Archives For free speech

Ordinances against fortune telling have a long history, from bans on sorcery and witchcraft in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe, embodied today in places like Saudi Arabia, to anti-fraud bans (often based in various ethnic prejudices) in the 19th century, to current laws that claim to be protecting citizens from fraud, but are often pushed by conservative Christian lawmakers. For generations those who practiced fortune-telling as a profession existed on the margins of society, usually depicted as mere swindlers preying on the gullible, until a new ethos started to emerge that classified divination as an art. Part of a spiritual and religious tradition that practitioners felt should be respected, and not subject to laws designed to outlaw those engaging in parlor tricks.

In the United States, many anti-fortune-telling laws have been challenged on the grounds of religious freedom, notably Z. Budapest’s very public 1975 battle against a California ordinance. More recently, Wiccans in places like Caspar, Wyoming, and Livingston Parish, Louisiana, succeeded in getting ordinances struck down on this basis. However, a much broader decision was handed down by the  Maryland Court of Appeals in 2010, which ruled that fortune telling and related services are protected speech.

“Fortunetelling may be pure entertainment, it may give individuals some insight into the future or it may be hokum,” the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote in a 24-page opinion. “People who purchase fortunetelling services may or may not believe in its value. Fortunetellers may sometimes deceive their customers. We need not, however, pass judgment on the validity or the value of the speech that fortunetelling entails.”

This was something of a sea change in legal thinking on the issue, and soon challenges to fortune telling ordinances on the basis of free speech started to pop up in places like East Ridge, Tennessee. Advocacy group the First Amendment Center, lays out the constitutional rationale.

“…it’s important to note that most speech — whether it expresses my own impeccable logic or someone else’s silly belief — is protected from government control. Not just permitted. Or allowed. Or tolerated. But protected with the full force and vigor of an amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Now, we have another decision, announced yesterday, that bolsters the divination-as-free-speech line of thinking.

“A federal judge this week ruled that an Alexandria law forbidding fortunetellers from working in the city is a violation of First Amendment free speech rights. U.S. District Judge Dee D. Drell concurred with a recommendation in June by U.S. Magistrate Judge James D. Kirk that said Alexandria’s 2011 ban of Rachel Adams’ shop on Jackson Street Extension was unconstitutional.”

The ThinkProgress blog noted that Alexandria, Louisiana’s law banned “palmistry, card reading, fortune telling and other otherworldly communications,” with the city arguing that  fortune-telling is “a fraud and inherently deceptive.” However, U.S. District Judge Dee D. Drell rejected that, noting that Louisiana has been able to survive and thrive while embracing psychics and fortune-tellers, especially in New Orleans.

As the legal framework for total bans start to crumble, many towns and cities have responded by passing strict regulations on the practice. In 2010 both Time Magazine and the BBC looked at a growing trend of stricter regulations against psychics being enforced by local governments. The creation of these subcultural “red light districts” are often harder to challenge than a total ban, though they often have the same effect. For example, in Chesterfield County, Virginia, zoning regulations for psychics are stricter than they are for strip clubs or pawn shops.

“In Chesterfield, businesses considered to be fortune-telling establishments must pay a $300 tax to get a business license, while nightclubs and adult businesses pay only a $100 tax for a license. Fortune-telling businesses must submit five references from the county to the police chief for approval. They are limited to one zoning designation – the same one reserved for adult businesses, scrap yards and pawn shops. And they must get a conditional-use permit for that zoning.”

Author and renowned tarot expert Mary K. Greer believes her business (reading cards) should be treated like any other business, and not singled out for punitive regulations. Quote: “It has been found that laws prohibiting fraud cover most cases of abuse perfectly adequately and far better than regulations that discriminate unfairly against this particular profession, especially when they assume criminal behavior where none has been shown by the individual. It has been proved over and over again that discriminatory regulations are created by special interest groups and that they are unfair and almost always unconstitutional.”

With yet another fortune-telling ban struck down on the basis of constitutionally protected free speech, regulations that try to zone such businesses out of existence are on increasingly shaky legal ground. The harsher the regulation, the more it seems like the local government is privileging one form of speech over another. It seems clear that whether you pay for it or not, whether you believe in it or not, “otherworldly communications” are protected speech. This is not just a good thing for free speech, but a good thing for the Pagans and esoteric practitioners who supplement their income by performing divination.

Yesterday the Supreme Court handed down a decision regarding the case of Pleasant Grove City, UT v. Summum, The competing issues at hand were if a government body has the right to unrestricted free speech (including religious speech), and the idea that public land equals a public forum (with the government as caretakers, not gatekeepers). An argument that emerged when the New Age/UFO religion Summum wanted a monument to their Seven Principles placed in the same park as a Ten Commandments display. The unanimous opinion of the court was that in this particular instance the local government’s free speech claims trumped Summum’s free speech claims.

“The case centered on Pleasant Grove City, Utah, which displays a Ten Commandments monument in a public park. A religious group called Summum sought the right to erect its “Seven Aphorisms” in the park as well. When city officials declined, Summum sued, arguing that its free-speech rights had been violated. The Supreme Court analyzed the case under free-speech law, ruling 9-0 that it would be impractical to force communities to permanently erect every monument they are given.”

So is this loss a setback for religious minorities seeking equal standing with the dominant monotheisms? Not particularly. The decision here was a narrow one, and Supreme Court justices and analysts have both opined that the case could very well be re-heard on Establishment Clause grounds.

Justice John Paul Stevens provided this assessment of the Supreme Court’s new review of the constitutionality of placing religious monuments on government property: “…the effect of today’s decision will be limited.” In fact, in the 15 weeks between the Court’s hearing on Nov. 12 in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (07-665) and the final decision Wednesday, one thing remained absolutely unchanged: the real dispute here was not about free speech, but about church-state relations. But that was not even argued. At the oral argument, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., told a lawyer for the small Utah city defending  its policy on a Ten Commandments monument in a city park: “You’re just picking your poison, aren’t you?  I mean, the more you say that the monument is government speech, to get out of the Free Speech Clause, the more it seems to me you’re walking into a trip under the Establishment Clause.”

To quote court-watcher Dahlia Lithwick, if Pleasant Grove City “wins this case as a result of the court’s free speech jurisprudence, [they] will be back in five years to lose it under the court’s religion doctrine.”. This was echoed by Americans United executive director Rev. Barry Lynn who stated that “the case should have been analyzed under church-state doctrine” instead of on free-speech grounds. So expect to hear about this case again very soon, Summum’s lawyers are already gearing up to challenge the ruling on Establishment grounds, and the justices seem to be warning Pleasant Grove to act fast or lose the next round.

Although the Supreme Court case centered on the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause loomed in the background. Alito noted that his decision does not imply that there are not restrictions on government speech. “For example, government speech must comport with the Establishment Clause,” he said. Justice David Souter said the connections between the Establishment Clause and government speech have not yet been figured out. He said it would be “in the interest of a careful government” to have more than one monument to avoid an appearance of establishing religion.

Pleasant Grove should heed Justice Souter, for while arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia says that this monument’s circumstances are “virtually identical” to one allowed to stand in Texas, that Ten Commandments existed in a continumm of over 40 other monuments, dulling Establishment claims. Ultimately, neither side here can claim a lasting victory. Summum may not be able to erect their monument (which could have radically changed the management of public lands), but in the long run Pleasant Grove will have to have to either add more monuments to avoid Establishment Clause challenges, or take down all religiously-oriented monuments (the path favored by Americans United). This decision brings the case back into the more familiar (if sometimes complex) area of past religious monument cases. That might not result in a big dramatic shift in legal opinion as it would have if Summum had won here, but it will most likely follow the course of rulings that have been slowly secularizing our public spaces for a post-Christian and multi-religious American future.

The Supremes and Summum

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 13, 2008 — 2 Comments

Longtime readers of this blog will remember that I have been harping on the case Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, argued before the Supreme Court yesterday, as being an important test case on the issue of government-sponsored religious displays, and the rights of minority religions regarding full inclusion.

“The outcome of this case is going to be a big deal for religious minorities. Remember the battles over Pagan inclusion in government-sponsored religious displays in Green Bay and Ohio? A SCOTUS decision here could all but force local government bodies to enact a fully-open policy concerning religious displays on government-controlled property. In other words, the local city council or mayor couldn’t pick and choose which religious displays are worthy to be placed with a Nativity Scene or Ten Commandments monument. It would be all or nothing.”

Since oral arguments in the case yesterday, the issues of governmental “free speech”, the full inclusion of minority faiths in the public square, and the separation of Church and State are getting quite a bit of attention from the mainstream press. The Wall Street Journal focused on the Church of Summum’s search for legitimacy in our society, interviewing religious scholars like Sarah “Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves” Pike about the group.

“Sarah Pike, a religion scholar at California State University, Chico, says that beyond its Egyptian trappings, Summum is a ‘UFO religion’ with some ideas borrowed from Mormonism, the religion into which Mr. Ra was born. They are ‘very much under the New Age umbrella, with an interest in Gnostic Christianity,’ she says. ‘The use of crystals, beliefs in aliens or UFOs, meditation practice and the turn to ancient Egypt are common in other New Age religions.'”

Over at, Dahlia Lithwick reminds everyone of the First Aphorism of Religion Cases*, describes how this case is a total mess, and has a feeling that if Pleasant Grove City wins, they’ll eventually lose.

“Summum isn’t before the court as a religion case. It was brought as a free speech case, and, as Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice learns about three minutes into oral argument this morning, if he wins this case as a result of the court’s free speech jurisprudence, he will be back in five years to lose it under the court’s religion doctrine. The more zealously the city claims ownership of its Ten Commandments monument, the more it looks to be promoting religion in violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.”

Meanwhile the Religious New Service seemed to focus on how the SCOTUS judges wrestled with all the different hypotheticals involved in ruling either way.

“The justices, in turn, asked questions that led to an additional range of hypothetical situations. Justice Stephen Breyer wondered if a government park could permit sculptures from Democratic sculptors but not Republican ones. Justice Samuel Alito asked if the government could refuse to list names of certain deceased soldiers on a memorial because it disagreed with their views … Justices grappled with arguments over whether the monuments in question are ‘government speech,’ ‘private speech’ or a mixture of both … Justice David Souter indicated that this consideration of private and governmental speech may be leading to new ground for the court, saying, ‘We haven’t had this kind of challenge before,'”

Everything in this case seems to come down to a battle between the idea of a government body having the right to free speech (including religious speech), and the idea that public land equals a public forum (with the government as caretakers, not gatekeepers). Either decision could have far-reaching affects on how religion expression is handled on public land. So far, and I’m no expert on taking the temperature of SCOTUS, things seem to slightly favor the New Agers (though the justices do seem concerned that “weird stuff” would litter our public parks if Summum wins), which could, in turn, dramatically change how local governments approach religious displays. We’ll have to wait and see where the judicial winds blow.

* According to Dahlia Lithwick, the First Aphorism of Religion Cases is: Only the religious convictions of other people are weird. Yours are perfectly rational.

Italy’s Object Lesson

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 12, 2008 — 1 Comment

If you were looking for an object lesson on why the separation of church and state is a good idea, look no further than Italy, where a satirist is being prosecuted for insulting Pope Benedict XVI.

Sabina Guzzanti: Pope insulter.

“Italy’s Ministry of Justice has given prosecutors in Rome permission to proceed under the Lateran Treaty against comedienne and satirist Sabina Guzzanti. She is charged with “offending the honour of the sacred and inviolable person” of Pope Benedict XVI. During a comedy routine Guzzanti criticized the Vatican’s interference in issues such as gay rights, saying: ‘Within twenty years the Pope will be where he ought to be, in Hell, tormented by great big poofter devils…'”

All hyperbole aside, Guzzanti is literally being charged under a fascist law. The Lateran Treaty of 1929 was the great solution to the “Roman Question”, a political dispute between the Italian Government and the Papacy. This treaty recognized the sovereignty of the Holy See, and established a concordat giving the Catholic Church certain privileges within Italian society (including the punishment of insults against the Pope). The whole thing was approved by arch-fascist Benito Mussolini, a fact that hasn’t escaped critics of this prosecution.

“Nobel prize-winning playwright Dario Fo said of the decision to take action against a comedian: “This is Fascism pure and simple.” Ms Guzzanti’s father, a centre Right MP, was shocked by the prosecution. According to The Times Paolo Guzzanti branded it: ‘a return to the Middle Ages. Perhaps my daughter should be be submitted to the judgement of God by being made to walk on hot coals.'”

What are Catholics saying? So far, very little. After a few searches I could only find one Catholic blog commenting on the story, and while he isn’t for the comic being jailed for five years (that would make her a martyr to free speech you see), he is for a good public shaming!

“I think these individuals should, however, be firmly answered in the public forum, not along the lines of “oh my, we’re so offended” but rather with an argument such as “think about what you are saying” … and then listing the qualities of this Pope that make her comments so mindless in comparison. In other words, shame these people, don’t jail them. Sending them to jail makes them look like a sort of brave martyr for free speech, shaming them with the truth makes them look exactly like what they are – idiots.”

As you can see, the quality of mercy is not strained. You can have free speech, so long as you endure a lecture from the powers that be on how you’re wrong. As for the Vatican, no official statement has been released. They are too busy distancing themselves from Catholic attacks on resurgent fascist tendencies in Italian society, and urging secular France to remember a more religious past.

One can only hope this farce of justice is stopped. Meanwhile, those of us in countries where that church-state separation is a bit more clear should be grateful that the Bill Donohues of this world can’t have comedians and artists sent to trial and locked up.

I have important updates on two recent stories:

Do Not Vex, Pester, or Annoy the Catholic Youth: It looks like justice has prevailed in Australia. A law created especially for the Catholic mega-gathering World Youth Day that would make “annoying” or “inconveniencing” visiting Catholics an offense punishable by a hefty fine has been struck down by Australia’s Federal Court.

“The Federal Court has ruled against the ‘annoying’ laws instigated for the Pope’s World Youth Day visit, saying they could have a “chilling effect” upon freedom of speech. The court ruled in favour of NoToPope activists Rachel Evans and Amber Pike, who brought the case against the NSW Government. The pair claimed the legislation would have prevented their members from handing out leaflets and other material.”

This is a great victory for free speech and free expression! So Aussie Pagans, feel free to wear that Pentacle in public, don an inflammatory t-shirt, or distribute condoms as you see fit.

Satanic Panic Alive and Well in North Carolina: A North Carolina couple who have been accused of kidnapping, rape, and engaging in Satanic cult activities were in court Monday, where a judge decided the case against them could go forward.

“It was an interest in the occult that brought the accusers to Durham. The woman and man who have accused a couple in a sexual assault case that includes allegations of channeling demons and caging a man were in Durham County District Court on Monday. The woman, 44, and man, 19, were called to the stand in a probable cause hearing for Joseph Scott Craig, 25, and Joy Suzanne Johnson, 30, the husband and wife accused in a case that was described by one defense attorney as “consensual sadomasochism” gone awry.”

In my original entry I had some serious questions about the validity of this case. The new information brought to light here raises even more. We now know that the plaintiffs not only engaged in consensual sexual activities with the defendants, but were living with them for a span of six months. Again “Satanism” is thrown around, and that they discussed “demons”. The more I hear about this case, the more it seems like a consensual domestic situation turned ugly. The only question is if the real truth will come to light in this case.

In Sydney, Australia, the annual World Youth Day, a massive Catholic event, starts on July 15th. It is a week-long affirmation of Catholic power that seeks to “mobilize” young people, and will bring millions of dollars in revenue to the area. Unsurprisingly, local government is doing everything in its power to avoid scandal, controversy, or conflict. And when I say “everything”, I mean everything.

Do I annoy you, yeah?

“Australians have been warned: Don’t get caught annoying the crowds when they gather here later this month to see the pope. New regulations give police and emergency services workers the power to order anyone to stop behavior that “causes annoyance or inconvenience to participants in a World Youth Day event,” according to a New South Wales state government gazette. Anyone who does not comply faces a $5,300 fine … Anna Katzman, the president of the New South Wales Bar Association, which represents almost 3,000 lawyers in the state, said making someone’s inconvenience the basis of a criminal offense was ‘unnecessary and repugnant.'”

While it is good sense to regulate violence, intimidation, or interfering with someone else’s event, to regulate such arbitrary offenses as “annoyance” or “inconvenience” is downright draconian. The No To Pope Coalition is already testing the law by parading around in “annoying” t-shirts outside the New South Wales parliament.

“When about a dozen protesters showed off their new T-shirts, eight policemen stood and watched them. “This is an attempt to intimidate people to not come to our rally and saying their piece against the Pope,” said Rachel Evans of the NoToPope coalition. The coalition wants Sydney citizens to defy the laws and protest against the Pope on July 19. The demonstrators plan to march through Sydney distributing condoms to young Catholic pilgrims as a protest against the Vatican’s opposition to contraception.”

The “thou shalt not protest” law (which also includes broad powers of search and seizure) is also being challenged in federal court by student activists and the NSW Council for Civil Liberties.

“The Federal Court has been told the New South Wales Government’s World Youth Day regulations are too broad and could be applied to members of the public going about their everyday business. Two student activists, with the help of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, are challenging the State Government’s regulations. The regulations allow police to detain and fine anyone who annoys or inconveniences World Youth Day pilgrims. The activist’s lawyers told the court the area where the powers apply include train stations as far away as Parramatta and Camp…”

The government’s response to these charges is expected later today. In the meantime, these laws have local residents worried (a whopping 90% of Sydney residents are against them). One Australian Wiccan e-mailed me wondering if she could be fined thousands by openly wearing her Pentacle at the train station (or any of the 600 “controlled areas”). Seem unlikely? All you need is one over-zealous Catholic copper and an innocent individual could face a strip-search and hefty fine.

So what, if any, input did Catholic officials give to the local government about these laws? According to a World Youth Day spokesperson, none.

“A World Youth Day spokesperson, however, told ENI that the Catholic Church had not requested any special measures to prevent protests. “The Catholic Church supports people’s right to protest. We’re fine with that, as long as they do it in a peaceful manner,” the spokesperson stated.”

In fact, at least one Australian Catholic organization has publicly spoken out against these foolish and dangerous new regulations.

“The Edmund Rice Centre, an Australian Catholic advocacy organisation, claimed that the laws introduced in New South Wales to restrict protests are contrary to Catholic traditions of social justice. “These laws significantly dampen our right to freedom of speech and to demonstrate inside or outside the church,” a spokesperson for the centre, John Sweeney, told Ecumenical News International on 4 July.”

So now, the question is why did government officials think this was a good idea? Were they so afraid of Catholics being offended, of negative publicity, that they became intent on quashing all planned dissent? Were these laws urged on by a totalitarian need for control, or a misplaced fidelity to their own Christian faith? Whatever the motivation, if this law isn’t struck down in the courts, massive civil disobedience seems to be in order.

The state of Bahia in Brazil has confiscated all copies of the book “Yes, Yes! No, No! Reflections on Healing and Liberation” on the grounds that it makes false and prejudicial statements about the Afro-Brazilian religions of Candomble and Umbanda, and incites readers to destroy their objects of worship.

“A judge in the state of Bahia, Brazil, has ordered the confiscation of a book written by Catholic priest Jonas Abib, in which he condemns witchcraft as immoral. The book, “Yes, Yes! No, No! Reflections on Healing and Liberation,” warns readers against the dangers of the occult, which includes the “Afro-Brazilian” religions known as “spiritualism.” According to Fr. Abib’s website, the book has gone through 81 printings and has sold over 400,000 copies. “Father Jonas, like Paul, dares to denounce works of darkness, making the reader aware of mind control, yoga, astrology, magic, and the invocation of the dead, revealing the truth about works of darkness, with which it is urgently necessary to separate,” says a summary of the book posted on the same site.

The confiscation of a work is a pretty serious action, but it seems that the book by Jonas Abib, a Charismatic Catholic priest, went head-to-head with the state of Bahia’s constitution. Bahia is the birthplace of Condomble, and the faith is explicitly protected.

“Public prosecutor Almiro Sena, however, has accused Abib of “making false and prejudiced statements about the spiritualist religion as well as religions from Africa, like Umbanda and Candomble, as well as a flagrant incitement to destruction and disrespect for their objects of worship.” He added that the violation was more serious because “the State Constitution (of Bahia) says that it is the obligation of the state to preserve and guarantee the integrity, respectability, and permanence of the values of Afro-Brazilian religion.” Ricardo Augusto Schmitt, a criminal court judge in the city of Salvador, Bahia ruled in favor of the prosecution in May, and ordered the confiscation of all copies of the book from book stores in the state.”

Without that clause in the state constitution, the work could not have been confiscated. This doesn’t affect the work’s status in Brazil’s other states. The ruling will most likely be appealed by the book’s publisher, and the confiscation has incited claims that Bahia is trying to regulate the free exercise of Christianity.

“Federal Deputy Miguel Martini denounced the latest ruling on the floor of the nation’s Camber of Deputies (the lower legislative house), and expressed his concern that Brazil is beginning to censor the beliefs of Christians. ‘Where is this country going?” he asked. “There is a bill under consideration in the Senate that seeks to limit the expression, on the part of Christians, of their Biblical and Evangelical convictions. And now there is a (court) decision, which clearly should be appealed. I am certain that it will be overturned, because the publisher’s juridical board has already taken legal action.'”

Obviously, a scenario like this would be all but impossible in America, where the First Amendment usually trumps attempts to control the publication of hateful or inaccurate information (otherwise Chick Publications would be out of business). We tend to error on the side of freedom, though if your work is proven to be defaming (something difficult to do), the writer and publishers can lose quite a bit of money from awarded damages until the work is removed from the shelves.

So the big question here is if Abib knowingly committed libel, or if he was merely giving his (religiously-informed) opinion of the Afro-Brazilian faiths. In other words, would an American court find the work libelous? Could a tort be filed against them? Should any state enshrine the “permanence” of a faith? What do you think?

On Monday, the city of Salem will be hearing the case of Michael Marcavage, founder of Repent America, who was arrested on Halloween night on charges of disorderly conduct.

“A “Witch City” trial is scheduled Monday for a street preacher who was arrested and accused of disorderly conduct for expressing his belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ on a public street in Salem, Mass., on Halloween night in 2007. “Michael [Marcavage] is guilty of nothing more than preaching the Gospel,” said Ben DuPre, an attorney with former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law, who is representing Marcavage.”

Michael Marcavage

Let there be no mistake, Marcavage is an intolerant caricature of true Christianity, an annoying hate-monger who hopes to “win” people to Jesus by threatening them with hellfire and damnation. Marcavage travels every year with a cadre of followers to harangue and cajole the thousands of Witches, Pagans, and merry-makers at Salem’s yearly Halloween festivities. An activity that has seen him come into conflict with local Christians, and made him a part of the circus-like atmosphere of the city. This along with other inconceivably stupid statements concerning God’s wrath, have made Marcavage something of a folk-hero among ultra-conservative born-again Christians.

However, if the video posted by Repent America accurately portrays the (alleged) events of Halloween night, then Marcavage’s First-Amendment rights were indeed violated.

Freedom of speech means that Repent America can publicly expound on our sinfulness all they want, so long as they don’t break other laws in transmitting that message. This freedom, in turn, grants Witches, Pagans, and other idealogical opponents of Repent America (a long, long list) the right to vociferously disagree. If on Monday the evidence truly points to the narrative portrayed in that video, all charges should be dropped, and the officers in question should be investigated for misconduct.

Of course, there is always the chance that there is more to this situation than meets the eye. We have no idea what transpired before that video clip, it is entirely possible that these would-be Christian crusaders did indeed engage in “disorderly conduct”. Many of these street-preaching/protesting organizations knowingly push at the boundaries of the law, engaging in activities that are little better than group harassment and intimidation. Then, once arrested, portray a monolithic government out to silence Christianity in order to boost monetary contributions (and status within certain Christian circles).

So whether Marcavage was “calmly preaching the gospel”, or spitting hellfire at the crowds of heathens, even intolerant fools deserve free speech. However, if Repent America was breaking the law, painting yourself as a First Amendment victim will only work for so long.

Due to family obligations I’ll be away from a computer for most of the day, but I thought I’d leave you with two stories involving the law and modern Pagans that I felt deserve a second look. The first is from Caspar City, Wyoming and involves a local Wiccan and metaphysical store owner’s attempt to get a anti-fortune-telling ordinance struck down.

“Nella Forest, owner of the metaphysically inclined Pan’s Grove store, attended a recent council meeting to express concern about Rule 9.36.010, a consumer protection law in the municipal codebook that penalizes anyone who profits from propheting. It keeps her from charging for tarot card readings, a key aspect of Wiccan religion, she said. “These are willing parties coming to get tarot readings,” she said. The City Council will discuss whether the law should come off the books or not at a 4:30 p.m. work session, which will be held at Casper City Hall.”

Laws concerning fortune telling have been big news lately. You had the psychic wars in Salem, the controversial crack-down on psychics in Philadelphia, and recent Biblically-motivated laws in Louisiana against fortune-telling. Since divination is big money-maker (and a spiritual practice that is taken very seriously) within the Pagan community, expect more clashes over old antiquated laws and newer morality-driven ordinances in the future.

The second story involves another common legal theme involving the Pagan community: religious speech within public schools. This time it is a controversial new law in Texas that allows students “spontaneous” religious expression without interference from school officials.

“The third new law, dubbed the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, has superintendents nervous as they figure out how to implement it in the coming weeks. It requires public school districts to adopt policies specifically allowing spontaneous religious expression by students. A so-called model policy included in the law states that upperclassmen who are student leaders — such as student council officers, class officers or the captain of the football team — should be designated as speakers. The law does not address concerns that such a selection process could wind up leaving out minority faiths. ‘This mandate is going to create a collision of ideas that should really take place outside of the school,’ Superintendent Richard Middleton of North East Independent School District said. ‘Our lawyer fees are going to go up because of this.'”

But like all pre-religious laws that conservatives seem to pass, they mean “Christian” expression, and the notion of Pagan expression can often derail these efforts.

“If a kid on the football team expresses a religious message that is not in keeping with everyone in the room, will there be protests? That school principal will have to deal with that,” Woods said. “What if someone wants their time to respond then and there? If we allowed a Christian to express a religious viewpoint, and then a Wiccan wants equal time, how could we prevent them from doing the same?”

The fact that these conservative groups don’t seem so freedom-loving when Pagan religious expressions in school happen proves that these laws are agenda-laden and have nothing to do with expanding everyone’s freedoms. But they keep coming up, and Pagans (not to mention other religious minorities) seem to always intrude on their careful plans to put “God” back into the schools.

What cases like these (and others) prove is that while modern Pagans aren’t big enough to matter in big-time political races or when making national policy, we do matter quite a bit in the world of litigation and the courts (especially concerning religious freedom). Can a robust and serious Pagan-run law advocacy and support group be long in coming if this climate continues?

Marc Horne from Scotland on Sunday looks at a growing controversy taking place at the University of Edinburgh. It seems that a local Christian group is up in arms after a campus Pagan group was given approval to hold a conference there.

“Two ancient religions have locked horns in a bizarre “freedom of speech” row that is echoing around the corridors of one of Scotland’s oldest academic institutions. The University of Edinburgh has granted permission to the Pagan Society to hold its annual conference – involving talks on witchcraft, pagan weddings and tribal dancing – on campus next month. Druids, heathens, shamans and witches are expected to attend what is a major event in the pagan calendar. But the move has enraged the Christian Union, which accuses the university of double standards after banning one of its events on the “dangers” of homosexuality.”

The school felt that the Christian Union’s anti-gay chat violated its anti-discrimination policy, and in the end offered a compromise where posters offering different views would be displayed at their class if it was to be held. That no such measure has been applied to the Pagans has infuriated local Christians.

“The Union has won strong backing from the Catholic Church in Scotland, whose spokesman, Simon Dames, felt that allowing the pagan festival to go ahead while barring the Union meeting was an example of “Christianphobia”. “This appears to be a clear case of double standards,” he said.”

But is this a double standard? I suppose you could make that argument if the school had interfered with a general conference on the religion of Christianity and then not done the same for the Pagans. But the Christian course was specifically on the moral “dangers” of homosexuality and was not a general conference on the faith itself. Last time I checked, while many Christians morally oppose homosexual behavior due to their reading of the Bible, the moral opposition to homosexuality isn’t in itself a requirement for admission into the ranks of Christendom. Of course this didn’t stop a Catholic Church spokesman from making wildly hyperbolic statements.

“The principles of a pluralistic democracy revolve around an acceptance of competing ideas and universities should be enshrining this principle. Anti-racism groups would never be asked to put up posters saying there are alternative views.”

Because anti-racism meetings and talks against gays are basically the same! Perhaps homophobia is becoming a sacrament after all.