Archives For Iowa

Just a few quick news notes for you on this Thursday.

NAR on Fresh Air: I’ve written at some length on the Christian movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a group that’s been getting increased media scrutiny lately due to their proximity to presidential candidates like Texas governor Rick Perry. However, as the recent blowback over the term “Dominionist” proves, there’s quite a bit people don’t know about this increasingly connected religio-political network of apostles and prophets. A key figure in studying the origins and activities of NAR is Rachel Tabachnick of Talk To Action, who was interviewed yesterday on NPR’s Fresh Air.

“On Wednesday’s Fresh Air, Rachel Tabachnick, who researches the political impact of the religious right, joins Terry Gross for a discussion about the growing movement and its influence and connections in the political world. Tabachnick says the movement currently works with a variety of politicians and has a presence in all 50 states. It also has very strong opinions about the direction it wants the country to take. For the past several years, she says, the NAR has run a campaign to reclaim what it calls the “seven mountains of culture” from demonic influence. The “mountains” are arts and entertainment; business; family; government; media; religion; and education.”

If you’re looking for NAR 101, I would suggest listening to this program, or reading the full transcript. Tabachnick has also supplied a supplemental post of relevant informational links at Talk To Action. At the end of the interview host Terry Gross mentions that the program reached out to several NAR figures for an interview, though none said they could fit it into their schedules. However, Mike Bickle (famous for calling Oprah a forerunner of the Antichrist) of the International House of Prayer has agreed to come on the show in the near future.

What Makes A Tribe: Religion Clause points to a Christian Science Monitor article on the plight of unrecognized Native American tribes in the United States, and how their lack of legal status inhibits the free practice of their traditional rites, and silences their voices when it comes to redress for wrongs done to them.

“The profiles of some federally recognized American Indian tribes have grown in recent decades as they parlayed their sovereign status to create profitable ventures such as gambling enterprises. But there are many other tribes that – never having had a reservation or simply falling through the cracks of Indian policy – are unrecognized by the United States. Scholars estimate that more than 250,000 of the 5 million who identify themselves as American Indians belong to about 300 unrecognized tribes, making them almost invisible to federal Indian law.”

The article notes that unrecognized tribes wouldn’t be able to file for a grievance under the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, due to a position paper issued by the United States government saying they wouldn’t include them, and that the process to becoming recognized is largely viewed as a bureaucratic nightmare, with almost impossibly high bars of entry.

“Anthropologists and tribal members also argue that the requirement to show “continuous and distinct community” since 1900 is unrealistic given US history. “These people went through massacres, dislocations, and suffered all these horrible atrocities, and then the government demands, ‘Show us your continuous community.’ It’s absurd,” says Les Field, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.”

For tribes like the Winnemem Wintu in Northern California, who aren’t recognized despite clear documentation by the United States government that they do, indeed, exist, recognition could mean the difference between preservation of their identity or total eradication. Their difficulties in simply holding their rites is only the tip of the iceberg, as plans to raise the Shasta Dam would flood their traditional sacred places. It’s clear that the voices of unrecognized tribes aren’t being heard, and that the process to being heard is no guarantee of success. It should be the duty of the entire interfaith community, particularly those who care about the preservation of sacred lands, to raise up their own voices and put pressure on the federal government to do more.

When a Daycare Becomes a Christian Daycare: The WaukeePatch in Iowa reports on a long-running daycare, and the changes that happened when the church that was renting space to them took over.

A Waukee church is being criticized by angry parents for forcing child-care staffers to adhere to Christian principles, banning non-Christians, sexually-active singles, male-female roommates and practicing homosexuals from employment. […] Employees wanting to remain needed to reapply for their positions and agree to the new guidelines. These new guidelines were spelled out in a Christian Lifestyle Agreement included with employment applications. The agreement states that “every employee accept and follow a lifestyle commitment based upon Biblical principles.”

At least one employee wouldn’t be able to reapply for her job since she’s a lesbian. Parents were given no warning of the switch-over. Shocking as this may be, this move doesn’t seem too surprising considering the fact that Point of Grace church is now run by a pastor, Jeff Mullen, who is markedly anti-gay and recently hosted Michele Bachmann during an Iowa campaign stop. Now that the daycare formerly known as “Happy Time” is a religiously-run organization, what Point of Grace is doing is now perfectly legal. This may not be an issue in isolation, but what happens when an entire community is run this way?  What happens is that tacitly enforced “no-go” areas for non-Christians are created.  I’m not attacking Point of Grace for running a religious organization they way they want to run it, but I do think this is a good example of what can happen when a community’s social safety net is placed in the hands of the dominant religious body.

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

No Wiccan Altars for Halferty: A few quick notes for you this Saturday, starting with an update on the Iowa industrial arts teacher, Dale Halferty, who was temporarily suspended for prohibiting a student from building a Wiccan altar in shop class. It seems that Halferty, who was supposed to return to work on Monday, isn’t backing down from his discriminatory views concerning a student’s right to religious expression, and is now on indefinite unpaid leave.

“Guthrie Center Superintendent Steve Smith met with Industrial Arts teacher Dale Halferty Tuesday morning. At the end of the meeting, Halferty remained on unpaid leave from the high school for an indefinite period. Superintendent Smith told the Times that all parties are attempting to resolve the conflict. Asked for specifics, Smith declined to comment. Smith did say the resolution process is ongoing and that no specific time has been set for the next meeting between Halferty and himself.”

It looks like both parties are waiting to see who’ll blink first in this “resolution process”. Kudos to Guthrie Center Superintendent Steve Smith for not backing down in protecting the Wiccan student’s constitutional rights. In the meantime, one hopes the Wiccan student isn’t being bullied and harassed by the young mob of 70 students who signed a petition stating they didn’t want witchcraft at their school. This issue is already generating interest among far-right Christians, so it’s only a matter of time now before Halferty is proclaimed a victim of religious “persecution” for misunderstanding and misapplying the notion of separation of Church and State.

Halloran The Pagan Tea Partier: Ben Smith at Politico has taken notice of Tea Party support for New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, noting that he is one of the movement’s first electoral success stories.

“…on the theme of the Tea Parties and the Christian Right, that one notable success of the new conservative grassroots came in New York, where a prominent figure in local Tea Party circles was elected as a rare Republican on the New York City Council. The Councilman, Dan Halloran, is also a pagan king, something that doesn’t seem to have bothered the local Republican Party, his conservative supporters, or voters.”

This issue of whether the Tea Party is or isn’t being co-opted by the Christian right’s social agenda is currently being debated within the media, with no clear unified narrative emerging yet. What is clear is that many moderate-to-conservative Pagans are interested in the Tea Party, and have found a place there. For ongoing coverage, be sure to check out Cara Schulz at Pagan+Politics for insider reporting on the movement.

London’s Oldest Occult Bookstore Saved: It looks like Watkins Books in Cecil Court, a shop that can brag it had Aleister Crowley and W.B. Yeats as customers, recently in danger of being liquidated, has been saved from permanent closure by an American investor.

American entrepreneur, Etan Ilfeld is purchasing the business in its entirety for an undisclosed sum.  Ilfeld … is keen to preserve Cecil Court’s heritage. Ilfeld said: “It’s not everyday that you have the opportunity to save a century old business. I don’t believe that spirituality in London is dead and will do my best to ensure that Watkins Books will be sustainable and survive the 21st century.”

A bit of good news for the metaphysical book trade, which could use some good news as the economy continues to be uncertain, and with high profile stores, like the Bodhi Tree in Los Angeles, and Shaman Drum in Michigan, closing their doors.

That’s all I have for now, but before I go, I’d just like to note that Pagan scholar Chas Clifton’s blog, Letter From Hardscrabble Creek, has moved to a new address. You can now find the blog at:

So please update your links and RSS subscriptions!

Have a great day!

Top Story: New York City Councilman (and out Pagan) Dan Halloran, despite attending a Tea Party event looking for challengers to Congressman Gary Ackerman in November, and gaining some vocal grass-roots support, has decided to not run a new campaign so soon after gaining political office.

“I’m flattered and grateful they think I’m that caliber of a candidate,” Halloran said. “But right now I’m worried about running the district. I just came off a cycle in a bitter election, so I’m not ready to run another race.”

Of course, like any good politician, he did leave the door of opportunity open just a crack, in case the situation changes.

“I’ll sit down and talk to [local party leaders], but I’m not inclined to run … I haven’t ruled it out, but Gary Ackerman has tremendous financial and political resources. My big picture right now is the state of the city and that our district gets its fair share of money.”

So if Ackerman should experience a scandal, or a big drop in popularity, he might change his mind (but then, so might a lot of other people). In the meantime, I think it’s smart of Halloran to demure from attempting to jump from City Councilman to Congressman so quickly, it shows that he’s thinking about the long-term future, and his constituents.

In Other News:

Mambo Racine on Max Beauvoir: Vodou “supreme chief” Max Beauvoir has been getting the lion’s share of press attention as the voice of Vodou in post-earthquake Haiti. That’s certainly been true here, as much as anywhere else, due to the lack of press attention to divergent opinions and groups inside Haiti (with the occasional exception). Now Mambo Racine, from the Roots Without End Society, gives her take on the enigmatic leader that has captivated the press.

“Max Beauvoir is a Houngan. He is the head of a secular organization of Vodouisats called KNVA, of which most Vodouisants are NOT members. He keeps making these power grabs, he thinks if he proclaims himself the “head of Vodou” enough times, people might believe him. He is a sexual predator. He takes money from people with AIDS, when he knows he can’t cure them. I don’t think highly of him … It is courageous of him to speak out against violence against Vodouisants, even though it was cowardly of him to threaten Haitian President Rene Preval with “death wanga” a year or so ago when Max was not given the post on the Electoral Council that he wanted. And it is idiotic and inflammatory for him to call for “open war”, instead of “self-defense”. He’s a real mixed bag, and I think we need to recognize that he is a man like any other man, not a god, not the “Pope of Vodou”, not the head of all Vodouisants in Haiti, but a man.”

So if his power base is so small, as Mambo Racine hints, why does he get so much attention? Partially it comes from his willingness to seek out reporters and talk to them, but it also come from the status accorded to him by the New York Times, who dubbed him “Vodou’s Pope” and the “supreme master” of Haitian Vodou. There’s nothing a busy reporter likes more than a centralized leader who can speak for a whole faith or class of people. Interestingly, both Racine and Beauvoir, in their own ways, are outsiders who converted to Haitian Vodou and now hold positions of authority. Their non-Vodou pasts, willingness to self-promote, and familiarity with Western media, may go a long way towards explaining how they became two of the most well-known Vodou practitioners in North America.

A Pagan Military Wife: Alison Buckholtz writes an appreciation of military wife blogs for, including Just Another Snarky Navy Wife, a blog written by a Pagan.

“My favorite blogger, Just Another Snarky Navy Wife, is based in Monterey, Calif. After bitching about TriCare, the military insurance system, which “sucks the balls of hairiness” because it declined to pay for her anesthesia during a gum graft, she writes about the difficulty of living a double life. “It’s hard being a liberal Pagan milspouse,” she confesses. Like many of these bloggers, she prefers to stay anonymous for her husband’s sake: In this case, “He’s shouldering enough just being a liberal service member with a penchant for logical thought in socio-political discussions.” But her problem, in a nutshell, is that members of the nondenominational, otherwise open-minded church she joined to find community off the base are giving her the stink eye for being married to the military. She wants to tell the hippies who founded the church that she has more in common with them than they think, but she’s furious with them for judging her harshly based on the fact that her husband is a service member.”

I can imagine it’s hard to be a “liberal Pagan milspouse”, especially when it comes to finding community, so let’s give her some appreciation and love. Add her to your blogroll, subscribe to her feed, and leave some supportive comments. You may also want to thank Alison Buckholtz and for including a Pagan military voice in their article.

In Defense of that Wiccan Altar in Shop Class: The DesMoines Register features a guest editorial by college student Kat Fatland that chastises the closed mind of Dale Halferty, industrial arts teacher at Guthrie Center High School, who’s been suspended for refusing to allow a Wiccan student to build an altar table.

“If Dale Halferty, the Guthrie Center teacher who banned his student from creating a Wiccan altar in shop class, actually believes his own words, that “this witchcraft stuff… is terrible for our kids. It takes kids away from what they know, and leads them to a dark and violent life,” then Halferty should not be a teacher.”

I can only agree, and Fatland’s editorial may be prophetic if Halferty decides to turn this issue into a stand-off.

More on Repent Amarillo: Since my spotlight article Wednesday on the anti-Pagan militant group Repent Amarillo, the word has continued to spread throughout the blogosphere. This Christian cult is so extreme that Little Green Footballs calls them the “Texas Taliban”. Meanwhile, local citizens are starting to organize against them as the hate-organization picks a new target.

“They showed up at Cheetahs, a local strip club, to tell people they were going to hell … They told the manager, who is a mother of 3 that she is going to hell and they used their PA system and mega-phone to tell people going into the business. The Amarillo cops were called, but they did nothing.”

Such brave Christian soldiers. You have to wonder how many of them were, or are, patrons of that same establishment when they aren’t busy protesting it. I wish the locals every bit of luck in fighting this disturbing group, and will continue to monitor their activities here at this blog.

That’s all I have for now, but before you head out, let me second Chas Clifton’s recommendation that you check out the Pagans for Archaeology interview with Australian Pagan scholar David Waldron, author of “Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Study in Local Folklore. Lot’s of great insight into folklore, pagan survivals, and dogs.

Have a great day!

Halferty Unrepentant: A few quick notes for you today, starting with an update on the high school industrial arts teacher in Iowa who has been put on temporary leave after telling a Wiccan student he couldn’t build an altar table in shop class. Teacher Dale Halferty of Guthrie Center High School, claims he was simply enforcing separation of Church and State, but now that he’s been informed that current local, state, and federal law allows independent religious expression by students, he’s falling back on demonizing the religious “other”.

“Personally, I think it’s offensive to worship rocks and trees,” Halferty said of Wicca, a religion based on ancient beliefs and a reverence for the Earth. “I am just trying to be moral. I don’t know how we can profess to be Christians and let this go on.”

What happens next is up to Halferty. If he refuses to obey the federal guidelines that specifically allow students to engage in projects like that altar table, he could be labeled “insubordinate” and brought before the school board for disciplinary action, turning himself into a would-be martyr for his faith. While anyone who understands law can see that Halferty is clearly in the wrong for his actions, I fear this is going to be held up as a case of “Christian persecution” by the usual suspects. I suppose we’ll find out on Monday.

The Not-So-Good News: Aseem Shukla, co-founder and board member of Hindu American Foundation, weighs in regarding On Faith’s panel question about the problem (if any) with proselytism overseas by U.S. religious groups. Shukla eloquently explains why there is a fundamental “asymmetric force of the proselytizer” due to the very different natures of pluralistic faiths (specifically referencing Dharma religions, Paganism, and Native religious traditions), and that proselytizers specifically target pluralistic traditions because they don’t offer the resistance that other Abrahamic faiths do.

“…there is the fact that the evangelical community can only “pick on” the pluralist societies. India, Nepal, Cambodia, Taiwan and much of Africa where indigenous traditions still hold sway, are among the targets today for the next “harvest.” The “Muslim world” rewards conversion away from Islam with death, and in China, Russia Burma and others, autocracy, the Orthodox Church or military junta proscribe missionary work.  And so, the very democracy and openness of pluralistic societies becomes their vulnerability–a poison pill as they face the onslaught of the proselytizers. Today, the Native Americans of the U.S. and Canada, the indigenous progeny of Latin America and Mexico, the Aborigines in Australia are silent witness to lost religions and decimated traditions that fell historically to earlier iterations of these onslaughts.”

HAF has been calling for adjustments in the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would explicitly protect pluralistic religions from aggressive and predatory proselytizing. I recommend reading all of Shukla’s editorial, and also checking out the response from Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, who says that “proselytizing is an ever more dangerous religious idea”.

Should UUs Respect or Reverence the Earth? In a final note, Nancy Vedder-Shults at the Tikkun Daily Blog discusses the ongoing debate over revising the language of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s seven principles (an ongoing and oft-contentious process). In this instance, whether the seventh principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”, should have “respect” changed to “reverence”. Vedder Shults, a Pagan UU, realizes that the idea of “reverence” for the earth may be uncomfortable for many of the UU Humanists and atheists, so she offers a third option.

Then our seventh principle would read: “we covenant to honor and uphold … our need to love and care for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Vedder Shults invites feedback at her blog, I’m sure my Pagan UU readers will want to chime in.

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

Top Story: A high school industrial arts teacher in Iowa has been put on temporary leave in the wake of a controversy concerning a student who was told to stop building a Wiccan altar in shop class. Dale Halferty of Guthrie Center High School claims he was simply enforcing the separation of Church and State, and that he had prevented a Christian from building a cross previously, but school officials claim that neither of those actions actually line up with guidelines regarding religious expression at school.

“His viewpoint: “We as Christians don’t get to have our say during school time, so why should he?” School officials say Christians actually do get to express themselves in the same way. More than one school policy, as well as state and federal law, prohibit discrimination against students who express religious beliefs through school assignments. Superintendent Steve Smith and Principal Garold Thomas said they placed Halferty on leave while they conferred with the school’s attorney to decide what to do.”

In other words, Halferty was imposing his distorted idea of what the guidelines were on his students, and he makes his feelings about Wicca quite plain, calling it “terrible for our kids” because it will lead to a “dark and violent life”.  He also has the bizarre belief that school tax dollars are meant to “save” kids from Pagan religion. Meanwhile, thanks to this incident, a backlash against the Wiccan student has materialized, with 70 of the 185 students signing a petition saying they don’t want witchcraft practiced at their school.

“Both [Superintendent Steve] Smith and [Principal Garold] Thomas said the incident has become emotional for the high school’s 185 students: Almost 70 signed a petition late last week saying they didn’t want witchcraft practiced at the school.”I think it’s fear based on some of the old ideas people had about witchcraft,” Smith said. “It’s fear and a lack of knowledge about the unknown.” Neither Smith nor school officials identified the student at the center of the controversy, and the boy’s father declined a request made through Thomas to be interviewed. Smith acknowledged that some people have expressed fears about satanism or sacrifices.”

Locals are now engaged in hand-wringing over the school’s excessive tolerance, and the bare-bones story, without the context of Halferty’s unique views on religion at school, has hit the Associated Press wires. So expect a lot more commentary and furor over this situation in the near future. As for the high school senior, what chance does he now have for finishing out his school year without harassment and intimidation? When the student body has become a mob against him, can things truly return to normal?

Checking in With the Third Wave: AlterNet takes a broad look at the New Apostolic Reformation, aka the Third Wave of the Holy Spirit, a protestant Charismatic/Pentecostal Christian hybrid led by “Convening Apostle” C. Peter Wagner. The movement became (in)famous in recent years thanks to politician/pundit Sarah Palin’s long membership and association with the group, which places a heavy emphasis on spiritual warfare, and brags about killing and maiming Catholics and Pagans with their prayer. Now reporter Bill Berkowitz probes NAR’s deep influence with ultra-conservative politicians like Michele Bachmann (involved in anti-Pagan groups), Sam Brownback, and Jim DeMint, and their role in initiatives like California’s Proposition 8.

“In the days leading up to the historic vote on health-care reform in the Senate, Apostle Lou Engle led the Family Research Council’s “Prayercast” against health-care reform, a Webcast featuring Republican Senators Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Sam Brownback (Kans.), and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). Earlier in the year, Engle, who leads the group TheCall, prayed over Newt Gingrich at a Virginia event called Rediscovering God in America. In 2008, Engle, at an event he staged at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, advocated acts of Christian martyrdom to end abortion and same-sex marriage. This “apostle” claims LGBT people are possessed by demons.”

You may remember that I covered that “Rediscovering God in America” event, it’s the one where Newt Gingrich claimed America was “surrounded by paganism”. Berkowitz goes on to interview Rachel Tabachnick, who writes for Talk2Action, and who has done a remarkable amount of research into the NAR/Third Wave movement. Here’s her follow-up commentary on Berkowitz’s article/interview, and a resource directory of the NAR/Third Wave movement. As I’ve intimated here before, this movement is rabidly anti-Pagan, and would have no compunctions about using their political and fiscal muscle against us. Their rise to power is deeply troubling, because unlike the “Moral Majority” or “Religious Right” of ages past their agenda isn’t limited to enacting conservative social policy, but instead calls for the aggressive spiritual destruction of all who they see as enemies (and anyone who worships the “Queen of Heaven” is considered their enemy). So let’s keep our eyes open, and be aware  of who your elected representatives are associating themselves with.

War of Words in South Africa: The South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) has lodged a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission against allegedly libelous statements made by Traditional Healers Organization national coordinator Phephisile Maseko.

“Maseko’s repeated allegation that muthi murderers are “witches” practicing “witchcraft” remains untrue and defamatory. This Alliance demands that the South African Human Rights Commission (1.) properly investigates repeated libelous allegations made by Phephisile Maseko against South African Witches, (2.) makes a ruling regarding the innocence of self-identified Witches with regard to allegations made by Maseko that we are responsible for the commission of muthi murders, and (3.) instructs the Traditional Healers Organization national coordinator to cease making libelous statements against South African Witches.”

However, Maseko is unmoved by SAPRA’s position concerning the use of the word “witch”, saying their complaint amounts to little more than white privilege.

“Let’s be honest here — a witch is a witch and everybody in the country knows that. Publicly calling yourself a witch in South Africa smacks of white privilege. In a village or township, you’d be dead even before completing your proclamation. Sapra must accept that we speak different languages and live in different areas”

This latest development seems to be driving a wedge between South Africa’s traditional healers and South Africa’s Pagan community. Despite my sympathies towards the Pagans in South Africa, it is rather plain that Maseko and SAPRA are using the term “witch” in very different contexts, and that the two sides are talking past each other. While I don’t agree with South African Parliament member, and out Pagan, Adrian Williams that they should abandon the term “witch” in order to foster better relations with traditional healers, there must be some sort of understanding that can be reached between the two communities regarding terminology. Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail.

How to Become the Last Great Pagan: Cristiana Sogno, Ph.D., assistant professor of classics at Fordham University explains how 4th century Roman statesman Quintus Aurelius Symmachus became known as the “last great pagan”.

“As it turns out, that dubious moniker was foisted on Symmachus by allies of his most prominent rival, St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, according to Cristiana Sogno, Ph.D., assistant professor of classics at Fordham. In her presentation on Jan. 27, “How Did Symmachus Become the Last Great Pagan?” Sogno explained that Symmachus was the victim of a classic political tactic—victors extolling the strength of their opponents to make their own accomplishments seem even greater. The seeds of the nickname were sown in a report, or relatio, issued in 384 A.D. to the 12-year-old Western emperor, Valentinian II, in which Symmachus mounted a defense of the traditional religion of Rome. “There can be little doubt that the relatio is a beautifully constructed speech, and by far the most appealing piece of writing produced by Symmachus. Its compelling plea for religious toleration—in contrast with the almost fanatical intolerance that transpires from St. Ambrose—makes the text closer to the sensibilities of 21st century readers,” she said. The problem, Sogno said, is that Symmachus never published it.”

So there you are, posthumous praise from Christians looking to make their own victories more impressive hoisted a humble statesman and man of letters into lasting prominence. Luckily we are now living in an age where the term “last great pagan” is increasingly outdated. We can argue as to who among our growing numbers are truly “great”, but we most likely won’t have to worry about there being a “last” great pagan thinker any time soon.

The Horror of Pagan Felt: Behold! The Muppet Wicker Man Comic.

Funny yet deeply disturbing at the same time.

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

The DesMoines Register does a great job illustrating why legalizing same-sex marriage isn’t only about gay rights, but the rights of religious minorities as well. The paper profiles Toni Heard and Michelle McBride, a Nebraskan couple who were handfasted in a Wiccan ceremony two years ago, but are now hoping to gain legal recognition thanks to the Iowa state Supreme Court.

“Kelly McBride’s eyes filled with tears. Both her daughter and Heard had been victims of crimes as youngsters and only started healing when they found each other, she said. “They found love – and then the state told them they couldn’t show their love,” Kelly McBride said. “Now they can.” The couple live with Kelly McBride and her son, Kegan, 18, who was also in tow as a witness Monday. Heard, 26, and Michelle McBride met on school bus No. 2 11 years ago. They both sang in the high school chorus. Heard was in foster care. When she aged out of the system, she moved into the McBride home. In 2007, Heard and Michelle McBride were married in the Wiccan religion but wanted to marry in Iowa for legal reasons. The marriage isn’t recognized in Nebraska, however.”

The words “religious freedom” get thrown around a lot. Opponents of same-sex marriage like to scare people into believing that allowing gays to marry will somehow limit theirs, even though no real proof of that has emerged. Meanwhile, religious groups who do bless, honor, and perform same-sex unions are told that their rites aren’t legally valid. Now a lack of legal recognition might not make the rite any less blessed or valid in the eyes of their co-religionists, but it does complicate things if they want our government on the state or national level to also acknowledge that they are a joined couple and deserving of the same legal privileges afforded opposite-sex unions. That couple from Nebraska, married in a neighboring state, will most likely have to go to court if they want their own union recognized. Just think, thousands of dollars in lawyers fees just to ensure hospital visitation or inheritance, and considering Nebraska’s attitudes towards gays in the past there’s no guarantee of success.

The solutions are simple. Either grant same-sex couples the same legal marriage rites as opposite-sex couples, or completely remove “marriage” from the purview of governmental oversight. Create a one-size-fits-all civil union and let the individual churches, synagogues, circles, groves, and fellowships decide who can or can’t marry within their tradition. Either way, opponents of same-sex marriage are on the losing side of history. They can spend decades raging at a changing world, spreading fear and misinformation, or they can accept that imposing their uniform morality on others isn’t just or merciful. In the meantime, Pagan clergy all across this nation will continue to bless same-sex marriages, and hope for a day when the entire nation will give our rites the same consideration that other religions already receive.

The Sioux City Journal is currently running coverage of Lawrence Harris’s murder trial. Harris is accused of first degree murder in the deaths of his two young step-daughters, which he said was the result of a “spell gone bad”. The trial will determine if these were premeditated killings, or if Harris was clinically insane during the murders.

Lawrence Douglas Harris was under pressure, unmedicated and trying to find a way to gain control of his life when he attempted to cast a spell in the basement of his house the day his stepdaughters were killed, his attorney told jurors in his trial today. In a packed courtroom with tight security, Assistant Public Defender Mike Williams delivered his opening statements, saying his client was insane that day. “Not just a little psychotic here and there. Not just a little disturbed, but insane,” Williams said.

The double-murder of two young children would be enough to make this case a media circus, add in the fact that Harris had a long-running fascination with the occult, Paganism, and Satanism, and you have all the ingredients for sheer pandemonium (both journalistically and in the court room). So it is a lucky thing that the expert witness on Wicca and Paganism called to the stands was Pagan scholar Helen A. Berger, author of “A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States”, and co-author of “Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States”.

Also testifying for the defense, Helen Berger, a sociology professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, explained something of Wicca, satanism and paganism and said Wicca is not about violence and killing. She said Wiccans believe that anything they do, good or bad, comes back to them threefold … During cross-examination of Berger, Assistant Woodbury County Attorney Mark Campbell produced an inverted pentagram that was found with Harris’ ritual items in the basement. “The Satanic Bible” refers to use of an inverted pentagram during rituals. Berger said the symbol is not part of Wiccan practices.

Berger was also one of the first experts to be interviewed by the Sioux City Journal in the initial wake of the killings. We can feel very lucky that Berger is the voice for Paganism in this trial, and not, say, one of the old “Satanic Panic” experts still hanging around. For full transcripts of the proceedings, go to the Sioux City Journal’s special page devoted to the trial (I really must commend the paper’s even-keeled and extensive coverage here). As for Harris, since Iowa doesn’t have the death penalty, he’s looking towards a lifetime of confinement, either in a cell or an institution. I’ll leave it to the jury to decide which one of these he deserves.

Does religion harm or heal? Believers and skeptics have long argued over the benefits and drawbacks regarding a belief in unseen forces and powers for ages. Confusing the issue further are those times when faith commingles with mental illness and breeds murderers and monsters. Pagan religions and other minority faiths are hardly immune from these tragedies. One year ago Lawrence Douglas Harris, who had been involved in modern Paganism (and later Satanism), killed his two young step-daughters in what he called a spell that “had gone bad”. On the anniversary of these tragic slayings, the Sioux City Journal provides a narrative of that fateful day from Marla Stroman, the mother of the two girls.

At the house, police immediately begin questioning Larry, who tells them he was practicing witchcraft. The girls died, he tells them, while he was casting a spell that “had gone bad” and that “could have had severe consequences.” There’s blood on his hands. In the basement, officers find candles, Larry’s ritual knife, stained with DNA from one of the girls, a symbol of Baphomet, representing Satan and believed to have occult power, bells and an amulet with an inverted pentagram — all items used in rituals described in “The Satanic Bible.” Larry tells police he has a spell notebook in his and Marla’s bedroom closet. The notebook contains drawings from the book “Pagan Ways,” references found in the occult fiction book “Necronomicom” and page numbers corresponding to “The Satanic Bible,” including one specific spell … Larry tells police he was possessed by Kali, the Hindu goddess of time and change.

Harris, who had a history of self-harm, social isolation, and mental illness, had stopped taking his medications in the lead-up to that horrific day, and had become threatening and scary. Shortly after the murders, journalists interviewed a variety of “experts” (from local Wiccans to Mega-Church pastors) to get a handle on why this happened, but none of them could really satisfy a public hungry for answers. In the end, mental illness doesn’t have to follow rules, be logically consistent, or provide a “good reason” for why those afflicted do the things they do. Once a mind has completely broken from reality, anything can be twisted (Bibles, Korans, books on Wicca, books on Satanism) into providing a road-map for their subsequent deeds. The mind, when turned towards such unrestrained violence, is like an opportunistic infection. Grabbing at any nearby “host” to provide it motivation.

If these psychotic breaks involving religion are ultimately inconclusive in answering the question of religion being harmful, can religion, specifically Pagan religion, heal? That seems to be a part of the questions involving a convicted murderer in the UK. Twenty five years ago Randall Lee McArthur killed another man in a drug-fueled rampage and was sentenced to a 25-to-life prison term. He  was recently denied bail despite claims that he is a reformed man.

Randall Lee McArthur says it’s time he was paroled. “I was a kid. I was irresponsible,” former Marysville resident McArthur, 44, told the state Board of Prison Terms about the 1982 murder of Bradford Lee Howland, 26, of Olivehurst. “I was wild, you know. I was out for myself.” McArthur contends he now poses no threat to the public if released from prison. But a filing Friday in the Yuba County Superior Court by the state Attorney General’s Office agrees with the prison board’s decision to deny parole for McArthur, sentenced in 1983 to a term of 25 years to life. He remains a danger to the public because of the nature of the murder along Forty Mile Road — “shooting a helpless, unarmed victim,” the state Attorney General’s Office said.

Part of McArthur’s process of reform has apparantly included the study and practice of Wicca, an aspect of his life that gained scrutiny at his parole-board hearing.

McArthur said he is pursuing a college degree in ancient religions in correspondence courses with the New Mexico Institute of Spiritual Studies and that his own beliefs involve Wicca, an ancient, Pagan-based religion. A member of the state prison board, noting McArthur’s references to Wicca along with Druidism, said some people view them as evil religions. McArthur was asked if he was discovering something different. McArthur responded in the affirmative, describing Wicca as a nature-based religion closer to Native American culture and traditions.

Was his adherence to Wicca a point in his favor, or used as a strike against him? Can the study of Pagan religion improve the moral compass of a murderer? Would you feel comfortable living next to Mr. McArthur should he be released? Why or why not? Should the study of religion even factor into it, should the nature of the murder, as the Attorney General’s Office attests, preclude him ever being paroled? Religion has long been used as proof of a criminal’s reformation, perhaps we should just acknowledge that the eternal questions of religion hurting or healing will always be somewhat subjective, and remove faith considerations from issues of conviction and parole altogether. There will always be murderers and madmen, and at times, especially as we continue to grow, they will be Pagan in some for or another.  Better to acknowledge that, and continue to push for a truly equal and secular justice system free from bias for or against religon (or lack of religon).

The Iowa Independent reports that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against three Wiccan inmates who claimed that a three-hour time limit for their Samhain observances violated their rights to religious assembly.

Lawrence Gladson, Darrell Smith and Scott Howrey were incarcerated at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison when they claimed their right to religious assembly had been violated. The three inmates, all practitioners of the Wiccan religion, filed for injunctive relief and monetary damages, citing their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 had been violated when prison officials limited their Samhain observance to three hours … While the appeals court agreed that prisoners retain constitutional rights, it acknowledged that those rights are subject to limitations “in light of the needs of the penal system.” As such, it found no reason to believe that the three-hour window allotted for the Samhain observance posed a significant burden on those inmates who practiced Wicca.

The court’s opinion makes for interesting reading. The prisoners thought their agreement on observances allowed them an 8-hour “feast day” for Samhain, which was denied them on more than one occasion. The prison disagreed that this was the arrangement, and the prison chaplain actually contacted two Wiccan priestesses for advice on the matter.

In 2003, Chaplain Kopatich consulted with two Wiccan priestesses, one located in California and the other located in Des Moines, and inquired about the practice at other IDOC institutions. She testified that she attended a Samhain celebration at a community center in Des Moines and witnessed the entire event around October 2004. According to Chaplain Kopatich, the celebration lasted about three hours, perhaps a little longer. At the celebration, a priestess cleansed the area, cast a circle, and performed a ritual to honor ancestors. The participants danced, drummed, sang, and referenced the four directions. The ritual lasted just under two hours and refreshments were served afterwards.

So it seem that the prison, despite some minor problems discussed in the opinion, really did attempt to satisfy the religious needs of the inmates concerning the matter. This is all obviously rather new for prison officials and inmates in Iowa, the state’s prison system didn’t even acknowledge Wicca or any other Pagan faith until a lawsuit forced them to do so in 2002. No doubt the inmates are testing the boundaries of their newly-won freedoms. It would be interesting to know how long other faiths get for their high holidays, also three hours? More? Less? It should also be taken into account that Iowa’s corrections officials have had some serious problems with accomodating the needs of minority faiths in the past, so who knows what sorts of tensions underly this whole situation.

So it looks like we have a resolution in the case of an Iowa Pagan couple, some spray-painted Pagan symbols on their fence, and an unhappy neighbor. To briefly recap:

Ryle MacPebbles and his fence.

“A Des Moines couple say city officials have attacked their pagan religion and their civil rights after a complaint from a neighbor led to a notice to remove symbols that had been painted on the fence. Officials said the symbols are graffiti and must be removed. “Those are religious symbols; they’re not mean or obnoxious in any way,” said Ryle MacPebbles who lives in the 2000 block of Southeast Sixth Street. “I just don’t like them telling me my religion isn’t anything. “When they start making it personal with my religion, I’m sorry, we’ll take it to court,” said MacPebbles, a member of the American Pagan Church.”

Now the charges of the markings being graffiti/vandalism have been dropped, and the MacPebbles can keep their Pagan markings so long as they purchase a sign permit.

“Ryle and Rachel MacPebbles were ordered to remove pagan and Celtic symbols from the fence in May. The couple appealed on the grounds of religious freedom. They were told this week that the symbols could stay, as long as the couple purchased a $35 sign permit. Deputy City Attorney Mark Godwin says city officials withdrew the graffiti complaint because the fence falls under a city law that governs signs, because the symbols were painted by the property owner and not vandals.”

So a clear win for religious expression here, and a reiteration that it isn’t “vandalism” if you want the markings there. Even more interesting is that most of the neighborhood doesn’t care a bit about the markings, and think the MacPebbles are good neighbors, except, it seems, for a single neighbor lady they accuse of spying on them (the one who reported the graffiti).

“MacPebbles put up the fence because he thought the next-door neighbor lady was spying on him. Then he took a can of black paint and sprayed pagan symbols on the side of the fence that she sees. To keep her from peeking in, he hung a tarp with more symbols above the fence … The neighbor lady, who wouldn’t give her name, believes she’s the aggrieved party. “It’s totally wrong what he’s doing to me,” she says. And the ground war continues. MacPebbles has put up a canvas and an $800 surveillance system to keep an eye on the enemy. The enemy points to the camera looking out over her driveway and says who’s spying on whom? She says he’s “torturing” her and turning the neighbors against her. I can’t speak for the torture, but the neighbors I talked with seem to be siding with him. MacPebbles seems like a decent enough guy, even with scary tattoos.”

So it looks like this all started as a neighborly feud, one that got vindictive after MacPebbles erected his fence to keep her out of his life. So barring some other conflicting ordinance, officials are still deciding if the fence falls within official sign size limits, it looks like the Pagan symbols get to stay. So the markings may be crude, but they aren’t illegal, and protected as personal and religious expression.