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For most of the United States, public school is out of session, and children are outside making mudpies, playing ball, climbing trees and building Minecraft fortresses on small electronic gadgets. Nobody is thinking about school.

Well, almost nobody. June is “Public School Religious Freedom Month.” Or, at least it is in Pennsylvania; the state in which the historic 1963 Schempp case began. As we previously reported, Abington School District v. Schempp is considered a landmark case in the on-going struggle for religious freedom and equality within public school environments. Schempp challenged the constitutionality of Bible reading within American public schools.

[Photo Credit:  Joseph Barillari, cc-lic. Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Joseph Barillari, cc-lic. Wikimedia]

In recognition of Pennsylvania’s honorary month, we decided to look at recent school-related court cases and proposed or enacted legislation, which challenge and even flout (e.g., Basevitz v. Fremont RE-2 School District) the U.S. Constitution’s implied “Separation of Church and State.”

Religious equality in public schools is unique within the larger cultural negotiations of religion in the public sphere, chiefly because it involves minors – the very protected, very impressionable, youngest sector of the population. These cases often become a power struggle between the administration or even a single teacher and parents or guardians. In a few cases, the struggle is between a teacher and administrators. The Atheist activist group Freedom From Religion Foundation has said that 40% of its received religious-freedom complaints are school-related.

In some situations, the struggle over control of a child’s education and personal expression calls into question the social lines drawn between educational responsibility and rights. These situations also question the ethical boundaries of exposure and advertising to young people (e.g., Lubbock v. Little Pencil), and the capitalizing on expectations or positions of authority (e.g. Boy Scout in-class recruiting.) These cases can even go so far as to insult a parent’s credibility, marginalize a minority religious practice or culture (e.g., Griffith v Caney Valley Public School), and place a fragile young spirit in awkwardly social positions, ostracizing them from friends during a critical social growth period.

These battles, in many ways, are a wrestling-match over our future – personal, community, and legislative.

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[Photo: H. Greene]

Imagine picking up your child school from school and finding a group of older men in sensible sport jackets, red ties and khakis handing out mini copies of the New Testament. As the last bell rings and children exit the school building, these men stand ready to hand each child a brightly colored book strategically decorated like a school locker for greater appeal.

This very scenario happened in May at a school district in north Georgia. When approached, the men happily said that they were simply “sharing teaching Bibles with the children” and that the school knew they were there. Unconstitutional? The men passing out the Bible made it a point to stand just off school property near the three entrances, and only began distribution after school ended. While this situation remains frustrating for many non-Christians and Christians alike, the group was within legal boundaries.

Situations like this and other school-related religious freedom issues are unfortunately not uncommon. While every case doesn’t directly involve Pagans and Heathens, every situation and decision affects the entire student body, not only the families who take their story to the press, to the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United or, if you are in the Pagan world, to Lady Liberty League.

Let’s look at two recent situations.

Creationism Regularly Taught in Louisiana Schools

Do you have children in Louisiana public schools? If so, you might want to look closely at the science curriculum. According to a recent Slate magazine article, Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education said, “We know that one in eight high school biology teachers advocate for creationism, even though it’s unconstitutional.”

In 2008, Louisiana passed the “Louisiana Science Education Act,” which opened the door for the teaching of creationism within its public school system. This law, commonly referred to as the “Creationism Act,” states that its purpose is to “promote students’ critical thinking skills and open discussion of scientific theories … including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.” Although the law also specifically states that it “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine,” a new investigative report has proven the contrary.

Recent investigative work by Slate’s Zack Kopplin demonstrates that creationism is regularly taught in school districts across the state, using Bibles as supplemental teaching texts. He revealed his findings in two separate articles for the online news journal. Not only does his research demonstrate open school support of such teachings, he also suggests that state legislators have been pressuring districts to include creationism in the curriculum.

Kopplin also notes that there have been 10 attempts to repeal the Creationism Act since its enactment, but none have been successful. In his latest report, Kopplin concludes, “All it will take is for one Louisiana parent or student to sue the state for endorsing religion in public school, and teaching creationism will become illegal again. But for the moment, because Louisiana politicians refuse to take action, Louisiana students are reading Genesis in science class.” Americans United (AU), the ACLU, and Freedom From Religion Foundation have all made it clear that they are watching and waiting. AU wrote, “Let’s hope someone will step up soon.”

Prayer in School

In Indiana, the ACLU filed a lawsuit June 1 on behalf of a Jim and Nichole Bellars, whose son attends River Forest Junior / Senior High School. As reported, the complaint reads:

The coach-led prayers, the School Board prayers, and the graduation prayers all violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

According to the Indiannapolis Star, the child was told to “get along better” with the coaches and that he should “just sit there and be quiet but that the prayers would continue and that [he] had to remain huddled with the team.” Since the parents got involved, the child has been subjected to harassment by others at the school.

Interestingly, the case touches on three different observational complaints, implicating the sports program, the graduation exercises and the school board meetings. According to ACLU reference material, the Supreme Court is clear on the unconstitutionality of both coach-led and graduation prayers. “In 1992, the Supreme Court held in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577 (1992), that prayer – even nonsectarian or nonproselytizing prayer – at public school graduation ceremonies violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” Similarly “in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 68 U.S. 4525 (2000),” the United States Supreme Court ruled against coach-led optional prayers before sporting events. The ACLU explains:

Such system encourages divisiveness along religious lines and threatens the imposition of coercion upon those students not desiring to participate in a religious exercise. Simply by establishing the schoolrelated procedure, which entrusts the inherently nongovernmental subject of religion to a majoritarian vote, a constitutional violation has occurred.

The third issue raised in the Indiana case is the legality of prayer before school board meetings, which is an entirely different challenge. School Board meeting are largely adult forums and do not involve the education of minors. So this raises an important question. Does the 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway case, allowing for sectarian prayers during government meetings, apply to such school boards?

According to the ACLU documentation, it does not. The document says that “In Coles ex rel. Coles v. Cleveland Bd. of Educ., 171 F.3d 369 (6th Cir. 1999) …the Court observed that ‘[t]he very fact that school board meetings focus solely on school-related matters provides students with an incentive to attend the meetings that is lacking in other settings.” The organization goes on to suggest that, in many cases, students are required to attend such meetings. Therefore, since there is a potential for coercion of minors, sectarian prayer at school board meetings is definitively unconstitutional. This idea is firmly based on the premise of protecting our youth. Adults can presumably handle hearing opposing views without being coerced, where children can’t.

Americans United agrees with the ACLU. However, without a specific SCOTUS ruling, there is still much debate.

[Photo Credit: Jayhawksean via Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Jayhawksean via Wikimedia]

Many other situations and cases are on file and pending. In the Basevitz case, as linked below, a Jewish teacher is currently suing her district for allowing a local church to offer services in the lunchroom during school hours. In the Griffith v. Caney Valley Public Schools case, a student sued the school board for not allowing her to wear a sacred eagle feather during graduation. She lost her case. In Lubbock v. Little Pencil, a school district was sued when it rejected a religious advertisement proposed for its stadium’s jumbo tron. The court ruled in favor of the school. And, in Georgia, a local high school has recently announced that its “back to school activities” will be held in a nearby Baptist megachurch due to building construction. There is no legal challenge to this action yet.

The cultural discussions over religious equality often seem to just spin round and round. The freedom of religious expression (e.g., Griffith v Caney Valley Public School) and the definitive separation of church and state (e.g., Basevitz v. Fremont RE-2 School District) often come into conflict within that struggle, adding nuance to already complicated legal situations and personal sacrifice. In addition, the rules change and situations become more emotional when children are involved; when the future and the, often-considered sacred, right of parents and guardians as religious and cultural guides is challenged.

Public Domain / via Pixabay

[Public Domain]

Over the past seven months, a large group of people came together to craft a “Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” The idea was born after Covenant of the Goddess issued a similar statement in August 2014. John Halstead led the charge, coordinating the discussions within this “working group.” However, the statement itself was created wholly by the coalition of diverse voices from various communities, religious practices and regions.

Near the end, the statements reads, “We hold that living a fulfilling and meaningful life, and allowing the same for future generations, is only possible if the entire Earth is healthy. We will therefore strive as individuals, as groups, and as members of a global society to promote the current and future health of our entire Earth…”

Presented in draft form, the statement can be read at a newly launched website, where the public is invited to make comments and suggestions. Organizers add, “The Statement will be published in its final form on Earth Day, April 22, 2015, when it will be made available for electronic signature.”  They add, “The statement only represents you if you sign it.” 

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Nearly a year after news of his arrest rocked many Pagan communities, Kenny Klein has still yet to be heard in court. Charges were filed in June but the process has been stalled with hearings scheduled each month, but then postponed for a variety of reasons.

For Klein’s ex-wife, Tzipora Katz, and her children, the delays have been difficult  and increasingly frustrating, as they are all seeking closure. Katz recently said, “The arrest and the past year have, needless to say, dredged up many old wounds and reawoken our collective PTSD. This has manifest differently for each of us, but the common themes are: second guessing decisions (especially about interpersonal relationships), feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth, nightmares and inability to separate past from present emotions, and feelings that we are on trial again as we have had to defend our statements of what did happen to us. And of course, an utter disdain for the slowness of the judicial system.” The next scheduled hearing is for the end of April.

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Indiana-StateSeal.svgIndiana’s newly signed RFRA has taken center stage in the national spotlight, as well as in Pagan and Heathen communities. John Halstead published a blog post regarding the legislation. In “A Pagan Lawyer’s Take on Indiana’s “Religious Right to Discriminate Law,” Halstead writes, “The law allows Hoosiers who are sued for discrimination to cite their religious beliefs as a defense in a private discrimination suit.” Last week, thousands marched in protest and tweeted in outrage, including celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, George Takai, Ashton Kutcher, Ellen Degeneres, the NCAA organization and others.

Indiana will be joining the Federal Government and 19 other states, who all have similar “religious freedom” legislation. Over the past two years,The Wild Hunt has reported on a number of these laws or proposed bills, including those in Georgia and Arizona. Every state RFRA must be read carefully as they are all worded differently. As a result, each one raises different levels of concern and corresponding public reaction. For those interested in following the issue more closely, Americans United provides regular updates on the debates and actions specific to each state’s bill or legislation.

20 states with RFRAs as of March 27, 2015 [Graphic by: PiMaster3]

20 states with some form of RFRA, as of March 27, 2015 [Graphic by: PiMaster3]

In other news:

That is it for now. Have a nice day!

There’s been some good conversation sparked by my post yesterday on the effects of anti-Pagan propaganda (in this case from Catholic exorcists and the Catholic media outlets who shine a spotlight on them). First, for those who wanted to hear more about the incident I mentioned concerning the Indiana Pagan Pride event, and the tensions that resulted when a Catholic youth event overlapped with it, check out the inaugural post from the new Indiana PNC bureau.

Torcyr Storm Gull, who has been the security coordinator for Indianapolis Pagan Pride Day for the last nine years, commented, “Everything worked out beautifully. I had no issues with the organizers of CYO. There was I feel a lot of miscommunication between the parks and CYO. Honestly the only issue all morning was from a stereotypical soccer dad that threatened me with violence for conducting traffic safely so the children were NOT in danger. He seemed to settle down or at least grumble to himself after I pointed out if he wished I would let the park officers deal with his disruptive behavior. There were no vehicles driving across the grass. The problem is CYO believed they had free run of the whole park and tried to use it despite the fact that the 52 vendor locations were clearly staked out. I would like to thank CYO for being so understanding and helpful after things were explained to them. All of the uproar over this wonderful event is being caused by a few rowdy parents who have no clue as to what happened .

Of course, one of those “rowdy parents” called the media, which is what brought the entire situation to our attention. A few commenters here at The Wild Hunt pointed out that the matter was resolved peacefully, and thus wasn’t a good example of how anti-Pagan propaganda has negative effects, but I think that “rowdy parents” angry enough to call the media and essentially argue that we shouldn’t be allowed equal treatment speaks volumes about how ongoing rhetoric against our faiths erodes civility and peaceful co-existence. Propaganda, in my mind, doesn’t suddenly turn human beings into violent monsters, but it does erode our compassion for those branded as “other” (or demonic).

Here are some other thoughts from yesterday’s Wild Hunt comments that I thought were noteworthy:

A Catholic parent who thinks Pagans shouldn't be able to use public parks.

A Catholic parent who thinks Pagans shouldn’t be able to use public parks.

“I find that in prejudiced people (like the “concerned Catholic Parent” shown in the video, there is a kind of “cognitive dissonance.” He considers the Pagans “silly” (even laughing at them), and yet he is OUTRAGED by them. Why be outraged by silliness? It just doesn’t make sense. (I think HE finds them “silly,” but his Church teaches that they are something to be outraged by. Therefore, he must keep these 2 thoughts in his mind, and the dissonance of those 2 thoughts is what is disturbing him.)”Obsidia

“Certainly there are adherents who cling to the party line and cause trouble for the likes of us and this absurdity with increasing exorcisms is definitely problematic for us. But the farther The Church goes against all sense and reason, the more members they will lose. They’ll be reduced to the whackadoos ranting about demons and throwing salt in people’s faces. And yeah, that’s dangerous, but I’m not going to hold any hostility or anger toward Catholicism because of the hard-line whackadoos.”Sunweaver

“Jason, props to you for highlighting a serious problem, not just within contemporary Catholicism, but contemporary Christianity as a whole. I first encountered the “Pagans worship the devil” narrative within evangelical Christianity, and it remains as entrenched in certain corners of the Protestant world as within the Catholic right. Meanwhile, please remember that many Catholics (and Protestants) seek to promote positive interfaith dialogue and psychologically healthy models of spirituality that eschew these kinds of narratives. Any religion is capable of demonizing outsiders (yes, even Neopaganism). It’s certainly more pernicious when Catholics or other Christians do it because of their social influence and privileged status within our society. But it’s a problem of the human condition that unfortunately can be found anywhere that people settle for ethnocentric rather than world-centric systems of ethics and morals.” – Carl McColman (a Patheos columnist, and former Pagan turned contemplative Christian)

“As Jason says, this is something that actually does trickle down. As a Pagan married to a Catholic, I happen to attend Mass every once in a while especially recently as I’ve just moved to Massachusetts and my wife wanted some support as she ventured into various churches to try and find one that she likes the best. Attending Mass a few weeks ago, during the homily, the priest was fairly specific in his denigration of Pagan practices. He didn’t specifically link them (us) to evil or to Satan, but it was still an unsettling moment for myself and for her.”Dashifen

“Occasionally, when listening to some of the more, shall we say excitable adherents of other faiths, I find myself thinking, “Hang on a minute, they’re talking about someone they think is me!”. Trying to ride out that uncomfortable moment is always problematic.”Purple Pagan

Thanks to everyone who’s contributed their thoughts on this matter. I think that openly discussing how anti-Pagan propaganda actually affects us personally helps put a human face on an abstract concept peddled by the Catholic exorcism lobby. It’s only by seeing us as human, as realizing that we  are simply adherents of a different faith, not demon-ridden monsters, that interfaith efforts and understanding can find fruit.

That there is a thread of hostility and distortion against modern Pagan faiths within Catholicism is well documented. My own journey in exploring this murky territory started in 2006 when Catholic pilgrims attacked and threatened Pagans in Glastonbury, leading me to wonder what exactly is being taught to Catholic youth about our faiths.

“Maya Pinder, the owner of the shop, said: “We’ve had to hear comments such as ‘burn the witches’, we’ve had salt thrown in our faces and at our shop, people were openly saying they were ‘cleansing Glastonbury of paganism’.”

I truly thought this was just an isolated, ugly, incident. A few bad apples who took the whole “crusader” bit a tad too seriously and thought that cursing and throwing salt on innocent people was a laugh. However, over time I realized that this incident didn’t happen in a vacuum, and that the Catholic Church was becoming radicalized around the notion of “occult” practices through the process of reviving exorcisms. The idea of demonic possession, and that it can be caused by involvement with modern Pagan religions, has been re-mainstreamed within Catholic thought.

“The second level of demonic influence is obsession. At this level, there is still no sign of anything paranormal happening. The person starts to give in to the temptation. He may become reclusive and secretive as he becomes obsessed with the evil that he is entertaining. This evil may be in the form of occult activity, violent video games or movies, pornography, drug abuse, sexual perversion, sexual promiscuity, or obsession with power and violence.

That’s  Fr. Dwight Longenecker, and he wrote that for Patheos. Which, I am assured, is a rather mainstream and prominent site for religion coverage.

But perhaps I’m overstating my case? I don’t want to be accused of sensationalism, or raising a question over phantoms and rumor, so let’s turn to an article in today’s National Catholic Register,  the oldest national Catholic newspaper in the United States, owned by a popular Catholic television network.

“Evil has not fallen out of fashion. Exorcism is a rite developed — and promulgated — to meet a need that still exists, due to more people delving into New Age and occult practices. And, yes, satanic worshippers are a reality.”

That, folks, is the opening paragraph. This is a Catholic reporter writing for a Catholic audience, and we start with how “New Age and occult practices” are tied to evil, and by extension Satanic worship. Then, after a completely unsubstantiated aside about how Satanists are routinely stealing the host (blessed wafer) from churches to use in their diabolic rites, they trot out their expert witness.

“The Rite was one of a handful of movies about exorcism released in the last two years, and a short-lived television series on the subject also launched. But that’s far from the point, says Father Thomas. “There is a greater need for exorcism because there is a greater frequency of the practices of the occult, New Age and Satanism, both on the part of Catholics and other people alike,” he said. Conference speakers explained that  people begin experimenting with other traditions and rituals, often simply out of curiosity. They don’t realize that they are, at the same time, losing their spiritual center and turning away from God.”

That’s Catholic exorcist Father Gary Thomas, a Catholic exorcist who was featured in the book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” (adapted into a feature film starring Anthony Hopkins). He’s probably the most famous Catholic exorcist currently making the rounds. Thomas is also believer in Ritual Satanic Abuse, despite the fact that the moral panic that held sway during the 1980s and 90s produced no credible proof of a underground network of Satanic abusers.

So what is the problem if some Catholics think we’re demon-haunted dupes who need a good old “power of Christ compels you” moment? Isn’t this just Catholics talking to other Catholics, using exorcism as a form of boundary maintenance of their own traditions? The problem is that rhetoric has consequences, and we don’t live in a world populated only by Catholics. When we are framed as evil and demonic, tensions can arise in the real world.

A Catholic parent who thinks Pagans shouldn't be able to use public parks.

A Catholic parent who thinks Pagans shouldn’t be able to use public parks.

“Two very different cultures met on one large open field and it led to some tense moments Saturday afternoon. For the fourteenth year in a row, Broad Ripple Park was home to the annual Pagan Pride Day, an all-day event that started early this morning to commemorate the autumnal equinox. Saturday was also a cross country meet for the Catholic Youth Organization which involved hundreds of kids and parents. It turns out the festival rented the field for the day and the CYO participants had to run around the festival. “They can do it someplace else. It is inappropriate here. It is embarrassing. I was outraged by it,” said one parent.”

This was in Indiana, after a Catholic event ran long, overlapping with a scheduled Pagan Pride event. According to one source, it was the Catholics, not the Pagans, who called the local news to complain about the incident. The Pagans, on the other hand, went through all proper channels to hold their event, and worked with organizers of the Catholic youth event to accommodate their event running long. The about-to-be-launched Pagan Newswire Collective Indiana bureau is currently writing up the story (their first) and I’ll feature it here once it’s up. It’s hard to read about this story and not think about the National Catholic Register piece posted today. It seems increasingly improbable that these two events exist in universes entirely unconnected. You can’t have an ongoing stream of rhetoric and anti-Pagan propaganda emerging from the clergy, and not expect it influence the laity.

If people who hold spiritual and religious power say something is bad often enough, people will listen. It saddens me that no prominent Catholics (that I know of) will step forward and say “enough” to this propaganda masquerading as a spiritual technology. I can only hope that cooler heads will prevail as Pagans and Catholics increasingly cross paths in our secular world.  Otherwise, the risk of families being torn apart, and tensions rising to the levels of Glastonbury in 2006, will continue to increase to the detriment of all involved. This demonic possession narrative has got to stop.

ADDENDUM: Here’s the full report from PNC-Indiana.