised the intriguing possibility that the Internet actually encourages fundamentalism, since online (particularly in blogs and blog comments) individuals are easily reduced to text-based persons.

The second keynote address, “Stirring the Cauldron of Pagan Sensibilities,” was presented by  Peter Dybing, a national disaster team Section Chief with experience as a firefighter and EMT as well as serving on the board member 100% for Haiti and a former National First Officer of Covenant of the Goddess. Stressing is non-academic identity, Dybing challenged attendees to “suspend your academic approach, and access your emotions,” issuing a call to action rather than offering intellectual reflection. His first two points called for a new look at the questions of Pagan leadership and the role of elders. While acknowledging the strengths found in Traditional (hierarchical, individual-focused) and Organic (communal and local) models of leadership, as well as the dangers of what he termed Fantasy Leadership (the self-appointed blogger harassing his or her enemies online, “liked” by clique of online admirers ), Dybing drew from his experience in disaster relief to formulate a Transformative model of leadership, one that is mission-based and organizationally-focused. Leadership should not be limited to the Priest or Priestess as representatives of the God or Goddess, but should be shared based on recognition of diverse skills and expertise. On the related topic of Pagan elders, Dybing stressed the importance of honoring the body of work left by an elder without venerating the person. Elders, even after death, must be remembered as human beings, not saints.

Peter Dybing (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Peter Dybing at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Though the first part of presentation took up the majority of his time, it was in the second part that Dybing most fully revealed his own heart through a call to service as an expression of Pagan spirituality. It was in offering direct aid for the good of others, whether in international aid or in community service, that Dybing said he most fully felt the presence of the Goddess. In a time of environmental degradation, Dybing warned, we must expect a future of natural disasters on an unprecedented scale, and Pagans are uniquely qualified to respond to these challenges. While Magliocco made the case that Paganism should continue to value ritual action over belief, Dybing called on Pagans to pursue active service as a practice of Pagan spirituality.

The other twenty-five presentations were too varied and rich to be adequately summarized here, with topics ranging from theology to psychology, good pedagogy in the classroom to creating masks (and even the pedagogy of making masks), environmentalism, politics, and mysticism. One particularly exciting project described was the Pagan History Project, which will record oral histories of Pagans, similar to the oral history project being conducted by many universities of World War II veterans. Several times a desire was expressed to continue discussion after the conference ended, either on the conference website or Facebook page. This does not seem to have happened yet, but it would be another way to bring Pagan scholarship into conversation with the broader Pagan community. In addition to the thoughtful nature of the presentations, two other aspects of the conference are worth noting. First, there was an ethos of dialogue and conversation among the approximately fifty attendees, so much so that interaction between the presenter and audience sometimes broke out in the middle of a presentation, a rare occurrence in a typical academic conference. Second, the atmosphere of the conference could be described as convivial, with a great deal of laughter and good spirits. In this way, the conference itself was a manifestation of Pagan sensibility.

Pagan Studies has come under recent criticism by some for a lack of necessary critical distance from its subject (see, for example,, Markus Altena Davidsen, “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, available online). This criticism is not without merit. The calling of a scholar of religion is not to support the religion being studied, but to understand it, and the conclusions that come from scholarly inquiry are not always welcome to those being studied (hence Magliocco’s “tar and feathering” comment). Further, too much of an “insider” atmosphere can create an us-and-them dichotomy which distances or even excludes outsiders. The “them” could be non-insider scholars or practitioners of other religions, viewed as outsiders who can never really “get” those on the inside (some of this could be seen by the dramatic eye-rolling and snarky asides from one presenter whenever he made mention of Christian beliefs, something that would not be tolerated in other academic conferences). One Pagan Reconstructionist presenter admitted she had felt nervous about attending a conference of Wiccans and Neopagans, and while she was warmly welcomed, her initial misgivings say something about how the conference could be perceived by outsiders.

The lines of insider and outsider in scholarship are not always clear cut, however, and if there is a danger in insider scholarship designed to offer the benefits of scholarly insight to contribute to the flourishing of one’s own religious community, the opposite danger is scholarship for the sake of no one, except perhaps the expansion of the scholar’s own reputation (and ego). Granted that much of what academics call risky seems rather dreary to most people, the conference organizer, Dorothea Kahena Viale, should be commended for taking the risk of envisioning a conference that seeks to connect scholars with practitioners and intellectuals with activists. There must be a place for scholarship for the good of the community, and for Pagans, one place this can be found is the Conference on Current Pagan Studies.

ADDENDUM: For another perspective of the 2013 Conference on Current Pagan Studies, see Donald Michael Kraig’s blog at Llewellyn.com.

ADDENDUM II: I’d just like to note that this piece is an effort on Patrick Wolff’s part to convey the messages of the two keynote speakers, and of the general tone of this conference. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Mr. Wolff or any other Wild Hunt contributor. Our goal, as always, is to inform our readership about events that could impact the broader Pagan community. I (Jason) hope to weigh in soon with an editorial touching on some of the issues raised here.

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.

In 2011 Pagan activist and chaplain Patrick McCollum, whose work has been reported on often here at The Wild Hunt, experienced a serious setback when the 9th Circuit Court upheld a lower court decision stating he doesn’t have standing to challenge California’s discriminatory “five faiths” policy. This policy limits the hiring of paid chaplains to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American adherents and is part of what McCollum has called an “endemic” level of religious discrimination against minority faiths in our prison system. Ultimately, instead of going forward in challenging the 9th Circuit Court decision, McCollum has been nurturing new cases brought by Pagan inmates that would also challenge the California chaplaincy policy.

Patrick McCollum on the cover of Witches & Pagans.

Patrick McCollum on the cover of Witches & Pagans.

“I’m currently in a place where if an inmate brought a case, my case could go forward [...] I saw this coming down the pike, and so I have helped inmates bring forward cases that meet the criteria to make it so my case is viable and valid [...] I’ve managed to keep those cases under the radar and the first of those cases his the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week. [...] If the court rules that those inmates who are on that case do have a right to a chaplain then I can walk right back into the court and forget the ruling made by the 9th Circuit or anybody else.”

The case he mentioned back in September of last year, Hartmann v. California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation et al, has just had oral arguments before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this past Friday. In a message to me, the Patrick McCollum Foundation laid out what the case was about, and how the decision could have a huge impact on his own stalled case against California’s corrections system.

“Shauna Hartman and Karen Hill, two Wiccan inmates in the California Department of Corrections and rehabilitation who are members of Rev. Patrick McCollum’s prison program, will be represented Friday morning in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by the law firm Jones Day of San Francisco. Hartman & Hill have sued the CDCR for not providing a Wiccan Chaplain and for discriminating against Pagans in general.  The lawsuit, following the case brought by Rev. Patrick McCollum, continues the battle for equality in the prison system and will fulfill the court’s requirement that an inmate must first prove that they need a Wiccan chaplain before McCollum’s case can become viable. If the court rules in Hartman’s favor, then the McCollum case under the previous court’s ruling once again becomes viable and can continue to be litigated.”

McCollum called The Wild Hunt just after completion of oral arguments to say that proceedings went “exceptionally well” though it will be months before a decision is handed down. In the meantime, McCollum will be at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting where he’ll take part in a special presentation on chaplaincy in prison, and the new data that was gathered by the Pew Forum earlier this year. According to that data, there could be as many as 40,000 modern Pagans currently incarcerated in the United States and more than a third of prisons say their Pagan populations are growing. Yet the vast majority of prison chaplains are Christian, and of that number an impressive 44% are Evangelical Christians, so the California challenge to their “five faiths” policy is a vital step towards correcting a growing problem.

Asatru prisoners and their chaplains.

Asatru prisoners and their chaplains.

Noted Pagan leaders like Starhawk have personally experienced the poor treatment and lack of respect our religions often receive from prison officials. However, when Pagan clergy are allowed in, and Pagan inmates are given the same consideration as other inmates, truly healing moments of fellowship can happen.

“It was intense, but fulfilling, and I hope that similar prison festivals can take place someday in other prisons and for other incarcerated people. The mere fact that five prominent Pagans were willing to come and celebrate for a day with the men gave them a sense of validation, an understanding that they truly aren’t forgotten, and that they, too, matter in the world. And this can only be a good thing!”

The battle over access to Pagan chaplains here in United States, or even the question of if Pagan chaplains should be paid in Canada, can seem far away from our troubles and cares. However, these fights get right to the basic question of equal treatment for Pagans and other minority religions. Access to chaplains, to religious guidance and instruction, should be a fundamental right and the human cost when that right is denied can be greater that some would imagine. The rights of prisoners are a canary in the coalmine of our society, what we imagine is acceptable to deny them eventually become acceptable to deny others. Precedents are won and lost behind bars, and McCollum has worked tirelessly to ensure that minority religions have access to chaplaincy. As information on this case, and related cases, becomes available, The Wild Hunt will be here to update you.

This past Saturday California Governor Jerry Brown signed bill SB1172 into law, banning controversial “conversion therapies” for homosexuality if the patient is a minor. In a statement, Brown condemned these therapies as “quackery” that create, rather than solve, mental health issues.

Gov. Jerry Brown

Gov. Jerry Brown

“This bill bans nonscientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide. These practices have no basis in science or medicine, and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.”

California is the first state to ban conversion therapy (also known as “reparative therapy”) for minors despite the practice being considered harmful by several mainstream mental health organizations. The American Psychological Association said, in a report from 2009 that “efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm, contrary to the claims of SOCE practitioners and advocates.”  Despite essentially every mainstream health organization, from the AMA to the American Academy of Pediatrics, criticizing these therapies, the practice endures, even for minors, thanks to the assertion in certain religious communities that homosexuality is a sinful disorder that can be treated.

However, not all religious communities feel this way, and many have bravely changed course on this issue, or have always been allies in the struggle to acknowledge homosexuality as a normal and healthy orientation. It’s no secret that modern Paganism as a movement has been largely welcoming of LGBTQ individuals, especially in the last 20 years we have been open towards creating “alternatives” to the modern rigid constructions of social contracts envisioned by conservative Christians. So it comes as no surprise that one of the key groups working towards the passage of this law, Gaylestaa LGBTQ Psychotherapy Association, features a co-president who also happens to be a Reclaiming priestess: Deborah Oak. At her recently revived blog Branches Up, Roots Down, she expressed her pride and joy at this victory.

Deborah Oak

Deborah Oak

 “I am proud. Two years ago I became a Board member for Gaylesta, the biggest and first LGBTQ psychotherapy association in the country. I came on as the chair of the new advocacy committee, and last year became Co-President. After years of activism in anarchist groups, I have learned a new way of activism, and also deepened my understanding of  leadership.  Legislative politics doesn’t have the same panache as direct action politics, but it certainly can be as powerful. Gaylesta, a volunteer association  was instrumental in getting this bill both created and passed. I’ve always believed that being a therapist was being an agent of change and my work with Gaylesta has proved to be integrative. Being an activist within my profession is satisfying. Good therapy can save lives.  Bad therapy can destroy them. Today, the world just got a little safer for LGBTQ youth.”

This is magic, the kind that creates change in the lives of thousands overnight. With communities working in chorus, and with the stroke of a pen, a form of child abuse is eliminated in California. Because Pagans are a part of this spell, this interwoven expression of change and love, we get to claim a proud part in this victory. We too get to dance in joy that an injustice to our brothers and sisters who are gay or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgendered, will end. We get the opportunity to collective affirm their humanity, and our interconnectedness to them. Magic.

Thank you to all who have fought for this change, and thanks to Deborah Oak, who was a part of the nascent Pagan blogosphere back when we were but a handful, and who now shares this joyous news with us.

Welcome to the working week! I hope you’re all having as good a Monday as possible. Let’s start off with an important update on a previously reported story, and then move on to some Pagan news of note.

Haitian Government Reassures Vodouisants in Wake of Constitutional Changes: Last week I reported on the newly-amended Haitian constitution, and an assertion from Euvonie Auguste, head of the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou (KNVA), that it removes legal protections for Vodou practitioners.

Haitian Vodou Ceremony (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty).

Haitian Vodou Ceremony (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty).

“Voodoo would be no longer protected by the Constitution amended. The Priestess Euvonie Auguste, Head of the National Confederation of voodoo in Haiti, deplores the abrogation of Article 297 of the Constitution which, accrding to her protected the sector voodoo against all forms of discrimination. Recall that Article 297 abrogated amongst other things the Decree-Law of 5 September 1935 on superstitious beliefs that restricted arbitrarily the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens. Given this new constitutional situation, the priestess Euvonie Augustus, stated that now, the vodoo practitioners will have to use their own means to protect themselves from any attacks against them.

At the time I cast some doubt on this assertion, noting that Haitian President Michel Martelly wants to build a tourism industry around Vodou, making a new crackdown on the faith unlikely. Now, Joël Turenne, Director of Legal Affairs of the Directorate General of Ministry of Religious Affairs, who apparently was stunned by these accusations, has released a statement denying that Vodou is in any way unprotected or endangered by the new constitution.

“…with stupefaction the apprehensions of Voodoo sector concerning the abrogation of Article 297 of the amended Constitution” brings to the attention of all concerned, that “the constitutional amendment is and can not be prejudicial in any way, nor to the functioning of voodoo, or the rights of its adherents”. Especially, he specifies that “the presidential decree of April 4, 2003 make of the Voodoo a religion recognized which should in no way be confused with a superstitious practice.”

The Director went on to claim that the infamous 1935 anti-Vodou law concerning superstitious practices is not applicable under the law as it has “never been promulgated.” This sentiment was echoed by American Haitian Vodou practioner Mambo Racine, who noted that the “definition of Vodou as a “superstitious practice” has gone out the window, that’s why the amendment regarding the prohibition of “superstitious practices” promoted during the long-ago regime of Haitian President Stenio Vincent is no longer needed.”  It remains to be seen if this clarification from the government will mollify the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou. I’ll keep you posted of any further developments.

Witchtalk Talks to A Witch Queen: Karagan Griffith’s Witchtalk interviewed Maxine Sanders on the most recent episode, and you can now listen to it on Youtube.

“Maxine was initiated into the Circle of Witchcraft in 1964. The High Priest of that Coven was Alex Sanders, known throughout the world as ‘King of the Witches’. Maxine and Alex were Handfasted in 1965, and legally married in 1968. The Sanders became household names during the sixties and seventies, dramatically bringing Witchcraft, its practices and reality into global consciousness.”

Sanders released a autobiography entitled “Fire Child: The Life & Magic of Maxine Sanders ‘Witch Queen’” back in 2007, and truly is an important figure in the history of modern Paganism. This interview is a must-listen, so share widely!

In Other News:

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

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.

Chico Goddess Temple entrance.

Chico Goddess Temple entrance.

  • Is the Chico Goddess Temple doomed? According to the Chico News and Review, noise complaints for an illegal festival held four years ago has led to a much larger struggle to survive and gain the permits needed to stay open. Owner Robert Seals thinks that hostility to Goddess religion might underlay the resistance he’s encountered in obtaining the permits he needs. Quote: “This is nothing new, worship of the Goddess, but it goes up against a lot of fundamental religions.” You can learn more about this struggle, and the upcoming appeal hearing, here.

That’s it for now! Happy Friday the 13th! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

The imposing cross that stands on Mt. Soledad in California was dedicated to “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” in 1954. For decades it was known as the “Mt. Soledad Easter Cross” and was the site of Christian services (and may even have been a reminder of Christian triumphalism to area Jews). After initial litigation was filed in the late 1980s against the cross standing on public lands, it was dubbed a veteran’s memorial, and expensive “improvements” were made to stress this new role. Why was a Christian cross, obviously erected for religious purposes, suddenly named a war memorial? In hopes of magically transforming it from a religious icon into a secular memorial symbol. A tactic that initially worked.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

Litigation over the 43-foot-tall Mt. Soledad cross has been under way for nearly 20 years. Several federal courts have ruled against its display on city property. In an effort to save the cross, the federal government acquired the land underneath the cross in 2006. Legal action proceeded against the federal government’s ownership of the towering religious symbol. In July of 2008, U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns ruled that the cross “communicates the primarily non-religious messages of military service, death and sacrifice” and can remain on public property.

How can a Christian cross communicate a non-religious message of military service, death, and sacrifice to non-Christian soldiers? The answer is it can’t, it’s a purely political ploy to exploit American patriotism in order to “secularize” a religious symbol so that it can remain standing despite complaints from atheists, agnostics, religious minorities, and church-state separation activists. Here’s Supreme Court Justice Scalia showcasing how the argument typically goes.

Mr. Eliasberg said many Jewish war veterans would not wish to be honored by “the predominant symbol of Christianity,” one that “signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins.” Justice Scalia disagreed, saying, “The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead.” “What would you have them erect?” Justice Scalia asked. “Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David and, you know, a Muslim half moon and star?” Mr. Eliasberg said he had visited Jewish cemeteries. “There is never a cross on the tombstone of a Jew,” he said, to laughter in the courtroom. Justice Scalia grew visibly angry. “I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead,” he said. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.”

 

You see, there are a lot of Christian crosses on the graves of dead soldiers, because there are a lot of Christians, ergo, it must be a common symbol of “the resting place of the dead” (repeat sentence until your rhetorical opponent grows tired). In 2010 the Supreme Court took a step towards secularizing the cross with its decision in Salazar v. Buono, which challenged the constitutionality of a eight-foot Christian cross war memorial situated on public lands in California’s Mojave National Preserve. Justice Kennedy acknowledged that the cross is “a Christian symbol,” but this particular cross didn’t mean to send “a Christian message” (how, I’m not entirely sure, but this was a mess of a decision, with six separate opinions filed), and thus was constitutional. Only Justice John Paul Stevens, a wartime veteran, had the courage to call a Christian cross a Christian cross.

“The nation should memorialize the service of those who fought and died in World War I … But it cannot do so lawfully by continued endorsement of a starkly sectarian message.”

However, while there was some secularizing wiggle room in Salazar v. Buono, that wasn’t the case with the Soledad cross. In the beginning of 2011 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the memorial was unconstitutional, citing its long history of being a sectarian religious symbol.

“Much lore surrounds the Cross and its history. But the record is our guide and, indeed, except for how they characterize the evidence, the parties essentially agree about the history. A cross was first erected on Mount Soledad in 1913. That cross was replaced in the 1920s and then blew down in1952. The present Cross was dedicated in 1954 “as a reminder of God’s promise to man of everlasting life and of those persons who gave their lives for our freedom . . . .” The primary objective in erecting a Cross on the site was to construct “a permanent handsome cast concrete cross,” but also “to create a park worthy of this magnificent view, and worthy to be a setting for the symbol of Christianity.” For most of its history, the Cross served as a site for annual Easter services. Only after the legal controversy began in the late 1980s was a plaque added designating the site as a war memorial, along with substantial physical revisions honoring veterans. It was not until the late 1990s that veterans’ organizations began holding regular memorial services at the site.

That ruling was appealed, and on Monday, the Supreme Court denied certiorari, leaving the 9th Circuit’s decision in place. Which means one of two things has to happen. Either the cross has to be taken down, or the memorial has to be modified so as to pass constitutional muster. A process that will necessitate even more litigation. Supporters of the cross are already calling for the Department of Justice to raise the issue, as allowed in the 9th Circuit’s decision.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), in urging the Department of Justice to continue the legal fight, said the government should preserve “such a historic memorial that pays tribute to the service and sacrifice of America’s veterans.”

Notice that cross supporters now completely ignore the history of this monument, invoking veterans to cloud the issue, despite the fact that it this challenge was brought by the Jewish War Veterans, who obviously don’t feel a large Christian cross pays tribute to their sacrifice. In addition, I somehow doubt these cross secularizers are going to stand in our corner when someone tries to erect a “secular” Wiccan or Asatru war dead memorial. Nor would anyone try to argue for a “secular” Jewish star of David, or “secular” Muslim crescent (particularly not the latter in our current climate). They would argue that these symbols are sectarian, and could not represent them. It’s all part of the hypocrisy that comes with the privilege of being the overwhelming majority.

To many Christians their immense privilege seems invisible. They don’t understand how much of our society panders to their unspoken power. The churches on every corner, the holidays and celebrations structured around Christian dates, the pandering of politicians, the ceremonial deism that acts as a placeholder for state-sponsored religion. Even our vernacular is colored by Christianity: “God bless you,” “we’ll pray for you,” “I’m in heaven,” or even “go to hell.”  Yet despite this, many Christians, particularly conservative Christians, have a major investment in seeing themselves as part of a persecuted minority. This was reinforced for me in the comments section of a recent post at the journalism commentary site Get Religion. There, I was informed that Michele Bachmann was part of a religious minority, and that due to mainstream media criticism “one has to speculate that perhaps Christians are a small minority in the United States.”

Eventually, like the memorial crosses erected in Utah, this Soledad cross will have to be removed. We can no longer claim to be a secular, pluralistic nation while winking at those who crave a “Christian Nation.” The time of pretending the cross isn’t the cross, or that monuments to the 10 commandments are religiously neutral, are quickly coming to an end. Public spaces will either have to accommodate all the other faiths that inhabit this country, or leave such expressions to the private sphere. While Christians may not think twice about a “secular” cross, it’s not a luxury many non-Christians have.