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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, 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.
“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.
What 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.