Archives For Lady Liberty League

This past week we witnessed a crescendo of frustration and fury fly from the global Pagan community in the direction of a Facebook Fan Page called “Witches Must Die by Fire” and a Facebook Group called “Those Witches nd Wizzards [sic] should die by Fire by Force.”  The rally cries came by way of social media, blogs and email.  At this point, I would include the links but the “pages” were removed by Facebook around 4pm EST on Thursday, August 23 2013.

FB PageThese offending Facebook “pages” advocated for the extrication and burning of alleged witches and wizards throughout the world. Using a Christian fundamentalist context, the moderators repeatedly preached their gospel on the evils of witchcraft while celebrating all attempts to defeat it.  As proof of witchcraft’s existence, the Fan Page displayed a photo of a South African-Zimbabwe sensationalist rag called H Metro Zim with a headline that read something like “Woman gives birth to frogs…daily.”

Let’s first examine the pages themselves and who owned them? The answer is important because it contextualizes the accusations and religious zealotry. The Facebook Group, “Those Witches nd Wizzards [sic] should die by Fire by Force” appears to have been launched in February of 2013.  It was moderated solely or in part by a Botswanan Pastor named Anthony Matildah, whose own personal Facebook page seems to have also disappeared. The 247 member group communicated in both broken-English and native African dialects including Setswana.  Most of its members were from the sub-Saharan countries of Africa.

The Facebook Fan Page called “Witches Must Die by Fire” was launched on April 3, 2013 by someone of sub-Saharan African-descent. However, this person confessed to “not [having] been back to Africa in 20 years.” He or she communicated in perfect British English and in at least one other African dialect. Based on my own research, I believe the owner resides in the U.K. as did the majority of the users making up the Page’s 340 likes. In recent years, Scotland Yard has in fact noticed an increase in the number of Witch Hunt cases in the UK and a noticeable growth in popularity of U.K.-based African Christian Churches. It is entirely possible that the page owner was a Pastor or, at the very least, a devout follower.

sapralogoAt first everyone assumed that the two pages had the same owner(s); however, they in fact may have no connection.  Regardless, they were certainly aligned through intent and discourse.  Both advocated for faith-based violence and, in doing so, perpetuated a culture of fear rampant in sub-Saharan Africa. Damon Leff, Director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA), coordinator of the Petition to Stop WItch Hunts in South Africa and Founder of Touchstone Advocacy said:

[Witchcraft] accusations occur not only in small impoverished villages…. Accusations occur across economic and social status lines.  Accusations are frequently made by ordinary people, not necessarily Christians, and not necessarily as a result of Christian influence. Traditional African beliefs often drive accusations, where traditional healers do play their role by divining suspects of suspected witchcraft activity…No single African country has been immune to its fair share of witch-hunts. Many of these countries already have legislation that forbids accusations of witchcraft… However [this] legislation does not address or seek to correct the beliefs which motivate accusations.

As suggested by Leff and noted in a BBC article on the subject, witchcraft in these cases is defined by a supernatural practice with clear malicious intent. The beliefs are a fusion of fundamentalist Christianity and traditional African folk beliefs. Some pastors use the fear of witchcraft to extort money out of their congregation and have even convinced parents to abuse their own children. This witchcraft is a distorted product of theological extremism gone very, very wrong.

accusation

As such the witchcraft in these cases is not the same as the Witchcraft practiced within the spiritual or ethical framework of a Pagan or Nature-based religion or any other similar positive folk or healing practice. The verbal attacks made on these two Facebook pages were not anti-Pagan.  As best clarified by Circle Magazine Editor Florence Edwards-Miller, this distinction is not at all dissimilar to the Anti-Defamation League’s differentiation between anti-Semitism (a people) and anti-Judaism (a theology.) The Facebook pages attacked a people, not a theology.

However, as pointed out by Damon Leff:

Witch-hunters will never first ask if their victims are Pagan Witches before attacking, as they are unlikely to draw any distinction between one kind of witch or another, and so it is understandable that Witches everywhere should feel personally offended and threatened.

cog-joint-logoAnd, offended we were. Sometime in April “Witches and Wizzards” and “Witches Must Die By Fire,” began receiving counter posts and complaints from concerned Pagans.  However, the Fan Page went private from April to August during which interest waned.  When the Fan Page reappeared on the scene, an avalanche of protests began which included abuse complaints to Facebook, calls to media affiliates, petitions on Change.org, You Tube Videos and blog posts. Babette Petiot of “News & Liens Paienne” even contacted Interpol which is based in her home town of Lyon, France.

As word spread, Pagan organizations became involved. On August 20, Lady Liberty League issued an open letter to Facebook asking it to “revise [its] decision and disable these and all future pages calling for violent witch hunts anywhere.” On the same day, the Covenant of the Goddess responded by saying, it “cannot condone a public call for the death of any one person or group regardless of religious affiliation or lifestyle choice.”

Pagan FederationIn Russia, Pagan Federation co-coordinator Gwiddon said, “What is surprising to me is the reaction of Facebook staff that seems to be completely ignoring this issue, despite the repeated notifications from witches and pagans.” In the U.K., The Pagan Federation’s Mike Stygal agreed asking “why [should] Facebook allow pages that are clearly aimed at inciting hatred, violence and murder to continue to grace their social network?”

With 100s of complaints being turned away or ignored entirely, there was nothing to explain Facebook’s decision. On Tuesday I was able to reach Facebook’s Public Policy and Communication Department. After several exchanges, they promised to be in touch with an explanation. But the pages went down before I ever got a response. So I contacted Facebook again.  They confirmed that the pages were removed by them.  Then they offered this short explanation when I asked “What happened?”

With over one billion users worldwide, we always encourage our users to report content that they believe violates our policies here and it looks like we didn’t receive any violations [on these pages]…. It could be possible that users may have reported that they violated under different terms…”   

As the moderator of an international free-speech forum, Facebook handles two million abuse reports per week. As Emily Brazelton explains in her book Sticks and Stones, the Facebook system is mostly automated leaving reviewers only seconds to handle each complaint.  If two identical complaints are rejected, any future similar complaints are ignored. (Brazelton, Sticks and Stones, pg 268-269)

By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg)

By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg)

It may be that our voices were, at first, lost in that automated shuffle. However, in the end our mounting pressure broke through and Facebook took corrective actions to uphold its own policies. In reaction, the Covenant of the Goddess together with the Lady Liberty League responded with gratitude urging “the Pagan community to join [them] in expressing [their] thanks to Facebook for listening and making this positive change.” They added:

We hope Facebook will to continue to be a leader in the effort to address violence and hate wherever it festers.

This felt like a win for many of us who celebrated from behind our computer screens.  But was it really?  Should we even be celebrating? What are we celebrating? The notoriety of these pages took us, first world Pagans, to a place labeled “witchcraft” where our nature- spirituality, our ethics, our mythology and our beliefs intersect with something far more horrifying.  While these Facebook pages may not have been directed toward us, in viewing them we reached a point of liminality where distinctions between Witchcraft and witchcraft were no longer made.  That is scary.

Now that the pages are down, we can move beyond that surreal point back into the security of our own world. Unfortunately, the removal of these two Facebook pages created no comfort for those living in the affected regions of Africa or elsewhere. Should this week’s events be a wake-up call for Pagans and Witches worldwide to reconsider our relationship with the accused? Now that the “fire” is put out, should we re-evaluate our responsibility, as a People who claim the word Witch, to those people who are dying because of the word witch?

Never Again the Burning Times??

Courtesy of Flickr's emilydickinsonridesabmx

Courtesy of Flickr’s emilydickinsonridesabmx

Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

Patrick McCollum and members of HAF with the resolution.

Patrick McCollum and members of HAF with the resolution.

On Monday in California a resolution introduced by Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett was unanimously adopted by the State Senate. SCR-32 designates October as Hindu American Awareness and Appreciation Month, and was backed by the Hindu American Foundation. Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum, who was honored by HAF in 2009 due to his work on behalf of minority religions, was invited to be a part of this moment, one that he called “historic.” McCollum added that “Pagans and Hindus have supported one another for equal rights and recognition and we stand together for a better world.” This is the first such resolution to honor American Hindus, and one of very few resolutions to honor a non-Christian minority faith in the United States. As State Senator Corbett says in her official statement, quote, “I am honored to represent constituents from many diverse backgrounds, including a significant number of Hindu Americans, California is home to a thriving community of over 370,000 Hindu Americans that enrich our state’s diversity and professional assets in fields as diverse as academia, science, technology, business, arts and literature.” You can see a picture of Rev. Patrick McCollum with Senate Majority Leader Corbett, here. Congratulations to our Hindu cousins!

COVR Award

COVR Award

The International New Age Trade Show (INATS) was held this past weekend, and the annual COVR (Coalition of Visionary Retailers) awards were handed out. Pagan and metaphysical publisher Llewellyn Worldwide took home four COVR awards, including a First Runner Up award (Wicca/Paganism category) for Rev. Mark Townsend’s “Jesus Through Pagan Eyes” (reviewed here). The big Pagan winner of the weekend was author Christopher Penczak, who took home First Place awards for “Buddha, Christ, Merlin: Three Wise Men for Our Age” and “The Gates of Witchcraft,” a Runner Up prize for “Feast of the Morrighan,” and two awards for his spell coins. Penczak said he was “humbled and grateful” for the recognition he received. You can read more about this year’s COVR nominees and winners here, here, and here. For an insiders perspective of INATS, and the future of the occult/metaphysical market, I found this blog post very interesting.  Congratulations to all the winners!

Adocentyn Research Library

Adocentyn Research Library

The Adocentyn Research Library in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, in the process of building what they hope will be “the premier Pagan research center in the Western US,” have reached a new milestone. According to Adocentyn board member and co-founder Donald H. Frew, their online catalogue has surpassed 4,500 volumes, with far more volumes on-site and in the process of being catalogued. Quote: “There are over 6000 volumes currently on-site (plus hundreds of periodicals) with another 5000+ coming (plus ephemera such as correspondence, notebooks, etc.). Cataloguing takes time, but we have 19 volunteers helping us move things along. We will be opening soon.” This is exciting progress for the library, and you can keep up with the latest announcements at their official Facebook page. As I’ve reported previously, Adocentyn is in preliminary talks with the New Alexandrian Library Project (currently under construction) and other institutions in forming a Pagan Libraries Organization so that they can share information, and offer inter-library loans.

Blue plaque ceremony.

Blue plaque ceremony.

Last week’s Summer Solstice saw the dedication of a commemorative blue plaque at the Brighton, UK home of Dorren Valiente, called by many the mother of modern religious Witchcraft (you can read my previous coverage of the plaque here). Druid leader Philip Carr-Gomm, who attended the ceremony, said that this was a historic moment for more than one reason. Quote: “This is a first for Wicca and Paganism but this was also a historic moment for another reason – it is apparently the first blue plaque to appear on a council block.” The Centre for Pagan Studies has posted a video of the unveiling which I’ve embedded below. You can see additional coverage of the event at The Argus, which has also posted a video from the ceremony. John Belham-Payne, who inherited the bulk of Valiente’s Pagan-oriented estate, says he plans to open a museum in Brighton. Quote: “I’ve been contacted by museum owners in Salem but Brighton is the only place for the collection.”

In Other Pagan Community News:

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

Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

Lady Liberty League Forms Task Force, Prevents Protest in Florida: Last week many Pagans were outraged after a story about Christian clergy opposition to a Pagan festival in Pahokee, Florida emerged. In response the Lady Liberty League, a religious freedom support organization for Wiccans, Pagans, and other Nature religion practitioners worldwide, formed a task force to address the concerns raised by this situation.

“‘This is an opportunity not only to bring about better public understanding about Paganism, but for Pagans of many paths to work together,’ said Rev. Selena Fox, Executive Director of Circle Sanctuary and the Lady Liberty League (LLL). 

On Saturday, the Lady Liberty League sent an update that task-force member Peter Dybing attended a meeting of local Christian clergy, explained modern Pagan faiths to those assembled, and received a pledge that they would not protest the Summer Solstice festival.

Peter Dybing and Selena Fox of the Lady Liberty League.

Peter Dybing and Selena Fox of the Lady Liberty League.

“‘What I am here asking is not for your support, or your approval, but your tolerance for our right to engage in religious activity. If anyone were to protest the activities of your church, our community, would, if asked, come to your defense. We ask only the same, please don’t protest our event’. After Rev. Dybing’s statements, the pastor who organized the meeting declared to all present that there would be ‘No Protest.’ He and Peter Dybing shook hands; a significant gesture in heated times. Rev. Dybing stated that if members of their community wanted to pray for our community, we would welcome such prayers as we see all prayer as a good thing. It was clear that LLL’s approach of outreach at this meeting had had a profound effect on the proceedings.”

Further, a representative of the local Chamber of Commerce said the organization fully supports the festival and local business owners will be open for business and looking forward to the festival.” More on these developments, including contact information for the Christian pastor who reached out to Peter Dybing to make this possible, can be found here. This is very good news for the Pagans of Florida, and I think it’s important to reiterate what the LLL said in their previous press release: that people “avoid independent actions that have the potential to complicate efforts,” and to contact them first by emailing liberty@circlesanctuary.org if you have any questions, concerns, or ideas regarding this issue. The Wild Hunt will keep you updated on further developments.

Cherry Hill Seminary Receives Generous Challenge Gift: Online Pagan learning institution Cherry Hill Seminary announced on Monday that a donor was willing to match up to $10,000 dollars in donations for a new scholarship endowment that would help students nearing completion of their Master of Divinity, to assist them with the expense of attending their required second intensive. This is another significant step forward for Cherry Hill Seminary, which recently presented its first academic symposium in partnership with the University of South Carolina.

Ronald Hutton (center) with symposium presenters and CHS staff.

Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes symposium. L to R, Carl Evans, Emeritus Chair of Dept. of Religious Studies, University of South Carolina; Holli Emore, Executive Director, Cherry Hill Seminary; Ronald Hutton, Professor of History, Bristol University; Chas Clifton, Editor The Pomegranate; Candace Kant, Dean of Students, Cherry Hill Seminary; Wendy Griffin, Academic Dean, Cherry Hill Seminary.

Executive Director Holli Emore noted that the donor was inspired to give by the recent Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes held in collaboration with the University of South Carolina. “We have worked so hard for the past several years to shape our program into one with strong academic integrity as well as meaningful impact for the community of Pagan and nature-based spiritualities,” said Emore. This endowment is both an affirmation of that hard work, and a signal to others who might be ready to join the effort.”

Nearly $5,000 in gifts to the endowment have already been received; Cherry Hill Seminary has until July 1, 2013 to raise the full $10,000 match. You can find out more about the gift, including reactions from students and staff, here.  Those who wish to make a gift may do so online, or you can make a pledge of support. For further options, you can send a message to CHS@cherryhillseminary.org. All donors will be acknowledged online unless they request otherwise. Congratulations to Cherry Hill Seminary on this step forward!

 Solar Cross Temple “Love In Action” Update: On May 25th I reported on how the pan-Pagan/Magickal organization Solar Cross Temple, in partnership with a local Pagan and a consortium of activist organizations, were working to raise money for those affected by the massive and deadly tornado that struck Oklahoma recently. On May 30th, T. Thorn Coyle posted a new update on that effort

Debris covers the ground in Moore, Oklahoma. Photograph by Brett Deering/Getty.

Debris covers the ground in Moore, Oklahoma. Photograph by Brett Deering/Getty.

“6 wheel barrows and 4 heavy duty transfer shovels were sent to Oklahoma on May 29th! Thanks to everyone who has donated so far! Including donations from Solar Cross, people have contributed $1061 toward the two shipments of much needed goods. These are all going to the harder hit rural areas of Oklahoma that aren’t getting as much help. In addition to that total, another $150 was collected from our Solar Cross Devotional on Sunday and will take up collections at Troth Moot this weekend. This will enable us to send another shipment!”

For those wanting to join this initiative  please donate via PayPal to solarcrosstemple@gmail.com. Please note that it is for Tornado Relief so they can assign the money properly. As T. Thorn Coyle says in her initial post: “I want to create a world of mutual aid, where we help one another in times of need, and celebrate together in times of joy.” May all those affected find safety, shelter, and the means to rebuild.

Congratulations to Erynn Rowan Laurie: Erynn Rowan Laurie, author of “A Circle of Stones,” and a finalist in the poetry category of the Bi Writers Association Bi Book Awards, won in the poetry category this past Sunday for her collection “Fireflies at Absolute Zero.”

"Guess who is now an award-winning poet?" - Erynn Rowan Laurie

“Guess who is now an award-winning poet?” – Erynn Rowan Laurie

“Erynn Rowan Laurie’s  Fireflies at Absolute Zero is a call to poetic arms, written with the ferocity and pas­sion of the Earth war­rior — “my poems burn like stars/​ they fall like spears from the oil-​​black sky.” It is a hymn of praise to the old gods, written in the long tra­di­tion of poets as dreamers of new worlds, and re-​​memberers of old ones. Indeed, Laurie’s poetry reminds us all that humanity cannot face its strug­gles with either mushy plat­i­tudes or mil­i­tarist cliché; we require the nuance of the poet who dances coura­geously on the edges, between the struggle and the embrace.”Theodore Richards, author of Cosmosophia and The Crucifixion

I think this is a wonderful achievement, not only for Erynn, but for creative writings by modern Pagans.  Congratulations! In the meantime, for those who are curious, you can read a preview of the poetry collection, here.

In Other Pagan Community News:

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

On May 10th I reported that the Thor’s Hammer (aka Mjölnir) emblem was approved for veteran’s headstones and grave markers by the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. Since then, more details have been slowly emerging as to how the approval came about. We know that the listing went up on May 2nd, and thanks to a statement sent to The Wild Hunt from the Guardian of The Northern Winds Hearth we now know the circumstances of the emblem’s approval.

Thor's Hammer Emblem.

Thor’s Hammer Emblem.

“Due to a number of inquires regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs approval of the Mjölnir – Hammer of Thor Emblem as one of the “Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers” I have decided to write the following statement to try and answer everyone’s questions. Please note, that at the request of the Departed’s Family, I am withholding the last name and location of the grave markers.

The departed’s name is Shane, he was an Odinist and a Sargent in the United States Marine Corp. He was a Loyal Brother and Comrade to me personally for many years here in Midgard and although not a member of the OR, he was close with members of The Northern Winds Hearth and joined us in Blot and Sumbel on many occasions. Shane had passed from Midgard in August of 2012. After his Bael and Burial Ceremonies were held, I discussed with his Mother about the gravestone marker Emblems and how the Mjölnir – Hammer of Thor Emblem was not on the approved list with the VA, even with the previous efforts made by others to get approved.

It was then that her quest began to submit a request to the VA to get the Mjölnir – Hammer of Thor Emblem approved. She had written a lengthy heart felt letter to the VA with the request for the approval so her son may have an Emblem of Faith representative of his Beliefs on his gravestone. At this time she also requested that her Husband Mark’s headstone also bear the same Emblem for he practiced and lived by the same core teachings and virtues of Odinism, as their Son did. The VA required that she submit: (1) A three-inch diameter digitized black and white representation; (2) Free of copyright or trademark restrictions, or authorized by the owner for use and publication on the list of publicly available emblems; and (3) Reproducible in a production-line environment in stone or bronze without loss of graphic quality. At that time I enlisted the assistance of Comrades within the OR who were more then willing to assist her with this request.

After the VA accepted the image that was provided the waiting game began. She had made countless phone calls and sent numerous e-mails regarding the status of the request. Finally after all of her tireless efforts she received a letter from the VA dated May 2, 2013 advising her of the approval and that both Shane and Mark’s headstones that currently do not have any Emblem of Faith on them, would be replaced with new headstones inscribed with the Mjölnir – Hammer of Thor Emblem. Although it is with sadness and a heavy heart that this came about, a great step forward has taken place for the Odinist and Asatru communities. From our loss a Great Victory has arisen that will positively affect us all for generations to come! Hail to the Fallen, Hail Shane and Mark! Hail to Shane’s Mother for Her Dedication and Perseverance! Hail to all of Our Service Men and Women! Past, Present, and Future!

FFF/HTR Haakon “Hawk” AOR Guardian of The Northern Winds Hearth, AOR”

I’d like to thank Hawk for sending us this information, so that we can know the story, and who we have to thank for this advance for all Pagan and Heathen veterans. In addition, several groups like The Troth, Lady Liberty League, and the Open Halls Project have also released statements on this victory. I think this statement from the Heathen group Hrafnar sums up the general sentiments well.

“Today, Hrafnar stands with heathens across the US in pride as the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs has approved the Thor’s Hammer as an emblem to put on the headstones of fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. The greater acceptance of our faith anywhere is a victory for all of us, regardless of whatever other differences we may have.

Today, Hrafnar also stands with heathens across the US in sorrow: such recognition can only be made after the death of one who has been sworn to that service. The death of one of us is a loss for us all, regardless of whatever other differences we may have.

Hail the fallen! Hail the heathens!”

As for the future, we now clearly know how future Pagan symbols will be approved. Susan Granquist of Irminsul Ættir and the Our Freedom Coalition sent me this reminder for all Pagan veterans and their families.

“We, as an organization, recommend that veterans make sure that they include their desire to have that particular symbol on their headstones in their wills, and to make sure that their legal representatives have documentation and authority to make sure it is placed on the headstone.”

So if you are a Pagan, Heathen, or polytheist, who has served, or is serving, in the US military, please make arrangements now so that your preferred religious symbol can be approved for your gravestone or marker. If you need help, reach out to organizations like the Lady Liberty League, or your preferred national Pagan organization, to make sure everything is in order. Let’s ensure that all our fallen receive their proper honor.

Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

A Fundraiser for Kyrja Withers: Since Florida Pagan and children’s author Kyrja Withers had her home shot at this past March, followed by a chemical bottle-bomb attack, which required Withers’ daughter to seek medical care after inhaling fumes, the Lady Liberty League, Everglades Moon Local Council of COG, and other local Pagan community members have been mobilizing to assist Withers. At the behest of Lady Liberty League, their household is now raising funds to install security measures to protect against future attacks.

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

“Lady Liberty League [...] has provided a variety of resources to my husband, Randy, and I during this time.  They also provided a comprehensive on-site Threat Assessment Report of our home in an effort to de-escalate the situation and provide long-term safety for our family. We are seeking assistance to comply with the security measures recommended by Lady Liberty League.  The bulk of the funding received will be to purchase the security cameras necessary to provide surveillence of our unique, colorful home.  The cameras would provide visible deterents to those who would seek to further harass and intimidate us, as well as a means to secure evidence should additional incidents occur.”

They are seeking to raise $1,100 dollars, and have already raised nearly half of their goal. For those seeking to concretely help in this situation this seems to be a pragmatic and sensible way to do so. The Lady Liberty League asks that those who are interested in contributing suggestions of resources, ideas for strategies, and volunteering security consulting and other help” to send them an e-mail, or comment at the organization’s Facebook page.  A focus image has also been provided for those who want to do magical/prayer work for Kyrja and her family. We will update you here with further developments.

Emergency Pagan Conclave Called in California: The Wild Hunt has received a notice that an emergency conclave is being called for Sunday, May 5th in Oakland, California to discuss proposed regulations by the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) relating to religious items allowed by incarcerated Pagans. The call is being put forth by The Pagan Alliance and House of Danu.

Central California Women's Facility (CCWF)

Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)

“The California Department of Corrections (CDCR) has issued proposed regulations that threaten the ability of Pagans who are incarcerated to possess many of the religious items customary for the religious practices of our people. The proposed list excludes items out of ignorance, or for convenience, without regard to the required legal standard permitting personal religious items. Public comment on the proposed regulations ends May 7, 2013 at 5:00p.m.

The last great struggle for religious freedom in this country may very well be in the California prisons. At this historic Conclave. Dr. Barbara McGraw will give a presentation on the history of abuse endured by Pagan inmates, and there will be a panel of Pagan chaplain volunteers to share their experiences. Each of you will be given a guide showing how you can help the people of your tradition within the scope of any budget or time availability. We ask that each tradition send one or more representatives to the Conclave.”

Details on location, time, and how to participate can be found at this Facebook event listing. The proposed changes to what inmate religious property will be allowed can be found, here. The rights of Pagan prisoners has been an ongoing area of coverage at The Wild Hunt, and we’ll have more on this as the story develops.

Houston Pagan Conference: The first Pagan conference in the Houston, Texas area in over 30 years is being held May 18th  at the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands. I reporter earlier on the fundraiser to get this event started.

“There has not been a conference for Pagans in the Houston area for over 30 years. Now is the time to change that. The Houston metropolitan area has a wonderful, rich, and vast Pagan community which should be celebrated. The Houston Pagan Conference was started to not only bring this community together but to also bring forth ideas and discussions on various aspects of faith and practice.”

Guest of honor will be author Raven Grimassi. In addition, OBOD Druid, CUUPs Vice President, and Patheos blogger, John Beckett will be in attendance, so I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about how the event went. Congratulations to the Houston-area Pagan community on getting organized!

In Other Community News:

 

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

Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

Update on the Kyrja Withers Story: On March 30th I reported that Florida Pagan and children’s author Kyrja Withers had her home shot at, the latest in a string of escalating incidents seemingly connected to her Pagan faith. Now, PNC-Florida and the New Port Richey Patch are both reporting that the attacks have not stopped, and that her home was recently the subject of a chemical bomb attack, which required Withers’ daughter to seek medical care after inhaling fumes from the home-made bottle-bombs.

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

“She said there was a young man in the driver’s seat and another in the front passenger seat with his body sticking out of the window. She said the driver was also coming out of the window. There was also a young man in the backseat. She says two bottles with fluid inside were thrown at the house from within the vehicle on its return alongside the home. One landed near a bush in the front yard of the house. She saw the bottle expand and tried to get away before it exploded. “Every time I close my eyes, I see the bottle expanding,” she said. She said she did not escape the fumes when the bottle burst. She told the New Port Richey police that both bottles exploded. The second bottle exploded so hard that it went flying across the street and into a neighbor’s yard.”

Police are still investigating these incidents, and no arrests have been made. The Lady Liberty League is currently working on providing Kyrja Withers with support, and ask that those who are interested in contributing suggestions of resources, ideas for strategies, and volunteering security consulting and other help” to send them an e-mail, or comment at the organization’s Facebook page.  A focus image has also been provided for those who want to do magical/prayer work for Kyrja and her family. We will update you here with further developments. May Kyrja and her family remain safe, and may these perpetrators be brought to justice. 

Hexenfest Happens This Saturday: The second annual Hexenfest, a celebration of mythic music and dance, is happening this Saturday, April 27th, at the Rhythmix Cultural Works in Alameda, California. Featured performers are  Arcane DimensionPandemonaeon, Morpheus RavennaAnaar, a Tombo Studio fashion show, and DJing by Skellington.

“Welcome to Hexenfest, a music and arts festival dedicated to myth, magic, folklore, fairytale, and the numenous.   We feature artists who are exploring the wild archetypal through their art; musicians, dancers, visual artists, and crafters who look to the realms of myth and dream and reflect their visions into our world. Hexenfest has a flair for the darkly exotic. Gothic, Pagan, and Tribal belly dance themes are featured prominently, evoking the forbidden forest more than than the enchanted wood. If you feel at home in dark fairytales, join us in the realm!”

I was honored to be involved in the first Hexenfest, and I think the event could be replicated by local communities who want to grow and support Pagan-made music, dance, fashion, and other arts. So if you’re in the area, why not consider dropping by in a show of solidarity? I can guarantee that a lot of excellent people will be there. Here’s the official Facebook event page. 

6th Anniversary of Veteran Pentacle Quest Victory: On April 23rd, 2007, a settlement was reached with the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs concerning the inclusion of the Wiccan Pentacle to the official VA list of Emblems of Belief. Nine years of bureaucratic stalling over this issue were endured, very likely due to the personal beliefs of former Texas governor, then-president, George W. Bush. While some have tried to gloss over this struggle, litigation and public pressure was necessary to move this issue forward, and open the door for more minority religions to have their symbols included. Now, on this 6th anniversary of the victory, Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, who was an instrumental part of the campaign, is hosting a special radio show this evening to share stories and remembrances.

2006 Pagan religious freedom rally at the September 11 memorial in Reno, Nevada. Pictured, left to right: Selena Fox, executive director of Lady Liberty League; Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, first Wiccan killed in action in War on Terrorism in Afghanistan; and US Army Chaplain William Chrystal, Pastor Emeritus of First Congregational Church (UCC) of Reno, Nevada.

2006 Pagan religious freedom rally at the September 11 memorial in Reno, Nevada. Pictured, left to right: Selena Fox, executive director of Lady Liberty League; Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, first Wiccan killed in action in War on Terrorism in Afghanistan; and US Army Chaplain William Chrystal, Pastor Emeritus of First Congregational Church (UCC) of Reno, Nevada.

“Celebrating 6th Anniversary of Veteran Pentacle Quest Victory Day with Roberta Stewart, others who helped make this happen. Tune in to special podcast tonight, 8-9pm CDT”

You can find the link to the show, here.  Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, will be participating. You can read a history of this quest for inclusion, here. The Wild Hunt’s extensive coverage of the Veteran Pentacle Quest can be read, here. We give our thanks for those who fought to make sure individuals like Sgt. Patrick Stewart would be properly honored.

In Other Community News: 

 

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

It is official. This July Kentucky’s brand new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) will go into effect. The state’s legislature put its final stamp of approval on the bill when it overturned, by a wide margin, Governor Steve Beshear’s veto on March 26th.

Originally called House Bill 279 (HB279), Kentucky’s RFRA states:

Government shall not substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A “burden” shall include indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities. – Kentucky HB279 Draft as of 4-4-2013

At first glance this sounds great. The state of Kentucky cannot “burden” a person’s freedom to practice his or her religion or limit the right to act or to refuse to act due to “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Pagan children can miss school on Samhain. If one’s jury duty falls on Beltane, we can ask to be excused.

amish buggy

By Amy Sancetta, AP
Source: USA Today

Before everyone packs their bags and moves to Kentucky, let’s take a closer look. State Rep. Bob Damron, a conservative democrat from Nicholasville, sponsored HB279 after the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld a ruling concerning the Amish community. In 2008, nine Amish men were arrested after refusing to comply with a state law requiring reflective orange triangles on their buggies.

The local chapter of the ACLU defended these men stating that, “This case is about the right of Kentuckians to freely exercise their religious beliefs and by necessity the limits of government’s ability to impose a substantial burden on that right.”

However, when HB279 was brought before the legislature, the ACLU didn’t support it. On March 11, the organization stated, “though laudable in its purpose, the bill as currently drafted, would undermine existing civil rights protections in the Commonwealth.”

GovBeshear_5x7Governor Steve Beshear’s agreed. Upon vetoing the bill, he stated:

I appreciate the good intentions of House Bill 279… However, I have significant concerns that this bill will cause serious unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care, and individuals’ civil rights… The bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation. 

HB279’s opponents fear that its language provides residents with the legal power to disregard state laws in the name of religion. Governor Beshears said, “Imprecise legal standards lead to unforeseen consequences.” He cites various areas where problems could arise including: civil rights, school curriculum standards, economic development efforts, public health initiatives and drug enforcement. For example, a science teacher might refuse to teach evolution or choose to teach creationism. Prayer could enter government meetings. The implications are endless.

Local Kentucky Priestess Nancie Clark of Spirit of the Earth Church said:

This law is deeply concerning to me on multiple levels and I am certain it is more than likely being pushed by those with their own religious agendas… I can foresee many fellow Kentuckian’s personal liberties being chipped away in subtle ways throughout pockets of this state. What saddens me is that many people here may not be aware of just how this law will affect them until of course something happens to them or someone they love.  

Oberon Osiris, co-Public Information Officer of Covenant of the Goddess’ Midwest Regional Local Council, echoed those sentiments adding “For Pagans and other minority religions, this law could create strained relationships and conflicts in the overall community.”

Priestess Nancie Clark

Priestess Nancie Clark

Specifically, opponents, like Priestess Clark, are concerned about the Fairness laws protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered citizens. HB279 could render these city-based ordinances completely useless. Priestess Clarks adds, “What’s to stop a teacher or other mentor from preaching to a gay teen the error of their ways according to scripture? This law helps to legalize bullying.”

Despite all objections, the bill’s supporters including Family Foundation of Kentucky, the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, and the Kentucky Baptist Convention, maintain the bill’s only goal is to protect religious liberty. State Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington said:

It wasn’t so long ago we had prayer in the schools, but they made us take it out… There have been attempts to take God out of everything. They want to take God out of the pledge of allegiance, can you believe that? You don’t think your religious freedom is under attack? Then maybe you do believe in a boogeyman….

But are Rep. Lee and the other supporters really concerned with protecting religious liberty? Or is this just a back-door attempt to re-establish government-sanctioned religious practices?

Interestingly, Kentucky isn’t the only state with an RFRA. In fact, in 1993, the Federal Government enacted its own RFRA which was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional. Justice Stephens said:

In my opinion, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) is a “law respecting an establishment of religion” that violates the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Since 1993, 16 states have some form of RFRA and the Federal government has a new more restrictive version. Professor Christopher Lund of Wayne State University studied these laws in great detail and found them to be ineffective and unnecessary. His reports show that only three of the states (Florida, Illinois and Texas) have significant instances of litigation related to their RFRAs.

So why be concerned? Kentucky’s bill is touted as much broader in scope using “imprecise” language. In addition, Kentucky is proving to be a very conservative environment. Outside of this initiative that passed by a landslide. The state’s Department of Homeland Security requires all of its training materials to include the statement: “the safety and security of the commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.”

Kentucky State Seal

Kentucky State Seal

When it comes to RFRAs, there is always one  lingering question: Why bother? Isn’t religious freedom already guaranteed by both the Kentucky and U.S. Constitutions? As best expressed by Democratic state Rep. Darryl Owen, “This is a piece of legislation looking for a reason.”

As always, Lady Liberty League will be watching the situation closely. Selena Fox stated:

Religious Freedom is an important foundation for the United States. We need to be vigilant, guard it, preserve it, and uphold it. However, as part of this work, we also need to closely examine political crusades and legislation that are put forth in the name of “Religious Freedom.” Just because something is proclaimed to be about “Religious Freedom” does not make it so. It is an affront to Freedom to pass and implement laws, whatever they are called, that can permit religious dogma and opinion to override Liberty and Justice for All.

In less than 90 days, HB279 will become a law. Whether civil liberties will be trampled in the name of religious freedom has yet to be seen. All we can do is wait and see.

 

(Note: The 16 states with RFRAs include Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Rhode Island, Alabama, Arizona, South Carolina, Texas, Idaho, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Utah and Tennessee.)

As Heather Greene reported yesterday here at The Wild Hunt, the Pagan community has been reacting to inflammatory and offensive statements made by Fox News and Fox & Friends Weekend personalities regarding the University of Missouri adding the eight Wiccan Sabbats to its “Guide to Religion.”

Since then, the response from Wiccans and other modern Pagans on social media sites like Facebook have been heavy and sustained. More than 25,000 individuals have signed a Causes petition demanding an apology, and over 4000 have signed a Change.org petition demanding the same.

“Fox and Friends on February 17, 2013 decided to belittle women, make fun of a Federally recognized religion, present inaccurate information as “facts” concerning the religion of Wicca, and decide that religious freedom and respect is ONLY for the mainstream or “traditional” religions rather than for EVERY American Citizen regardless of their spirituality. [...] They are also doing a lot of damage control by removing this video from the public record due to the backlash it is receiving but I, and many others in the Pagan community will not allow them to hide their bigotry and pretend it didn’t happen.”

In addition, Pagan and Wiccan advocacy organizations have been stepping forward to make statements on the coverage, starting with the Lady Liberty League.

“The Lady Liberty League denounces the ignorant and unprofessional statements made by Fox News commentators this weekend.  The statements, made by Fox personalities including Anna Kooiman, Clayton Morris, Tucker Carlson, and Tammy Bruce were in regards to the University of Missouri’s 2011 decision to include Wiccan and other holidays, along with the holidays of other many other faiths, in that university’s “Guide to Religion.”

We are deeply disappointed that Fox’s leadership would chose to allow such ill-informed statements on the air.  The commentary of the Fox News personalities over the weekend betrayed not only deep ignorance about Paganism and Wicca but also a fundamental distain for the nature of religious diversity in the United States and the establishment clause in the US constitution.”

This was quickly followed by a statement from the Covenant of the Goddess.

“In the case of Fox News, the Fox & Friends Weekend commentators, Anna Kooiman, Clayton Morris, Tucker Carlson, and Tammy Bruce, spent Sunday morning, February 17th, mocking Wicca as it relates to the University of Missouri’s “Guide to Religion.” Not only were their comments irreverent, they were factually incorrect. They turned the University’s sincere attempt at diversity awareness into a three-ring circus act.

The Covenant of the Goddess recognizes and respects the opinions and beliefs of all people, of faith or no faith.  We applaud the University of Missouri and any other organization that strives for community awareness and interfaith peace.  We do not expect special treatment for Wiccans or Witches on campus or otherwise. However, we do expect the national media to report with reasonable accuracy and to offer a modicum of respect to people of all faiths and all practices.”

In addition, COG also sent a letter to the University of Missouri thanking them for their inclusivity.

Of course, it wasn’t only Pagans who were pointing out the bizarre and distorted coverage of this issue, NewsHounds (a Fox News watchdog site) said that the network’s “hypocrisy is truly astounding” while The Raw Story recounted the espeically inflammatory statements of commentator Tucker Carlson.

An e-card on the subject being shared around social media sites.

An e-card on the subject being shared around social media sites.

“Except any religion whose most sacred day is Halloween, I just can’t take seriously,” Carlson added. “I mean, call me a bigot. And I’m not, you know, not offering an editorial against Wiccanism.” Carlson later added that every Wiccan was either a “compulsive Dungeons & Dragons player or is a middle-aged, twice-divorced older woman living in a rural area who works as a midwife.”

These led the site Opposing Views to simply state: “Tucker Carlson Really Hates Wiccans.” That’s actually not that unfair of an assessment, Carlson has a long history of insulting and baiting Wiccans on his various television programs. In the past he’s called Wicca “Satanic,” and given airtime to Christian criticisms of Wicca and modern Paganism without airing any competing viewpoint. It’s a well he returns to because he knows it will excite the conservative Christian viewers of his programs, and garner him a bit of attention when progressive (and Pagan) sites call him out for it.

This weekend at PantheaCon I was honored to participate in a panel entitled “Setting the Record Straight: Pagans and the Press,” moderated by journalist Beth Winegarner (audio and hopefully video coming soon). During the panel, I noted that coverage of Wiccans has largely evolved from fear and intimations of “dark” practices hidden from view to seeing us a jokes, and that this evolution should be seen as part of how effective Wiccans and Witches have been at changing the narrative. Even those who want to sensationalize and attack us largely admit we aren’t evil, that we are, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “mostly harmless.” The challenge now is correcting the record when these distortions appear, and working towards making Pagan media an ever-more vibrant and responsive tool for influencing the mainstream narratives of our religions.

ADDENDUM: Tucker Carlson has apologized on Twitter.

Last week I presented the question of Pagan solidarity. Does it exist? Should it exist? What is the impact and evolution of such a concept? Generally speaking, it is widely accepted that Pagan solidarity, in some form, is vital for both the protection and continued growth of the non-traditional religions that fall under the Pagan umbrella. Additionally, solidarity can offer a sense of community and comfort over a host of social networks supporting both Pagan groups and solitary practitioners.

In December of 2011, Lady Liberty League mobilized a Task Force to protect a Southern Pagan family’s religious liberty within a public school system. The Task Force, of which I was a member, was comprised of professional individuals representing different Pagan organizations and Pagan spiritual traditions. Together, in solidarity, we worked for three weeks and, in the end, achieved quite a victory.

After that case was settled, the Task Force itself disbanded. However, Lady Liberty League still operates; watching and waiting. Since 1985, the organization has been ever on the “ready” with the ability to mobilize Pagan resources as needed. When active solidarity becomes a regular occurrence an organization is born.

Let’s turn now to a network of Pagan voices to hear their thoughts on the growth and importance of the Pagan organization.

Chas Clifton

Chas Clifton (center)

Our desire to be seen as a legitimate religion by government entities has forced us to change to fit their definitions, which, in the United States at least, were designed for Protestant Christians…We have been dealing with this issue since the mid-1970s, when the Covenant of the Goddess was created. – Chas Clifton, editor of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies and a practitioner of American Eclectic Craft

Jonathon S. Lowe

Jonathon S. Lowe

One of the most basic principles of Paganism is that we are all interconnected to everyone and everything around us. Solidarity helps us to solidify those connections… Organizations are merely facilitators helping to make these connections possible.”  – Rev. Jonathon S. Lowe, Interfaith Minister, Founder Midnight Star School of Witchcraft, Coordinator of The Atlanta Pagan Marketplace of Ideas 

Lady Charissa

Lady Charissa
North Georgia Solitaries

I am a member of several worthy organizations that…have members with diverse beliefs and yet all of these organizations work every day to help build community by concentrating on the task at hand and respecting each other’s differences. Lady Charissa, founder of North Georgia Solitaries, coordinator of the Pagan Assistance Fund, High Priestess of Silver Pine Grove 

Before we go any further, we need to deal in semantics. Most responders made no distinction between an institution and an organization. Are they same thing?  Covenant of the Goddess representatives, Rachael Watcher and Ginger Wood say no.

On the Fears and Dangers of Institutionalization:

Certainly some individuals and small groups might come together for the sake of mutual interest and form an organization, but would that constitute an institution? … Those who are drawn to think outside the box in expressions of spiritual freedom are not generally going to be ready to discard that freedom of thought for yet another set of doctrinal mandates. – Rachael Watcher, National Interfaith Representative for Covenant of the Goddess 

Ginger Wood

Ginger Wood

We do have organizations that have worked hard some for over 30 years, to give Pagans a flag to unite under. [But] I will not accept [institutionalization] as ”must” and I pray to the Goddess that none of us are forced to institutionalize in order to be heard.  – Ginger Wood, National First Officer of Covenant of the Goddess, Priestess of Gryphon Song Clan and Pagan novelist

Both Rachael and Ginger are using the accepted sociological definition of institution which is explained at length in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Very briefly, an organization is less complex or rigid in structure, scope or activity than an institution.   

Christine Hoff Kraemer

Christine Hoff Kraemer

We need to think deeply about what kinds of organizational structures best support our values…guard against rigidity in power structures and in belief systems. – Christine Hoff Kraemer, Managing Editor at Patheos Pagan Channel, Cherry Hill Seminary Instructor

Institutionalization is a big issue for me, always has been. It’s something I’ve resisted…  In more recent years my attitude has softened. Years ago my friend Sam Webster insisted that we needed to establish institutions because institutions are the only thing that lasts.  Individual humans pass on.  M. Macha Nightmare, Priestess, witch, teacher, ritualist and author.

M Macha Nightmare

M Macha Nightmare

Macha makes an excellent point. Humans do pass on. Organizations or institutions can be passed down. Can we create viable Pagan institutions that serve solidarity without sacrificing spiritual freedom and, at the same time, last for decades to come?

On the Building of Pagan Institutions:

Holli S. Emore

Holli S. Emore

“Pagans are perfectly capable of having healthy institutions which serve our needs and goals, indeed, we participate in such institutions every day in our real-world lives…Why wouldn’t we want to enjoy the benefits of stronger infrastructure, better accountability and healthy leadership?” – Holli S. Emore, executive director of Cherry Hill Seminary, Priestess of Temple Osireion 

Peter Dybing

Peter Dybing

A wide diversity of Pagan institutions are necessary as the glue that will bind us in our common effort to defend the rights of all belief systems. Peter Dybing, Pagan Service Advocate, Chief Officer, Federal Incident Management Team, 100% for Haiti Board member

Crystal Blanton

Crystal Blanton

We need some of the power that institutions bring to any community or movement… Togetherness commands attention …The key is finding a way to use the concepts of community solidarity in balance with some of the undesirable things that come with community dynamics – Crystal Blanton, High Priestess with Solitaries of the Second, Pagan author.

So how do we create that balance? How do we create and maintain healthy organizations and fluid institutions that promote solidarity and allow for that community dynamic?

Building trust person-to-person, which tends to spread to friends of those people who begin learning who each other is, how they think, what their concerns are, how they express their spirituality.… I think one of our greatest assets as Pagans is our diversity.  M. Macha Nightmare, Priestess, witch, teacher, ritualist and author. 

I think we should do our best to make strength out of diversity. If you have twelve Pagans together, they normally represent at least thirteen religions. [But] It is natural for people to seek agreement…I recommend we conform to one standard: mutual respect and intolerance only of intolerance. – Freeman Presson, Namen of Temple Zagduku & Fr. Ophis, Church of Hermetic Sciences. 

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary

Selena Fox

Like a delicious multi-ingredient salad, when Pagans unite, we can bring our individual flavors and textures as we join together — and we can maintain this diversity in our collaboration. Our diversity can enrich our solidarity.Rev. Selena Fox, Senior Minister at Circle Sanctuary 

Our diversity is our strength. Our diversity is our asset. Our diversity is our core.  So, with that essential ingredient, can we venture to build uniquely-structured institutions that respect and serve the expansive Pagan world view for generations to come?  If so, these institutions must conform to the rigid expectations of mainstream society; thereby ensuring our legal protection and promoting social awareness. And, as the wheel turns, this increased awareness will eventually lead to a broader and a healthier social acceptance of the diversity that began it all.

Thank you to all the contributors for their valued opinions and to the readers for opening the doorway to this conversation and continuing the process into the future.

Full Comments: (listed alphabetically)

Crystal Blanton
Chas Clifton
Peter Dybing
Holli S. Emore
Rev. Selena Fox
Christine Hoff Kraemer
Lady Charissa
Rev. Jonathon S. Lowe
M. Macha Nightmare
Freeman Presson
Rachael Watcher

 

Blue Ridge Mountains

Courtesy of JSmith on Flickr

The Appalachian Mountains conjure up images of rustic living, long-distance hiking and banjos. The range formed back in the Paleozoic Era and now stretches from Newfoundland, Canada to Alabama.  Wandering through its rough terrain is the famous 2,174 mile Appalachian Trail. Throughout time humans have been nurtured by these mountains, developing vibrant cultures within their shadows.

While the northern Appalachian culture has lost much of its unique regional flavor, the communities nestled in the Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountains of southern Appalachia have clung to their rural roots. These areas are far more isolated and distant from growing urban centers. As a result, their traditions have been well-preserved.

Byron Ballard

Byron Ballard
at the Celtic Tree Workshop

Deep within the heart of this southern world, there lives the unexpected: a thriving Pagan community. To get a better understanding of this area and just how the Appalachian way informs the practice of Paganism I turned, quite literally, to a Village Witch. Byron Ballard, a senior priestess of Mother Grove Goddess Temple, lives in the small city of Asheville, North Carolina. She was born and raised in the Appalachian countryside and has since become a recognizable and respected figure in the community.

Heather:  Southern Appalachia has a rich culture that is distinct and recognizable.  Do you see this regional color influencing the practice of Paganism in the area?  How?

Byron: Here in Appalachia we are not far from our agricultural roots as in other parts of the country.  We remain close to the land. I grew up in a rural cove where most people gardened and preserved food. The use of curative herbs and food was common less than a generation ago–many of us don’t think of it as merely a historical leftover.  So for Appalachian Pagans, being close to the land is an accident of birth that is beautiful and significant to us.

H:  Historically speaking, the Cherokee Indians populated this area prior to European colonization.  Their influence is still felt up and down the Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountains.  Does traditional Cherokee culture inform the Appalachian Pagan’s spiritual practice today?

B: I am currently researching what I call the three strands of Appalachian Folk magic: one of which is Cherokee. Unlike other regions, southern Appalachia saw a gentler transition from the dominant Indian culture to American culture. What I mean by that is that the colonists here did not aggressively push into the region. The two cultures lived peacefully and independently which led to gentle integration and cooperation. This continued for over a century.

Meaders Face Jug

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Folk Artist Lanier Meaders
Appalachian Face Jug

As a result, we share many traditions with the Cherokee, such as herbalism and oral storytelling. I also believe that the folk tradition of healing waters comes from Cherokee roots.  In addition, because of Appalachia’s isolation, people have a strong sense of self-reliance which has allowed for the development of wonderful folk art, music, and textiles. This is common to all the cultures of Appalachia.

H: Today, most of the southern Appalachian chain is within the Bible belt. But yet, you live in an area with a thriving Pagan population.  What does the Pagan community look like in Asheville?

B:  I do not have exact figures.  In the Buncombe County area, I suspect about 1000 people self-identify as Pagan of some sort.  Specifically speaking, Asheville has long been an eclectic enclave and is known for having a vibrant Pagan influence.  In addition, there is a segment of the local population that doesn’t identify as Pagan but rather defines their spirituality in terms of nature.  These Jews, Christians, and New Age enthusiasts do not go to church or temple to unite with their concept of the divine.  They go hiking.

You have to understand that the mountains here are some of the oldest in the world.  We have two of the oldest rivers, the New River and the French Broad, running through the area.  It is almost as through you can hear the area hum with a deep low sound.  It calls people in. People that hear become connected to it.

H: As with most of the country, there has been a growing need for interfaith work.  You’ve been a key player in making this happen in Asheville.  Despite the southern setting, your interfaith work has been tremendously successful.  How did a small southern mountain city find its interfaith movement?

B: The interfaith community was born when a woman named Mary Page Sims, the wife of an Atlanta Episcopal Bishop, retired to Hendersonville, North Carolina. In the 1990s, she started a local cooperative circle for United Religious Initiative. I met her shortly after and a group of us began a second circle–Greater Asheville URI Cooperation Circle.

Byron Ballard

Around 2005, the Asheville circle was disbanded, due to a lack of leadership and general interest in interfaith work. Several years later, the Brotherhood at our local Reform congregation wanted to widen their long-term Jewish-Christian dialogue group.  They chose congregational leaders from a very diverse cross-section of the Asheville spiritual community and hired a consultant to lead the group through a process to determine whether there was interest in interfaith work. We formed the Mountain Area Interfaith Forum which is now in its fifth year of operation.

H:  I met you through our work with Lady Liberty League on the Bumcombe County school case that concerned religious freedom.  After working on this particular case, you became involved in yet another very focused interfaith board.  Tell me about that.

B: After the Buncombe County School Board met to establish a protocol for dealing with religious material within the schools, the superintendent, Tony Baldwin created a Faith-Based Leadership Advisory Council.  I serve on the committee with other leaders from all faiths.  Now, when anyone in the school district has a concern or question about a religious observance or tradition, we are available to provide information and support.  Tony Baldwin has been extremely supportive as the County moves through this cultural transition from assumed religious homogeneity to the embracing of its diversity.

H: Thank You, Byron.

Over the years, Byron has worked tirelessly to educate others about beauty of Goddess spirituality and its symbiotic relationship with Appalachian folk tradition.  This fall she taught classes at the Southeast Woman’s Herbal Conference, a weekend celebrating folk tradition, herbalism and the ways of the wise woman, held in Black Mountain, North Carolina.  Byron also co-founded The Coalition of Earth Religions for Education and Support or CERES, a social networking organization for local Appalachian Pagans. She has been interviewed for or contributed to numerous Pagan magazine including Witches and Pagans and Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly.

Hillfolk HoodooMuch of her outreach work has been done through her writing.  She was a columnist, the Village Witch, for the local Gannett daily paper, The Asheville Citizen-Times and the Mountain Xpress.  More recently, Byron published a book Staubs & Ditchwater:  An introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo. The book included her paper entitled “Hillfolk Hoodoo and the Question of Cultural Strip-mining” which, in 2007, she presented at the Harvard Colloquium “Forging Folklore: Witches, Pagans, and Neo-Tribal Cultures.”

Not all regions of the U.S. are fortunate enough to have such a rich culture heritage, one that lends itself so well to the practice of a Pagan spirituality. In that way, Southern Appalachia is a true national treasure.  Byron herself would be the first to admit, there’s just something in the spirit of those mountains.  Having visited, I would have to agree.