Archives For clergy

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It’s a situation that’s becoming increasingly common on social media. You’re scrolling through your feed and come across a post from a friend who appears to making a threat of suicide. For most of us, there are only moral questions we face in deciding what to do next. Should you try to contact your friend, or your friend’s family or local friends? Report it to the police and ask for a health and welfare check? For Pagans who claim the title of clergy, there are ethical and legal layers to this decision, as well. Are they considered Mandatory Reporters, and do they have a legal requirement to report possible suicide attempts? If they are ordained, does their governing body require them to report or ask that they maintain confidentiality, even outside of a counselling setting?

[public domain]

[public domain]

Rev. Kenya Davis, who received her ordination in 2011 by the Universal Life Church, experienced just such a decision on Sept. 15. A friend posted on Facebook what appeared to Rev. Davis as a serious contemplation of suicide. Believing she had a moral, ethical, and legal duty as Pagan clergy, she called police and asked them to do a health and welfare check.

The person is safe, but deeply unhappy with Rev. Davis’ actions. Others, including some who self-identified as Pagan clergy, were also critical of reporting a possible suicide attempt to police. They felt Pagan ministers don’t have the same obligations as Christian ministers. Others felt that friends don’t “snitch” on friends, and Davis should have stayed in the role of friend, rather than minister.

“The person I reported had a history of trauma and has a suicide plan in place that they shared at other times in their life. On the occasion of a personal trauma, they intimated that they no longer wished to live on in face of a loss. Due to previous episodes, and the depth of the loss, I felt the words that this person shared with me held the gravity that merited a call to ensure this person’s safety,” said Rev. Davis. She added that she remains convinced the person was seriously contemplating carrying out a suicide attempt.  


What are the moral, ethical, and legal issues Pagan clergy may face in situations such as this? What training do they receive and what value does that training have for the greater Pagan community? What do we mean when we talk about Pagan clergy and how is that different, if it is, from mainstream religions’ clergy?

Pagan Clergy
At its most basic, clergy are the formal leaders of any religious group. In the United States, our views of clergy, and how clergy interact with the State, have been modeled on the Christian concept. Clergy marry, bury, and carry (counsel persons or carry the burden of counseling).

Are Pagan clergy members the same as mainstream clergy? The answer appears to be both yes and no.

Some Pagan clergy don’t minister to persons, but instead maintain a temple dedicated to a particular God or Goddess. Others lead religious services, but do not counsel members and are not part of a specific group. Then there is the controversy playing out in city council chambers and courtrooms whether tarot reading is entertainment or a religiously-protected counseling practice. Although there are no official studies to definitively claim one way or another, Pagans appear to have a higher number of lay clergy (or those not ordained by a State but recognized by a religious organization) than other more mainstream religions.

Yet Pagan clergy are performing legal marriages, presiding over burial ceremonies, and counseling members. They are also pushing for greater acceptance within societal constructs, such as the military, hospitals, and prisons. They want the respect that is granted by default to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy.

Rev. Davis says a fellow Pagan clergyperson told her if a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim person tells the public they are clergy, and their community accepts them as such, and their traditions accept them as such, there is no question. However, if a Pagan tells the state they are a priest or a reverend, the state demands proof of by a church body in order to accept them. She believes it’s unfair that a church organization can ordain a pastor, but a coven cannot ordain a priestess or reverend without being double checked.

While much of this attitude is part of a systemic problem of privilege by dominant religions toward those in the minority, she believes part of this is also because some Pagan clergy aren’t serious about their responsibility and are too casual about seeking out formal training.

“All clergy should know the laws of their state, and their articles of belief. Training in safeTALK, Mental Health First Aid, and other programs should be an ongoing learning,” said Davis. She believes that all Pagans who wish to take on the role of clergy need to be ready to assume all the duties and responsibilities of that role and that means being properly trained.

Responsibility and Training
Pagan clergy training runs the gamut from no training at all, self-training, and formal training by an organization. They may be ordained by a religious group or may not feel this is necessary for the duties they perform.

What training options are open to Pagans seeking to become clergy?

One of the only Pagan seminary currently operating is Cherry Hill Seminary. They offer a Masters in Pastoral Counseling, a Chaplaincy Master of Pagan Ministry, and A Community Ministry Certificate. The Community Ministry Certificate can then be used to apply for credentials through Sacred Well Congregation, an organization who recently became an Ecclesiastical Endorsing Organization for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Yet Pagans are taking other routes to becoming clergy.

Davis studied at Family Life Education at Spring Arbor College before she received her ordination through Universal Life Church. Neither the college nor the religious group through which she received her ordination are Pagan. She said there weren’t as many options back when she sought ordination.

Oberon Osiris went the self taught route, “My training was in the School of Experience, I learned by doing.” He said he began his counseling over 40 years ago as a tarot reader. After performing a few marriages, he began seeking out books specifically on counseling skills in the marriage and relationship field.

“Most couples I’ve married get that counseling and some work-ups and exercises on relationships as part of the package. I refuse to marry anyone I don’t know well enough to see how their relationship works.” Osiris said that he doesn’t often marry people anymore, but still keeps his credentials up to date and continues his self study.

Pagans wishing to become clergy can also take classes from programs such as Circle Sanctuary’s Ministry Training Program. This program takes a minimum of three years and includes distance training by telephone conference calls, online group discussions, one-on-one mentoring face-to-face, and more traditional classes at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve and Pagan Spirit Gathering.  After students complete training they can then apply for ordination through Circle Sanctuary.

Rev. Selena Fox, Founder of Circle Sanctuary, highlights that Circle Sanctuary’s clergy training includes teaching about Mandatory Reporting. Fox said that Rev. Dr. Paul Larson, psychologist and professor with The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, is among their Ministers who train students in this area.

[Photo Credit: Kelvin_Kevin/ GanFlickr]

[Photo Credit: Kelvin_Kevin/ GanFlickr]

Legal Considerations
Although state law can vary widely, in most states clergy of all types are considered mandatory reporters. Mandatory reporters are selected classes of people legally required to report suspected cases of abuse to government authorities.

Clergy are a special class of mandatory reporters. While most states do require them to report cases of suspected child abuse or suicidal behavior, the laws vary on if they are required to report suspected abuse of adults or self harm and possible suicide attempts by adults. Clergy are shielded in most states from lawsuits stemming from breaking confidentiality if they choose to report abuse or self harm, so guidelines will sometimes tell clergy “when in doubt, error on the side of reporting.” Knowing your state’s laws is vital.

Clergy are also always considered to be clergy. They are never considered regular citizens or just a friend or not on the clock. Persons don’t need to be in a recognized counselling session for their conversation to be protected by confidentiality laws and for the clergy member to under mandatory reporting laws.

Ethics of Profession
In Confidentiality and Mandatory Reporting: a Clergy Dilemma?, Rev. Marie M. Fortune explains that the profession is torn between the ethics of protecting people and the expectation of confidentiality in a spiritual setting.

But there is another set of ethical principles which enter into this discussion from a faith perspective. They have to do with one’s professional responsibility to victims of abuse. Within both Jewish and Christian traditions, there is the responsibility of the community to protect those in its midst who are vulnerable to harm.

Although this is usually talked about in the context of abuse, self harm can also be considered abuse within clergy circles and those experiencing suicidal thoughts may be categorized as vulnerable.

In the situation Rev. Davis encountered, Osiris said that he would have felt obligated to act, “I certainly would want to find out if they are being helped and by whom.” He stopped short of saying that he would have reported the situation to police.

Davis added that she feels saddened by having to execute what she felt was her duty. She said that while she is trained clergy she’s not a licensed counselor and felt proper authorities needed to assess the situation, “I think, no I know, that that is what I am supposed to be about. That, and being in the service of the Ones I committed to serve.”

Moral responsibility
Aside from the legal or ethical requirements of clergy, how are people to react when they see what appears to be a suicidal post on social media?

Experts suggest that you think the person is in imminent danger, dial 911. Have as much information about the person’s location as possible.

If the threat seems more vague, respond immediately with a brief, clear statement that offers help, such as the number to a suicide hotline. Then report the post to the social media platform. On Facebook, such a report alerts the Facebook’s safety team, which immediately sends an email to the user and starts a confidential online chat with a crisis worker. Your name won’t be shared with the user.

Experts also say to take every post that sounds suicidal seriously. Davis agrees, “I would rather have the hatred and derision of a living former friend than the good esteem of a dead one.”

[The following is a guest post from Michael Reeder. Michael Reeder LCPC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Baltimore, MD.  He holds a certificate in Spiritual & Existential Counseling from Johns Hopkins University, and is a graduate of Gryphons Grove School of Shamanism.  He has been affiliated with several local Pagan organizations and presented at conferences including Sacred Space, Free Spirit Gathering, Ecumenicon, and Pagan Pride Day events.  He can be reached at and]

Spiritual_Guidance_Across_ReligionsI am pleased to announce that Spiritual Guidance Across Religions: A Sourcebook for Spiritual Directors and Other Professionals Providing Counsel to People of Differing Faith Traditions has just been published by Skylight Paths Publishing.  I’d like to talk a bit about this book, developing Pagan counseling efforts, and the role of a recently deceased Pagan elder.

This book contains a 19 page chapter on Neo-Paganism – as much text as is devoted to most of the other faith traditions.  Our inclusion here is a big deal so I want to dwell on it for a brief moment.  Up to now, there have been the very rare and occasional professional journal articles on Wicca or Paganism for mental health counselors.  There are also a few books teaching pastoral counseling skills to Pagan clergy or presenting Pagan versions of AA 12-Step.  Even books on world spirituality have tended to leave us out or give us a few pages lumped in with miscellaneous odd topics at the end.  I am unaware of other college-level textbooks providing professional instruction on spiritual counseling for Pagans.

This book offers exactly what the title suggests — help for psychotherapists, counselors, spiritual directors, clergy, and other helpers to understand a bit about the faith tradition of the clients in front of them and some guidance on how to appropriately help them from the perspective of their tradition.  (The full list of faith traditions includes Evangelical Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, Reformed Christianity, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Spiritual Eclecticism, Unitarian Universalism, Neo-Paganism, Bahá’í Faith, Sikhism, Shinto, Humanism,  New Thought, Zoroastrianism, Native American Religion, African Diaspora Spirituality, Daoism, Jainism, & Confucianism.)  Each chapter gives you an overview of the tradition, methods for spiritual guidance honored in that tradition, common spiritual problems encountered by people of that tradition, tips & techniques & practices, and helpful resources for further learning.

This opportunity came to me through the quiet good graces of Judy Harrow and an open-minded editor willing to trust her and myself.  Although a known Pagan elder, many are unaware of all the good work Judy did as both a mental health counselor and an interfaith goodwill ambassador. Judy was a past president of New Jersey ASERVIC (Association for Spiritual, Ethical, & Religious Values in Counseling – an American Counseling Association division) and active on the AAPC (American Association of Pastoral Counselors) Yahoo Group. Both ASERVIC and AAPC are very mainstream, slightly conservative counseling organizations with LOTS of ordained Christian ministers. The fact she was so respected there speaks volumes.  Judy was a former Chair of the Pastoral Care and Counseling Department at Cherry Hill Seminary (where I took a wonderful online class which taught me exercises I still use with clients).

Judy taught a class on pastoral counseling skills for Pagan clergy for some years with the Pagan Leadership Skills Conference.  I was honored to co-teach it with her a few times.  She was also instrumental in gathering Pagan counseling heavyweights to join the Pagan Professional Counseling Yahoo Group that is now well over 100+ members strong, and a place where licensed professionals can converse about the intersection of Pagan spirituality and counseling.  She wrote a recommended book entitled Spiritual Mentoring: A Pagan Guide that I’m pleased to see now has a Kindle edition available.  Buy a copy.

I mention all this both to discuss the significant contributions of Judy, and to outline a large portion of the work on Pagan counseling to-date.  Along the way I have also created a website I occasionally update and is currently somewhat shabby, a now ancient training slideshow for hospital chaplains, an in-service training for psychotherapists on Paganism, and even a rather rough video for Pagan therapy clients on how to discuss Paganism with their counselor (very long load time!).  Several years ago the Pagan-Centered Podcast did podcasts on mental health topics I was involved with located here (Paganism and psychology) and here (trauma, depression, and anxiety topics).

I’m sure I am missing out on a lot of the work by my more academic colleagues and I believe much of the work regarding Pagans in the military overlaps with counseling topics.  My apology – work as a full-time psychotherapist makes it hard to keep up sometimes.

The few paragraphs above serve both as a partial resource guide to Pagan counseling, and as evidence of how rudimentary efforts in this area still are.

Michael Reeder LCPC

Michael Reeder LCPC

Years ago I naively thought that there would be lots of interest in the topic of Paganism and counseling from the mundane world.  At first I worried that other mental health counselors would be judgmental.  This proved largely not the case, and I even was a student member of AAPC for a time and an associate at a pastoral counseling center in Washington, DC.  Later I thought other counselors would be interested in learning about Paganism or refer Pagan clients my way.  This has sadly proven to be mostly untrue also.  Most therapists don’t think they need any special knowledge or training about Pagans.

In 2007 I sent an unsolicited manuscript on counseling Pagan clients into an ASERVIC monograph project.  ASERVIC had called for papers on how to assist clients from a variety of spiritual backgrounds, and not asked for any information on Paganism.  This ASERVIC project stalled for many years and I finally ended up significantly rewriting and expanding the monograph into a chapter for the book that was just published.  I figure I’ve put 4-6 weeks of time into writing the chapter.

Writing about Paganism and counseling for a mainstream audience presents several challenges.  My first goal was to lay out a convincing case that Paganism promotes mental health.  Pagan readers of my chapter may be a bit uncomfortable with how much emphasis I place on how useful Paganism is, and how to tell the difference between “odd” Pagan beliefs versus mental illness.  I also do some similarity comparisons between Pagan rituals, counseling, and hypnosis procedures.  The idea here was not to convince the (mostly Christian) audience that Pagan spirituality is real, but rather to convince them that it is a good healthy thing regardless.

Another challenge was writing about Pagan religion in one chapter.  We of course have at least dozens of different religions under the Pagan umbrella.  (Although I do subscribe to Michael York’s arguments that Paganism broadly should be treated as a world religion too.)  This resulted in quite a mash-up of different religions in our one chapter and an emphasis on their similarities and the more common Wiccan norms.

I also had to follow a discussion outline standardized across all of the chapters that was written with well-intentioned mainstream (mostly Christian) assumptions.  When your clergy are largely trained at home; don’t get the educational benefit of rotations in hospital chaplaincy units; are more conduits of energy than sermonizers and flock shepherds; “lead” groups of priests rather than laity; and can worship potentially any god, goddess, spirit, or ancestor; you’ve got a lot of explaining to do!

I am honored that the chapter on “Spiritual Guidance in the Neo-Pagan Tradition” got passed to me to complete.  I believe this book will be helpful to counselors, spiritual directors, students, and helpers of any type trying to reach a wide variety of spiritual clients.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen

  • Noted naturalist and author Peter Matthiessen died on Saturday after battling leukemia. Mattheiseen, a Zen Buddhist, wrote over 30 novels, was an environmental activist, co-founded the Paris Review, and famously wrote “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” which chronicled the story of Leonard Peltier. Quote: “Matthiessen is held in such high regard as a nonfiction writer by nonfiction writers that they sometimes say, ‘How is it possible that this guy can be such a virtuoso fiction writer, and give his equally substantial body of nonfiction work such short shrift?’ Because all the rest of us are trying to do what we can to mimic his nonfiction work.” What is remembered, lives.
  • Two people in Western Kentucky have been arrested on charges of committing sexual offenses against children. One of them, Jessica M. Smith, allegedly described herself as a Witch and threatened the children with her powers. Quote: “Prosecutors say the two threatened the children with ‘hexes and curses’ […] Police said Smith described herself as a witch and told the kids ‘she was going to put a spell on them’ and that ‘if they told anyone, something bad would happen to them.'”
  • A federal appeals panel has ruled that New York City has the right to block religious services in public schools. Quote: “The decision does not mean that the city must force religious groups out of the schools, but merely that a city prohibition on religious worship services in schools would comply with the Constitution.” Appeals are expected.
  • It seems that “real housewife” Carlton Gebbia isn’t the only reality television star who has practiced Wicca. It seems that Millionaire Matchmaker star Patti Stanger was a “real Wiccan” for six years. Quote: “I’ve studied Kabbalah, I’ve studied Wicca, so you can’t be like that. You can’t throw stones at people, because karmically it’s going to come back to you even worse then you threw it at them.”
  • Is the Internet destroying religion? A new study makes the case that the rise of the Internet has been an important factor in individuals abandoning traditional forms of religious practice. Quote: “Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet. He concludes that the increase in Internet use in the last two decades has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation.” Of course, correlation is not causation, but Downey says that “correlation does provide evidence in favor of causation, especially when we can eliminate alternative explanations or have reason to believe that they are less likely.”
Terence Spencer—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Terence Spencer—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

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

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.

Nina Davuluri

Nina Davuluri


  • Sometimes the tourist-attraction witch business is so good you decide to go solo, at least that seems to be the case with the latest Wookey Hole witch, Sunny Van der Pas, who wants to launch her own clothing line. Quote: “Actress Sunny Van der Pas is leaving her role after two years to launch her own clothing line based upon her costumes. But now directors at the popular tourist attraction need a little magic of their own to find a replacement witch in time for Halloween. […] The attraction employs a witch pro rata, largely over the summer holidays, Halloween and Christmas, They are expected to live in the site’s caves during busy periods and to teach witchcraft and magic. The role normally attracts thousands of applicants, who then compete in for the post X Factor style auditions.” For the uninitiated, the Wookey Hole cave system in the UK (about 20 miles from Bath) has become something like the British version of Salem here (except even more tourist-y).
  • NPR highlights Candomblé in Brazil, spurred by a recent survey that saw an uptick in adherents. Quote: “Sitting among the faithful here is Marcilio Costa, who is the commercial officer at a foreign consulate in Sao Paulo. He became an initiate a year and a half ago, and he says he’s open about it. ‘Among Brazilians, yes. People understand better now. … All my friends know my religion, every single one of them,’ Costa says. ‘I don’t hide from no one.'”
  • The Paris Review interviews poet Gregory Orr, who opines on the nature of myths. Quote: “The beautiful thing about myths is that you’re never telling a myth, you’re retelling it. People already know the story. You don’t have to create a narrative structure, and you don’t have to figure out where it ends. As a lyric poet, you can take the moments of greatest intensity in the myth, or the moments that interest you most, or the ways of looking at the story that you think would be most fun to rethink—you don’t have to do the whole story. You want to know what human mystery can be revealed by retelling it. D. H. Lawrence said that myths are symbols of inexhaustible human mysteries. You can tell them a hundred, a thousand times, and you’ll never exhaust the mystery that’s coded into that story. That may be a little hyperbolic, but I believe it.” 
  • The Secular Student Alliance has launched the “Secular Safe Zones” program at high schools and colleges. Quote: “The program enlists ‘allies’ like Schmidt among faculty, administrators, counselors and others on college and high school campuses who are trained in the needs of nonreligious — or ‘secular’ — students. So far, there are Secular Safe Zone allies at 26 college and high school campuses in 14 states, including California, Nevada, Ohio, Utah, Illinois, Florida and New York.” This is based off of similar LGBTQ efforts, and you have to wonder how long it will be before various religious groups launch their own “safe zone” programs.
  • Blah, blah, blah, Christian persecution in the United States, blah, blah, blah, Obama is a pagan, blah blah blah. Quote: “As Barber explained, the Obama administration is the “modern-day equivalent” of ancient Rome, demanding that citizens must worship Caesar in the form of progressiveism.”

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 June of this year, I featured a guest post from Literata Hurley, a Wiccan priestess and theaologian, who had just been denied clergy status in the state of Virginia, despite meeting all stated legal requirements (clergy in Virginia must register with a circuit court to perform legal marriages). Arlington County Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson, told Hurley at the time of her application that there were unstated “other things” preventing his approval and that he didn’t “feel” she qualified.

“She left and came back with the Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson said that they were not going to approve me. I asked if it was because we don’t have a building. He said, “Yes, you don’t have a building, and there were a few other things.” I asked him if he would give me a written list of the reasons I was being denied. He refused; he offered to show me the relevant section (Sec 20-23) of the Virginia Code. I assured him that I had read the Code, and asked again if he would give me more specific reasons I was being denied. He said that approving these applications was at his “discretion” and that he didn’t “feel” I met the qualifications, but he wouldn’t tell me how. He told me that I could apply to another court in another county but that he thought they would probably give me the same answer.”

That attitude started to change after Americans United For Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the Arlington circuit court, with the court responding that it had all been a “miscommunication” between the clerk and Hurley. Having got that response, Hurley returned to the Arlington County Circuit Court, and applied again.

Literata Hurley with authorization.

Literata Hurley with authorization.

“She [the clerk] had to go get approval from someone else; she said that the person who wrote the reply to Americans United for Separation of Church and State had to review my new application and paperwork. That took a little while, but she came back and said that it was approved, and then it was a matter of paying the fee, taking an oath to uphold the Constitution and the Constitution of Virginia and to do my duty fairly and impartially, and then I got the official authorization!”

So after an journey of several months, one that included the aid of Pagan elders like Circle’s Selena Fox and Assembly of the Sacred Wheel’s Ivo Domínguez, Jr., in addition to the support of her ordaining body, Order of the White Moon, and a letter from Americans United, Arlington County, Virginia finally did what it was supposed to have done back in June: authorize a Pagan clergyperson to perform legal weddings. Hurley says that she hopes this will open the doors for other Pagan clergy looking to get their authorization, and lays out the paperwork she brought with her on the day of her approval.

For anyone who wants to apply in Arlington in the future, here’s what I took with me: Certificate of Ordination; Letter of good standing (to show that I am “in regular contact” with my religious organization); Certified copies of the articles of incorporation of the Order of the White Moon, the most recent business filing with California showing that the Order is still active; Copies of the letter from the IRS granting OWM its 501(c)3 tax exempt status and the most recent filing with the IRS showing that OWM is still active and exempt; Letters of support from Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, Ivo Dominguez Jr. of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, and Sacred Circle bookstore, attesting to my standing as a priestess and the ministry I do; and a letter of support from a coven sister who also lives in Arlington, because the court insisted that I show “a connection between [my] ministry and the Arlington community.”

Despite the completely unnecessary hassle and delay, this is in important step forward in making sure that Pagan clergy are recognized even if they don’t adhere to the “church and pews” model many Americans are comfortable affirming. In the past, Pagan clergy in Virginia would travel to a different circuit court when denied in Arlington, now this doesn’t have to be the case. I urge clergy in the area to make sure this miscommunication is never repeated, and that when you travel to Arlington for authorization remind them that they approved Literata Hurley on this day. My thanks to Literata for her work here, and to the elders who supported her, and Americans United for defending her legal rights.

[The following is a guest post from Literata Hurley. Literata is a Wiccan priestess, poet, and theaologian. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and  periodicals, including MandragoraQueen of the Sacred WayAnointed, Witches & Pagans, and CIRCLE Magazine. She blogs regularly for The Slacktiverse and her own site, Works of Literata. She is an ordained High Priestess of the Order of the White Moon, a women’s spirituality organization. In between leading Rose Coven, reading Tarot, and communing with nature, she is writing her Ph.D. dissertation in history and enjoys travel and spending time with her husband and cats.]

The Arlington County Court refused to grant me the right to perform marriages in Virginia, apparently on the grounds that my “congregation” does not own a building.

I presented my certificate of ordination and documentation of the 501c3 status of the Order of the White Moon, which ordained me. Since my Order is incorporated in California, the secretary asked me if I had a congregation in Virginia; I said yes. She asked me to list the address of the congregation, and I said that we don’t have a building. She asked, “So, what, you just meet in each other’s homes?” I said yes, we meet in each other’s homes, or out of doors (Wicca is, after all, an earth-based religion, but I thought that mentioning that would only be prejudicial to my situation).



She left and came back with the Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson said that they were not going to approve me. I asked if it was because we don’t have a building. He said, “Yes, you don’t have a building, and there were a few other things.” I asked him if he would give me a written list of the reasons I was being denied. He refused; he offered to show me the relevant section (Sec 20-23) of the Virginia Code. I assured him that I had read the Code, and asked again if he would give me more specific reasons I was being denied. He said that approving these applications was at his “discretion” and that he didn’t “feel” I met the qualifications, but he wouldn’t tell me how. He told me that I could apply to another court in another county but that he thought they would probably give me the same answer.

Has property ownership now become the measure of what constitutes a “real” religion in Virginia, or at least in Arlington County? Or is this another example of anti-Pagan discrimination at work?

Patchwork enforcement and a history of discrimination

Virginia is one of the few states in the US that requires clergy members to register with a circuit court in order to be able to perform valid marriages. The requirements in Sec 20-23 of the Code state that the minister must present proof of ordination and “of his being in regular communion” with the organization that ordained him.

These requirements are apparently interpreted in widely varying ways across various circuits in Virginia, as different courts’ websites list different types of documentation – or none – that may be required. For courts that openly state they require more than just proof of ordination, the way they ask for information gives tremendous privilege to traditionally-organized, i.e., Christian, groups. And if granting these applications really is up to the “discretion” of the Clerk of Court, there is wide scope for potential discrimination against minority religions with or without the fig leaf of requiring a “location” and other organizational trappings potentially beyond the reach of minority religious organizations.

This problem goes back more than a decade; in 1999, the ACLU helped another Wiccan priestess get her application in this situation approved.

I think it’s not unreasonable that I am concerned about what kind of documentation will satisfy the court. I serve multiple groups, one of which meets in a designated location, but since it is an open circle, the people who attend are mostly not members of my ordaining organization. If I provide documentation of this group meeting in a specific location, will the court then ask how many people attend, and how often we meet? What will they require to conclude that I am “really” a High Priestess in a “real” religion?

Why this matters

This is about more than performing weddings. This decision has a chilling effect on me trying to function as clergy in other ways; if the Court will not recognize me as legitimate clergy in this situation, will my right to confidentiality be protected? How can I assure people who come to me for counseling that their communications with me are protected by clergy privilege?

Literata drawing down.

Literata drawing down.

And since this is one of the two major forms of government approval used by a wide range of institutions and organizations to determine whether someone is a “real” clergy member, it can impact my ability to reach out to those who have particular needs: people in hospitals, the military, and prisons all need clergy services, but those institutions are much more likely to deny me the ability to minister to the people involved if I can’t say that I’m approved by the State of Virginia to perform marriages.

And although I might have my application granted if I tried another court, that does nothing to resolve the doubt cast on my status by the court with jurisdiction over where I live and do most of my ministry. If another court approved me, it would only serve to highlight the irregular and potentially biased variations in granting recognition across jurisdictions.

What you can do

I currently plan to gather additional supporting documentation and reapply, and if I am denied again, to ask whether I can appeal to a judge of the court. I am also currently seeking advice from the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the Lady Liberty League. Here’s what you can do to help:

First, get the word out. The more Pagans pull together, the better our chances of being recognized as “legitimate” in these kinds of situations.

If you are a Pagan clergyperson in Virginia and you have applied to perform marriages, please write to me at If you were approved, I’d like to know when you were approved, in what court, with what paperwork, and what questions they asked, both written and verbal. People who have been declined, please tell me that too. The more information I have for comparison the better.

I would also like to be able to present letters of support from other Pagan clergy and potentially from Pagan organizations that ordain people, especially ones that ordain people all over the country. If you’re interested, please contact me. And if you have other ideas about how to help, please speak up!

People who aren’t in Virginia, please provide spiritual and magical support. Pray and send energy that I am able to gather the evidence I need and make a convincing argument, that the court will grant my new application swiftly, and that I may stay positive and be patient throughout this whole process.

I sincerely hope that together we can ensure this is the last time a Pagan in Virginia has her credentials questioned and her status as clergy denied.

[This post was republished, with permission, from Literata’s blog. Please follow it for further updates and commentary from Literata on this matter. The Wild Hunt will be keeping in close contact with Literata on this issue, and will post updates as warranted.]

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

SF Weekly interviews Sister Edith Myflesh from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and discusses the group’s popularity, charity work, religious diversity, and what real-live nuns think of them.

“…the sisters have no affiliation to any one creed. Some are pagan, some Jewish, even some practicing Catholics. Despite the church’s stance that the order “mocks” women who’ve taken traditional religious vows, Sister Edith swears the nuns she’s met have been nothing but supportive. “They get what we do,” she says, explaining that the tasks of the female clergy – caring for the sick, raising money for charity – have a lot in common with the sisters’. And like parishioners going to confession, Sister Edith has found that people blurt out the most personal things to a member of the order in full makeup. “When we look like that, we’re not human anymore. We become mirrors for people to project onto,” she says, recalling the times she’s given relationship advice to strangers.”

More subtle hints that as religion becomes ever-more female dominated boundary maintenance and the castigation of blasphemers will slowly lose its importance, replaced instead with a more pragmatic stance regarding the usefulness of holy fools?

Over at his Beliefnet blog, Gus diZerega gives a three-part argument (part one, part two, part three) against a “Pagan clergy”. In his final installment, diZerega argues that completely severing matters of faith and religion from government control (marriage, military, prison chaplaincy) will serve us far better than trying to construct an institutionalized clergy model.

“To sum it up, as our numbers increase we will need a larger professionally trained group of Pagans who can do some of the kinds of counseling work that Christians do through their clergy.  But we do not need that kind of institutionalized status to do it, and our traditions and the core of who we are will be safer if we do not seek it  We are on much safer ground to invoke the issue of religious freedom, now that we are widely recognized in the courts and among many religious leaders as a legitimate spiritual practice.”

DiZerega seems to assert that Pagan religious leaders should stick to ritual, rites of passage, and teaching, while other Pagans should pursue academic experience in counseling and medicine (and I’m assuming, legal arbitration), avoiding the  (corrupting?) confluence of power and influence usually associated with the monotheist clergy/laity model. Indeed, according to diZerega, the entire modern concept of “clergy” can contaminate us in our search for mainstream respectability.

The lesbian-focused site Lez Get Real features a short e-mail conversation with Pagan author Deborah Blake concerning Wiccan and Pagan attitudes towards homosexuality.

“First of all, in answer to your question about homosexuality–in general, Pagans accept all paths, very definitely including homosexuality. My step-daughter is gay and a Pagan. In fact, many gays, lesbians and transgenders are attracted to Wicca and Paganism in part because it is such an accepting religion. There is absolutely nothing in our beliefs that says that alternative sexuality is bad, forbidden or in any way “lesser” than more conventionally accepted sexuality.”

Always nice to see more communication between the LGBT community with the modern Pagan community. While there are a variety of attitudes within different modern Pagan religions concerning LGBT-folk, I would say that the vast majority are fully accepting and welcoming to gays. Indeed, as I’ve pointed out before, gay marriage is very much a Pagan issue too.

Over at Letter From Hardscrabble Creek, Chas Clifton passes along the news that HBO’s “Rome” may rise again as a feature-length film.

“A feature version may be in the works to wrap up the unresolved plot strands of the award-winning HBO/BBC TV series Rome, which dramatised the dirty-politics underside of Rome’s transitional period from republic to virtual monarchy amidst civil war.”

As much as I enjoyed the series, I thought it went (historically speaking) off the rails towards the end of its second season. I mean, they couldn’t even give poor Cicero his famous last words! Still, the sets were fantastic, and the religious elements engaging, so I suppose I’d fork over the cash to see a big-screen version should it actually come about.

In a final note, if you want to know how hard it really is to uncover Pagan news on a daily basis, check out the Pew Forum’s examination of religious news coverage in 2008.

“Throughout much of 2008, the media generally seemed to follow two patterns in its coverage of religion. First, religion reporting was often episodic, clustering intensely around big events such as the pope’s visit and religion stories related to the 2008 holiday season. Religion stories also faded quickly from the headlines. Second, the angle of religion coverage frequently gravitated toward controversies, such as Barack Obama’s relationship with Jeremiah Wright and stories about the clergy sex-abuse scandal that surfaced during the pope’s visit. This was particularly problematic for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, who were inundated with questions concerning their faith.”

All in all, only 1% of mainsteam media coverage focused on religious news (on par with education, immigration, and race), and nearly 40% of that centered on the Pope’s visit to America. Considering the huge impact faith and religion have on the world, you would think it’d be a bit higher. If it weren’t for the Internet, blogs, and Google scouring every online news source, I doubt we’d hear much at all concerning minority faiths.

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

Should religious institutions be allowed to endorse political candidates? Since 1954 it has been illegal for non-profits, including all religious bodies, to formally endorse (or oppose) a political candidate. This ban was introduced by Lyndon Johnson in an attempt to stem the tide of McCarthyism, which had found fertile ground in a variety of right-wing non-profit organizations. Since then, a variety of religious bodies have complained bitterly about their lack of freedom, and the Alliance Defense Fund is planning to do something about it.

“Declaring that clergy have a constitutional right to endorse political candidates from their pulpits, the socially conservative Alliance Defense Fund is recruiting several dozen pastors to do just that on Sept. 28, in defiance of Internal Revenue Service rules.”

This initiative, called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, is done in hopes of sparking a legal challenge that will go to the Supreme Court and overturn the IRS ban. An Alliance Defense Fund promotional video for the initiative, while invoking constitutional rights and Martin Luther King Jr., makes it plain that this is about Christian churches reclaiming political and social power.

However, the ADF’s mission might get derailed before it ever begins. A coalition of Christian and Jewish clergy, along with three former IRS officials, wants the IRS to determine if the ADF itself is violating the law.

“…the group also wants the IRS to determine whether the nonprofit ADF is risking its own tax-exempt status by organizing an “inappropriate, unethical and illegal” series of political endorsements. “As religious leaders, we have grave concerns about the ethical implications of soliciting and organizing churches to violate core principles of our society,” the clergy wrote…”

Somehow I don’t think this will dissuade the ADF, or the participating churches, from going forward. So we may soon see the beginning of an epic legal battle over whether a church or non-profit can engage directly in partisan politics*. If the ADF were to be ultimately successful, we would see a drastically changed political landscape. You thought religious pandering and the influence of evangelical leaders were bad this election cycle? Wait till politicians strive to get the endorsements of whole churches or denominations. It certainly won’t do any favors to religious minorities, and we may soon see the re-emergence of the fanatical (and tax-deductible) blacklisting organizations that Lyndon Johnson once sought to disempower.

For links to official Pulpit Freedom Sunday documents, check out this post by the TaxProf Blog.

* While non-profits can’t endorse a politician from the pulpit, they can endorse ballot initiatives and other non-partisan political issues. Clergy can also endorse politicians as private individuals.

A Pagan Chaplaincy

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 17, 2007 — 3 Comments

Anyone who is familiar with modern (or “neo”) Paganism will tell you that it isn’t a monolith. Instead it is a grouping of faiths, cults, covens, and organizations that have been deemed similar enough to fall under the banner of “Pagan” (or “Heathen”), but are often quite different in individual theologies and approaches to ritual. So it has always been difficult to discuss “the community” is sweeping terms, or apply methods of (relatively) more uniform faiths (Christianity for example) to it.

That said, as we grow the demand for professional pastoral services in a number of contexts has also grown, but most institutions that provide pastoral training do so from a Christian context (albeit from a variety of political and theological points of view), and many Pagan clergy have been unable to find adequate training within their faith communities to deal with the level of pastoral work that is required in institutional settings. So I was very interested to learn that Cherry Hill Seminary (a primarily online school that helps supplement Pagan clergy, and aspiring Pagan clergy, with professional ministry skills) has announced a new Chaplaincy Program geared towards meeting the growing demand for trained Pagan chaplains.

“Cherry Hill Seminary, the first graduate-level Pagan ministry training institution in the U.S., announces the addition of a Chaplaincy Program directed by Patrick McCollum, who served as the first Wiccan chaplain in the California prison system … The program, a two-year certificate administered by the seminary’s Public Ministry department, seeks to train Pagans in effective ministry in hospitals, hospice work, prisons and the military.”

In the press release McCollum speaks directly to the need for a well-trained Pagan chaplaincy.

“There are a tremendous number of requests for Wiccan chaplains across the United States … The need has grown exponentially within correctional institutions just as the interest in Wicca and Paganism has grown within the rest of the nation. The problem is that many of the current chaplains are not trained in spiritual paths other than Judeo-Christian religions. And, while there are well-intentioned Pagan people who would like to go and minister to those in correctional facilities, most have no professional training to deal with life-and-death issues and they seldom have the right answers to address the conditions these prisoners face.”

Perhaps a robust ecumenical Pagan chaplain-training program is the answer to the questions (and controversies) concerning Pagan clergy that have been kicked around for years. In that manner each individual tradition and faith can have the independence to appoint clergy (and decide for themselves if they want to move to a paid-clergy model), and then have the option to pursue Pagan chaplaincy training if they want to work in hospitals, prisons, and other institutions where training outside the theological/ritualistic norms of their faith(s) would be called for. A formalized training to point to will certainly be helpful as more Pagan groups try to gain official access within military and hospital settings.

The program starts with the Fall semester. For registration and pricing details you can head to the Cherry Hill Seminary homepage. In addition to Patrick McCollum, overseeing the program will be Brighde Indigo, Malendia Maccree, and M. Macha NightMare (who has a post up about it at her blog).