On June 26, the Huntsville, Alabama City Council scheduled a regular monthly meeting to address typical city issues. The meeting, as always, was slated to begin with an invocation offered by a community member. On the schedule for June 26 was Blake Kirk, a local Wiccan priest and interfaith advocate. Two days prior to the meeting, the council secretary published the agenda online. That is when the trouble began.
Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]
According to reports, “concerned” citizens immediately contacted council members regarding Blake’s invitation to speak. This community pressure led to the Council excusing him from service. Blake’s name was removed from the agenda and the meeting moved forward, opening with a moment of silence.
Several hours later, the local news media reported on the story. “No Wiccan Priest for Huntsville City Council Prayer” wrote AL.Com, the first outlet to break the story. While the immediate situation has generated considerable buzz, it is actually part of much larger story; a saga that has been ongoing since 2012. In fact, this was not even the first time that the Council invited Blake to read an invocation.
Huntsville is not the homogeneous small southern town one might assume. According to Blake there are two Hindu worship centers, two Buddhist groups, several mosques, two or three Orthodox congregations, several Catholic parishes, a whole lot of Protestant Christians, and, what he believes, is the oldest Jewish congregation in Alabama. As for the Huntsville Pagan community, the population is small, made up mostly of solitary practitioners who gather occasionally for small social gatherings.
Black and his wife, Carol, are from the Oak, Ash and Thorn tradition. In 1996, they founded the Tangled Moon Coven in Clarksville, Tennessee but eventually had to move due to their military careers. Then in 2011, they settled in Huntsville where Blake took a civil service position and Carol began studying with Cherry Hill Seminary. As part of her course work for the Masters of Divinity program, Carol became involved with Huntsville’s active interfaith community and hospital chaplaincy.
Blake Kirk [Photo Credit: B.Kirk]
Not long after the Kirks arrived in Huntsville, the City Council’s invocation policy was legally challenged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF
). Prior to spring 2012, the city council had offered only Christian prayers despite the relative diversity of its population. By May, the city opted not to waste money with a lawsuit and, based on legal precedent, instituted a policy that welcomed invocations from different faith traditions
To help identify local faith leaders, the council turned to Presbyterian minister Frank Broyles and Huntsville’s Interfaith Mission Council (IMC). At that very same time, the Kirks were working on a project with IMC. Blake says:
After Carol and I discussed the idea, I went to Frank and volunteered to offer an invocation, pointing out that if they really wanted to demonstrate diversity, it didn’t get much more diverse than having a Wiccan involved …Frank agreed.
Rev. Broyles scheduled Blake for the Jan. 23, 2014, meeting and added his name to the agenda as “Blake Kirk, a leader in earth-based spiritual communities.” The meeting took place without incident. Blake read the following invocation:
O gentle Goddess and loving God, we pray tonight that You will bless this Council with wisdom and judgment so that they may make sound decisions for the governance of our city. And further, we pray that You will visit upon these chambers an atmosphere of comity and peace, so that all who are here tonight to make their views known may do so in an air of civility and respect, without needless rancor or hostility. These things we ask of You as children do of their loving parents, trusting that You will give unto us those gifts that we truly need. Amen.”
Blake admits that the prayer is not overtly Pagan but he didn’t want the moment to be about him. He says:
Giving the invocation for something like a city council meeting is not an occasion for demonstrating how cool one’s religion is, nor how different it is, nor to engage in behaviors calculated to shock one’s audience. It’s a very small part in a formalized structure that is as rigid in its way as kabuki theater.
There was no complaints or backlash; the meeting continued on as planned. Then, about three weeks ago, Rev. Broyles invited Blake to read once again. He agreed and was scheduled for the June 26 meeting.
On June 24, the Council’s secretary called Blake to verify his name and title for the agenda. That had not happened earlier in the year. Blake says, “Without thinking much about it, I provided her with my name … and preferred title.” This time the agenda read, “Blake Kirk, priest of the Oak, Ash and Thorn tradition of Wicca.” This wording is what sparked the controversy within the community.
Carol Kirk after speech at Vietnam Women’s Memorial [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]
Over the past two days, several large organizations have become directly involved in the debate. The FRFF sent a letter
to alert the Council to the “serious constitutional violations committed.” Demanding a response by Aug. 1, FRFF asks that both Blake and an Atheist be allowed to speak.
Americans United also contacted the Council directly explaining, “the U.S. Constitution does not permit local governing boards to bar anyone from giving a pre-meeting prayer on the basis of religion. Nor may anyone be barred from speaking because of the prejudices of the members of that community.” As quoted in the AU press release, senior litigation counsel said, “The city may not treat Wiccans as second-class citizens.” AU has also asked that Blake’s invocation be rescheduled, wanting a response within the next 15 days.
Both organizations reference the recent SCOTUS ruling: Town of Greece vs. Galloway (2014) rules legislative prayer as constitutional with certain limitations. As pointed out by both organizations, the SCOTUS decision states that cities must “maintain a policy of nondiscrimination.” In addition, the decision reads:
It would also be unwise to conclude that only those religious words acceptable to the majority are permis-sible, for the First Amendment is not a majority rule and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech.
The Huntsville City Council violated both stipulations when it excused Blake from service. City Attorney Peter Joffrian admitted to AL.com that the “dis-invitation” was prompted by community pressure. He also said, “We decided to pull back, to do some education maybe, and to introduce him more gently at another time.” Joffrian was unavailable for further comment.
Fortunately for the Kirks, they have not received any personal backlash. Since the story broke, they themselves have been contacted by several Pagan organizations. Cherry Hill Seminary, where Carol is a student, released a statement which reads in part:
Cherry Hill Seminary supports Carol and her husband Blake as they are pulled into public scrutiny by the viral effect of online media. We know Carol to be an exemplary student with an honorable record of military service, nursing and service to their communities. We encourage reasoned dialogue among all parties involved locally. We also admonish the Huntsville City Council to refrain from inappropriate discrimination, and also to recognize the diversity represented by their one in four citizens who do not identify as Christian, understanding the strength and beauty which that diversity brings to the region.
Lady Liberty League, who has been following the case closely, said:
Blake and Carol, of the Oak, Ash and Thorn Wiccan tradition, have served the Pagan community for many years in Alabama and Tennessee. Both are U.S. Army Veterans and active in interfaith work. Join us and others in sending blessings of spiritual strength and well-being to them as they work to have a positive resolution emerge soon that upholds equal opportunities for Wiccan clergy and those of other religions in doing opening invocations for meetings of the Huntsville, Alabama City Council. May this situation be a transformative teaching moment for Huntsville and beyond about the need to uphold Equality, Liberty and Justice for All.
Blake and Carol are both overwhelmed by all the recent attention. Although Carol herself has been doing public work as a Wiccan and as an Army Veteran, this was Blake’s first time “performing a public religious function outside of Pagan event.” He adds:
I’m doing this because if we ever want to reach a point where being a Pagan is just another religious choice, no more remarkable in general conversation than it would be to admit to being Jewish or Lutheran, we have to start becoming engaged with the society we find ourselves living in. … This simply looked like the first good opportunity to do that that came along.
The Kirks hope that this issue is quickly resolved locally and amicably without the need for legal action. Blake told AL.com, “I expect the decision was made with an intent to do the right thing for what [the Council] thought were good reasons, but, whatever their intention, it becomes overt religious discrimination.” Carol adds, “We are still trying to come to an equitable resolution here at home, but we are also committed to making certain this does not get swept under the rug.”