Archives For discrimination

IRVING, Texas –On July 27, the national executive board of the Boy Scouts of America is expected to ratify a new policy regarding adult leaders. If passed, it will clear the way for adults who identify as homosexual to volunteer in the organization at all levels — with significant exceptions carved out for religious objections. Such a move would bring the organization’s rules more in line with an underlying philosophy that the Boy Scouts is not an appropriate place to discuss, nor engage in, sexual activity.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  deflam

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s deflam

Back in 2013, the Boy Scouts agreed that sexual orientation should not be a barrier to participation by boys themselves. This most recent move was in response to pressure from both within and without, and a recognition that the current policy forbidding volunteers based on sexual orientation is not likely to survive all the court challenges it faces.

Dr. Robert Gates, before becoming national president for the Boy Scouts, oversaw the repeal of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as Secretary of Defense; a policy which was put into place as a compromise under President Bill Clinton. Speaking during the national business meeting in May, before the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry, he said that he had hoped the 2013 decision to allow gay scouts would put the issue to rest for the duration of his two-year term. That was not to be.

. . . events during the past year have confronted us with urgent challenges I did not foresee and we cannot ignore. We cannot ignore growing internal challenges to our current membership policy . . . in open defiance of the policy, to more and more councils taking a position in their mission statements and public policy contrary to national policy. . . . nor can we ignore the social, political, and juridicial changes taking place in our country . . . not to mention the impending US Supreme Court decision this summer on gay marriage.

The legal and cultural pressure placed “the BSA in an unsustainable position,” he said.  It could lead for court-ordered changes to the membership policy if the executive board itself did not act. “Waiting for the courts to is a gamble with huge stakes,” and could lead to the removal of all membership standards, including the “duty to god” clause, which requires all members to believe in a higher power.

What’s emerged is a policy which will allow adults to apply for volunteer positions, but preserve the rights of religious organizations which sponsor troops to continue to discriminate. Since some 70% of Boy Scout troops are sponsored by religious organizations, how much more leeway toward equality this new policy will actually grant remains to be seen.

Gates and the executive council, which released the proposal on July 13, believe it will be enough to shield the BSA from litigation. To that end, he promised a crackdown on councils that have imposed more inclusive policies. The Boy Scouts will also defend the rights of its religious sponsors to bar gay adults from participating. A statement released after the body approved the plan said in part:

This resolution will allow chartered organizations to select adult leaders without regard to sexual orientation, continuing Scouting’s longstanding policy of chartered organizations selecting their leaders. The National Executive Board will meet to ratify this resolution on Monday, July 27.

“This change allows Scouting’s members and parents to select local units, chartered to organizations with similar beliefs, that best meet the needs of their families. This change would also respect the right of religious chartered organizations to continue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own. The 2013 youth membership policy will not be affected and remains unchanged.

Much like that youth membership policy, this one has been deemed unsatisfactory by people on both sides of the issue. Presidential candidate and Eagle Scout Scott Walker said that the existing policy “protected children and advanced Scout values” but later backpedaled to claim he meant to say that it protected those children from media scrutiny. Reactions among Christians are mixed, with some churches pondering if it’s time to end the relationship, and others supporting the measure.

The Mormons, who sponsor a lot of troops, issued this statement:

As a chartering organization, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always had the right to select Scout leaders who adhere to moral and religious principles that are consistent with our doctrines and beliefs. Any resolution adopted by the Boy Scouts of America regarding leadership in Scouting must continue to affirm that right.

Southern Baptist Russell Moore predicted the decision won’t go well. “I have seen a definite cooling on the part of Baptist churches to the Scouts,” Moore said to Religion News Service. “This will probably bring that cooling to freezing.”

Advocates for equal rights are dismayed by the religious exemption. RNS quoted Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, as saying:

(W)riting in an exemption for troops organized by religious organizations undermines the potentially historic nature of the executive committee vote …As we have said countless times, half-measures are unacceptable and discriminatory exemptions have no place in the Boy Scouts.

Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality, took a more measured tone. “While this policy change is not perfect — BSA’s religious chartering partners will be allowed to continue to discriminate against gay adults — it is difficult to overstate the importance of today’s announcement,” he said on that organization’s web site.

Boy Scouts 2010 Jamboree. Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  Preston Kemp

Boy Scouts 2010 Jamboree. Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s Preston Kemp

Circle Sanctuary minister and Eagle Scout Bob Paxton joined the protest against anti-gay policies in 2012, when he symbolically returned his Eagle ribbon in protest, a decision he discussed in an interview with Cara Schulz on behalf of the Pagan Newswire Collective. The Wild Hunt asked Paxton to weigh in on these new developments, and what it might mean for an organization that helped him, and likely other boys, find their way to Paganism.

The Wild Hunt: What do you think of the proposed policy on adult leaders?

Bob Paxton: The policy, which was adopted last week, now permits gay leaders, while still permitting troop sponsors to make their own choice on the troop level as to whether to discriminate or not. I think it’s a positive step forward — but not quite enough. The Girl Scouts of America has had a blanket anti-discrimination policy for quite a long time.

The difference in sponsorship and ownership models is significant: Boy Scout troops are “owned” by their sponsoring organizations, where Girl Scout troops are “owned” by the national Girl Scouts organization. While Girl Scout troops do often get local sponsorships, the lack of a sponsor does not mean the troop is dissolved. However, if a Boy Scout troop loses its sponsor, it must either find a new sponsoring organization or dissolve. 70% of Boy Scout troops are sponsored by religious organizations, with half of those troops being sponsored by the Mormon church — which as we know has been strongly opposed to GLBT rights initiatives.

I can understand why the national BSA organization made that choice, but I don’t think they were as courageous or as helpful as they could have been. That said, the perceived need to placate sponsors says to me that the BSA should re-evaluate the balance of power between sponsors and the central organization, and endeavor to fix that weakness in their structure.

TWH: My understanding is that the BSA has longstanding rules which prevent an adult from being alone with a boy, but revelations about the secret files kept on adults of concern suggest that either those rules didn’t work, or weren’t being enforced. Given that there’s no compelling research suggesting a link between sexual abuse of youth and sexual orientation, do you think it’s possible to come up with a policy that protects the boys, but allows them to benefit from the mentoring which is a strength of scouting?

BP:  BSA’s current Youth Protection policy is quite good. It also didn’t exist in the 1980s, when I was a Scout. That said, those secret files — which the BSA fought unsuccessfully to keep private — tell interesting stories. A large number of them were released in 2005, and can be reviewed here.

Reviewing a small random sample, what I see is a fairly consistent pattern of behavior: reports of problematic behavior, some degree of investigation, and a permanent note in a confidential file which barred that person from attempting to register as a Scout leader elsewhere in the country. To that extent, it seems to me that the BSA organization tried to protect Scouts against predators. What I did not see was reporting to local law enforcement, and that’s a problem. The current Youth Protection policy puts mandatory reporting at the very top, which is as it should be.

All of this is to say: I don’t believe any of that changes with this new policy allowing for gay troop leaders. The BSA’s current Youth Protection policy is strong and unambiguous.

TWH:  Should the policy be passed, would it change your attitude toward the organization? Would you want your Eagle back?

BP:  My attitude toward the Boy Scouts has always been conflicted. There were a lot of positive values, and there was a lot of bullying and other problematic behavior. The programming itself is very good, and the facilities are really top-notch: any Pagan organization who got their hands on a Boy Scout camp like the one I went to in northern Wisconsin would have a festival ground which would be the envy of Pagandom. I can’t stress strongly enough how astonishingly good the Boy Scouts’ infrastructure is — it’s the result of decades of successful fundraising and quality maintenance. All of that was marred by enshrining discrimination in policy, thus providing official sanction for a cultural bias against young men whose sexuality differed from the perceived norm. As such: if the “on the ground” culture in Boy Scout troops shifts toward tolerance as a result of this, then that’s a good thing.

As to getting my Eagle medal back: when I returned it to them, it was a symbolic gesture showing my displeasure with the BSA’s failure to come to grips with this social change. I did not send back to them the really valuable things — the lessons I learned of leadership, or the formative experiences I had in the woods which led me to become a Pagan. Would I ask them to return it? No. Would I accept it if they chose to return it to me? Absolutely.

TWH:  Any thoughts on the short- or long-term consequences this policy might have on the BSA?

BP:  Short-term: it really depends on what the sponsoring organizations do with this. There may be some loss of sponsorships, which would be a pity. Long-term: it really depends on whether the BSA organization engages in the restructuring I talked about earlier, where individual troops would no longer be so tightly-controlled by conservative religious groups. It could be a transformative moment, or it could be a continuation of the gradual membership decline they’ve seen in recent years.

TWH:  Do you believe that there is still room for boys to connect with Paganism through this organization, in the manner you described in your interview with Cara Schulz? Is there room for a more overt Pagan presence, such as troop sponsorship or religious awards?

BP:  There was room for me to connect with Paganism organically in the 1980s, and nothing has changed about that. There are great benefits to encouraging young men to get outdoors consistently, regardless of the religious paths those young men eventually walk. I do think there is an opportunity for Pagans to engage more deeply with both Boy Scouting and Girl Scouting, especially now that troop sponsorship is an option for those Pagan orgs which may have held back due to that discriminatory policy. That opportunity isn’t so much proselytizing — that’s not really our thing — but in highlighting the sacred values of interconnectedness and inclusiveness. There is genuine value in working with organizations that have long institutional history, good funding, and highly-developed infrastructure and programming. Many Pagans like to go their own way — that’s how they got there as Pagans, after all — but building coalitions and working with others gets faster and often better results.

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This controversy has given rise to alternative organizations for youth development, most notable in the Pagan sphere being the Spiral Scouts. However, due to its deep infrastructure and, as Paxton pointed out, excellent facilities, the Boy Scouts are likely to continue to play a part in the lives of Pagans into the future, although it won’t always be tacit. And, while it’s likely that some scout troops will become more inclusive as a result of this decision, it may take a bit longer for openly Pagan-sponsored troops to emerge.

On Friday, the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, a secular organization dedicated to combatting religious prejudice, released the findings of a survey on religion in the American workplace. A key finding is that religious diversity is increasing in the workplace, and with it, increasing problems relating to accommodation. RNS-USA-WORKERS

“Overall, the incidence of workplace conflicts and discrimination over religion seems to be a fairly significant issue, according to the survey, with one-third of respondents reporting that they have seen or experienced incidents of religious bias in the workplace. The most frequently cited problems were not interactions with co-workers but instead related to a failure of companies to provide sufficient accommodations for believers, especially non-Christians. Half of those respondents said that their employers are ignoring their religious needs.”

The study pointed out that a key complaint relating to religious accommodation was being forced to work on holy days (24% of respondents had this issue), in addition, atheists, agnostics, and non-Christians tend to feel the most uncomfortable when the topic of religion is brought up.

“More than 4-in-10 (43%) atheist and agnostic/secular workers say they feel somewhat or very uncomfortable when the topic of religion comes up. Nearly 3-in-10 (29%) non-Christian workers say they feel somewhat or very uncomfortable when the topic of religion comes up. Conversely, nearly 9-in-10 white evangelical workers say they are somewhat (30%) or very (58%) comfortable when the issue of religion comes up in the workplace. Strong majorities of Catholics (84%), black Protestants (83%), white mainline Protestants (75%), and non-Christian religious workers (71%) report that they feel somewhat or very comfortable when the topic of religion comes up at work.”

While it is encouraging that such a large majority of non-Christians feel comfortable discussing religion at work, less than half of employers take steps to minimize accommodation issues and religious tensions. Only 44% provide flexible work hours for religious observances, 42% provide materials on company policy relating to religious discrimination, only 21% allow employees to swap holidays, and 14% have programs to teach about religious diversity. On the whole, non-Christians tend to feel more excluded or treated differently than any other group.

diversity

“Non-Christian religious workers (13%) are substantially more likely than members of any other religious group, including atheists (5%), to say they have felt excluded or felt they were treated differently at work because of their religious beliefs or views on religion.”

Tanenbaum believes that our workplace is a microcosm for the country we live in, and that shining light on these issues will urge companies to be proactive for their own benefit, and thereby reduce religious conflict as a whole.

“Workplaces are a microcosm of America. They are becoming more diverse and, according to the survey, employees in diverse workplaces experience or witness more incidents of religious conflict. In addition, employees at workplaces with a culture of respect and accommodation have a higher level of satisfaction. In the near future, in order to attract and keep the best talent, companies will need to become more proactive about addressing religious diversity. America will follow. We will need to address religious diversity in order to reduce conflicts and ensure that people of all backgrounds feel at home in the US.”

In the past, The Wild Hunt has documented cases of workplace religious discrimination or bias against Pagans, and with this new data I wonder, do modern Pagans feel more or less comfortable at their workplace? Since this is Labor Day weekend here in the States, it seems like an ideal time to take stock. Have things improved? Do you feel comfortable with your co-workers knowing you’re a Pagan? Does your job give you days off for your holidays? Are you, are we, better or worse off now than in the past? Share your thoughts in the comments, or blog about it, and link back to this article.

A University of Derby-led research team has conducted a survey of religious groups, analyzed legal rulings over the last decade, and polled individuals in several cities, with the results finding “substantial” discrimination against religious minorities and new religious movements in the UK. Especially affected groups include Muslims, members of new religious movements, and modern Pagans.

Druids at Stonehenge

“The project’s initial findings have identified […] substantial reporting of unfair treatment on the basis of religion or belief continuing across key areas of people’s lives […] reports of unfair treatment indicate that it continues to particularly affect certain sectors (employment, education and the media) and religious groups (Muslims, Pagans and New Religious Movements).”

Paul Weller, Professor of Inter-Religious Relations at the University of Derby, told Huffington Post UK that the team noticed a a “particular frequency and severity in the complaints relating to” Pagans and new religious movements.

“There are many instances of discrimination against Christians, but the discrimination against new religions is more ‘in-your-face’, verging on hatred. For Pagans, many of them have kept their religion secret, for fear it would be misunderstood.”

These findings seem to echo findings from Australia last year, which found Pagans in that country faced widespread distrust and hostility. Likewise, the recent flap over a Pagan prison chaplain in Canada, or the recent story here in the United States alleging discrimination at a doctor’s office, all point to the fact that many tensions and challenges remain despite our advances. We may be an increasingly known quantity in the West, but it’s important to remember that we’re still a tiny minority largely operating within a Christian/monotheistic context that has been traditionally hostile to our faiths.

Moving forward, the research team is engaging in a series of ‘knowledge exchange workshops’ to take place in Derby, Oxford, Cardiff, ‘Manchester and London over the next three months. At these workshops they will share their data, seek input from religious and community groups. The final results of these workshops will be integrated with the work completed already, and posted at the University of Derby’s website. I encourage UK Pagans who are able to attend these workshops and share their experiences, opinions, and ideas on how we can collectively move forward.

While receiving news of ongoing discrimination against modern Pagans is disappointing, we can at least use this knowledge to draw attention to the challenges we face, and meet them in an organized and educated fashion. One of the best disinfectants against hatred, prejudice, and discrimination is sunlight, and we should thank this research team for drawing the curtains.

With the recent legalizing of same-sex marriages in the state of New York there also came a lot of talk about religious exemptions. These additions to the bill’s language were seen as critical to passage, and they exempt clergy and all religious institutions from having to accommodate same-sex couples looking to get married. During this process of negotiation some wanted even greater exemptions, which would include private businesses owned by individuals who had a religious objection to same-sex marriage. Thankfully, those expanded exemptions did not make it into the final language, and the legal status quo remained in place.

Jennifer Pizer, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and an expert on sexual orientation and discrimination, says that’s par for the course in America: You can’t let religious beliefs affect commercial decisions. “People are free to hold these views – they’re not just free to hold those views, they’re protected.” But, she said, “the current legal system does not permit people engaged in business to discriminate based on the proprietors’ own religious views.” Pizer said the New York debate over exemptions hearkens back to a time when religious views were used to justify racial segregation and opposition to equal-pay-for-equal-work legislation.

Expanding religious exemptions to private businesses isn’t simply about same-sex unions. Once you open that Pandora’s box, it would quickly create areas in the United States where certain groups are “relegated to a special untouchable status,” leading to the ostracism of a variety of communities and increasing “balkanization.” If you want to see what that would look like, you only have to watch this video from Anastasia, Priestess of The Temple of the Greek Gods, a Neo-Hellenic group currently based in North Carolina.

In short, Anastasia, along with Christopher, Priest of the Temple of the Greek Gods, were getting married on the weekend of July 4th. Anastasia’s regular hair stylist was closed, and so she searched for a someone else to do her hair and makeup for the ceremony, going through a string of recommendations until she found one willing to do the job. However, that stylist discovered that they were Pagan, cancelled, and then were called again by the salon proprietor’s husband to tell them that Jesus loves them. In addition, the stylist that gave the recommendation, when told of this incident after the fact, said that she “stands with Christ too” and encouraged Christopher to leave the establishment. They also lost their booked DJ, who “dropped off the face of the earth,” seemingly after learning what religion they adhered to.

Now, if any of these incidents can be proven, they are against federal law. Specifically the Civil Rights Act. Which bans “discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce” on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” The only “outs” the salon in question might have is if they were operating the business illegally under-the-table (which means they’ll have a whole different set of problems) or if they were running a private salon “club” where one had to pay a membership due to participate. At least, that’s my understanding of the law. My legal expert readers can clarify/correct me if I’ve missed anything. There may also be local state laws that reinforce federal law on this subject, though I can’t find anything the specifically addresses religious discrimination by businesses.

I would advise (with the understanding that I’m not a lawyer) documenting everything that happened, save all voice mail messages, and create a timeline that you can refer to. If there are any witnesses, get them to do the same. I would then contact a Pagan civil rights organization like the Lady Liberty League, a secular organization like the ACLU of North Carolina, or a lawyer who handles civil rights cases.

The current push in several states to create conscience exemptions for individuals running private businesses, usually in a reaction to same-sex marriage, can have far-reaching consequences for any group that might run afoul of religious sensibilities. The minute we enshrine religious exemptions for businesses in defiance of civil rights laws is the minute we create whole communities where Pagan money isn’t welcome, and by extension, Pagans aren’t welcome. In the case of Anastasia and Christopher the result was inconvenience and emotional harm, but if allowed to stand it could lead to tacitly enforced “no-go” areas for non-Christians.

My thanks to C.L. Vermeers for bringing this to my attention.

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.

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.

I have a special editorial up at the Washington Post’s On Faith section about the religiously-motivated firing of Pagans, and the case of Carole A. Smith, who was seemingly fired from the TSA for her adherence to Wicca.

What happened to Carole A. Smith is, sadly, all too common a story for many pagans. Smith, a TSA agent in Albany, NY, endured bizarre claims, indifferent superiors, workplace harassment, and finally, termination.

Like many pagans, she wasn’t officially fired for being a pagan, but was subject to a “death from a thousand cuts,” where every minor slip-up is obsessively cataloged until a legally acceptable threshold for dismissal is reached. This was starkly conveyed when msnbc.com revealed an email exchange between two of Smith’s supervisors: the first read, “Hammer Time,” with the response, “Not yet – not enough.” Because Smith works at the TSA, a government agency, her story is now making headlines, and her chances of proper legal recourse are increased because of it.

I’d like to thank the Washington Post for allowing me to present a Pagan perspective on this important story, and I hope you’ll head over, read it, and share it with others.

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.

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.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is publishing a new report today on attitudes towards religion, and the results don’t seem to be very favorable for religious minorities in that country.

“Distrust of Muslims and hostility towards homosexuals and pagans remain widespread in Australia, a new Australian Human Rights Commission report to be published today says. […] genuine religious differences have not become any easier to manage. Pagans (nature-based religions, such as Wicca) in particular claim to face prejudice and discrimination.”

The Pagan Awareness Network in Australia has issued a press release on the matter, noting the many challenges that adherents to modern Pagan faiths still face.

“This is something we have been saying for years,” Pagan Awareness Network President David Garland said today. “Imagine going to the Family Court during a bitter custody battle and having to explain under cross-examination that you practice Wicca, or Druidism, or another pagan spirituality. Imagine the stress, fearing you will lose custody of your children simply because you follow a minority religion. Or imagine being at school, and being ordered to take off the five-pointed star you wear around your neck because it is supposedly an “occult symbol”, while your Jewish classmates can continue to wear their six-pointed stars. Not to mention the Christian kids with their crosses, Muslim girls with their headscarves and all the other religious traditions out there. It is absurd that existing anti-discrimination laws don’t protect pagans in this kind of situation.

There were rumblings about this uneasiness towards Pagans in Australia back in September of 2010 when the commission issued a draft of the survey results and gained attention for the stark animus some Australians had towards Witches and Pagans.

Hilda Simpson argues that Christian groups should not be forced to hire ”practising homosexuals, promiscuous heterosexuals or believers in witchcraft”. Witches, pornography supporters and homosexuals dismay Glen and Joy Vonhoff, while Gail Osmak identifies ”fortune telling, sorcery, witchcraft [as] of real concern”. C. L. Miller is more trenchant: ‘‘It would be an egregious mistake to treat the malignancy of witchcraft and its occult devil-worshipping practices as if it were a benevolent, benign and misunderstood belief system … The original anti-witchcraft laws were based on authentic reasons, not whims.”

While some tried to explain away the anti-Pagan remarks as a glitch in the data due to a surplus of “elderly church leaders who happen to be male and anti-Muslim and gays and pagans and witches,” it seems the concern was real enough to make an impression in the final report.

The 2006 Australian census found that there were around 30,000 Pagans in the country, making them a significant religious minority. Or as Pagan Awareness Network puts it: “Pagans outnumber the Sikh, Jain, Quaker and Taoist communities in Australia combined.” Pagans from and in Australia recently made a major impression at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in late 2009, but have also faced a seemingly regular barrage of scorn, hostility, and prejudice from politicians, religious leaders, and media pundits. We shouldn’t forget that despite the fact that Australia currently boasts an atheist Prime Minister, the country’s two dominant political parties participated in an 2010 election-season event that was closed to non-Christians and broadcasted only to Christian churches. So there’s clearly a lot of work to do before modern Pagans, and other religious minorities, are treated with the respect and dignity they are entitled to.

It remains to be seen what recommendations the Human Rights Commission might make to the government on its findings, if any. Once a copy of “Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia” is posted to the Australian Human Rights Commission web site, I’ll update with more information and a link.

ADDENDUM: You can download the commission’s report, here.

Here’s a brief excerpt from their section on Paganism in Australia.

“Paganism is an umbrella term that covers a number of nature-based spiritual traditions. The consultations and submissions revealed significant areas of concern regarding paganism and pagans’ ability to practice their faith in Australia. Pagans believe that the lack of information or understanding of their faith complicates issues; many in the wider community assume that Satanism is a part of paganism, when it is separate and distinct.Recognition was raised as the biggest issue that underlies other matters. According to the Pagan Awareness Network, there are approximately 30 000 people in Australia who follow a pagan or nature-based religion, andthis is confirmed by the 2006 Census, which also shows the significant, recent growth of paganism.”

The study also notes that improving attitudes towards indigenous religions may also benefit modern Pagan faiths.

“Indigenous people’s freedom of religion and belief need to be protected in the same way as those of other groups. At one time recognised as legitimate religions and spiritualities, Indigenous religions and spiritualitiesare now swept up in the blanket-dismissal of pagan religions and beliefs, and are officially disparaged anddiscriminated against by some religious groups in Australia. Coming to appreciate Indigenous religions and spiritualities may assist these groups to re-examine the basis for and practice of their dismissal of pagan spiritualities, which include most of the earth-based, nature, and Wiccan spiritualities current in Australia.

These quotes are just from a cursory scan, I’ll no doubt have more to say on this later.

Halferty Unrepentant: A few quick notes for you today, starting with an update on the high school industrial arts teacher in Iowa who has been put on temporary leave after telling a Wiccan student he couldn’t build an altar table in shop class. Teacher Dale Halferty of Guthrie Center High School, claims he was simply enforcing separation of Church and State, but now that he’s been informed that current local, state, and federal law allows independent religious expression by students, he’s falling back on demonizing the religious “other”.

“Personally, I think it’s offensive to worship rocks and trees,” Halferty said of Wicca, a religion based on ancient beliefs and a reverence for the Earth. “I am just trying to be moral. I don’t know how we can profess to be Christians and let this go on.”

What happens next is up to Halferty. If he refuses to obey the federal guidelines that specifically allow students to engage in projects like that altar table, he could be labeled “insubordinate” and brought before the school board for disciplinary action, turning himself into a would-be martyr for his faith. While anyone who understands law can see that Halferty is clearly in the wrong for his actions, I fear this is going to be held up as a case of “Christian persecution” by the usual suspects. I suppose we’ll find out on Monday.

The Not-So-Good News: Aseem Shukla, co-founder and board member of Hindu American Foundation, weighs in regarding On Faith’s panel question about the problem (if any) with proselytism overseas by U.S. religious groups. Shukla eloquently explains why there is a fundamental “asymmetric force of the proselytizer” due to the very different natures of pluralistic faiths (specifically referencing Dharma religions, Paganism, and Native religious traditions), and that proselytizers specifically target pluralistic traditions because they don’t offer the resistance that other Abrahamic faiths do.

“…there is the fact that the evangelical community can only “pick on” the pluralist societies. India, Nepal, Cambodia, Taiwan and much of Africa where indigenous traditions still hold sway, are among the targets today for the next “harvest.” The “Muslim world” rewards conversion away from Islam with death, and in China, Russia Burma and others, autocracy, the Orthodox Church or military junta proscribe missionary work.  And so, the very democracy and openness of pluralistic societies becomes their vulnerability–a poison pill as they face the onslaught of the proselytizers. Today, the Native Americans of the U.S. and Canada, the indigenous progeny of Latin America and Mexico, the Aborigines in Australia are silent witness to lost religions and decimated traditions that fell historically to earlier iterations of these onslaughts.”

HAF has been calling for adjustments in the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would explicitly protect pluralistic religions from aggressive and predatory proselytizing. I recommend reading all of Shukla’s editorial, and also checking out the response from Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, who says that “proselytizing is an ever more dangerous religious idea”.

Should UUs Respect or Reverence the Earth? In a final note, Nancy Vedder-Shults at the Tikkun Daily Blog discusses the ongoing debate over revising the language of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s seven principles (an ongoing and oft-contentious process). In this instance, whether the seventh principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”, should have “respect” changed to “reverence”. Vedder Shults, a Pagan UU, realizes that the idea of “reverence” for the earth may be uncomfortable for many of the UU Humanists and atheists, so she offers a third option.

Then our seventh principle would read: “we covenant to honor and uphold … our need to love and care for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Vedder Shults invites feedback at her blog, I’m sure my Pagan UU readers will want to chime in.

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

Top Story: A high school industrial arts teacher in Iowa has been put on temporary leave in the wake of a controversy concerning a student who was told to stop building a Wiccan altar in shop class. Dale Halferty of Guthrie Center High School claims he was simply enforcing the separation of Church and State, and that he had prevented a Christian from building a cross previously, but school officials claim that neither of those actions actually line up with guidelines regarding religious expression at school.

“His viewpoint: “We as Christians don’t get to have our say during school time, so why should he?” School officials say Christians actually do get to express themselves in the same way. More than one school policy, as well as state and federal law, prohibit discrimination against students who express religious beliefs through school assignments. Superintendent Steve Smith and Principal Garold Thomas said they placed Halferty on leave while they conferred with the school’s attorney to decide what to do.”

In other words, Halferty was imposing his distorted idea of what the guidelines were on his students, and he makes his feelings about Wicca quite plain, calling it “terrible for our kids” because it will lead to a “dark and violent life”.  He also has the bizarre belief that school tax dollars are meant to “save” kids from Pagan religion. Meanwhile, thanks to this incident, a backlash against the Wiccan student has materialized, with 70 of the 185 students signing a petition saying they don’t want witchcraft practiced at their school.

“Both [Superintendent Steve] Smith and [Principal Garold] Thomas said the incident has become emotional for the high school’s 185 students: Almost 70 signed a petition late last week saying they didn’t want witchcraft practiced at the school.”I think it’s fear based on some of the old ideas people had about witchcraft,” Smith said. “It’s fear and a lack of knowledge about the unknown.” Neither Smith nor school officials identified the student at the center of the controversy, and the boy’s father declined a request made through Thomas to be interviewed. Smith acknowledged that some people have expressed fears about satanism or sacrifices.”

Locals are now engaged in hand-wringing over the school’s excessive tolerance, and the bare-bones story, without the context of Halferty’s unique views on religion at school, has hit the Associated Press wires. So expect a lot more commentary and furor over this situation in the near future. As for the high school senior, what chance does he now have for finishing out his school year without harassment and intimidation? When the student body has become a mob against him, can things truly return to normal?

Checking in With the Third Wave: AlterNet takes a broad look at the New Apostolic Reformation, aka the Third Wave of the Holy Spirit, a protestant Charismatic/Pentecostal Christian hybrid led by “Convening Apostle” C. Peter Wagner. The movement became (in)famous in recent years thanks to politician/pundit Sarah Palin’s long membership and association with the group, which places a heavy emphasis on spiritual warfare, and brags about killing and maiming Catholics and Pagans with their prayer. Now reporter Bill Berkowitz probes NAR’s deep influence with ultra-conservative politicians like Michele Bachmann (involved in anti-Pagan groups), Sam Brownback, and Jim DeMint, and their role in initiatives like California’s Proposition 8.

“In the days leading up to the historic vote on health-care reform in the Senate, Apostle Lou Engle led the Family Research Council’s “Prayercast” against health-care reform, a Webcast featuring Republican Senators Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Sam Brownback (Kans.), and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). Earlier in the year, Engle, who leads the group TheCall, prayed over Newt Gingrich at a Virginia event called Rediscovering God in America. In 2008, Engle, at an event he staged at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, advocated acts of Christian martyrdom to end abortion and same-sex marriage. This “apostle” claims LGBT people are possessed by demons.”

You may remember that I covered that “Rediscovering God in America” event, it’s the one where Newt Gingrich claimed America was “surrounded by paganism”. Berkowitz goes on to interview Rachel Tabachnick, who writes for Talk2Action, and who has done a remarkable amount of research into the NAR/Third Wave movement. Here’s her follow-up commentary on Berkowitz’s article/interview, and a resource directory of the NAR/Third Wave movement. As I’ve intimated here before, this movement is rabidly anti-Pagan, and would have no compunctions about using their political and fiscal muscle against us. Their rise to power is deeply troubling, because unlike the “Moral Majority” or “Religious Right” of ages past their agenda isn’t limited to enacting conservative social policy, but instead calls for the aggressive spiritual destruction of all who they see as enemies (and anyone who worships the “Queen of Heaven” is considered their enemy). So let’s keep our eyes open, and be aware  of who your elected representatives are associating themselves with.

War of Words in South Africa: The South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) has lodged a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission against allegedly libelous statements made by Traditional Healers Organization national coordinator Phephisile Maseko.

“Maseko’s repeated allegation that muthi murderers are “witches” practicing “witchcraft” remains untrue and defamatory. This Alliance demands that the South African Human Rights Commission (1.) properly investigates repeated libelous allegations made by Phephisile Maseko against South African Witches, (2.) makes a ruling regarding the innocence of self-identified Witches with regard to allegations made by Maseko that we are responsible for the commission of muthi murders, and (3.) instructs the Traditional Healers Organization national coordinator to cease making libelous statements against South African Witches.”

However, Maseko is unmoved by SAPRA’s position concerning the use of the word “witch”, saying their complaint amounts to little more than white privilege.

“Let’s be honest here — a witch is a witch and everybody in the country knows that. Publicly calling yourself a witch in South Africa smacks of white privilege. In a village or township, you’d be dead even before completing your proclamation. Sapra must accept that we speak different languages and live in different areas”

This latest development seems to be driving a wedge between South Africa’s traditional healers and South Africa’s Pagan community. Despite my sympathies towards the Pagans in South Africa, it is rather plain that Maseko and SAPRA are using the term “witch” in very different contexts, and that the two sides are talking past each other. While I don’t agree with South African Parliament member, and out Pagan, Adrian Williams that they should abandon the term “witch” in order to foster better relations with traditional healers, there must be some sort of understanding that can be reached between the two communities regarding terminology. Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail.

How to Become the Last Great Pagan: Cristiana Sogno, Ph.D., assistant professor of classics at Fordham University explains how 4th century Roman statesman Quintus Aurelius Symmachus became known as the “last great pagan”.

“As it turns out, that dubious moniker was foisted on Symmachus by allies of his most prominent rival, St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, according to Cristiana Sogno, Ph.D., assistant professor of classics at Fordham. In her presentation on Jan. 27, “How Did Symmachus Become the Last Great Pagan?” Sogno explained that Symmachus was the victim of a classic political tactic—victors extolling the strength of their opponents to make their own accomplishments seem even greater. The seeds of the nickname were sown in a report, or relatio, issued in 384 A.D. to the 12-year-old Western emperor, Valentinian II, in which Symmachus mounted a defense of the traditional religion of Rome. “There can be little doubt that the relatio is a beautifully constructed speech, and by far the most appealing piece of writing produced by Symmachus. Its compelling plea for religious toleration—in contrast with the almost fanatical intolerance that transpires from St. Ambrose—makes the text closer to the sensibilities of 21st century readers,” she said. The problem, Sogno said, is that Symmachus never published it.”

So there you are, posthumous praise from Christians looking to make their own victories more impressive hoisted a humble statesman and man of letters into lasting prominence. Luckily we are now living in an age where the term “last great pagan” is increasingly outdated. We can argue as to who among our growing numbers are truly “great”, but we most likely won’t have to worry about there being a “last” great pagan thinker any time soon.

The Horror of Pagan Felt: Behold! The Muppet Wicker Man Comic.

Funny yet deeply disturbing at the same time.

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