Archives For Florida

Tampa Bay, Florida resident Kyrja Withers, an out Pagan and author of the Pagan-themed children’s book “Rupert’s Tales: The Wheel of the Year Beltane, Litha, Lammas, and Mabon” announced that on Thursday her home was shot at, the most recent escalation in a string of seemingly religiously-motivated incidents.

Kyrja's window.

Kyrja’s window.

“Someone shot at me tonight – and though they missed, The Glitter Dome is a bit more …. holey … tonight. We’ve had intermittent problems with someone honking their horn outside our house at very late hours and screaming obscenities  Once, they threw a firecracker in our front house. Last night, they screamed “F’ing WITCH” – quite clearly. No mistake. Today, we received several telephone calls where the caller said something unintelligible and then hung up, as well as an inappropriate post on one of my Rupert videos. This is obviously personal. And now, they have crossed the line and have caused property damage. And yes – the first window they hit is where I sit. It is time to deal with this. And so we shall. We ask for your assistance in calling for swift justice.”

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

I contacted Kyrja personally for a follow-up statement where she said the police investigation is ongoing, and that she does not regret being an “out” Pagan despite the attack.

“The only statements I know to make at this point is that the investigation by our local police department is ongoing at this point, and we do appreciate their efforts.  I have seen a few posts throughout the day from people who have stated our situation is the very reason they prefer not to make their Pagan faith known.  And, while I certainly respect their own choices, I can tell you that I would never have known the level of happiness and peace I do now if not for having made my own choices both public and well-known.  Too, if we are unwilling to get to “reveal” ourselves for the people we are – to include the spiritual paths we walk, we will never diminish the level of stigmatism for all of our brothers and sister.  Normalizing our faith sometimes requires courage; more often doing so provides more opportunities for celebration. If we had the opportunity, what I would like to do is to educate the individual(s) responsible for these incidents and to have them do community service within the Pagan community.  Chances are, it would be quite the eye-opening experience for them.”

We will keep you posted on this incident as further developments occur. We wish safety for Kyrja’s family, and that justice be brought to her attackers. For those wanting to know more about Kyrja’s work writing children’s books, you can visit her web site, or Facebook page.

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.

An invocation is offered by Indra Neelameggham of Utah's Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple at the beginning of the Jan. 7 inauguration ceremonies for Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell inside the rotunda of the Utah Capitol. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

An invocation is offered by Indra Neelameggham of Utah’s Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple at the beginning of the Jan. 7 inauguration ceremonies for Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell inside the rotunda of the Utah Capitol. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

  • Deseret News reports on Indra Neelameggham, the first Hindu (and first woman) to ever give an opening invocation at a Utah governor’s inauguration. Quote:  “It is a prayer for peace, happiness, harmony and contentment, Sen. (Orrin) Hatch and (former) Gov. (Jon M.) Huntsman both told me after the ceremony that they thought my prayer was inspiring, so I guess it went pretty well […]  So many people believe that in Utah we are just a Mormon community,” she said. “Certainly that is the predominant religion, but we are so much more than just that. And I think they wanted someone to represent that diversity.” Neelameggham is a member of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah, and a pivotal figure in Utah’s Hindu community.
  • So remember last week when I reported on a theistic Satanic group in Florida (The Satanic Temple) that’s planning to hold a rally on January 25th in solidarity with Gov. Rick Scott’s support of a school “inspirational messages” law? At the time I said that “I have no idea if this is serious, or if someone is engaging in some next-level trolling.”Well, it turns out it was the latter:  “[Lucien] Greaves is listed as the casting director of a feature film called …wait for it…The Satanic Temple. […] The casting call said the movie was a mockumentary about the “nicest Satanic Cult in the world.” It was seeking actors for eight speaking roles “to play minions” and 10 featured extras.” So there you go.  It’s a would-be mockumentary.
  • The U.S. Forest Service has found a relationship between the loss of trees and a downturn in human health and life expectancy.  Quote: “The “relationship between trees and human health,” as they put it, is convincingly strong. They controlled for as many other demographic factors as possible. And yet, they are unable to satisfactorily explain why this might be so […] there is something fascinatingly mysterious about the entanglement of our health with that of nature. The suspicion that this may be so, of course, is seen well outside of the scientific literature on the topic […] Henry David Thoreau, writing in The Atlantic in June 1862, said, ‘I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.'”
  • John Beckett, a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) and Vice President of CUUPS National, has joined the Patheos Pagan Portal as a blogger. Quote: “This blog is part of my spiritual journey. Sometimes I write about what’s going on in my life. Sometimes I write about what’s in the news or what’s abuzz on the Pagan internet. There are some recurring themes: the nature of the Universe, the origins of religion, developing relationships with the spirits of nature, with our ancestors, and with our gods and goddesses. Spiritual growth. Magic. Building vibrant religious communities. And perhaps most importantly, how to combine all that into a spiritual practice that builds a better world here and now.” Congratulations to John, Patheos is lucky to have you.
  • Radio Netherlands profiles 18-year-old Adrien Adandé of Benin, a High School student by day, and a Vodun priest by night. Quote:  “As soon as he gets home from school, 18-year-old Adrien Adandé slips out of his high school uniform and into his voodoo priest robes. A large crowd is already queuing outside for consultations. Adandé took over the practice from his father, who initiated him into the Voodoo rites before his death. ‘As a child, I was my father’s only son who was interested in what he was doing at the convent,’ the teenager recalls. ‘Along the way, he taught me things and showed me the secrets.'” It’s an interesting piece, featuring several perspectives on Vodun in Benin.
  • The Telegraph in India check in with  Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, India’s most famous Wiccan. Quote: “Draped in a black cloak, Chakraverti put 70-odd students of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, under a spell on January 9 as she spoke about ghosts and planchettes and decoded Wiccan symbols. “Black is a witch’s favourite colour. It stands for enigma and dignity in Wicca. The broom signifies a woman being liberated from household activities and flying away in search of identity. The conical hat is a symbol of concentration and free-flowing thought,” she explained.”
  • Think Africa Press notes that blaming traditional African belief systems for witchcraft-related crimes and persecutions ignores that most of these harmful and violent manifestations are modern inventions, and that Pentecostal and evangelical churches have had a large influence in their development. Quote: “Today’s witchcraft beliefs and practices are as much products of modern dynamics as they are informed by long-standing tradition. Witchcraft beliefs are not remnants of ‘pre-modern’ cultures but contemporary phenomena embedded in, and partly constituted by, specific and current cultural and socio-economic contexts.”
Seen on Wednesday is all that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

The remains of a controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

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.

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 them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Yesterday I highlighted a ruling from Jorge L. Aladro, Grand Master of Florida’s Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, which barred membership to Pagans, Gnostics, and agnostics, and made it plain that any current Pagan members would be evicted from the order.

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“Therefore, as Grand Master, it is my Ruling and Decision that none of the above mentioned beliefs and/or practices [Paganism, Wiccan and Odinism, and secondarily Agnosticism and Gnosticism] are compatible with Freemasonry since they do not believe or practice one or more of the prerequisites to be a candidate for Masonry listed above.  Further, any member of the Craft that professes to be a member of one of the groups mentioned above shall tender his resignation or suffer himself to a Trial Commission whose final outcome will be expulsion since there is no provision to allow anything contrary to the Ancient Landmarks.”

Since then, many Freemasons, Pagans, and Pagan Freemasons have spoken out about this ruling, with most decrying the move as against the principles of their order. Most notably, one of the Florida Pagans at the center of this controversy, Corey Bryson, has had his story published at the Freemason Information blog, and at the Florida bureau of the Pagan Newswire Collective.

Jorge L. Aladro

Jorge L. Aladro,

“A few weeks later, I received an email stating that I was to appear before the vigilance committee of my lodge by order of the Grand Master. I appeared before the committee with the assistance of a PM of my lodge who volunteered to assist me. I was asked again the questions relating to 32:16 of the Florida Masonic Digest, and again honestly answered the questions, in agreement with the Digest. I was asked if I was a Pagan, and explained that I used that term to describe my religious practices, but not my belief. Paganism is not Orthodox, and has no set doctrines. It is merely a blanket term for non-Abrahamic faiths. In definition of my beliefs, I stated that I was primarily a Deist. I was further asked if I could uphold Masonic Morality, as exemplified by the Golden Rule and the 10 commandments. I explained that the Golden Rule was a value to aspire to. Concerning the 10 Commandments, I had to educate the committee on the fact that the first 5 commandments were religious commandments that only really apply to Jews, but that the second 5 were values to aspire to as well.

The Committee concluded that there was no reason for further action in my case. Apparently the Grand Master was not satisfied with this decision, and proceeded to issue his Ruling.

After reading the ruling, I felt that I had no choice per my Master Mason Obligation other than to resign as a Mason. This morning, I went to my lodge and submitted my letter of resignation to the Secretary, along with my dues card.”

The Freemason who posted Bryson’s testimony, Frederic Milliken, went on to comment that “we are told as Masons to avoid all sectarian religious discussion yet that is exactly what the Mainstream Grand Master of Florida Has done,” and noted the irony of making this move so near the holiday of Christmas.

“Soon we will celebrate Christmas, a holiday with Pagan roots, incorporating pre Christian festivals that were celebrated around the winter solstice, why don’t we all send Grand Master Jorge L. Aladro, a little mind and a happy Pagan day card? You can send him one, care of the Grand Lodge at 220 North Ocean Street, Jacksonville, FL 32202.”

In addition, the Everglades Moon Local Council of the Covenant of the Goddess has released an official statement on this matter, saying they were “saddened and disappointed” in Grand Master Aladro’s edict.

“Everglades Moon Local Council, Florida Chapter of Covenant of the Goddess, a national organization of Wiccans, is saddened and disappointed to learn that The Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Florida has stated all Pagans, and specifically Wiccans, must resign their membership. We respect the right of groups such as the Freemasons to make choices regarding their membership, and pray that Wiccan Masons can find a way to continue their contributions towards making good men better.”

Meanwhile, other Masons, like Cliff Porter at The Relevant Mason and Erik Arneson at The Oblong Square have spoken out against what they see as religious intolerance masquerading as Freemasonry.

“This wave of younger Masons interested in alternative spirituality and religion must be vexing for some of the so-called “old guard” of the Fraternity. It has been made clear repeatedly that there are members of grand lodges across the country who, in spite of the obligations they made before God, view Freemasonry as just another vehicle to practice religious discrimination. They view the Craft as strictly Christian and try to limit its vital message. And they are wrong.

“Freemasonry is a progressive science,” we are taught in its ritual. Centuries ago, we were at the edge of social progressiveness, but over generations we fell behind. For a long time, the specters of bigotry and intolerance have overshadowed the vision of the fraternity, and only in the past few decades has this begun to be reversed. Sometimes intolerance will continue to rear its ugly head as it has in Florida, but those of us who believe in the messages of virtue and tolerance at the heart of Freemasonry need to remain strong and continue to act with patience, prudence and fortitude. If we can do so, we will see Freemasonry return to the forefront of progressive thought where it once stood.”

In addition, several Pagan Freemasons have made their views known here at The Wild Hunt. Michael Eric Bérubé, who’s been a Pagan since the 1980s, and a Freemason since 1994, said he was “saddened” by this ruling, and pointed to his lodge in Maine, where religious tolerance and inclusion are the norm. Kirk White, a Pagan and former Grand High Priest of the Royal Arch Masons of Vermont, noted that some of the religious tensions are due to younger Pagan members threatening the status quo.

“In many cases, the influx of Pagan men have saved lodges that were about to die out. And in these cases, these younger, active Pagan men are threatening the status quo. Most of the old guys don’t want spirituality – much less esotericism – in their Freemasonry. For them, it is just a social and charitable organization. This rebirth of esotericism scares them and they blame it on the Pagans (although most esoteric Masons I know are not Pagan).

The Grand Master of Florida is the final say in Florida through his term (which is 1-3 years depending on jurisdiction). His successor may keep it, repeal it, or usually they just forget about such decrees and never enforce them. In the meanwhile, many more liberal jurisdictions (including Vermont) are discussing how to handle this. We’ll see how it turns out. In the end, though, time is on our side. The old guard pass away and the new, more spiritually open guys take their place. There are big changes coming in Masonry in the next 10 years. It is pretty exciting.”

I agree with Kirk White in that the changes happening within Freemasonry right now are exciting, and point to a new phase in the fraternity’s existence, one that make it especially suited to thrive in a post-Christian and pluralistic society where diversity is the norm. What I think Grand Master Aladro’s ruling has done is bring to the surface a conversation and debate that’s been quietly happening behind the scenes about the future of Freemasonry (and the role of Paganism and other non-Christian faiths in it). Even if the Florida Grand Lodge keeps its discriminatory stance against non-Christian faiths, this ruling has created reverberations that may bring about shifts Aladro and other like him could not have suspected.

As always, we’ll keep you posted as this story continues to develop.

On November 28th Jorge L. Aladro, Grand Master of Florida’s Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, issued a ruling stating that Paganism, Wicca, Odinism, and Gnosticism were not compatible with Freemasonry. Further, any Freemason who “professes to be a member of one of the groups mentioned above shall tender his resignation or suffer himself to a Trial Commission whose final outcome will be expulsion since there is no provision to allow anything contrary to the Ancient Landmarks.”

freemasons dont like pagans

What’s remarkable about this ruling and resulting document is that modern Paganism, along with several strains of ritual magical practice, have been a part of modern Freemasonry for generations, a situation that has only become more pronounced as a new flood of younger people have become interested in the “establishment mysticism” that alienated many in their parent’s generation. Indeed, many prominent Freemasons, like Christopher L. Hodapp, author of “Freemasons For Dummies,”  seem to find the concept of Pagan Masons completely uncontroversial.

“A question that pops up from time to time on Masonic forums and in lodge has to do with the requirement of a petitioner to believe in a “supreme being” and whether Wicca qualifies as such a belief. Undoubtedly, part of the trepidation by some Masons to accept Wicca as a religion has to do with seeing inverted pentacles drawn on floors by hooded devil-worshippers in too many old Night Gallery reruns. Curiously, these same brethren generally have no problem with the inverted pentacle of the Order of the Eastern Star.”

As you might imagine, this ruling has reverberated across social media, surprising and angering many Pagan Masons. Comments range from “If they banned paganism, they’d have to shut down every lodge in the country,” to “this is absolutely insane and goes against everything that I, as a Freemason, believe in.” Lon Milo DuQuette, author of “Angels, Demons & Gods of the New Millennium: Musings on Modern Magick” (and a Freemason), who alerted many on Facebook to this ruling, is calling for concerned Freemasons to write to the Grand Master of Florida.

“Perhaps frank, yet respectful, letters should be sent to Florida’s Grant Master of Masons, Jorge L. Aladro, pointing out our feelings on this matter. I believe his publically published email address is: gm@floridamason.org”

A commenter on that post elaborated that letters from active Freemasons “should also be directed to your own state’s grand lodge. This violates the criteria to be considered Masonic and states need to suspend recognition of Florida masons and their grand lodge until they become regular again.” Whether this pressure will sway the Florida Grand Master, who seems motivated by a religious bias, remains to be seen.

If you are a Pagan, magician, and a Freemason, what do you think of the Florida Grand Lodge’s ruling? If you are a Florida Freemason what are your thoughts, and what actions will you take in an administration that seems dedicated to drumming the Pagans out? We’ll keep you updated on this situation as it develops.

On Wednesday, the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida did an admirable thing, they invited a Sikh to give an opening invocation. Ishwar Singh, who gave the invocation, is the president of the Sikh Society of Central Florida, and a small business owner. Singh expressed his hope that his inclusion, coming in the wake of the tragic mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, will show “that we are one family.”

“I hope that my presence Wednesday on the national stage will play a small part in helping Sikhs  and people of all races, faiths and orientations  be seen as part of the great American family. We Sikhs draw strength from the nonpartisan support we have received in response to the terrible tragedy in Oak Creek. […] After Wednesday, I hope that we will see more engagement and inclusion. I hope our elected officials will stand against hateful speech this election season. I hope that the government tracks hate crimes specifically against Sikhs and that Sikhs will be considered eligible to serve this country, as we have served so many others, in the police and armed forces.” 

This, as I mentioned, was an admirable move by the Republican Party, and they should be commended for it. Politics should be about policy, not about which God or gods we worship (which is why I’m so glad Rick Warren’s absurd religious-test forum collapsed this year). Sadly, elements of the Republican Party’s conservative Christian base, which are already uneasy with Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, saw this expansive and empathetic act as a harbinger for societal collapse. Right Wing Watch notes that radio talk-show hater Janet Mefferd, who’s on constant alert for signs of the gay-pagan axis tainting her precious bodily fluids, saw this invocation as a sign the party was being (I kid you not) gassed with syncretism.

Janet Mefferd

Janet Mefferd: I’m fine with other faiths voting Republican, I’m just equating them with an invasive gas that’s making us syncretic.

“This adds new spin to my view of what’s going on at the RNC right now because you still hear a little bit of talk God here and there, but it’s different. When Mitt Romney talks about God, he’s not talking about our God and he has yet to give his speech yet. But we now have a party that is allowing people to pray at the Republican National Convention who don’t have the slightest similarity to us, when it comes to our view of God, at all. At all.

It wasn’t that long ago that Pat Buchanan at the 1992 RNC was talking about the great culture war and being a Judeo-Christian nation and how important it was to hold that all together because that was the foundation upon which our country was built. And he was right. He got skewered for it, but he was right.

And look how far we’ve come. Now, 2012 we have somebody from an Eastern religion offering the invocation at the Republican National Convention. I’m not saying people from different religions can’t vote Republican, but what this really is is a syncretism that is kind of seeping under the door like a gas.

Every time I write about Mefferd, I feel the need to point out that she’s not a fringe figure. Her syndicated radio program plays on over 110 affiliates in the United States, and often brings on big-name figures like Herman CainFranklin GrahamRick Perry, and Michele Bachmann. So this isn’t someone out-of-touch with the Republican mainstream. Her distaste with an “Eastern religion” being allowed an invocation is no doubt shared by many, but only echoed by those already comfortable with controversy. It’s an attitude that says, to paraphrase Mefferd, please vote Republican, but keep it to yourself if you’re not a Christian. A “God Closet” if you will.

What we are seeing here is a tension that will only grow within the Republican Party. No major party can afford to keep being seen as a Christians-only party as religious demographics continue to shift. It may work for now, but eventually you’re going to see districts start to slip from your grasp as non-Christian and non-religious populations grow. In some states Christianity is already being seriously challenged by “unchurched” and “non-religious” voters. The longer you rely on a base that fears and distrusts non-Christian faiths, the more alienated growing populations of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, and Pagans will become. Eventually a realignment will have to happen, and the Janet Mefferds will have to be marginalized to allow for a “big tent” conservatism that casts aside Christian prejudices and fears. Otherwise, you’ll eventually be forced into schism with a Christian rump clinging to its ideals of party purity. It will make the Ron Paul unrest of this week seem quaint.

The truth is that non-Christians have been “seeping under the door” for generations, it’s just that we can no longer ignore them, their issues, and their desires. We don’t live in a monoculture where it’s acceptable to ignore voices or views that “don’t fit.” The RNC organizers who invited Ishwar Singh know that, and his invocation may truthfully be a important moment in the Republican Party if they fulfill Sing’s wish that “our children and grandchildren will be permitted to be full and equal members of this great American family.”

The idea of the United States as a pluralistic, secular, society where no single religious expression is enshrined has always gotten push-back, and experienced robust dissent over the years. To many, America is a “Christian” nation (sometimes a “Judeo-Christian” nation), and all others live here under their sufferance. The Rev. Dennis Terry’s recent comments at a Rick Santorum presidential rally typify the more vituperative side of this particular sentiment.

“I don’t care what the naysayers say. This nation was founded as a Christian nation. The god of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. There is only one God. There is only one God, and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words. I’m tired of people telling us as Christians that we can’t voice our beliefs or we can’t no longer pray in public. Listen to me. If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, get out! […] We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Terry clearly articulates a popular view among conservative Christians concerning religious freedom. To these Christians, government-enforced secularism isn’t a neutral ethos, but a method of attacking their faith and limiting their free expression. In the minds of these Christians “religious freedom” means, in this time of demographic dominance, the right to let the majority dictate the religious norms of a society. Any deviance from that, in limiting prayer in schools, or sectarian prayer at government meetings, is a persecution of their church. To combat this “war on religion” (ie religion = Christianity) a variety of laws have been passed at the state level in order to “protect” the religious freedom of the overwhelming majority. A recent example is the new Florida law enabling students to give “inspirational messages” at school events.

“SB 98 states that its purpose “is to provide students with the opportunity for formal or ceremonious observance of an occasion or event.” Although “prayer” is never used in the bill, opponents claim it allows religious messages to be delivered in public schools. They also question allowing students to have an unrestrained venue to air their opinions at a school event.”

Such measures are almost always worded carefully to avoid legal challenge, though the wink-wink, nudge-nudge subtext is that it will allow majority Christian schools to have de facto sectarian Christian prayer so long as it’s a student willing to say it. As Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, put it: “legislators are clearly inviting Florida school boards to plunge into a legal swamp.” It’s a swamp that Tennessee seems ready to plunge into as well.

“The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden was approved by the House Education Committee on a voice vote. The companion bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. Holt said he proposed the legislation after talking with a concerned school board member in his district. He said the proposal would allow school districts to develop a so-called “student speaker policy” for school officials to follow.”

Here’s the thing though, while such laws almost always privilege the majority religion, it also opens the door to expressions of non-Christian religion within public schools (at least if the law if applied fairly).  Prayers to Jesus are all well and good, but what happens when a Wiccan gives an “inspirational” message?

Rep. Richard Montgomery, a Sevierville Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said he likes the idea of the bill, but believes it’s going to cause an uproar when a student decides to discuss a not-so-popular religion, such as Wicca. “You might have 1 percent that actually believe that way, and 99 percent don’t believe that way,” he said. “You’re going to have an uproar out of this world in a lot of communities.”

This sentiment was echoed by David Barkey, Religious Freedom Counsel for The Anti-Defamation League, when asked for comment on the new Florida law.

Protesters in Pensacola support highschool educators on September 17, 2009. The educators are on federal trial following the ACLU charge that they prayed in school. (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com)

Protesters in Pensacola support highschool educators on September 17, 2009. The educators are on federal trial following the ACLU charge that they prayed in school. (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com)

“Our public schools are for all children regardless of their religion. But this law could require children as young as five to observe prayers to Allah, Buddha, Jesus or other faiths contrary to their religious upbringing at mandatory student assemblies. It is completely contrary to our public schools’ inclusive nature, and the law will only serve to divide students, schools and communities along religious or other lines. In America, the question of one’s religion or faith is extremely personal and private. It is not a question that is put to the discretion of government or other people. To ensure all children’s religious freedom, we urge school districts not to implement this imprudent law.”

Despite these warnings, student “religious liberties” laws have already been passed in Arizona and Texas, places where the majority feels confident that these laws will act as proselytization tools of the majority faith. Think I’m overstating this? Don’t listen to me, listen to the Texas House Research Organization’s own analysis of the then-pending bill.

“The bill could serve as a tool to proselytize the majority religious view, Christianity, in Texas schools. The United States is a nation made up of people of many faiths. Children are required to attend school and should be permitted to do so without someone else’s religion being imposed on them … A school should be a religion-free zone – leaving religion for homes, places of worship, and individual hearts.”

In truth, the “a Wiccan might be allowed to invoke the Goddess publicly” scenario is more a gambit than a true threat. It can occasionally work to stymie Christian overreach into the public sphere, but in many other cases, those lone non-Christian students who speak out face incredible intimidation and threats. In most cases the tyranny of the majority, once unconstrained by the law, proceeds to do its level best to silence all dissenting voices through threats, intimidation, violence, or simply peer pressure. That said, this new wave of “student expression” laws aren’t, legally speaking, bullet-proof. There’s a new legal precedent being built that looks not just at the openness and neutrality of a law’s language, but how well it maintains a balance of religious and philosophical viewpoints.

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist, who was bullied and threatened out of her school after successfully challenging a Christian mural.

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist, who was bullied and threatened out of her school after successfully challenging a Christian mural.

“…legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible — itshould send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. Itshould not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one.Infrequent references to specific deities, standing alone, donot suffice to make out a constitutional case. But legislativeprayers that go further — prayers in a particular venue that repeatedly suggest the government has put its weight behinda particular faith — transgress the boundaries of the Establishment Clause. Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal, and the government should not appear to suggestthat some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

While that decision looked at legislative prayer, it isn’t so far a stretch to see that precedent being applied to government-funded public schools as well. If a school enacts a policy under a student free expression law, and the vast majority of “inspirational messages” are endorsing one single sectarian message, it could be seen a an official endorsement of religion, even if the teachers and administrators never utter a word. That gives adherents to minority faiths some hope, but as challenges work their way through the courts, we still face the very real situation of schools in several states where Christian expressions of faith are going to receive pride of place, marginalizing Pagan students.

The problem with these attempts to codify “religious freedom” into law is that almost always benefits the majority at the expense of the minority. I have seen time and time again, in a number of different circumstances, when laws and policies that are supposed to be viewpoint neutral end up empowering one expression of faith in the public square. That’s bad when it involves adults struggling over the issue, but it becomes pernicious when we use our children as proxies in a fight over the nature of religious freedom and secularism within our country. It shows just how desperate and anxious sections of our  Christian majority have become.

On Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich participated in a conference call to conservative Christian supporters. In a statistical tie with fellow contender Mitt Romney in the upcoming Florida primary, Gingrich is trying to win the support of as many evangelicals and religious conservatives as possible, a demographic that Romney has had a hard time winning over. During the call, which had around 1000 participants, and was moderated by Jim “Cracking Da Vinci’s Code” Garlow, Gingrich called same-sex marriage a “fundamental violation of our civilization” that illustrates the “rise of paganism” in the United States.

“It’s pretty simple: marriage is between a man and a woman. This is a historic doctrine driven deep into the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, and it’s a perfect example of what I mean by the rise of paganism. The effort to create alternatives to marriage between a man and a woman are perfectly natural pagan behaviors, but they are a fundamental violation of our civilization.”

Gingrich also doubled down on earlier statements by saying during the call that “a lot of what surrounds us today is paganism,” drawing parallels to Christianity during ancient Rome. In Gingrich’s mind secularism and paganism seem to be one and the same, a force that joins Islam in a two-pronged “war” against Christianity. You can download and listen to the entire conference call, here.

Newt Gingrich has got your nose.

Newt Gingrich has got your nose. Photo: New York Magazine

I have two responses to Gingrich’s comments, and this conference call. First, for a historian, Gingrich seems to have a shaky grasp on the history of marriage. Marriage has been an ever-shifting thing, practiced in a number of ways, and Christians did not always treat it as a holy condition. I’m certainly happy to agree that Pagans are open towards creating “alternatives” to the modern rigid constructions of this social contract envisioned by conservative Christians, but I part ways with candidate Gingrich on the idea that this is a “violation” of Western civilization. Perhaps he should remember that is was the “pagans” he seems to have no trouble vilifying that invented Western civilization.

My second response has to do with Florida. While it may seem like good politics to construct religious straw men that Christians can alternatively fear and revile, the state is far more diverse than many give it credit for. Florida has thriving Pagan, Hindu, Haitian Vodou, Santeria/Lukumi, and other non-Christian/non-Abrahamic faith communities. What could be beneficial in a primary might come back to harm you in a general election. I doubt that Gingrich much cares about this, but future politicians should. As I said not too long ago at The Washington Post:

America’s religious diversity isn’t simply a stock phrase to pull out when describing the virtues of our country. According to the Pew Forum, 16.1 percent of Americans claim no formal religion, while another 2.3 percent are part of religious tradition outside the Christian-Jewish-Muslim monotheistic paradigm. Those aren’t insignificant numbers, and they put the often lumped-together “other/unaffiliated” category on a statistical par with evangelical and mainline Protestants. Despite this, moral debates are almost always framed along a left-right Christian axis; Rick Warren gets to interview Obama and McCain, while Hindus, Pagans, Buddhists, and practitioners of indigenous traditions rarely get to ask questions on a national stage.  Gov. Johnson’s courage in talking to religious minorities might have been driven by a modicum of desperation in getting his message out, but it should be seen as a harbinger of what campaigning to religious groups will be like in the future.”

Declaring yourself in de facto opposition to America’s religious diversity and secular government should automatically disqualify you from running our executive branch. Our president is the duly elected representative of all its citizens, not just its Christian citizens. Assembling campaign faith coalitions that speak to one very narrow idea of religion alienates instead of unifies, and when that coalition claims that electing anyone outside their boundaries will bring about the end of civilization, it sends a dangerous signal. Americans shouldn’t be worrying about “Pagan behaviors.” Instead, they should worry about the “Christian behaviors” of Newt Gingrich and those like him.

After the 2010 Haitian earthquake there was quite a bit of attention on the religion of Vodou, though largely that attention was not positive. Immediately after the quake there were triumphalist smears from figures like Pat Robertson, and allegations that it was Vodou that held Haitians back from progress. While there were emerging “Vodou voices” rising up in defense of the religion, most notably Max Beauvoir, but more often than not the centrality of Vodou to many Haitians was often ignored. So it is a breath of fresh air to read Silvana Ordonez’s piece on Vodou among Florida’s Haitian-American community for the Miami Herald, talking about how the faith brought solace and re-connection after tragedy struck.

“A Voodoo ceremony makes you feel as light as a feather,” explained [Mambo Ingrid] Llera. “That’s where we go for therapy. We don’t go to the doctor, we go to Voodoo.” In ritual ceremonies, which typically last from several hours to several days, Voodoo practitioners pray, sing and dance to the rhythm of drums. “A wonderful combination to get connected with the unknown world, which is the spiritual world,” she added. “That’s where we release it all and find strength.” Since the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, more Haitians in South Florida have reconnected with Voodoo, according to local practitioners. “They have no choice, but to go back to their roots. It is registered in their DNA, this is who they are, this is where they feel more comfortable, this is where they can forget things,” said Llera. Llera has also witnessed a interesting phenomenon: a wave of young Haitian-Americans joining the religion of their ancestors.”

There’s been a quiet trend of Haitian-Americans re-embracing Vodou for years now, but its been only sporadically covered by journalists. These younger converts seem more willing to speak out about their faith, and a show willingness to fight popular misconceptions.

“Gone, for most, is the shame that used to be associated with the stigmatized religion. Unlike some of their parents who practiced Vodou in secrecy, the newcomers to the religion invite friends to Vodou ceremonies, have altars in their homes and work to shatter the stereotypes.”

While still small, there seems to be a growing number of Haitian Vodou practitioners who are raising their public profiles. For instance, last year saw the production of a Canadian documentary entitled “Real Voodoo” which looks at the effects of anti-Vodou rhetoric in Haiti, and interviews Haitian-Canadian practitioners like La Belle Deesse.

“Based on the people seen in this film, those who practice voodoo seem to be more likeable, more  relaxed, happier in their lives and more open-minded toward others and their beliefs, than the people who rail against it.”

Haitian Vodou in its homeland faces immense challenges, from anti-Vodou violence, to aggressive proselytism by Christian groups receiving federal funding from our government. At the same time, Vodou tourism is held up as a potential economic goldmine for a Haiti that wants to rebuild itself. Lost in this push-pull is the lives of Vodouisants worldwide, and how their faith nourishes and sustains them. As the Haitian diaspora grows, and Haitian Vodou becomes a point of pride within those communities, we could see a new paradigm for this faith, how it is received by non-initiates, and how these practitioners interact with their motherland. It is far too easy to lose sight of how Vodou serves its adherents in the lofty geopolitical and cultural discussions about Haiti and its future, forgetting that Vodou is a source of solace and enrichment. Silvana Ordonez’s article is a welcome corrective to that trend.

Have you ever read one of those articles about a sacrifice done in a graveyard and wondered who, exactly, does that sort of thing? Well, after a sacrificed rooster was found in a graveyard at Cocoa, Florida, hacked Facebook pictures traced the ceremony back to Christos Kioni, a “living legend” and “two headed” root doctor/spiritual coach. Florida Today interviewed Kioni to find out about his beliefs, and why he conducted the graveyard ceremony.

Kioni was hired by a woman in her 30s pleading for help. He said someone put roots — or a spell — on her, leaving her welted with skin lesions, swollen legs, jaundice and heart problems. “[the spirit of Jonathan Davis, the grave where the ceremony was performed] is very strong. He’s calling people to his grave. He was a warrior,” Kioni said. “His mother should be proud.” Just before sundown, a time when hoodoo practitioners believe the world transitions between life and death, Kioni presided over the sacrifice. The rooster was washed in scented water, perfumed with oils and prayed over as candles flickered. “We presented it to almighty (God)…but I did not deface a grave. This is my religion,” he said.

What isn’t mentioned in the article, but is mentioned in Kioni’s own Youtube channel, is that he’s a initiate into Palo Mayombe. The various threads of Palo are often misunderstood, and often sensationalized as the “dark side of Santeria” due to its willingness to engage with necromancy. Considering the reactions Palo can receive, its not too surprising the root doctor didn’t mention that part of his spiritual resume. One of the most interesting things about this profile/story on Kioni is his own account of how he entered into the world of root work and hoodoo.

“Curiosity and love of God led him to the seminary, he said. He later joined Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination that promoted speaking in tongues, prophesies and spiritual warfare. He became a pastor, but later left organized religion and got into what many Christians consider the forbidden worlds of witchcraft and divination. He has since built what Anderson called a worldwide audience in the hoodoo community.”

I have commented before on how close the Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal forms of spiritual warfare are to traditional magic as Pagans and other practitioners understand it, and here we have confirmation of something I’ve often wondered: do Christian spiritual warfare techniques ever lead someone into magic? The answer, at least in this case, seems to be yes. I would recommend reading the entire profile, as its not often that traditional news outlets are able/willing to track down and interview root workers, and other practitioners, when they cause controversy with their rites.