Archives For Louisiana

NEW ORLEANS – In two weeks, HexFest 2015 is scheduled to kick off its magical event in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. The event begins Friday, Aug. 21 with a Riverboat ride and ritual hosted by Priestess and Voodoo Queen Bloody Mary. Up until Friday, the opening ritual was to be held on the Steamboat Natchez. However, after a phone call early morning, HexFest organizers found themselves scrambling for a new location. The Natchez had canceled their contract due to what was initially described as “religious reasons.”

hexfestIn a conversation with The Wild Hunt, Ty Siddiqui, manager of HexFest, explained that she was awoken Friday morning by a call from Natchez sales director Deirdra Edwards and was told, “We are not going to be able to do your event on the Natchez.” According to Siddiqui, it was further explained that the owner had just “come back into town from being away” and hadn’t known about HexFest. After looking at the website, he said that he didn’t want anything to do with Witchcraft and Voodoo. “He didn’t want it on his boat.”

Siddiqui immediately called Hexfest co-owner Christian Day, who is on his Honeymoon in the U.K., and broke the news. Together they contacted Edwards again, and she reiterated the reason. According to Siddiqui, she and Day offered modifications, including eliminating the entire ritual and drumming. She said, “We were willing to work with them … [but] there was nothing we could do.”

Day added that “the whole thing is just incredibly disappointing.” He went on to explain that the Natchez knew right from the beginning what HexFest was and what they were planning on doing. On May 9, 2014, Day and co-owner Brian Cain officially announced the event dates on a newly launched Facebook page. By early June, they publicized a list of tentative presenters, a rough schedule, a new website and were selling tickets. Then, June 27, 2014, a day after signing the Natchez contract, organizers announced that the opening ritual would be held on the riverboat.

In a Friday letter sent to the boat’s owner, Day wrote, “We had explained everything that was going to be going on to Deidra on the phone and even referred to components such as drumming and voodoo in emails back and forth, none of which she expressed concern over…”

After the initial phone calls, the Natchez reportedly stopped communicating with Siddiqui. She said that she was informed that Edwards was in a meeting with the controller “and others” and could not talk. In the meantime, Siddiqui was able to secure a new riverboat, The Creole Queen, for the opening ritual event. The new boat’s port is farther form HexFest’s main location at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, but the Creole sales team has reportedly been helpful and accommodating.

Then, late on Friday, Siddiqui got another call from the Natchez. She was informed that the HexFest event was actually canceled due to breach of contract, specifically citing two points:

  • It is understood and agreed that the Charterer shall not participate in any ticket sales other than to members of its own organization, unless consent to do so is granted herein.
  • Charterer shall not stage any “exotic” dancing, entertainment or singing without Owner’s prior written approval.

Day told The Wild Hunt, “The sales director of the Steamboat Natchez knew from the beginning that we were a ticketed weekend event and she knew that we were having the Dragon Ritual Drummers onboard. … We explained what we were in the beginning and she said the membership didn’t apply to us because we were not a membership organization.” Day added that he has an email trail proving some of these points.

In addition, he noted that the company had accepted a contract for HexFest 2016. That contract is dated July 7, 2015. It was signed and submitted only one month ago. What changed over the past thirty days?

[Credit: © 2014 Robin Stevens]

[Credit: © 2014 Robin Stevens]

What puzzles organizers even more is that Bloody Mary has been a presenter on the boat in the past. Bloody Mary herself said that she was very “perplexed.” She told The Wild Hunt, “I suggested I do [the] river blessing voodoo ritual on that the boat … I have been called on to work for that company directly, sent many of my groups to them for years … and although I knew they were not necessarily believers in mysticism, they do tours and events on subjects of voodoo, paranormal, seance and such. It seemed they were open to the ideas.” Mary added that she would no longer be recommending the Natchez or any of its sister tourist companies, and is drafting a formal letter of complaint.

According to Day and Siddiqui, it was the owner, Gordon Stevens, who canceled the contract because he wanted “nothing to do with” HexFest, Witchcraft or Voodoo. Stevens is president, CEO and co-owner of the New Orleans Steamboat Company and Gray Line New Orleans. He is also part owner of “Café Beignet and Frostop Restaurants, and is President of the real-estate agency M.G. Stevens Corporation” In his bio, he describes himself as being “guided by the strong Catholic traditions he was raised with.” Along with donating to a number of Catholic charities, Stevens serves as president on the Board of the Catholic Foundation of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. As this suggests, he himself may not, in fact, be a “believer in mysticism.”

While New Orleans has always been somewhat of a progressive city in which Catholicism, magic, mysticism and other spiritual practices intertwine, Louisiana is currently considered one of the most conservative states in the country. Siddiqui said, “Ever since this wave of conservative religiousity hit Louisiana, it has opened the door to allow people to discriminate against each other.” She is referring specifically to Governor Jindal (R) who, in May, issued an executive RFRA order after the state Legislature did not approve a similar bill. In June, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed suit against Jindal for overstepping his authority as Governor.

In response to Jindal’s order, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu penned his own executive order that reads:

I am issuing a clarifying call to the nation that New Orleans is an accepting, inviting city that thrives on its diversity and welcomes people from all walks of life with open arms … In New Orleans, we believe religious liberty and freedoms should be protected and discrimination prohibited, and we have passed our own laws to reflect that principle. This executive order is an important, symbolic affirmation that discrimination in any form will not be tolerated in New Orleans – and it should not be tolerated anywhere in Louisiana.

And, religious discrimination is just what Day, Siddiqui and others now believe is behind the Natchez canceling their event. Presenter Sandra Mariah Wright told The Wild Hunt, “I am shocked. There is no precedent for this.This is New Orleans.” Wright, herself from Salem, Massachusetts, likened the situation to a similar case ten years ago. She was organizing an event in a local Knights of Columbus hall, a location that had hosted Witchcraft gatherings for years. She said, “Even Laurie Cabot had held events there.” Then someone contacted the state’s Knights of Columbus office, who turned around and threatened to pull the local group’s charter if the event was allowed to continue. With two weeks to go, Wright was left scrambling for a new location.

Like Bloody Mary, Wright said that she’ll never use the Gray Line touring company again. She also added that the “timing seems a bit suspect” considering the recent news out of Pensacola. Siddiqui agreed, saying that, while its probably not directly linked, “it’s too coincidental.”

At this point, the Natchez has refunded HexFest its initial deposit of $5768.75. However, Siddiqui said that they are still owed over $5,000 and have incurred a number of new expenses in the ritual’s rescheduling. Siddiqui also added that they are already speaking to lawyers.

Since the news was announced, various presenters and attendees have been weighing in on the situation. Raven Grimassi wrote, “One of the primary problems I see here is the setting of a precedent. If this matter goes unaddressed to the company, then we are allowing a momentum to build that can be a real problem for us all in the long run.” Grimassi, as well as Day and Cain, are calling on attendees and local Pagans to complain to the company and to the city’s tourism board. Siddiqui said that she has been in contact with both the Greater New Orleans Pagan Pride Day Project and the Louisiana Alliance of Wiccans.

The Wild Hunt reached out to The New Orleans Steamboat Company for a statement and further explanation, but has yet to receive a response.

While HexFest coordinators are still in shock and are confused by the Natchez decision, they still have an event to run. HexFest 2015 will continue on as planned with the Friday evening opening ritual on the Creole Queen. Details of all changes are listed on the event page and main website.

WASHINGTON D.C. – The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), in a landmark decision, legalized same sex marriage in the United States of America. On Friday, June 26, SCOTUS issued its 5-4 opinion on the Obergefell v. Hodges case. Kennedy delivered the opinion, opening with, “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.”


Celebrations outside courthouse June 26 2015 [Courtesy D. Salisbury]

Through that opinion, SCOTUS reversed the decision of the lower Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which had upheld same sex marriage bans in four states: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. SCOTUS ruled these bans unconstitutional, saying:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

The Court’s opinion also made it clear that marriages performed legally in one state had to be officially recognized in other states. As SCOTUS ruled:

The Court, in this decision, holds same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry in all States. It follows that the Court also must hold—and it now does hold—that there is no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character.

Within the opinion, Justice Kennedy offered an historical perspective, saying that marriage has been central to the “human condition” for “millennia and across civilizations.” While he acknowledged that most of the historical references speak of opposite sex unions, he goes on to say that “The ancient origins of marriage confirm its centrality, but it has not stood in isolation from developments in law and society. The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution—even as confined to opposite-sex relations—has evolved over time.”

Justice Kennedy was joined by Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomeyer. Dissenting opinions came from Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito. Roberts wrote:

This Court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be … Today, however, the Court takes the extraordinary step of ordering every State to license and recognize same-sex marriage. Many people will rejoice at this decision, and I begrudge none their celebration. But for those who believe in a government of laws, not of men, the majority’s approach is deeply disheartening.

While there are those who directly oppose same sex marriage on religious or philosophical principles, there are others who, like Roberts, feel that the process should have been left to the states and the vote of the people.

Priestess signing legal documentation for a same-sex married couple in Alabama [Courtesy K. Privett-Duren]

Priestess signing legal documentation for a same-sex married couple in Alabama [Courtesy K. Privett-Duren]

As the news flooded the internet, we gathered some reactions from Pagans, Heathens and Polytheists around the country. Here is what they had to say:

Dianne Duggan is a Pagan Priestess who worked for the US government for decades and practiced law. Last year in her in Illinois, she was finally able to legally marry her wife. Duggan said, “Given that marriage is a legal contract, sanctioned by government, I’ve never understood the faith-based arguments against it. Even marriages that take place under religious circumstances must be sanctioned by government through licensing .. Rights are rights. That is that.” Read Duggan’s full comment

Another legal expert, Dana Eilers, author of Pagans and the Law, said that SCOTUS had “affirmed the great American Experiment, which is the separation of church and state.” She went on to say, “Critically, the majority of the Court found that the opponents of gay marriage had failed to provide any foundation for the dire outcomes which gay marriage opponents so often assert. This, to me, is crucial: there was, apparently, no proof offered to support the awful predictions made by the opponents of gender equality in marriage. Proof and evidence are not yet dead in American courts.” Read Eilers full comment.

Heading south, Dr. Katharyn Privett-Duren, also known as Rev. Seba O’Kiley, is a Priestess of the Gangani Tribe in Alabama, a marriage equality battle-ground state. Same sex marriage was legalized in February 2015, but state and local officials have been fighting ever since. Privett-Duren said that it “takes the efforts and courage of many to change any inequities in the world.” She added that this impulse to enact change should be a “human one born of the need to set things right.” Privett-Duren added:

I am saddened at the responses of some of my Southern friends and family to the SCOTUS ruling.  However, this is only a small faction of our South and will, inevitably, become only another archaic echo of a culture’s growing pains. ….  My tribe and I hold firm that we can be both Southern and progressive.  And while my neighbors are truly heartbroken at the SCOTUS decision, it is my hope that they will one day see that any oppression to any people oppresses us all. Read Privett-Duren’s full comment

Wizzard Rodney Hall, a transgender and pansexual Pagan from Alabama, said, “It has been a long march from … Stonewall riots to the marriage equality decision by SCOTUS … Though I told my partner after SCOTUS struck down DOMA … that this was a landmark decision and we were on a downward slope toward equal marriage rights, I had no clue that it would move this fast.” Like Privett-Duren, Hall knows that there will be some conflict within the state, saying “In Lee County AL, where I live, our courthouse was closed today until they review the SCOTUS decision. There is also Alabama Senate Bill 377 still pending, which seeks to replace marriage licenses with a contract process … Though we still face obstruction from bigots and the ill-informed religious right, I feel that we are on the upswing.”

From Georgia, two Pagans shared their thoughts. Blogger Sara Amis said, “I think it’s important to emphasize the religious equality angle. Pagans, who by and large are happy to recognize same-sex unions, should not be constrained by the beliefs of other faiths in this matter. And now we won’t be.” Amis went on to say that for bisexuals, like herself, “not being invisible matters. Social recognition matters.” Then she added, “And speaking as a Pagan, symbols matter. Rituals matter.” Read Amis’ full comment.

And, Benratu, a Witch and native Georgian, agreed, saying, “I am thrilled to see our leaders make the right decision!” He lamented that for so long he has been unable to “share the same rights and privileges as the rest of the country.” Benratu said “[It]is now possible. I felt a great sigh of relief.” Like Hall and Privett, Benratu also expressed a concern that the ruling may trigger a backlash and increased incidents of homophobic violence. However, he added, “My hope is this will bring our country together and user in more acceptance of different viewpoints.”

Friday Celebrations in Midtown Atlanta [Courtesy S. Amis]

Friday Celebrations in Midtown Atlanta [Courtesy S. Amis]

California-based author and activist T. Thorn Coyle took a more radical position, saying, “I stand for love, yet haven’t joined in very active support of what some people call ‘gay marriage’ or others call equal rights because the struggle feels much, much larger.” She explained, “..allowing two men or two women to marry one another just isn’t enough. It isn’t the sort of equality I really want. I’m more queer than that, and more of an anarchist, of course. I desire equity far more pluralistic than the simple replication of a state sanctioned nuclear family.” Read Coyle’s full comment

Also hailing from California, Rev. Patrick McCollum shared his thoughts, saying, “As one who has worked for gay rights for more than thirty years, I am elated that one of the fundamental rights that we’ve all fought for so long has finally come to be.” McCollum tied the ruling’s importance to his beliefs. He wrote, “Just as we speak of the interconnectedness of all things in a spiritual context, we must also realize that the same principles apply in our mundane lives. How we make space for everyone and how we honor the sacredness of diversity speaks directly to who we are as a people.” Read McCollum’s full comment.

Like McCollum, Rev. Selena Fox has been an longtime activist working for LBGQT equality and religious rights. When Friday’s ruling was handed down, Fox called for a celebration, saying, “I am glad that the USA has now joined the 20 other countries in the world that have legalized same sex marriage — and it is my hope that there will be marriage equality in every nation on this planet.” She said that she has been performing same sex handfastings since the 1980s with the first one in 1983, and assisting with the first legal handfasting at Pagan Spirit Gathering in 2014. Read Fox’ full comment.

Jumping the Broom. Sparky T. Rabbit and Ray 1984. One of the first same sex marriages at PSG [Courtesy PSG Archives]

Jumping the Broom. Sparky T. Rabbit and Ray 1984. One of the first same sex marriages at PSG [Courtesy PSG Archives]

Finally, in Washington D.C., we caught up with witch and activist David Salisbury, who works for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). He said:

This enormous victory really speaks for itself. For years I’ve been involved with fighting state-by-state and we’ve seen many victories and some losses. Now that marriage equality is the law of the land, I can’t wait to shift my focus on the other important areas where LGBT people are still not equal. In most states, you can now get married on Sunday and fired on Monday. We now need employment and housing nondiscrimination as soon as possible. But for now, I will celebrate here in DC with the many people involved in this movement, and in spirit with many others around the nation. Love won, and that deserves a celebration.

Agreeing with Salisbury, Circle Sanctuary minister Vic Wright from Kentucky said, “It is a blessed day when the Supreme Court chooses to uphold the law … Now on to the next issues.” In her reaction statement, Fox also looked forward, saying, “We need to be vigilant and take action to counter attempts by bigoted forces that already are planning to undermine this victory under the guise of ‘religious freedom.’ ” Of course, she is referring to the RFRAs, which could potentially be used to counter this ruling. Whether that happens or not is up for debate

California-based Heathen Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir also expressed the need to keep pressing for rights by offering this call-to-action, “The fire is hot, the iron is stoked and burning bright, let’s strike at other issues that affect the lives of the rest of us who live under the “rainbow umbrella … Let’s keep the pressure on our legislators to provide the protections and dignity that we deserve in every facet of our lives; queer, trans, bi, however one chooses to identify.” Read Odinsdottir’s full comment.

The HRC, as an organization, also agrees that there is much work to be done. After issuing its celebratory statement, it turned its focus immediately to remaining problems by sending out a second statement that called for all “state officials to remove obstacles to marriage equality immediately.” These obstacles, for example, include such things as the closed Alabama courthouses noted earlier by Hall, and the public response by Louisiana’s Governor. Just after the SCOTUS ruling, Gov. Jindal issued his own opposing statement, going as far as saying, “Let’s just get rid of the court.” Louisiana is one of the few states that didn’t issue licenses on Friday.

However, not all the remaining 13 states, which prior to Friday’s ruling didn’t issue same sex licenses, were opposed. Georgia reportedly issued the very first same-sex license after the ruling was issued. In Texas, people lined up to get married. Along with the ceremonies, celebrations have happened and will continue throughout the weekend.


Celebrations outside courthouse June 26 [Courtesy D. Salisbury]

Kasha, a Wiccan Priestess from Florida who is currently serving as National First Officer of Covenant of the Goddess, called for a moment of remembrance. She said, “I … hope we pause during our celebrations to honor those involved in this struggle that did not live to see this day – those that inspired the fight, endured persecution and violence, and lived and died with secrets.” Read Kasha’s full comment.

And, Jesse Hathaway Diaz, proprietor of The Wolf and Goat, shared this advice going forward, “I’m a firm believer in the ladder principle – if you are going to ascend the ladder, you must bring someone up to your current rung, or you backslide. Nature abhors a vacuum. Let the ‘victory’ of today similarly be a tool. Bring others to the current rung – what we envision should be a reality. Do not be complacent. Share the success. Advance others….. Help others understand why it’s worth sharing. Help others be able to share it with us someday.” Read Hathaway’s full comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[Photo: H. Greene]

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

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

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

Let’s look at two recent situations.

Creationism Regularly Taught in Louisiana Schools

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

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

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

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

Prayer in School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: Jayhawksean via Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Jayhawksean via Wikimedia]

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

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

On Tuesday, following an investigation by state law enforcement in Louisiana, Pagan author and musician Kenny Klein was arrested on multiple counts of possessing child pornography.

Kenneth Klein's arrest photo.

Kenneth Klein’s arrest photo.

“Kenneth Klein, 59, was arrested around 7 a.m. at his home on the 2800 block of Carondelet Street. Detectives in the State Police Special Victims Unit began investigating Klein in February after receiving a tip about his online activities. Upon executing a search warrant of Klein’s residence, they discovered on his computer a large volume of explicit photos and videos involving minors under the age of 13 engaging in sexually explicit activities, according to an arrest report. Klein admitted to detectives that the computer was his and that he had used the computer to share and download the explicit material, the report says.”

Klein has been a visible presence in the modern Pagan movement for over 30 years. He has performed and taught at festivals, writtten books, contributed to magazines, and taken part in various pan-Pagan endeavors. The news of his arrest went out on Wednesday afternoon; by Thursday, social media had exploded with discussion about Klein. Many were shocked and horrified by the allegations made in the news article, but perhaps more disturbing are the emerging voices that allege Klein made advances towards them, or their friends, while they were minors.  One of them is Vyviane Armstrong, a Priestess with the Sisterhood of Avalon.

“Back in 1996/1997 I was sixteen years old and new to Paganism. I attended many Pagan festivals in my home state of Georgia, and got involved in hanging out behind the scenes at the Georgia Renaissance Festival. It was during this time I met Kenny Klein. I attended his concerts as he was one of the first Pagans I met in person and was certainly the first “famous Pagan” I had met. He started flirting with me which made me very uncomfortable. Despite no reciprocation on my part, he continued to relentlessly pursue me. This included heavy inappropriate flirting and sexual innuendos, him offering me alcohol constantly, as well as using various tactics (books, food, etc) to encourage me to go somewhere alone with him, and other inappropriate gestures which, as an adult, I can look back upon and see as incredibly manipulative. He would come up and wrap me up in his cloak and hug me, which sounds benign, but I had asked him multiple times to stop and it was just horrible. This happened over the course of two Faire seasons. It is important to note that during this time there was a huge overlap between the Georgia Pagan community and those who work and perform at the Georgia Renn Faire.

Although I voiced my concerns with the Faire organizers, and adult leaders in the general Georgia Pagan community, I felt as if I was not being taken seriously. I grew even more concerned when I saw one of my fourteen year old friends sitting on Kenny’s lap and drinking from his flask. I was told that Kenny was a long time Renn Fairer and Pagan Elder, and that he was just being ‘friendly’ and my concerns were brushed aside. Wikipedia puts his age at the time to be 43. I chose to stop going to Faire altogether because I could not deal with the constant harassment from Kenny any longer.”

You can read Armstrong’s entire statement, here. In it, she also says that she is in contact with others who have had similar experiences. At a article regarding Klein’s arrest, a commenter using the pseudonym of “EnergyFiend” said she and her friends encountered this behavior as well.

“He would run children’s workshops whenever he could at gatherings when I was younger (maybe still, I don’t know). I was a 12 yr old girl back in the early 90’s when I first encountered him back before the first round of this came out. I have been warning parents ever since, when I notice he’ll be at a gathering I’m going to, because people in a religious/spiritual community have this odd blind trust in it’s leaders, and that includes leaving their children alone with him while predators sing or tell stories. So maybe you don’t have kids (I don’t), but it’s all our responsibility to speak up when we see injustice and not “protect the community” as has been done for more than 20 years now. […] Luckily, what he did to me was just creepy and inappropriate. Trying to get me alone, giving me massages, etc. I had close friends who were younger and not so lucky. They did go to the police and he still got away with it. No one believed them.”

Another Pagan, who requested anonymity, also contacted me to share her story.

“Kenny cajoled me into doing a set of nude photos when I was about 18 or 19, essentially using the ‘nudity at a Pagan festival’ vibe to justify it–it was my first festival. Never touched me, the photos were not explicit, just nude chick in the woods. Still, I knew something was wrong and I never felt good about it.”

All of these narratives about Klein in our community begin with his former wife, Priestess, and singing partner, Tzipora Katz, who revealed to me in a phone conversation on Thursday night that she and her children were abused during their relationship, which ended in 1992. However, despite the pain, anger, and worry that these new developments have brought about, Katz says that she wants her voice to bring healing and closure, and wishes that Klein could have gotten help those many years ago. Katz further expressed that our community needs to recognize the “walking wounded” among us, and that we should be there for them, with each of us becoming “the community you want to be.” In our conversation, Tzipora Katz parted with a simple hope: “I don’t want anyone to suffer the way we suffered.”

While Klein has not been yet been tried or convicted on the charges for which he was arrested, nor faced legal proceedings for these additional allegations, the Pagan community has taken his seeming confession, and the testimony of those who’ve interacted with Klein, seriously. Ramifications for this arrest are already starting to ripple outward. Immanion Press / Megalithica Books has pulled Klein’s book “The Flowering Rod” from their publication lineup.

“The Flowering Rod by Pagan Author and Musician Kenny Klein is being pulled from our line of Esoteric Non-Fiction books as a response to the recent news that Kenny Klein has been charged of downloading and sharing child pornography. Mr. Klein has admitted his guilt in this matter, and we do not feel that we can, in good conscience, continue to publish his book. We are removing the book from our line-up effective immediately. At Immanion Press we do not believe in knowingly supporting acts of behavior that violate the Pagan community or how it is represented to the world by our authors. We are committed to publishing books that help the communities we are a part of, but we also believe that any author is a role model and should behave accordingly. We offer our condolences to people who have been effected negatively by this situation or any other actions Mr. Klein has done.”

Meanwhile, PNC-Minnesota reports that Witches & Pagans Magazine has suspended Klein’s blog at their PaganSquare site, pending the outcome of the trial, Sacred Harvest Festival has cancelled his pending appearance at their festival, and Llewellyn Worldwide has issued a statement saying they were “deeply disappointed to learn of the allegations against one of our authors.” Also speaking out are clergy from the Blue Star tradition of Wicca, where Klein was a High Priest. Here’s a statement from Keith Campbell, a 3rd degree Blue Star initiate from Pennsylvania.

“Like most Craft traditions, Blue Star is composed of many independent, autonomous covens and groves, and no person or organization can speak for the tradition as a whole. Speaking only for myself, news of Kenny Klein’s arrest deeply saddens and troubles me, and my thoughts and prayers are with his coven and grove at this extremely difficult time. 
The acts of which he is accused are very serious, and do not reflect the values, principles, or teachings of my tradition. I certainly don’t have enough information yet to make any judgments about what is and is not fact in a very complicated situation; that is the task of the courts. I pray that the investigation and judicial process will lead to truth, and that out of truth comes justice. I pray that all those affected by this issue find healing and peace.”

No doubt further actions from these parties, and others, will happen once a verdict is reached in this case.

As for the larger Pagan community, many of whom may have had several uneventful or positive interactions with Klein over the years, there can be many conflicting emotions relating to this situation. Cat Chapin-Bishop, a Pagan psychotherapist whose specialty was counseling survivors of childhood sexual abuse, counsels against thinking that all abusers are obvious or easily found out.

“Some of us have given in to the temptation to dismiss Klein as simply a creep. It’s important though, to remember that if we allow ourselves to believe that all perpetrators are simply and obviously creeps, we’ll refuse to see the perpetrators who don’t fit that stereotype. There may have been warning signs to some, but not everyone saw them. And that may not be about blindness, either–it’s best not to make that assumption, and not only risk blaming victims, but also risk failing to see future perpetrators, if they don’t seem ‘obvious.’ I write this as a former psychotherapist, who worked as a counselor in the field of sexual abuse for about 20 years. I vividly remember the first perpetrator it turned out I knew: he’d been a local minister who had been active on the same board I had, that founded a battered women’s center. That disabused me of the notion that, as a trained professional, I, at least, could ‘always spot’ a perpetrator. It’s important to pay attention to signs of trouble; it’s more important to structure kids’ programs in a way that is likely to keep them safe (like always having two or more adults in charge of kids, and free access and open visibility to parents at all times). But it’s also important to remember we won’t always know, and we won’t always keep kids safe. We’ll do better if we do our best with a little humility.”

This arrest, and the shockwaves it has sent through the Pagan community, are bringing about important conversations about how we address abuse in our interconnected communities, and how we react when serious allegations are made in our communities and at our events. As this issue progresses, The Wild Hunt will continue to explore not only this story, but how we can move towards being a healthier, safer, more transparent, community.

Note: Tzipora Katz wants the community to know that her children do not want to discuss this matter publicly, and that anyone wanting to reach out to them should contact her directly first, so they can speak when they’re ready.

Here are some updates on stories previously mentioned or reported on at The Wild Hunt.

Hollicrop-589x1024At Patheos, Holli Emore, Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, writes about her meeting with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, as part of an interfaith proclamation that was issued for the month of January. Quote: “I don’t support Haley politically. But that is not the point; politics is not what brought us together on this occasion. Once elected, Haley became my governor, and I am deeply grateful for her support of interfaith work. To our knowledge, South Carolina is the only state in the U.S. to acknowledge the importance of religious plurality and issue a formal proclamation. Haley may understand, better than any other governor in the nation, that nurturing diversity will strengthen us, not just spiritually, but also economically and in the public sector.” Last month, Wild Hunt staff writer Heather Greene wrote about Gov. Haley’s proclamation, and the role Emore (as a Pagan) has played in South Carolina’s interfaith community.

marianne-williamson-smilingBack in December I noted the Congressional candidacy of New Age superstar Marianne Williamson, author of the immensely popular self-help book “A Return to Love.” Now, the Religion News Service has a piece up about her “prayerful” bid for political office. Quote: “With about four months before primary elections, Williamson is seeking to tap into widespread discontent and disillusionment and apply her own brand of well-packaged, transformational wisdom to stoke ‘a people’s movement. It’s the people who have to intervene, because the political status quo is part of what has taken us to where we are,’ Williamson said in an interview this week, highlighting corporate money as a primary cause for the present state of affairs. ‘It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment.’ Williamson launched her campaign in October. She wants to end the status quo of capitulation to corporate money in politics and encourage an engaged, loving electorate.” With the recent retirement announcement of Democrat Henry Waxman, who currently holds the contested California seat, what was once a long-shot now seems somewhat more likely.

religion-50-year-change-Figure2We talk a lot about the “nones” here at The Wild Hunt, those folks who refuse to be pinned with a religious label, and who have experienced rapid growth in recent years. The ongoing question is: what will their ascent mean for our society and how we conceive religion’s role in it? Americans United points to some new data from Baylor University researchers, which shows the United States becoming more religiously diverse, including the rise of “nones” and “others.” Quote: “The proportion of Americans who identify with “Other” religious traditions has doubled, an increase that is closely tied to the increased immigration of Asian populations who brought non-western religions (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam) with them. While still a small proportion of the overall population, they contribute greatly to the increased religious diversity of the American religious landscape. In 20 states, scattered in the Midwest and South, Islam is the largest non-Christian religion. Judaism is the largest non-Christian religion in 15 states, mostly in the Northeast, and Buddhism is the largest religion in 13 western states. In Delaware and Arizona, Hinduism is the largest non-Christian religion, while in South Carolina it is the Baha’i.”

blog-jesusinschool-500x280_1At the end of January, I profiled how a Buddhist student was harassed by the Christian majority at a public school district in Louisiana, prompting litigation from the ACLU. Since then, the story has exploded across the Internet. Now, prominent culture blog Boing Boing points to an ACLU-penned petition to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking for a federal investigation. Quote: “No child should be subjected to the type of humiliation that our son has endured. The Department of Justice has the power to end this unlawful religious discrimination at schools in Sabine Parish and set an example for the rest of Louisiana— but we have to make sure they take the case. Please join us in calling on the Department of Justice to launch an immediate investigation into this unlawful religious discrimination so that no other child has to go through the harassment that our son has endured.” We will keep you updated as this story develops.

President Obama at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast.This past Thursday was the National Prayer Breakfast, for those who missed it (that would include me). You can read President Obama’s full remarks, here. Quote: “Now, here, as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion.  And, yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too — because religion strengthens America.  Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.” As I’ve pointed out in the past, despite the bipartisan good-naturedness and calls for religious freedom, the National Prayer Breakfast has deeply problematic elements for anyone who isn’t a Christian. Activist groups have called on politicians, to seemingly no avail, to boycott this event. At least the existence of gays and non-believers was invoked this year. Maybe we’ll actually get to a point where it’s robustly interfaith too.

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

For culturally conservative Christians in the United States a familiar topic of discussion is how the Supreme Court “took God out of school” and the subsequent moral/intellectual decline landmark decisions like Engel v. Vitale had engendered in American society. For decades, activists have been trying to erode legal barriers in government-funded learning institutions, hoping for a return to Protestant Christian moral hegemony in the classroom. These efforts are almost always couched in terms of “freedom,” but time and again when conservative Christians do gain unchallenged control over a school district the result isn’t freedom, but harassment and bullying of any who don’t toe their line. Such is the case at Sabine Parish School Board in Louisiana.

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“When my stepson, who has been raised a Buddhist, enrolled in the sixth grade at our local school, Negreet High, it became personal, and I could no longer turn a blind eye to the very real harms that occur when school officials violate the separation of church and state. My stepson started at Negreet in the same class as one of my children. By the end of the first week of school, he was having serious stomach issues and anxiety. We couldn’t figure out why. In the mornings, my wife would pull over on the side of the road as they approached school so he could throw up. At first, we thought he was sick and we let him stay home. Soon it became apparent that this was not a cold, but something much worse. Our children informed us that their teacher had been chastising and bullying my stepson for his Buddhist beliefs.”

Yes, as a new federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU alleges, the stepson of Scott Lane was singled out by teachers, and bullied for the crime of not being Christian in a Christian dominated area.

download“The lawsuit said Roark has ‘repeatedly taught students that the earth was created by God 6,000 years ago, that evolution is ‘impossible’ and that the Bible is ‘100 percent true.’ She also regularly features religious questions on her tests such as “Isn’t it amazing what the ______ has made!!!!’ When the Lanes’ son ‘did not write in Roark’s expected answer (LORD), she belittled him in front of the rest of the class.’ While studying other religions, she also has told students that Buddhism is ‘stupid,’ the lawsuit said.”

You see, religious freedom, for many of these Christian activists, means freedom to be Christian. In an editorial for the ACLU, Lane lists some of the ways the Christian-dominated staff threw their weight around, including distributing anti-Pagan/occult propaganda.

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“When we went to the school to meet with the principal, we saw a large picture of Jesus over the school’s main doors, a Bible verse on the school’s electronic marquee, and numerous religious posters and pictures on the walls. Religious images and messages are displayed throughout the school, in fact. – We learned from our children that official prayers, typically led by the principal or teachers, are routinely incorporated into class and school events like assemblies, and sporting events. The school even requires students to attend “See You at the Pole” each year, where they must take part in prayer and worship. – We discovered that school officials were distributing religious literature to students. For example, one of our other son’s teachers passed out copies of a book from the “Truth For Youth” program, a revivalist ministry. The book included the entire New Testament of the Bible as well as cartoons that denounce evolution and trumpet the evils of birth control, premarital sex, rock music, alcohol, pornography, homosexuality, sorcery, and witchcraft.”

The complaint, which can be seen here, came only after speaking to the Superintendent, being told that maybe another school with “more asians” would suit them, and finding that even that school regularly promoted Christianity.

“My wife and I were floored. I tried to point out that the “Bible Belt” was not a separate country and that we were still entitled to religious liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution. She would have none of it, however. She asked whether my stepson had to be raised as a Buddhist and even suggested that he “change” his faith to better fit in. To add insult to injury, the next day, the Superintendent sent a letter to Negreet’s principal, which he read to students over the intercom. The letter thanked Negreet’s teachers and principal for maintaining their religious values and influence in the school.”

Some of my evangelical Christian friends decry the idea of a “naked” public square devoid of faith, endorsing instead an inclusive model that would allow all faiths to share their beliefs in an open and safe manner. To that, I can only answer that such a policy would never work so long as demographic dominance allows “quiet” power to stifle all dissent and diversity. These Christian believers, left to their own devices, do not grow a pluralistic, multi-faith, shared utopia. Instead, non-Christians are routinely silenced, harassed, and forced into closets (or worse, forced into lying about their own belief systems). When non-Christians dare to assert rights they are supposed to have in these settings, the result is often shock, outrage, and attack. Meanwhile, Christian activists claim the mantle of oppression for any limitations put on them in the public square, ignoring their treatment of non-Christians where they dominate.

The saddest thing is that this case does not exist in isolation. Conservative Christian dominated areas are continually pushing for a “freedom” that means coercive proselytization and harassment of outsiders.  They don’t seem to understand that making public government-funded school events happen at sectarian churches is alienating. They truly don’t get it, or if they do, don’t care. If this case does anything, I hope it can smash open the hypocrisy and silence over what Christians call religious freedom, and what that would actually look like if minorities weren’t forced to file lawsuits in order to get a harassment-free education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have a few quick story updates to share with you today.

Polyamory Court Case in Canada: As I mentioned last week, a major case involving the rights of polyamorous families in Canada is headed for the B.C. Supreme Court. In the comments of my entry, John Bashinski of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association offered some clarification as to what exactly is being fought for in this instance.

“You’re right that this will raise polyamory’s profile in general, and that it may bring out the Pagan connection. However, this case isn’t going to result in a “semblance of legal recognition” for poly families… unless not being thrown in jail counts as recognition. What’s being challenged is an 1890 stature providing for five years in prison for being in “any kind of conjugal union” with more than one person (and, significantly for Pagans, for even attending a ceremony celebrating such a union). If we win, the result of this case will be more like what GLB(*) people got in 1969 than like what they got in 2005.”

So to be clear, this is about decriminalization, not legalization, I apologize for misconstruing the nature of case in my original post. However, many of my initial points about a potential culture-war blow-up and modern Paganism’s role within modern polyamory remain pertinent.  This is, and will be, a Pagan issue. Among the affidavits filed in this case was one by Surrey-based Wiccan priest Sam Wagar, who argued for the religious right to practice legal polygamy. In addition, The Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia (CWABC) has issued a statement in support of performing multiple-marriage ceremonies, while trying to stay within the bounds of Canadian law.

“…any form of love or sexuality that is non-abusive, and non-coercive, between consenting adults, is acceptable and even desirable. This includes, but is not limited to, relationships that are heterosexual or homosexual, relationships that are monogamous or polyamorous, and relationships that are alternative or conventional … the law currently forbids legally recognized clergy from presiding over any ceremony that bears any sort of resemblance to a wedding between more than two partners. For this reason, and only this reason, our religious representatives, as recognized by the Province of British Columbia, cannot perform polyamorous handfastings, or even handfastings between two people when one of the parties involved is still legally married to someone else. If we are approached to perform such a ceremony, we will refer the interested parties to clergy within our Church, or to qualified individuals within the Pagan community, who do not have legal marrying credentials from the Province of British Columbia.”

I’ll be watching this case as it develops. Whether the debate, or the issue, will spill over into US politics remains to be seen. Some are wondering if the next big push by activists after winning gay marriage won’t be polygamy, but prostitution. In any event, this issue is leaving the fringes, and we’ll need to be ready to address it.

The Eric Christensen Murder Trial and Conviction: Ten days ago Everett, Washington resident Eric Christensen was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his former girlfriend Sherry Harlan. Both Christensen and Harlan were involved in the local Pagan community, and the prosecution made a religious “blood oath” between the two a central element of their argument for premeditation. Christensen’s sentencing will be this Friday, and since his conviction, there’s been quite a bit of commentary on the Internet. Notably, someone claiming to be a juror in the trial made a comment on this blog concerning the argument for premeditation.

“I was a juror on the Christensen case and I can tell you that there was not a shred of evidence or testimony supporting the argument of premeditation. None. Only Mr. Matheson’s and Mr. Bridges’ conjecture.”

The defense was arguing for second-degree murder, saying there was no proof Christensen planned to kill Harlan before the act. It seems likely that some sort of appeal will be filed, though there is no doubt that Christensen is indeed guilty of murder and should be punished for it. Understandably, Harlan’s mother is calling for the death penalty, though that’s not on the table because it wasn’t tried as an aggravated murder. Since the conviction, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Craig Matheson emphasized that this murder was not a“Wiccan killing”. What the long-term reverberations of this case will be for Pagans in Washington remains to be seen.

The War on Some Herbs: Way back in April I reported on Louisiana House Bill 173, which would ban the sale, use, and possession of herbal “synthetic marijuana” blends that are legally sold in head-shops in several states. I noted that the bill would go much further than simply banning chemically treated “spice” herb blends, as it prohibits a whole host of herbs from being blended and smoked.

“HB173 would prohibit a number of plants from being blended and smoked or inhaled. The plants in question include mugwort, honeyweed, sacred lotus and dwarf skullcap.  Many of these plants are listed as ingredients in herbal incense products.”

Now word has come that the bill has passed both the Louisiana House and Senate and is headed to governor Bobby Jindal’s desk where it will no doubt be signed (alternate link).

“House Bill 173 was approve unanimously. State senators voted 32-0 to approve the bill, which bans the production, use, manufacture or possession of the synthetic substance, and provides penalties similar to those for marijuana. Louisiana is one of just a number of states that have passed bans as of late. Earlier this year, Georgia, Texas and Missouri have passed bans. While a number of states will likely consider legalizing marijuana, support for K2, thus far, has been little to none. Most states have passed bans with little or no opposition as it has proved to be a relatively safe political bet in an election year.”

This is bad news, and could have legal effects on those who grow and sell various herbs. One wonders where the natural health community is on this issue, or if they are laying low because it’s targeting head shops instead of Whole Foods. If we allow local governments to slowly ban more and more herb and herb-blends because it might get some kids high, we may find our gardens outlawed and our tinctures confiscated.

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

Top Story: A Louisiana Senate panel has approved Senate Bill 606, the Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, to go forward for debate, and ultimately a vote, on the full Senate floor. The bill, which seeks to protect religious freedom by holding government bodies to a higher standard regarding religious expression than current Supreme Court precedent, has been backed by the conservative Christian Louisiana Family Forum (affiliated with Focus on the Family). It has also found support from the Louisiana Alliance of Wiccans (LAW), who testified in support of the bill.

“Valli Henry, president of the Louisiana Alliance of Wiccans, said the legislation “bolstered our hope of spreading Wicca and paganism throughout Louisiana.” Henry’s group recently came under attack as it planned a pagan festival in Livingston Parish.”

LAW’s support for this new law comes despite the Louisiana Law Institute issuing a report saying there was no evidence that the new regulations would be needed, and opposition from groups like the Capital City Alliance (CCA), who say the new ordinance would further enshrine anti-gay-marriage laws within the state.

“Ted Baldwin, who helped establish the Metropolitan Community Church, said the legislation discriminates against those whose religious beliefs may differ from those who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. The legislation specifically states that nothing in it “shall be construed to authorize any relationship, marital or otherwise” that would violate a state constitutional provision under which no marriage other than that between a man and a woman is valid in Louisiana. “It specifically says freedom is for some, but not freedom for all,” said Baldwin, a  Republican State Central Committee member.”

Since many Wiccan and Pagan groups support having their gay marriage rites legally recognized, I found it surprising that LAW would uncritically support this measure. Is this an effort to show that they are “family friendly” to the conservative Christian opponents who have been giving them trouble lately? Is LAW an explicitly socially conservative organization, or did they not think the anti-gay-marriage clause in the proposed law was problematic? What is known is that many of the “religious freedom” and “religious expression” laws backed by conservative Christians in this country are designed to privilege the majority, not protect the rights of religious minorities.

Wiccan Child Abuser Sent Back to Prison: The Guelph Mercury in Canada reports that Kenneth James McMurray, who had been released on supervision after serving a four-year sentence, was sentenced to anther three years in jail after threatening to kill his parole officer. McMurray was initially sent to prison for leading a “sex-cult” that abused underage boys.

“The supervision order was imposed by Guelph Justice Norman Douglas in 1999, after McMurray pleaded guilty to five counts of sexual assault. Court heard he led a group said to be based on the Wiccan religion, and forced his young followers to engage in sex acts with each other and with him in the basement of his parents’ home. The boys, aged 14 to 16, were plied with marijuana and beaten if they questioned McMurray, who they believed was a supreme spiritual being who could harm them at will.”

Yet another reason why I’m hoping we can continue to work civilly and constructively towards a joint community statement against sexual abuse. Here’s hoping that Mr. McMurray will never again be in a position to exploit and abuse boys.

Is Saudi Arabia Fed Up With the Religious Police? News that a Saudi woman beat up a member of that country’s infamous religious police has been igniting the newswires and blogosphere.

“When a Saudi religious policeman sauntered about an amusement park in the eastern Saudi Arabian city of Al-Mubarraz looking for unmarried couples illegally socializing, he probably wasn’t expecting much opposition. But when he approached a young, 20-something couple meandering through the park together, he received an unprecedented whooping. A member of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Saudi religious police known locally as the Hai’a, asked the couple to confirm their identities and relationship to one another, as it is a crime in Saudi Arabia for unmarried men and women to mix. For unknown reasons, the young man collapsed upon being questioned by the cop. According to the Saudi daily Okaz, the woman then allegedly laid into the religious policeman, punching him repeatedly, and leaving him to be taken to the hospital with bruises across his body and face.”

According to human rights groups the Internet and local media have been damaging the once fearsome reputation of this religious militia, and many Saudi citizens are getting fed up with the force, who are currently engaged in a political struggle with the (relatively) more moderate Saudi King Abdullah. It is the religious police who have been the force behind the imprisonment and death sentence for alleged sorcerers and witches, including Lebanese citizen Ali Sibat, who, while spared the death penalty, is still in a Saudi prison. I can only hope this is a harbinger of a popular uprising against the Mutaween in that country.

The Earth Goddess Comes to Mexico City: The largest monolith of Aztec earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli ever discovered is going on public display for the first time in Mexico City for an exhibition on Aztec emperor Moctezuma II.

“The largest known monolith of Aztec earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli will go on show for the first time next month in Mexico City, the National Institute of Anthropology and History has said. The giant stone was found during renovations almost four years ago on a house near the Templo Mayor, the most famous Aztec temple in the heart of the Mexican capital, an INAH statement said. Weighing 12 metric tonnes and measuring 4.19 meters (13.7 feet) by 3.62 meters (11.8 feet), the monolith is “the only Mexican sculptural piece that conserves its original colors,” the statement said.”

According to some accounts Tlaltecuhtli was a fearsome goddess indeed, and seems to hold some similar characteristics to the primordial  Babylonian goddess Tiamat.

Destroying the Cemetery to Take the Bus: In a final note, the New York Times has published a photo-essay on the destruction of  a cemetery in Pétionville, Haiti, which was spared the ravages of the recent earthquake, but not the plans for a new bus station.

“Undamaged by the earthquake that struck in January, the cemetery was crowded with brightly painted mausoleums decked out with metal flower wreaths. Names carved in marble marked the final resting place of many families, buried over a long period of time. A cross to Baron Samedi, the voodoo spirit of death, stood in a corner where people would bring him coffee and cigarettes in exchange for a favor. Until bulldozers came and demolished the whole cemetery. Where there was once a small, beautiful memorial, there is now a pile of rubble; another victim of Haiti’s earthquake, this time at human hands. People who had lost so much already were at a loss as to how to stop the demolition, if they even knew about it.”

Some, like artist Magda Magloire were lucky enough to receive enough advance warning and save the remains of her brother, Stivenson Magloire, a famous Haitian painter, and their mother, Louisiane St. Fleurant, the godmother of the Saint-Soleil movement in Haitian art. This is a surprising act of desecration in Haiti, where the ancestors and grave-sites are revered.

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

Just a few quick notes for you this Sunday.

Wiccans in Livingston Parish: A local NBC affiliate in Louisiana interviews Wiccan priestess Maeven Eller in the aftermath of local uproar over a Pagan festival being held at Gryphon’s Nest Campground in Livingston Parish. In the interview, Eller stresses that Wiccans aren’t a group of evil people looking to destroy the town with their wickedness.

“Residents of Livingston Parish, Louisiana say they don’t want an upcoming pagan festival to take place near the town of Killian. One woman wants to set the “spell-casting” and “devil-worshipping” rumors straight. Self-described Wiccan priestess Maeven Eller says the beliefs of her religion are far from evil, and promises nothing harmful will take place at the festival.”

It’s nice to see some sympathetic local coverage, though I really wish journalists would get over the “self-described” epithet when talking about Pagan clergy. Can you imagine the trouble if they referred to a local evangelical leader as a “self-described” pastor? Here’s hoping the upcoming festival is as uneventful as the recent fundraiser that was held.

Interview with Stephen Prothero: I realize that religion professor Stephen Prothero, author of the new book “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter”, has been somewhat divisive amongst my readership, but I think both critics and supporters might enjoy listening to this short interview with him on the State of Belief radio show/podcast.

This weekend on State of Belief, Boston University professor Stephen Prothero critiques the premise that all the world’s religions are essentially the same.  He joins host Welton Gaddy to discuss his new book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter.

You can download the whole program, here. Or you can subscribe to State of Belief’s podcast.

The End of the WASPs? The Wall Street Journal, prompted by the looming reality of a Protestant Christian-free Supreme Court of the United Sates, examines the decline of America’s Protestant Establishment (aka the white anglo-saxon protestants, or WASPs) and what that might mean for our future.

“The Protestant downfall can be attributed many things: the deregulation of markets, globalization, the rise of technology, the primacy of education and skills over family connections. Yet many also point to the shifting dynamics of the faith itself, with mainline Protestantism giving way to the more fire-and-brimstone brands of Evangelicals in recent decades. The Episcopal Church, usually seen as the church of the Establishment, has seen some of the most pronounced declines in recent years.”

The article also points out that Hindus and Jews are shifting the demographics of affluence away from the Protestant standard of generations past. Meanwhile, Diana Butler Bass at Beliefnet heaves a great sigh for the quiet passing of Protestant cultural dominance.

“I will miss the fact that there will be no one with Protestant sensibilities on the court, no one who understands the nuances of one of America’s oldest and most traditional religions–and the religion that deeply shaped American culture and law … I can’t help but think that losing the lived memory of American Protestantism will be a loss for all of us indeed.”

I think the various “virtues” that are ascribed to Protestants by the Wall Street Journal and Bass are a bit over-stated, and not as exclusive as some would be led to believe (I even agree with Rod Dreher that this isn’t a big deal). But I do think this yet another sign of us moving into a post-Christian America, one where Christianity, specifically Protestant Christianity, is just one voice among many, and not the driving cultural force it once was.

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