Archives For First Amendment

[Articles like the one below take time, resources, research and money. If you like our work and want to help us continue to share stories about Pagan involvement in religious freedom efforts and other similar news, please consider donating to our fall fundraising efforts and sharing our IndieGoGo link. Your contributions and support are what make our work possible. Thank you very much.]

In Florida last week, a moment happened that some members of religious minorities have been anticipating since the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruling on sectarian prayer at public meetings. An elected official walked out rather than hear an invocation given by a Pagan. Now, due to similar religious freedom efforts by that same Pagan, the local school board may face a lawsuit for discriminating against minority faiths.

David Suhor [Courtesy image]

David Suhor [Courtesy image]

David Suhor, who describes himself as “an APPLE Biter – that’s an Agnostic Pagan Pantheist Living Existentially and biting every apple I want to,” firmly believes that a moment of silence is the only way for public bodies to be inclusive when they incorporate prayer into meetings. He has been using the language of the Greece v Galloway SCOTUS decision to push that agenda. The court held that prayers are acceptable so long as a policy of nondiscrimination is followed.

Suhor has been repeatedly asking permission to offer a prayer before several boards in Escambia County, Florida. The video of Suhor calling to the quarters singing a prayer written by Starhawk with accompanying magical gestures quickly went viral, to the delight of Atheists and others troubled by the SCOTUS decision.

In this video, he stands before the County Commission. However, the county’s school board has repeatedly rejected his requests.

“The resistance is unique to each board,” Suhor said when reached for comment. “The County Commission and school board let each of the five commissioners choose who gives a prayer. The [school] board [members] all said no. [On the] County Commission, the chairman accepted, [but it] took a little pushback before he accepted. My goal is each and every member should be willing to be welcoming of anyone if they’re going [to have prayer, but my] goal is really a moment of silence.”

What Suhor calls “pushback” has been called “pushy and off-putting” by one of those being pushed, school board member Jeff Bergosh. In Suhor’s campaign to have the school board’s meetings follow the same prayer protocol as expected in the classroom (a moment of silence), Suhor has been theatrical. He told a local news reporter that he may choose to pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Satan if his requests continue to be denied.  On one occasion, he unrolled a prayer mat and chanted while a Christian invocation was delivered. Bergosh characterized this act as distracting, saying on his blog, “I’lll leave the room and come back after, or wear Bose noise cancelling headphones,” rather than witness “disrespectful” behavior during an invocation.

Suhor has also threatened legal action, which prompted the school board to consult its attorney, Donna Waters. “At present, I don’t see that the board has to change its past practice (of holding invocations),” Waters said, adding “that practice does carry some degree of risk for litigation.”

Suhor’s push to force local boards into abandoning the use of an opening invocation goes back long before the controversial SCOTUS decision. “The tradition of allowing each board member to choose who will give the prayer means that they tend to pick their own religion,” he said, “and I’ve sat through a lot of Christian prayers.” He points to his difficulty getting on the calendar; he did it once before at a County Commissioners’ meeting two years ago.  But he has been repeatedly rebuffed by the school board. “No one wants to stand for a minority religion,” he said.

Seal_of_Escambia_County,_FloridaWhat do other local members of those minority religions think about the firestorm Suhor has created? The reactions are generally positive, although the specific content of his prayer is sometimes questioned. While Suhor has participated in Pagan observances at a Unitarian Universalist church, he isn’t well known in the local Pagan community, being mostly solitary. Rev. Edward Livingston of the Fire Dance Church of Wicca said of Suhor:

He has never attended our church or taken part in the greater Pagan community. But not all Pagans like to work in groups or circle with others. I support his challenges to the legal and governmental system, but I also see him as doing this to make them stop using invocations and prayer, but a moment of silence instead. He has said to me he would consider all invocations and prayers outside the normal local top three religions until they change the rules. We are not as political as he is, we are a small Wiccan/Pagan church that provides a ritual 8 times a year for those who want to circle with others.

Cynthia Jurkovic is an ordained Priestess-Hierophant of the Fellowship of Isis who also lives in the panhandle of Florida. She supports Suhor’s goals, but questions his methods. Jurkovic said:

After reading the article about this incident in Escambia County, and watching the news clip from WEAR 3, I have a few thoughts to share. First, I totally agree that if prayer is to be allowed before any meeting of government bodies or other institutions, all spiritual/religious traditions should be given the opportunity to offer a prayer.

Likewise, I support David Suhor’s right to step up to offer Pagan prayers at these government functions. Where I feel he took a wrong turn is in what he presented at this meeting. Invoking the elements is not in alignment with the intention of speaking a prayer to a higher power, however you name it, for wisdom and guidance in decision making, and working toward the highest good regarding the outcome of the meeting.

I thought it was ridiculous that he sang elemental quarter calls. He was not there to cast a ritual circle. The elements are not the same as deities. Why did he not say a prayer to Pagan deities suitable to the intention of the meeting? It appears to me that by coming before the assembled people and then singing elemental quarter calls, complete with gesticulation, that he was purposefully irritating and provoking a dramatic response. This was completely inappropriate!

For Suhor’s part, he’s a musician, and explains that he’s more comfortable singing in public than speaking. “I wasn’t going over the top,” he said, “just expressing as fully as I knew by calling the quarters.” Identifying as a Pantheist, his view on the divine nature of the elements differs from Jurkovic’s. In response to the criticism that the invocation was too long, Suhor responds that he’s sat through many Christian prayers that were longer.

Was he “purposefully irritating and provoking a dramatic response,” as Jurkovic believes? He told one reporter, “In a way I would like for other people to experience what it’s like when I go to a meeting and am asked to pray against my conscience.”

And what about that County Commissioner who walked out? He told a television news reporter, “I’m just not going to have a Pagan or Satanic minister pray for me.” Commissioner Wilson Robertson was not able to be reached for this story, so it is unclear if he’s conflated those two terms, ascribing them both to Suhor, or if he doesn’t care either way.

As for the Escambia County School Board, it continues to be recalcitrant. The Wild Hunt will be watching this story as it develops.

The Arkansas Times, at their blog, notice that there’s something going on in the town of Beebe.

“Heard of the Seekers Temple? If not, I expect you will before long. It’s a pagan temple and store that says it has run into a slew of headaches in attempting to pursue its business and religion in Beebe, Ark. Bertram and Felicia Dahl, the high priest and priestess of Seekers Temple, have this extensive account, “Problems in Beebe.” They say Beebe officials had welcomed their move from El Paso until they found out they were pagans.”

As the Arkansas Times noted, the Dahl’s narrative is eye-opening, and a reminder of how local officials can work against you if they don’t like who you are, or what you believe.

Seekers Temple“Mayor Robertson said that we were not zoned for a church or business, so we pointed out two churches across the street.  He said that our side of the street is not zoned for it, so we pointed out commercial property for sale next to us and a business out of a barn next to that and a business out of a house next to that (run by our alderman).  He said that the business zone ends at our property and was not allowed from there on down, so we pointed out a business next to us on the other side, run out of a home.  He said that in Beebe, they zone individual property and ours was not zoned for it, so we ask what we had to do to get it re-zoned.  He said we do not have enough parking, so we pointed out that we have more parking than some of the restaurants in town and much more than the other businesses run out of homes.  He said there was no way we were having our church there, so we ask about just opening the store and keeping our group as a small in-house meeting of friends.  He admitted that he can not stop us from having friends over, but that he would be watching and he would break it up if we had too many people over (true to his word, police sit and watch our house often).  He said we would have to speak with the city attorney about opening a store and what we could have in it and he would have that person call us (this never happened) and that was the end of our meeting.  We have ask many times since then, but he has not granted us another meeting.”

It gets worse, as there have been accusations of continual harassment by a local Christian church, and the arrest of Bertram Dahl when he tried to appeal to the church on their own property.

“On 2014 May 21, as the members of the church were gathering, I walked into the church and ask for there attention.  I told them what was going on and how the Pastor (which is who we thought the Bishop was at the time) and the Elders were ignoring our pleas.  I asserted that we did not believe they would all approve of what was going on and ask for their help in talking to their church leaders about not harassing us.  I left the church and went home in the hopes of having a meeting with some of the members and finding a solution.  Instead of having members show up, I was ask to come out of my home by three police officers and told we were no longer welcome at the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church.  The officers told me I would have to take the matter to the courts and they left.  I have not been over there since.   

    The next week, to the day, 2014 May 28, two officers came and arrested me for Disorderly Conduct and Harassing Communications.  This had been filled by Jason E. Scheel (who had in fact harassed us) and John Scheel (whom we have never met nor talked to).  The City must have informed Mr. Scheel that they were coming to arrest me as is evident by his sitting in a car across the street watching me be arrested (may I also point out at this time that they did NOT read me my rights).  We had to pay $320 to get me out of jail with a plea date of July 9.”

On the Seeker’s Temple’s official Facebook page, they further clarify their current status.

Seekers Temple house (Google maps).

Seekers Temple house (Google maps).

“Thank you to all the people who are giving us suggestions. We need to be clear on a few things that seem to be confusing.  We are not a new temple trying to open. We have in fact been open, and legal, for over five years. The reason Beebe is an issue is because we moved here.  We do not have the money for a legal battle and that is why we are asking for your help. We need letters saying you want us open in Beebe and we need people to stand with us at city hall to show that the public wants us to exist. All of this is spelled out at www.seekerstemple.com/problems-in-beebe . Please, before you comment, go read the story.  And truly, thank you all for taking your time to get involved at whatever level you are able. Blessed Be you All.”

Unlike other cases, I don’t think this is one where the local mayor will be easily pressured into grudging tolerance. As the Arkansas Times points outMayor Mike Robertson has some firm ideas of who should be in control (ie Christians). 

“Please remember in the coming November election for leaders of this nation to elect only those who will stand firm doing the will of God and not their will. If placing God or the simple mentioning of his holy name in this newsletter is offensive to some; so be it. I do not and will not apologize, ever, for giving him the praise he is due for all that he has done for our blessed country. Not now, not ever in the future, should we turn our backs to our creator.”

So what happens next? The temple is asking for fiscal, legal, and local support to help them navigate this seeming attempt to run them out of town through the exercise of “soft” power.

“We are asking that people show up at City Hall at 6:30pm on the fourth Monday of each month until we are heard and/or donate to Seekers Temple by mail or at PayPal account SeekersTemple@yahoo.com and/or write your letter of support in opening our temple and store in Beebe, AR. and send it to our address or by email to Priest@SeekersTemple.com”

The Wild Hunt is currently seeking an interview with Bertram and Felicia Dahl, and we should hopefully have that up later this week. In the meantime, it sounds like Arkansas Pagans have problems in Beebe, and it may be time for national Pagan organizations to step in and offer help.

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.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

  • You would think that all conservative evangelical Christians would be cheering the recent Supreme Court prayer ruling, but some have misgivings about the ramifications. Quote: “The court’s ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway is being widely celebrated by evangelicals as a victory. Is it? Or have we rendered unto Caesar a franchise to pray, otherwise thought to be a privilege of conversing with God that we ascribe to his followers?” Meanwhile, another evangelical Christian says that they’ll have to accept that praying Pagans comes with this victory. Quote: “Zarpentine’s prayer illuminates the issues: Did the town of Greece officially beseech Athena and Apollo for wisdom? Was the local government endorsing paganism? Did the use of we imply the approval and participation of everyone in attendance? Should Christians be troubled by prayers to false gods? Should they protest? If they did so, would they have trouble presenting their other business to the board? Now apply those questions to explicit Christian prayers. […] From a Christian perspective, of course, not all prayers are efficacious. But we’d rather the pagans pray as pagans than eliminate prayer altogether.”
  • In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on prayer before government meetings, the New York Times profiles Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund). Quote: “These are heady days for Alliance Defending Freedom, which, with its $40 million annual budget, 40-plus staff lawyers and hundreds of affiliated lawyers, has emerged as the largest legal force of the religious right, arguing hundreds of pro bono cases across the country. It has helped shift the emphasis of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution. For decades, courts leaned toward keeping religion out of public spaces. Today, thanks to cases won by the alliance and other legal teams focused on Christian causes, the momentum has tilted toward allowing religious practices with fewer restrictions.” This Christian, socially conservative, version of the ACLU has been behind almost every major court case involving issues like public invocations, same-sex marriage, abortion, and other hot-button issues that invigorate their supporters.
  • The Chief Justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court seemingly believes that First Amendment protections only apply to Christians, at least until he’s called out on it. Quote: “Speaking at an event in Mississippi in January, the chief justice stated that the United States was founded on the Biblical scriptures. He claimed Americans had been “deceived” about the meaning of the word “religion” in the First Amendment. He suggested the word referred only to Christianity. […] Moore said Monday that the First Amendment protected all religions, not just Christianity. ‘It applies to the rights God gave us to be free in our modes of thinking, and as far as religious liberty to all people, regardless of what they believe,’ Moore told the Montgomery Advertiser.” So, no worries, I’m sure he’ll be totally fair to non-Christians when ruling on cases.
  • Is the world of Protestant Christianity about to rocked by sex scandals on a scale that would dwarf the Catholic Church? That’s the argument in an engrossing long-form article at American Prospect. Quote: “For years, Protestants have assumed they were immune to the abuses perpetrated by celibate Catholic priests. But Tchividjian believes that Protestant churches, groups, and schools have been worse than Catholics in their response. Mission fields, he says, are “magnets” for would-be molesters; ministries and schools do not understand the dynamics of abuse; and “good ol’ boy” networks routinely cover up victims’ stories to protect their reputations. He fears it is only a matter of time before it all blows up in their faces and threatens the survival of powerful Protestant institutions.” 
  • Is meditation overrated? Scientific American thinks it might be. Quote: “Many people who meditate believe that the practice makes them healthier and happier, and a growing number of studies suggest the same. Yet some scientists have argued that much of this research has been poorly designed. To address this issue, Johns Hopkins University researchers carefully reviewed published clinical trials and found that although meditation seems to provide modest relief for anxiety, depression and pain, more high-quality work is needed before the effect of meditation on other ailments can be judged.”
  • PopMatters reviews Ronald Hutton’s “Pagan Britain,” and finds it to be a “magical history tour.” Quote: “In conclusion, four-hundred pages of this solidly presented, thoughtful narrative (given the sheer mass of material to sift through and present for both a scholarly and a mainstream audience, no small feat; my only regrets are too few maps and few typos) repeat a characteristic humility for this affable yet eminent scholar of paganism. This is a big book on a vast subject, presented intelligently. It reminds us of how quickly academic “proof” can shift, and the 20-odd years since his 1991 study reveal how technology and our own mentalities filter into dim corners of the past.”

  • Occult comic book character John Constantine will be coming to NBC in the Fall, and a trailer for the show has already been released. Quote: “Executive produced by David S. Goyer (“Man of Steel,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) and Daniel Cerone (“Dexter,” “The Mentalist”), the series stars Matt Ryan (“Criminal Minds”) as John Constantine, a master of the occult with a “wickedly naughty wit.” The cast also includes Lucy Griffiths (“True Blood”) as Liv, Harold Perrineau (“Lost”) as the “authoritative angel” Manny, and Charles Halford (“True Detective”) as Constantine’s good friend Chas.” As an old-school fan of the character (as in, I think Jamie Delano’s run in the comic was the definitive take) I have to say it does seem very John Constantine-y.
  • The Pew Forum has released a report on the shifting religious landscape of America’s Latino population, and includes a section on “the spirit world.” Quote: “Some Latinos take part in other forms of spiritual expression that may reflect a mix of Christian and indigenous influences. For instance, a majority of Latinos say they believe people can be possessed by spirits, and about three-in-ten say they have made offerings to spiritual beings or saints. Whether these practices derive mainly from indigenous or traditional Christian sources – or a combination of the two – they point to a strong sense of the spirit world in the everyday lives of many Latinos.”
  • Are hipsters the perfect source for occult revival? Quote: “The real factors behind an occult renaissance may be the Twitter-fication of society, in which everything we say and do is supposedly significant, along with a culture that prizes personal expression and defines ‘authenticity’ as constantly remaining one step ahead of popular trends. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the magician Aleister Crowley said that, ‘Every man and woman is a star.’ This magical utterance is truer now than ever before.”
  • What can be done to stop the looting of antiquities in Egypt? There seems to be no consensus on how to solve the issue. Quote: “Looting in Egypt has reached crisis point, but there is widespread disagreement over the best way to stop the theft and illegal trade of antiquities. Cultural heritage experts in the US have signed a pact to tackle the issue, and companies such as eBay and Christie’s have pledged their support. Meanwhile, ordinary Egyptians are turning to Twitter to try to save their heritage. Monica Hanna, the Egyptian archaeologist who tweeted for help last August after thieves swept through the Malawi National Museum in Minya, is campaigning to create watchdog groups around Egypt who will use social media to alert others to looting. Public pressure is also causing the US government to act.”

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.

It is all over the mainstream news from local papers to The Washington Post: “Wiccans Sue City over Ten Commandments.” Yes this story is true. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico filed a lawsuit in February on behalf of two Wiccan practitioners who were offended by the installation of a Ten Commandments monument on City Hall property in their hometown of Bloomfield, New Mexico. The lawsuit went before a U.S. District Court Monday drawing national media attention.

bloomfield nm

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

The narrative isn’t new but the players are. Wiccans fill the plaintiffs role instead the widely expected Atheists or Humanists. In this case, the two plaintiffs are Bloomfield residents Janie Felix and Buford Coone, both members of the Order of the Cauldron of the Sage. Janie is a certified clinical herbalist and High Priestess of the group. In 2000 she moved to Bloomfield New Mexico  where she began teaching Wicca 101 and herbalism at the local metaphysical shop. She says:

I quickly found there were many like-minded folks, some not knowing where to turn, some practicing solitaries and some merely dabbling. Over a period of time we formed a spiritual group, and eventually a formal coven.

Janie Felix

Janie Felix

Janie’s home now serves as the covenstead with a permanent ritual site in the backyard. That site and Buford’s home are both less than 2 miles from City Hall where the problems all began.

On April 3, 2007, Bloomfield’s Councilor Kevin Mauzy “made a presentation of a monument to display the Ten Commandments in front of Bloomfield City Hall serving as a historical and art display for the city.” As noted in the official meeting minutes, the proposal was approved and the funds were to come from “private donations from the community.” In testimony this past week, The Albuquerque Journal reports Mauzy saying, “[The monument] was not for religious purposes. It was for historical purposes and to beautify the city.”

After the approval, the Council adopted a resolution permitting private “citizens, groups and organizations” to sponsor displays on City Hall’s lawn. The official resolution outlined the scope and approval process for such an installation. For example one requirement states that all displays must reflect the “history and heritage of the City’s law and government.”

There was an almost immediate outcry from people of many religious backgrounds. At the 2007 meeting, the City Manager urged the Council to delay the monument’s approval until legal concerns were addressed. Opponents spoke at council meetings, sent letters-to-the-editor and signed petitions. One Bloomfield citizen even launched a blog called: “Bloomfield NM Ten Commandments Monument.” In one of the few entries, the writer includes a published letter to editor of The Farmington Daily Times. His words prophetically state:

Perhaps saddest of all, the City Council will no doubt cost the small town of Bloomfield large amounts of taxpayer dollars in legal fees in an attempt to defend this unconstitutional course.

Despite the myriad protests, the monument was erected in June 2011.

Present at the unveiling was Debra Dogget, volunteer coordinator of Ardantane Pagan Learning Center, former Bloomfield resident and former member of the Order of the Cauldron of the Sage. Debra says, “It was very much a religious ceremony … with a great deal of talk about the Ten Commandments being the foundation of law in the US.”

In the ACLU’s complaint , Buford Coone is recorded as saying the “display shows that the City favors the Christian religion and supports Christianity over other religions [and] … violates the U.S. Constitution and the New Mexico Constitution.” In the same document, Janie Felix says, “[the monument] sends a message of exclusion to those who do not adhere to that particular religion.”

Watching the situation from her own home in New Mexico is Amber K, a Wiccan Priestess and executive director of Ardantane.  She says:

New Mexico is home to hundreds of different religious faiths, traditions, denominations and sects, who should be able to expect that government agencies will perform its duties in an unbiased, even-handed, secular manner, respecting no creed above any other. New Mexicans can be proud that citizens of many cultures and beliefs live together in mutual respect; the Bloomfield monument threatens and disrespects that fine tradition.

Debra Doggett

Debra Doggett

Amber’s statement supports Janie’s own observations about the region. She notes that there are Muslims, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Atheists, Baptists, other Protestant denominations and, in nearby Farmington, a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. In addition, the region has at least two CUUPS chapters, Ardantane Pagan Learning Center and Covenant of the Goddess’ Albquerque-based local council Chamisa. Janie also adds that the area boasts “a strong presence of Native Americans following traditional paths.”

Despite this diversity, both Janie and Debra agree that the immediate Bloomfield area has become more religiously conservative. Debra says:

The climate in Bloomfield, at least for those who work for the city, is very much controlled by Christianity and those who don’t tow that line are very much in fear of losing their jobs. There [were] many more folks who were approached to be plaintiffs … but several of them work for the City of Bloomfield and they fear for their jobs … They knew they would lose them if they agreed to sue.

But why sue? Why not simply fund a monument per the city’s resolution?  Debra points out that news articles got that point wrong. She says that there “is no longer any room for more” monuments. “The group that funded the Ten Commandments has [used] up” all the allotted space.

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

“That group” is the Four Corners Historical Monument Project which was led by councilor Kevin Mauzy himself. Twenty-one days after the 2011 monument ceremony, the Council amended the 2007 resolution stressing the limits of usable lawn space. Later that year, the group installed two other monuments, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, within that limited space.

Was the original monument actually the city council’s endorsement of the private religious beliefs of its sitting councilors?  The ACLU believes so. The organization has been watching since 2007. After sending letters-of-concern and launching an investigation, the ACLU finally decided to file a lawsuit on Feb. 9, 2014. According to the filed complaint:

The City of Bloomfield accorded preferential treatment to the monument’s sponsors, disregarding many city ordinances and policy requirements that would regulate the monument’s installation. Public records requests also reveal that Mauzy sought and received legal advice on the monument from the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization that often advocates for the merging of government and religion.

On Monday, March 10, the case went to trial before U.S. District Judge James A. Parker in Albuquerque. Janie and Buford were both there to testify. The trial ended Thursday but the Judge is not expected to make a ruling for several weeks or even months.

On advisement from her attorneys, Janie was unable to comment further on the case. However she did say that she will be happy to share her experiences with The Wild Hunt at a future date. Until then we will have to wait to see how the next chapter in the story is written.

This past week Hawaii’s New Hope Churches agreed to settle a lawsuit originally filed in March 2013 by citizen activists Mitchell Kahle and Holly Huber. The “qui tam whistle-blower” lawsuit argues that these New Hope churches misrepresented time spent renting public school facilities costing the school millions in lost revenue. In an August press release, the plaintiffs claim that there has in fact been “widespread abuse and outright fraud perpetrated by churches often with the explicit approval or knowledge of school principals and/or their designees.”

Honolulu

Honolulu

The New Hope Churches make up only 3 of the 5 original defendants. Along with New Hope, the Calvary Chapel of Central Oahu and One Love Ministries were also accused of falsifying records to avoid paying rental and utility fees. The plaintiffs estimate that New Hope Oahu alone owes 3.2 million for the rental of Farrington High School. In their press release, Kahle and Huber claim:

There is long‐standing and widespread abuse in the DOE’s “Community Use of School Facilities Program.” The abuse has cost taxpayers millions of dollars in lost revenue, and million‐dollar losses are continuing every year because of unpaid rental fees and utilities charges by literally hundreds of churches operating out of nearly as many public schools.  [We] have called for the entire program to be audited, reformed and for all monies owing to be collected.

Following the August hearings, two of the churches fired back asking for the case to be dismissed. In October, the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of the Calvary Chapel of Oahu and One Love Ministries filed such a request arguing that “[The school system] was fully aware of the terms and conditions of use … That’s not fraud.” In December the court granted that request but also has allowed the plaintiffs 45 days to re-file their complaints. In response attorney Jim Bickerton said, “If you think about it, what has been the result here? We are just going to put more detail into the public record. How that advances the churches cause I’m not sure.”

Then Wednesday, Feb. 12, the Hope Churches announced that they would settle rather than undergo a costly legal battle. Through their parent company, the three churches will pay $775,000 of which $200,000 will go to plaintiffs Kahle and Huber for bringing the case to the courts. Despite the settlement, the churches never admitted to any fraudulent behavior.

Mitch Kahle

Mitch Kahle

As an atheist activist, Kahle is no stranger to this type of legislative action. In 2010 he and a friend, Kevin Hughes, publicly protested the Hawaii State Senate’s practice of opening their session with religious prayer. Kahle’s short vocal protest, captured on video, led to his arrest. He was discharged but later filed a successful lawsuit against the state for abusive action. The state awarded him $100,000 in damages. Bickerton was his attorney in the case.

Because of his protest and a follow-up by the American Civil Liberties Union, Hawaii became the first state to ban prayer in its legislative body. Kahle went on to file several other related lawsuits; the results of which are unclear.

As suggested by past activities, Kahle’s interest in the current church situation is not the protection of children, the funding of education or the recuperation of tax payer dollars. He is solely interested in ejecting religion from the public sphere. Kahle said, “The state was subsidizing the churches for many, many years.” That amounts to church-sponsored religion.

The churches’ failure to pay the appropriate rental fees does not truly equate to a loss of taxpayer funds or subsidizing. The school buildings would sit empty otherwise costing money to maintain either way. Whether the churches committed fraud and whether the school board knew is an entirely different issue and up to the courts.

However Kahle raised a valid question. Is any of this legal?  If so, should it be? Should churches or any religious institution be allowed to conduct services, collect money and preach their gospel on government school property? Does this practice violate the Constitution? If religious groups can rent public parks and other similar community facilities, why not schools? Are schools different?

Photo Courtesy of "Beyond My Ken" (Wikipedia CC License)

Photo Courtesy of “Beyond My Ken” (Wikipedia CC License)

In 2012 the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) refused to hear a case that asked this very question. In Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, a US Federal Appeals Court upheld a newly instated New York City School Board policy  banning the rental of public school buildings to groups that “discriminate on the basis of race or religion.” The NYC School Board believes that this practice “improperly advances religion.” SCOTUS’ refused to hear the case leaving all regulation up to the municipalities. In 2013 over 60 New York City churches had to find new accommodations for their Sunday services.

Does a Sunday sermon in an empty school building “advance religion?” If the buildings are unused and only costing taxpayer money, why not rent them out to anyone willing to pay the fees? Often renting a school is cheaper and more convenient than renting a private facility. USA Today highlighted this topic in a 2010 article entitled, “Instant churches convert public schools to worship spaces.” The article points out that these “instant” churches rent the low cost space temporarily while collecting donations to be used toward the tax-free purchase of their own space. Is that simple economics or problematic loop-hole?

School Gymnasium Photo Courtesy of David Shankbone

School Gymnasium Photo Courtesy of David Shankbone

Of course, there is one line that has yet to be crossed. What if the renting church was not Christian? Consider the words of Lifeway vice president Ed Stetzer,

So if a Wiccan coven wanted a use permit, you would have to be as neutral as you would with an evangelical church. … You would have no way to stop them.

Lifeway, a Christian resource company, is a supporter of school rentals. However as Stetzer points out, what’s good for Christian churches is good for everyone else. If schools do choose to rent the facility to religious organizations, they must rent uniformly. This Constitutional caveat clearly scares Lifeway’s Vice President.

Hawaii’s Department of Education, like many other school districts, makes it very clear that the possibility is real. Chapter 39 of its Administrate Rules states:

All public school buildings, facilities, and grounds shall be available for general recreational purposes and for public and community use whenever these activities do not interfere with the normal and usual activities of the school and its pupils as provided by law.  This general rule shall be carried out within the policy of the department of education that no available public school building, facility or grounds shall be denied for use by the public and community on the grounds of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin or disability.

Stetzer is correct. There would be no way to stop a Pagan or Heathen group from renting a school facility in order to host a religious ritual or class over a weekend.

In general these rental practices are supported legally through Board policy across the country. Money earned defers the cost of maintaining a large, expensive facility. Regardless we must return to the original question posed by Kahle’s activism and the NYC case. Does this activity amount to the government sponsorship of religion, whether that religion is Pagan, Heathen, Jewish, Hindu or Christian?  Does renting the school grounds to churches of any faith “advance religion?” If not, where and how should the lines be drawn and who should be monitoring the practice?

 

On Sunday, Politico published a lengthy piece exploring why Christian pseudo-historian David Barton has retained his political influence and popularity despite recent blunders with his highly questionable view of history. In short, he never backed down, accused his critics of being partisan operatives, and simply waited for the attention span of the American public to move on.

David Barton

David Barton

“Barton has bounced back. He has retained his popular following and his political appeal — in large part, analysts say, because he brings an air of sober-minded scholarship to the culture wars, framing the modern-day agenda of the religious right as a return to the Founding Fathers’ vision for America. ‘It has been shocking how much resistance there is to critically examining what Barton says,’ said Scott Culpepper, an associate professor of history at Dordt College who has critiqued Barton’s scholarship. ‘I really underestimated the power of the political element in evangelicalism.’ In March, Barton gave his presentation on America’s biblical heritage to dozens of state legislators in Kansas. In May, he spoke at the official National Day of Prayer breakfast at the Fort Leonard Wood Army base in Missouri. He rallied activists at the National Right to Life Convention in June with a rousing speech drawing on the Declaration of Independence to make the case for abortion restrictions. Cruz followed Barton in the program and echoed his analysis to thunderous applause.”

Barton has made it clear that in addition to his normal causes, he’s willing to advise the next Republican candidate for United States President.

“Barton hints he’ll soon be back in the arena of presidential politics, advising candidates looking to appeal to the religious right. ‘I remain available to whoever wants to move that ball down the court,’ Barton told POLITICO. […] ‘Barton has huge standing among “social conservatives that make up a significant base of a caucus electorate,’ said Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican website. ‘You want to appeal to those people if you’re a Ted Cruz or a Rand Paul.'”

So what makes David Barton different from any number of conservative Christian movers and shakers? Why is The Wild Hunt paying any attention to his political (re-)ascension? Because he’s on-the-record as saying that modern Pagans don’t have constitutional rights.  Back in 2010 Barton’s organization Wall Builders sent in an amicus brief in a case coming before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that involved California’s prison chaplaincy system, a Pagan chaplain, and a policy that limited the hiring of paid chaplains to certain faiths. After a prologue explaining Barton’s bona fides as a historian, the brief gets right to the point.

“…this Brief surveys the historical data to demonstrate that no matter which of several possible definitions is correct, none of them support McCollum’s Amici’s assertion for the simple reason that the Founders did not intend the Religion Clauses to protect paganism and witchcraft […] The true historic meaning of “religion” excludes paganism and witchcraft, and thus, does not compel a conclusion that McCollum has state taxpayer standing […] paganism and witchcraft were never intended to receive the protections of the Religion Clauses. […] There are, of course, references to ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’ among the writings of the Framers, but there is no indication that those belief systems, including polytheism, are considered ‘religion.'”

There are any number of political and social views participants in a free democratic society should tolerate, but the view that religious minorities, specifically Pagans, shouldn’t have the same rights and protections as Christians isn’t one of them. The fact that Rep. Michelle Bachmann wanted Barton to teach Constitution classes to incoming members of Congress is chilling once you remember that he’s convinced the Constitution only protects Christians. So consider this post a place-holders of sorts, a reminder to watch the race for the U.S. Presidency in 2016. Anyone who would invite Barton on as an advisor, seek his endorsement, or use him as point-person for evangelical outreach is inviting someone who stands against a pluralistic and inclusive society. This isn’t about partisanship, it’s about the simple fact that our leaders, no matter their party, should accept the basic premise that religious freedom and religious protections are for all religions.

A final point: America’s Founders new exactly what their new Constitution would do, and that it would even protect us Pagans someday.

“The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”Thomas Jefferson

The notion that our Founders were blind to our possible emergence is revisionist folly.

 

Before I begin this week’s topic, I would like to acknowledge that today is Father’s Day.  As with Motherhood, becoming a father is transformative and the beginning of a life-long journey.  A very happy Father’s Day to all that walk that path offering a piece of themselves to the next generation.

Courtesy of Flickr's fruity monkey

Courtesy of Flickr’s fruity monkey

Now back to our regularly scheduled program….

Tomorrow is the 50th Anniversary of the SCOTUS ruling on the Abington School District, Pennsylvania vs.Schempp case.  What’s that?  This 1963 Supreme Court case is considered to be a major historical marker in the on-going struggle to affirm religious equality within American public schools. The Schempp ruling was an indicator of a coming cultural revolution and an acknowledgement of America’s diverse religious tapestry.

In 1956 Ellery Schempp, a 16-year-old student at Abington High School, became increasingly frustrated with the school and state policy that required students to read daily Bible passages in home room.  Ellery and his family were Unitarian Universalists and minorities in their Pennsylvania community.  The Bible readings conflicted with their personal religious beliefs.

Ellery Schempp

Ellery Schempp

One day in protest Ellery stood up and read from the Qur’an.  He was immediately sent to the Principal’s office and disciplined. But the story doesn’t end there.  With the help of his father and the ACLU of Pennsylvania (then Philadelphia), Ellery sued the Abington school district. The case worked its way up through the courts.  It was eventually merged with another similar and more famous case involving the controversial Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an Atheist activist and founder of American Atheists.

Finally, the Schempp case reached the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).  On June 17, 1963 the Court declared it unconstitutional for public schools to require mandatory Bible recitation and other similar religious activities:

Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment by Congress of any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day — even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents. (from Cornell Law School)

Pennsylvania and several other states had to immediately “scrap” the laws that mandated student participation in religious recitation activities.

The Schempp case set a legal and cultural precedent that upended the widely-accepted place of religion in public education. But it was not the first case of its kind. In an interview with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, First Amendment Scholar Steven K. Green said:

…as we mark the anniversary of these seminal decisions, we should acknowledge that they were not cases of first instance; rather, they built on a long-developing body of jurisprudence that was affirming the centrality of religious equality and church-state separation to our nation’s democratic system. 

In the brief interview, Green discusses America’s historical battle for religious equality within public education. The earliest cases were brought to trial by Catholics who didn’t want their children reading Protestant-based Bible passages or prayers.  In 1869, Ohio became the very first state to officially declare unconstitutional the practice of forced Bible recitation in public schools.

As the American population became more religiously diverse, the issue evolved beyond a Catholic- Protestant polarity. The Schempp case exposed the reality of religious diversity in the United States and opened up a new dialog concerning the separation of church and state.  And it did so as the country began to experience a dramatic social change.

Abington To Appeal Newspaper

Since the 1963 ruling there have been countless protests, backlash and legal maneuvers on all levels to bring school-sponsored prayer back into the classroom.  In the early 1980s former President Ronald Reagan proposed a new constitutional amendment that would officially allow voluntary public school prayer.  It failed to pass. Green says:

So long as lawmakers believe they can gain mileage by manipulating the school prayer issue, then there will be no end to prayer and Bible reading proposals. These efforts are cynical as they play on fears and misperceptions among religious conservatives about the Supreme Court’s holdings. Students enjoy many freedoms of religious expression in schools, but enforced religiosity is not a cure for society’s ills.

Here at The Wild Hunt we have and will continue to report on any such school cases that directly involve Pagans and Heathens (e.g. the Buncombe County situation in 2012).  However, all such cases are pertinent to all parents with school-age kids.  Legislative policies affect every child – not just the one whose parents spoke up.  What is going on in my school district?  What are my state’s policies on religion in public school?  Rev. Selena Fox, co-founder of Lady Liberty League, once said, “Having liberty and justice for all in this country may be in the Pledge of Allegiance, but it is not an automatic reality.”

Here are three very recent related cases:

  1. On June 1st in Liberty, South Carolina, Roy Costner IV paused his prepared and approved high school valedictorian speech to recite The Lord’s Prayer.  He told the media that “This is what God wanted me to do.” The event was not school-sponsored. Therefore no disciplinary action is being taken against Roy or the school.
  2. On June 13th Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law the so-called “Merry Christmas” Bill (H.B. 308).  It protects the free expression of religion, through symbols or holiday greetings, regardless of faith within public school settings. To date the new law has provoked little opposition.  The ACLU of Texas has declined to comment.
  3. On June 13th Americans United attorneys sent a letter to an Ohio school district warning them to keep creationism out of the school system. The Springboro district has planned to introduce controversial subjects such as global warming, gun rights, pro-life vs. abortion, and creationism vs. evolution.  Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United said, “Any public school contemplating teaching creationism might as well just hang up a giant banner that reads “Sue Us Now.”

There are many challenges out there and many that have yet to be addressed. Is it constitutional for religious organizations to hold services in school buildings on the weekends?  What about school vouchers and the wording of the “Pledge of Allegiance”?  Can religious clubs advertise and hold functions during school operating hours?  Is it possible to teach religion historically in a secular format without crossing the constitutional line? These are some of the questions that pop up time after time.

As a way of honoring the 1963 SCOTUS decision, Pennsylvania’s legislature has declared June “Public School Religious Freedom Month.”  While you go about your day tomorrow, take a moment to reflect on religious freedom in public education and the importance of the Establishment Clause in your own life.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  mksfly

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s mksfly

The Schempp ruling paved the way for Pagans and Heathens to be able speak out and protect the rights of their growing children. It allowed for the birth and growth of groups like the Lady Liberty League who use their resources to protect the religious freedoms of Pagan children within the public school systems.  Today our children are not forced to read The Lord’s Prayer.  But perhaps more importantly, we can readily recognize the problem when and if it occurs and we have the language and backing of SCOTUS when we say “That’s wrong.”

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

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

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

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

Jackson Middle School

Portrait Hanging in Jackson Middle School

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

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

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

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

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Our Mothers' Houseby Patricia Polacco

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Our Mothers' Houseby Patricia PolaccoToday I’m going to be a little daring and omit the long-winded, over-arching opening paragraph to get directly to the story. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Utah are suing the Davis School District, twenty-four miles outside of Salt Lake City, for removing a children’s picture book from the shelves of its elementary school libraries.  Why? The book, In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco, focuses on a family with two mothers.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a children’s literature snob.  Dr. Seuss is my Dostoevsky.  Therefore, I felt it was my duty to share this information.  Patricia Polacco, a talented and prolific author of children’s books, published In Our Mothers’ House in 2009.  It is just one of her many stories that paints a picture celebrating cultural difference.

Before I get too caught up in kvelling over the author, let me detail the case. The trouble began in late 2011 when a Windridge Elementary School kindergartner borrowed In Our Mothers’ House.  His parents were appalled and immediately complained to the school’s administration.  To appease the parents the librarian moved the book to the shelves meant for older kids.

Unsatisfied with the results, the offended parents took their case to the Davis School Board.  In the spring of 2012 the Library Steering Committee was presented with a signed petition and a series of written complaints which can be summed up best with the comment: “[The Book] normalizes a lifestyle we don’t agree with.”  (ACLU Complaint Record)

Bowing to parental pressure, the district administration ordered the book’s removal from all elementary library shelves, placing them behind the librarian’s desk. To substantiate its decision, the Board cited Utah State law for School Health Instruction 53A-13-101 that prohibits “the advocacy of homosexuality.”  To date, all students may only access the book with signed parental permission.

In a state where 58% of the population is Mormon, the reaction is not surprising. (The Davis County Chamber of Commerce) However, for local resident Tina Weber, the school’s actions were not at all acceptable.  After no response from the district, she turned to the ACLU for support. In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, she explained:

As a parent, I believe that it’s my role to help [my children] understand certain issues … I don’t believe it’s for anybody else to tell me how to raise my family.

On November 13, 2012, the ACLU filed its lawsuit. The press release read:

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Utah filed a lawsuit against the Davis School District after elementary schools in the district were instructed to remove a children’s book about a family with same-sex parents from library shelves…..Public schools cannot remove books from the library shelves because some people disagree with the books’ viewpoint.  Under the First amendment, parents can place limits on what their own children can read but they cannot restrict access to books for everybody else’s children.

Over the past few months Tina Weber has garnered the support of many local organizations including, The Utah Library Association, Utah Pride Center, Ogden OUTreach Resource Center, Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).  At this point no court dates are set and the book still sits behind the librarians’ desk.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time that In Our Mothers’ House has made waves. As reported by the Texas ACLU, Polacco’s book is currently on the banned book list for all Texas public schools. Of course, as a concerned citizen, I immediately checked with my local schools and public libraries.  I’m happy to report that In Our Mothers’ House is available here.  Fortunately, I was able to snatch up a copy before the Black Friday rush on library borrowing.

In June The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) caught up with Patricia Polacco to interview her about the book, its inspiration, and the Utah ban.

Aside from being beautiful and well-written, Polacco’s books, including In Our Mothers’ House, play an important role in an increasingly heterogeneous world. Just look at our 113th U.S. Congress. According to Pew Forum, its composition demonstrates the “continuing, gradual increase in religious diversity that mirrors trends in the country as a whole.” It will house its first Buddhist Senator, its first Hindu in either chamber, a declared “none,” an increase in Catholics as well as small population of Jews, Muslims, and Mormons.

katztushDemographics are changing and we all have get use to it.  What better way to do that than to curl up with a good book. Through her unique style of storytelling, Polacco celebrates difference by connecting us to her characters, no matter who they are and who we are, through the universal components of the human experience.  I challenge anyone to get through Our Mothers’ House with a dry eye. By its end the story evolves into something so human that none of the details matter.

In addition, Polacco demonstrates a powerful respect for family tradition, cultural heritage, the wisdom of elders, and the power of friendship. Her stories offer a window into life – many of which are autobiographical derived from her own experiences as a dyslexic child. Her books don’t preach or lecture. They aren’t political or argumentative. They are just that – stories.

Babushka Baba Yaga

In the struggle for social acceptance, not all advances are made in the court room or on the battle field.  Some of the biggest strides can be made in the home with a warm fire and a good storybook. But in Utah, that opportunity is being threatened.  As Patricia Polacco stated in her interview, the book ban is a serious First Amendment issue. And, the ACLU agreed.

Just as the government cannot censor her writing; it should not have the power to censor our access to her writing.  I make the choice on what’s appropriate for me and for my children.  And, I choose Patricia Polacco’s books. Two days ago, I read In Our Mothers’ House to my daughter. She listened intently with no questions. Perhaps, in the future, when she meets a child with two mothers, she’ll remember Marmi and Meema and just how much they loved their kids. That is how change begins. And that is what matters.

Current Polacco books in my library:

  • Rechenka’s Eggs
  • Mrs Katz and Tush
  • Pink and Say
  • Just Plain Fancy
  • Thank You, Mr Faulkner
  • Junkard Wonders
  • Babushka Baba Yaga
  • Betty Doll
  • Babushka’s Doll
  • Thunder Cake
  • The Trees of the Dancing Goats
  • In My Mothers’ House (just ordered from Amazon)

 

Heck Yea!

As a whole, we, Americans, live in a Christian-based culture. Our calendar alone demonstrates that fact. If this were a Jewish culture, we could shop at Wal-Mart on Dec 25th. If this were a Pagan culture, the 12,000 lb Times Square crystal ball would drop on Oct 31st – not Dec 31st. And the festivities would end with a mass scrying led by Ryan Seacrest himself. However, for better or worse, the framework of our culture is, at its very core, Christian.

While this Christian cultural-bias manifests differently in varying regions, it is most definitely pronounced in the South Eastern U.S. – the area studied in the Jews on First article that prompted the original question. It ain’t called the Bible Belt for nothing. Many of the most memorable evangelical icons are from the Southern U.S. such as Jerry Falwell, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Bible Man. But, if you need statistical proof, look no further than the Pew Forum demographics maps.

Until moving South, I had never felt the “otherness” that comes with being a religious minority – not Jewish or Pagan. I was raised in the relative comfort of New York’s cultural heterogeneity in which religion is a private family matter isolated from secular life. Even when God was mentioned in public school, nobody noticed. We could have been saying, “One Nation under Goats” and it would have had the same spiritual impact.

Tour BusHowever, Southern culture is very different. The South has been marinating in evangelical Christianity for so long that it permeates all aspects of southern life, even the secular. As expressed by native Georgian, Amy Ray, of the Indigo Girls, “…once you get raised on Jesus, it is kind of always a part of you even if you are a pagan.” (WNYC, 2012) In other words, in the South, goats are never confused with Gods.

Why? Historically-speaking, the South was an agrarian-based society that was founded on small towns, city squares and Friday night football. At its very center was the Church acting as both the town’s religious and social foundation. This idea is summed up in the Southern Baptist Convention’s “faith and message” statement:

“All Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society.”

And, this is how religious doctrine seeped into secular Christian culture. These small towns were, and still are, a living Venn diagram in which religion, culture and government merge at the walls of the Church.

If everyone in town is Christian, nobody minds – a scenario common to these rural areas. For example, in Alabama, the Jackson County School Board openly supported the on-campus preaching of Horace Turner, a.k.a Bible Man. Local State Senator Shradack McQuill remarked, “We need God in the public schools” adding that unhappy parents should just home-school. Clearly, this educational program is unconstitutional. However, when the Board voted, there was nobody to object. Therefore, today, Jackson County’s Bible Man continues to …do whatever a Bible Man does.

Even in the larger cities, this Church-centered mentality remains ingrained within the collective culture. In the South, you are not asked, “What is your religion?” You are asked, “What Church do you attend?” That alone speaks volumes. So, taking this Christian-infused secular tradition and adding it to the aggressive “outreach” policy of the dominant Southern Baptist church, you have a society in which Jesus sits on every street and attends every event.

One World Spiritual CenterTo better illustrate, let me refer back to the Jews on First article that focused on children living in two adjacent suburbs of Atlanta: East Cobb and Roswell. Roughly, within a 5 mile radius, there are four synagogues and a Jewish Community Center. Within that area, you will also find a large representation of Christian sects, including Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Korean, Chinese, Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, Coptic, and more. There’s an Islamic Center and a New Age store. Moreover, East Cobb boasts the One World Spiritual Center – a Church that embraces alternative faiths such as New Thought Christians, Pagans, Hindus, and Baha’i.

Without a doubt, East Cobb is one of the most religiously diverse suburbs of Atlanta. The interfaith love is so strong there that the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection and Temple Etz Chaim, who share a parking lot, periodically use their marquis’ to offer holiday blessings to each other. “Shana Tova,” reads the Lutheran marquis. “Happy Easter,” reads the Temple’s. In December, it’s like a tennis match of marquis well-wishes.

Despite all of that diversity, local students’ are still faced with the frustrating experiences illustrated by Jews on First. Yes, Cobb County did put “creationism” stickers in the science texts. Yes, the student-run Fellowship of Christian Athletes is allowed to paper school walls with advertising. Yes, the Sojourn Church uses a public middle school for Sunday worship. And, yes, the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, a so-called megachurch, dominates East Cobb’s landscape, aggressively seeking to convert the “unchurched” with its youth and school outreach programs.

(An aside: I will omit my comments on the Boy Scouts’ and Girl Scouts’ presence within the elementary school classrooms. That particular subject would require a soap box, a microphone and sedative.)

Cobb County Creationism Disclaimer

Setting aside blatant proselytizing, the Southern tradition of a Church-based culture persists even within the diversity-rich suburbs of East Cobb and Roswell. The local churches run many of the community programs such as sports leagues, music conservatories, gymnastics programs, art classes, day-care centers and summer camps. Every church has a pumpkin patch in October and an evergreen forest in December.

“Why don’t you join the Church’s league? It’s just basketball. There isn’t any religious teaching.” But, it’s not just basketball. It means something more. Why? Because it means something here in this Southern environment. Because in that Church, even without a pre-game prayer, we, the non-Christians, are the aliens.

Fortunately, in the Southern cities, religious minorities do have the benefit of secular entertainment options. However, that’s not the case everywhere. Having worked on several Lady Liberty League cases, I have witnessed the pressures placed on Pagan families living in rural areas. There, in that small town, that Venn diagram, boundaries are still blurred. And, while problems often arise from direct attacks, they also flare up simply due to the town’s tradition, a.k.a. “the way it’s done.” In these rural battles, the stakes can be very high and the damage can be devastating.

With that said, the U.S. Constitution still reigns supreme. The First Amendment states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..”

This includes public schools. If a government school supports the presence of one religion, it must do the same for every religion. If it disallows the presence of one religion, it must disallow all.

Unfortunately for religious minorities living in the Southern rural landscape, the battle is on-going; especially if the town is controlled by the evangelical Southern Baptist Church. This organization has a different interpretation of the First Amendment:

Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends.……. and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power. (The Baptist Faith & Message: Religious Liberty)

Must Ministries Collection BinThere are profound questions left open, only to be answered privately by every Southerner practicing a minority faith. When do you stay quiet and blend in? When do you re-locate? When do you fight back? The answers should be considered carefully. Just this morning, I saw a Must Ministries collection bin in a school lobby. Should I say something? Should I let it go? Or, should I ask to put a Pagan Assistance Fund bucket alongside it? Legally, the school would have to accept my collection bin or reject both.

Of course, I let the collection bin issue go. Must Ministries does positive community work. And, frankly, I don’t mind Christianity’s presence provided it is kept within the private sector where I have the choice to reject or absorb what is offered. For example, I can avoid the local karate school where a child, quite literally, earns a “Bible Belt.” And, I can choose to only visit the doctors who don’t hang Bible verses in their examination rooms. Just as private businesses have a right to promote, within their walls, their religious beliefs, I have a right not to purchase their products. As Pagans, we must choose our battles wisely because the fight for liberty, while worth it, can be very ugly.

Karate School in Georgia

In the end, the South is what it is – a place of phenomenal beauty and vibrant, unique cultural traditions. But with that comes its historical religious baggage. If you want to live here, you must get used to it. Just like in marriage, you enjoy the good, tolerate the bad… and laugh about the rest.