Archives For Free Exercise Clause

In 2002 Nancy Willard, Executive Director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, issued a report that warned of the troubling confluence between content-control software and conservative religious groups.

Willard voiced concerns that the relationships between companies providing web-filtering software to public institutions may be “inappropriately preventing students from accessing certain materials based on religious or other inappropriate bias.” She went on to note that terms like “occult” or “cult” are “frequently applied to any non-traditional religions” and that it would be “unacceptable for schools to block access to non-traditional religious sites.”

Five years earlier, the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library association, issued a resolution affirming that “the use of filtering software by libraries to block access to constitutionally protected speech violates the Library Bill of Rights.”

However, today, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), passed in 2000 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003, mandates Internet filtering software on any library or K-12 school that receives federal funding. The mandate covers only obscene material, and content deemed “harmful to minors,” but the seeming intersection of religion and content-control software continues to haunt public institutions as web-filtering has become an everyday part of our virtual society.

On January 3rd, 2012, The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri announced the filing of a lawsuit charging the Salem Public Library with unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.'” It’s alleged that Salem Public Library officials refused to change their filtering policies when challenged, and that the library directory Glenda Wofford intimated that “she had an obligation” to alert the authorities to report those who were attempting to access blocked sites.

This new case not only raises the issue of web filtering in our public institutions, but why an “occult” category is even an option for secular and government-funded filtering clients where such control is unneeded or even illegal. The company that provides filtering services to the Salem Public Library, Netsweeper, currently categorizes several prominent Pagan organization sites as “occult,” including Covenant of the Goddess (COG), Circle Sanctuary, and Druid fellowship Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), while more mainstream faith sites are listed under “religion” or “general.”

Media critic and scholar Peg Aloi says she is troubled by the inclusion of Pagan sites in “occult” filters, “since this word is not even necessarily associated with Paganism, Wicca or earth-based spirituality.” Dr. Gwendolyn Reece, Ph.D., Director of Research, Teaching and Learning at American University Library notes that “whatever the initial intent of the law may have been, the software used to comply with CIPA censors numerous topics that have no bearing on protecting children and the way the software blocks access to information reflects a particular constellation of values. The real consequence is to undermine part of the necessary infrastructure in a democracy by denying citizens the requisite tools to inform themselves through free inquiry.”

The more one digs, the more it seems that the “occult” category was one created to cater to the “constellation of values” of conservative Christian religious groups in the United States. Phaedra Bonewits, whose site, Neopagan.net, is listed as “occult” by Netsweeper, claims that the initial target market for filtering software “was Christian households, thus all the ‘cultic’ keywords being included with the porn.” I tried to contact Netsweeper by phone and email for background on how a site comes to be labeled as “occult” in their system, but a representative never responded.

What is clear is that leaders and clergy within the modern Pagan movement believe that their sites should be readily available when accessing the Internet, and that blocking “occult” sites oversteps the mandate of CIPA and infringes on the Establishment Clause by favoring one religious expression over another.

In a statement, Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of the ADF, said that “only by free access to knowledge can everyone participate in the marketplace of ideas, guaranteeing true freedom for everyone,” while Selena Fox, speaking for Circle Sanctuary, said that they are disappointed in Salem Public Library’s “unwillingness to provide free and equal access to websites containing information on religions such as Wicca, Paganism, Native American traditional ways, and other paths that honor Nature.”

Rachael Watcher, one of the National Public Information Officers for Covenant of the Goddess, a 501c3 organization recognized as such by the United States government for 36 years, added that “the distinction between the labels ‘religious’ and ‘occult’ is an arbitrary one,” and that “one person’s religious group is another person’s occult group.”

It seems clear that no public library should be blocking access to minority religions, as Sylvia Linton, a librarian by profession and a Circle Sanctuary Community member said to me via email: “In this country, with our guarantees of freedom of religion and of speech, librarians respect the diversity of their patrons and allow them access to information without regard to the personal beliefs of the library staff.”

In addition, instances of “overblocking” by web filtering software here at home raise troubling inherent questions of how this technology is used by countries that don’t share our commitment to free speech or access to information. “Libraries should be bastions of free thought and information access; but, as the actions by the Salem public library demonstrate, Internet Freedom (and freedom of religion) aren’t just under attack overseas — the same censorship technologies used by oppressive regimes are finding their ways into our own back yards,” stated Sascha Meinrath, Director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.

“As a growing compendium of evidence documents, technologies developed by U.S. companies and deployed throughout the country are the same ones being used in places like Syria, Iran, and North Korea — Salem would be wise to distance itself from practices that lump them in with some of the worst human rights violators around the globe.”

The option of an “occult” filter in content-control software should be of great concern to all who value religious liberty. The boundaries of what can be labeled “occult” or “cult” are so porous that it can include everything from information on Yoga to your daily horoscope.

The journalist and author Tom Wolfe once opined that “a cult is a religion with no political power,” an opinion that seems reinforced by the sites blocked by the Salem Public Library. Occult, when used as a term in the realm of Internet filtering, is a religious and cultural value judgment that in no way protects minors from obscene or indecent material within the context of CIPA.

There shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided. One can only hope that this case goes beyond merely changing policy at Salem Public Library and instead institutes a precedent that changes the filtering industry, removing biased categories that have little purpose in a free society.

Links to full statements gathered for this story:

Top Story: msnbc.com reports on a Wiccan from Albany, New York, who claims she was harassed, treated differently, and ultimately fired from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) because of her faith.

Immediately after the complaint about casting spells, Smith’s personnel file started to bulge with disciplinary actions. A training coordinator wrote her up for having a negative attitude. A supervisor warned her for not properly checking a boarding pass. She was eight minutes late to work. She was accused of insubordinate behavior for yelling at supervisors when they told her she’d have to work a 16-hour shift because she was the only woman on duty to pat down female passengers. On April 2, the personnel specialist at Albany, Robert Farrow, sent Johansson an e-mail about Smith. It read, in full, “Hammer Time.” Johansson replied, “Not yet … not enough.”

The evidence obtained by msnbc.com is damning, and it’s very clear that she would have won her initial Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint had she hired a lawyer instead of representing herself, a problem she intends to correct on appeal. The article also interviews Selena Fox about how Wiccans and Pagans are experiencing more acceptance, and more harassment, as we become increasingly visible. Carole A. Smith experienced what many Pagans experience when their religion becomes an issue, group harassment, indifference or hostility from superiors, and  the ever-common inflating of small infractions to justify a firing. There’s more to this story, including whistle-blowing, anti-Union sentiments, and sexism, I recommend reading (and watching) the entire report. I’ll be sure to keep my eyes open for updates.

The First Amendment is Only For Christians (Revisited): I’ve discussed at some length the troubling belief held by some conservative Christians, most notably pseudo-historian David Barton, that the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution only applies to Christians. But Michele Bachmann’s history teacher isn’t the only prominent conservative Christian to push this theory, talk radio host Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association, recently held forth on the topic while invoking fear of an encroaching Islam.

“Islam has no fundamental First Amendment claims, for the simple reason that it was not written to protect the religion of Islam. Islam is entitled only to the religious liberty we extend to it out of courtesy. While there certainly ought to be a presumption of religious liberty for non-Christian religious traditions in America, the Founders were not writing a suicide pact when they wrote the First Amendment.”

Fischer, it should be noted, recently came to our attention when he wrote a disturbingly ugly editorial about Native Americans (naturally, he was the victim). Fischer is also on the “Green Dragon” fear train. The problem is that Fischer, Barton, and other would-be Christian historians that are building a case to deny us equal protections are flat-out wrong. The Founding Fathers knew quite well that religious freedom also meant freedom for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and even Pagans. Dave Hill does an excellent job of debunking the pernicious idea that the First Amendment was only meant to protect Christians, and digs up some amazing quotes from the debates that were held at the time.

“The exclusion of religious tests is by many thought dangerous and impolitic. They suppose that if there be no religious test required, pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us, and that the senators and representatives might all be pagans. Every person employed by the general and state governments is to take an oath to support the former. Some are desirous to know how and by whom they are to swear, since no religious tests are required–whether they are to swear by Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Proserpine, or Pluto.” – Rev. Henry Abbot, 1788.

The idea that the Free Exercise Clause doesn’t apply to non-Christians is dangerous, ahistorical, and stupid. That people like Barton and Fischer are preaching this lie weakens the very foundations they claim to protect. The fact is that the Founders were educated and far-sighted men who understood quite well what they were constructing and its implications. These revisionists would make them all into short-sighted dolts.

The Odds Catholics Prefer When Talking to Pagans? Recently Star Foster from Patheos.com went on a Catholic television program to talk about Paganism, and found herself defending our faiths against a disdainful and ill-informed panel.

“I feel I was a bit rude, because I insisted on saying something meaningful, and a bit flustered, stuttering and off-kilter, because I didn’t expect the attitude, ignorance or topic I was surprised with. I didn’t represent Paganism to the best of my ability, and looking back, probably shouldn’t have agreed to come on the show. I should have said Pagans as a rule don’t teach minors, and if they do it’s only with parents present. I should have emphasized community and service more. I shouldn’t have let them get so personal with their questions. I should have emphasized that Pagans leave Christianity because they find the doctrine faulty and irrelevant, not only because they feel alienated or disconnected.

I’m also a bit concerned that they edited out some parts of the interview, especially where the Msgr. Harrington and I had some interesting exchanges regarding whether Pagans were “making it all up.” I know editing happens and I don’t feel I was edited to look bad, but that some of the more interesting exchanges were removed. What I said really didn’t jive with some folks on the show and some of that discomfort has been removed.”

It seem that the program’s name, “In The Arena”, is quite apt. Attack, heap scorn, and edit out the bits that aren’t convenient. More kangaroo court than informational religion program, really. Still, despite the four-to-one odds, I think Star did as good as can be expected. We also learned an important lesson about entering that particular lion’s den.

Returning to Salem’s Psychic Boom: Fox News has picked up a local story about the licensing of psychics in Salem, Massachusetts, with some wondering if there’s now too many practitioners since regulations were relaxed.

Laurie “Lorelei” Stathopoulos owns Crow Haven Corner, a business dubbed “Salem’s first witch shop.” She conducts readings in a cozy back room and believes the city council needs to keep a close eye on the growing number of psychics. “I agree with Christian [Day] as far as the free trade but I also was one of the biggest advocates of keeping Salem quaint and small and magical and the more people we let in could hurt that name,” said Stathopoulos. “Just like having a Chanel bag, you want the real thing. You don’t want the run-of-the-mill or a knock off bag.”

The article also interviews Salem shop owner and promoter Christian Day, City Councilor Joan Lovely (who floated the idea of new caps), and Barbara Szafranski, a long time opponent of relaxing regulations. For more on this issue, see my post from January, which actually goes into more detail on some of the players and history surrounding regulation in Salem. My interview last year with Christian Day regarding laws and regulations affecting psychics may also be informational.

Around the World: Vietnam recently celebrated the Goddess of Mercy Festival, Buddhists prepare temporary mass graves in Japan, families pray to their gods in Myanmar (Burma) after an earthquake shakes the country, and are the Kalasha the “happiest people in Pakistan”?

“Gul Sayed, 25, sports a grin a mile wide as she hugs me, a lone foreigner in her home. She is a member of the Kalasha, a peace-loving pagan tribe living in the remote villages that lie between Northern Pakistan’s Chitral Valley and the Afghan border. She’s dressed in a black robe embroidered with rainbow threads, a beaded headdress adorned with cowrie shells and colorful necklaces. Rumour has it the blue-eyed, fair-skinned Kalasha are the descendants of the armies of Alexander the Great. But unlike their putative bellicose ancestors, the country’s smallest minority group — numbering around 3,000 — prefers to make love, not war. Proud of their warm, caring, crime-free culture, these could just be the happiest people in Pakistan.

The Kalash people, like Hindus, are adherents to an Indo-European polytheistic faith. After the troubles they have experienced lately with the Taliban, I’m happy to learn that the Kalasha continue to thrive.

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