Archives For Maryland

If there was a dominant theme to the 2014 Sacred Space Conference in Laurel, Maryland, it would be Appalachian folk magic, and the teachers from that culture who have emerged within our community. Featured presenter Orion Foxwood, author of “The Candle and the Crossroads: A Book of Appalachian Conjure and Southern Root-Work” spoke to packed rooms that seemed reluctant for their experience with the charismatic teacher to end. Likewise, Byron Ballard, author of “Staubs and Ditchwater: a Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo” gave a rollicking overview of “the joy of hex” to a standing-room only crowd.

Byron Ballard

Byron Ballard with presentation materials.

So, it stands to reason that a panel featuring Foxwood, Ballard, and Linda Ours Rago, author of “Blackberry Cove Herbal: Healing With Common Herbs in the Appalachian Wise-Woman Tradition” (among other works) would come to seem like the capstone of the entire weekend. Moderated by Michael G. Smith, an Elder in The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, the resulting experience was one filled to the brim with stories, laughter, more stories, explanations of differences in geographic terminology for similar folk-magic practices, even more stories, and emotional evocations of their land and culture.

The Appalachian Folk Traditions panel participants combining their powers for the camera.

The Appalachian Folk Traditions panel participants combining their powers for the camera.

There’s no way I could accurately capture the experience of this panel, so with permission, I recorded the proceedings and now share them with you here. 

Within modern Paganism, and certainly within the many religious movements that overlap with ours, authenticity is important. I think that these practitioners so inspire students and observers because they bring with them a cultural authenticity born of their own experiences. Naturally, when spiritual technologies seated within a specific cultural context are taught in these events, the issue of cultural appropriation comes up (as it did in the Q&A section of this panel). The goal, I think, is to hold onto values of honesty and transparency when given the opportunity to learn from circumstances like these. Their experience is rooted in the land from which they came, and nothing can replicate that. We may learn new spiritual technologies and viewpoints for which to encounter our own day-to-day practices, but we can never become “Appalachian” in the way they manifest, no matter how fervently someone might wish.

Moments like these are opportunities to enrich our understanding of the vital tapestry of magical traditions, and how similar roots can produce very different flowers depending on where they grow. All of these teachers are here to teach, and we should learn from them, while also remembering that we can never become them. So long as we hold that truth, we will be able to become mutually enriched, and events like the Sacred Space Conference can continue to organize unique moments in time like this from a place of curiosity and respect.

I’m currently at the 2014 Sacred Space Conference in Laurel, Maryland. I’ve been to a lot of Pagan events over the years, big and small, but I’ve never immersed myself into a truly East Coast event, and it has been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. My Pagan life started in the Midwest, and then, I gravitated to the West Coast, and while I’ve met many fine East Coast folks, I knew that things were a bit different there. Thanks to a generous offer from the organizers of the conference, I was finally able to find out first hand.

2014-03-15 08.46.12

First off, the hospitality has been top-notch, and it’s clear that the board take their responsibilities seriously. As one of the largest indoor Pagan conferences in this region, one that will get even larger when it shares space with Between The Worlds in 2015, it’s clear they have a vision for growing into something unique. Secondly, everyone has been remarkably friendly, and I’ve been able to finally engage in-person with friends I’ve only known on the Internet. People like Byron Ballard, Beth Owl’s Daughter, Katrina Messenger, and Debbie Chapnick from Datura Press.

Yesterday (Friday), I gave both of my scheduled talks, so I didn’t get to see too much from other folks, but I did sit in on a very interesting talk on Neo-Platonism from Gwendolyn Reece, and I got to see the beginning of the Conjure Dance, featuring an amazing array of altars, drummers, and a number of people ready to trance. 

A detail from one of the Conjure Dance altars.

A detail from one of the Conjure Dance altars.

Today, I’m hoping to see and do more, including a much-anticipated panel of Appalachian Magick Workers featuring Orion Foxwood, Byron Ballard, and Linda Ours Rago. We’ll see what I can share with you here.

What have I learned from this East Coast event? Well, I think there’s a special focus on spiritual work. People here are looking for new technologies, though that isn’t to imply they aren’t interested in other things. Both of my talks were well-attended, and many have been concerned with issues concerning infrastructure, money, and the state of the Pagan umbrella. That said, I sense a keen desire to do The Work of spirit in the air, and there’s a palpable environment of ritual, even in the sanitized environs of a Holiday Inn.

There’s a lot more to come before I return home, but I hope that this short update will give you a taste of my experience so far.

Greetings! I won’t be able to do a normal update today, because I’m currently in Baltimore, Maryland, for FaerieCon East. I’ve been honored to work for the producers of FaerieCon for a few years now, and it’s a unique mix of art, music, and mythic elements. I think there are many things (and people) on display here that would be of interest to modern Pagans, and indeed, many Pagans already love this event and make a point of attending (and maybe you will too, someday). To tide you all over, I’d like to quickly share some photos I took on Friday, and make a promise to write a longer update on my weekend at a later date.

Artist Julia Jeffrey, who recently illustrated the Tarot of the Hidden Realm.

Artist Julia Jeffrey, who recently illustrated the Tarot of the Hidden Realm.

Raven Grimassi and Stephanie Taylor Grimassi at their booth at FaerieCon East.

Raven Grimassi and Stephanie Taylor Grimassi at their booth at FaerieCon East.

Woodland playing at the Good Faeries Masquerade Ball at FaerieCon East (you'll be hearing more about them soon).

Woodland playing at the Good Faeries Masquerade Ball at FaerieCon East (you’ll be hearing more about them soon).

Martine Kraft playing at the Good Faeries Masquerade Ball at FaerieCon East.

Martine Kraft playing at the Good Faeries Masquerade Ball at FaerieCon East.

That’s all I have time for today, have a great day, and I’ll return soon… (unless I return and it’s a 100 years later, you know how that fae stuff works sometimes…)

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Considering the fact that I just wrote about religion, pluralism, and the pagan roots of American democracy mere days ago, it seems ironic that a scandal would break out over classes for government employees that assert the essential Christian character of this nation. This past Thursday, the Baltimore Sun reported that Carroll County commissioners asked county employees to attend a class run by a conservative Christian preacher on the Maryland State Constitution.

“David Whitney, pastor of a Pasadena church and a lecturer for the Institute on the Constitution, bases his teachings on the biblical view of American law and government. He said of the seminar scheduled for Friday, “We will be looking at the language of our founding fathers who wrote they were ‘grateful to Almighty God for civil and religious liberties’ front and center on this document. The Bible is the source of the authority that they looked to.” Critics, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said local officials are improperly mixing religion and politics in the seminar and wrongly using $800 in taxpayer money to fund it.”

This course, at first, seems innocuous enough, until you start reading  the views of its teacher, David Whitney. For example, he argues that the Maryland Constitution forbids same-sex marriage, and describes his course as method to “free our country from the tyrannical stranglehold of unconstitutional government” (ie same-sex marriage). Rachel Tabachnick at Talk To Action, dug even deeper, and found that the institution that produces these Constitution courses are laced with Christian Reconstructionist writings, a school of thought that pushes for Christian “theonomy,” the belief the all ethics come from the Christian God (sort of like “theocracy lite”). Worse still, David Whitney is chaplain at two neo-Confederate organizations, including one profiled by the SPLC as racist and increasingly militant.

“Like many Dominionists, the Christian Reconstructionists leading and promoted by the Institute on the Constitution have a neo-Confederate outlook.  David Whitney is described by the Baltimore Sun as a “conservative pastor,” but he is the chaplain for both the Maryland League of the South and the Southern National Congress. The former is designated as a neo-confederate hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the latter holds annual conferences of delegates from Southern states.”

We should be clear that government money is being spent on sending government employees to this class. Americans United has already sent a letter asking the Carroll County commissioners to cut all ties with this class, and to retracts all payment made.

“…the fact that members of the Board and the Board’s Chief of Staff are publicly encouraging employees to attend coerces them to do so. While attendance may technically be optional, when a direct superior strongly encourages employee attendance, many employees will consider non-attendance to be a potential threat to their jobs. And because the Board has placed its imprimatur upon the Insitute’s program, employees that disagree with the Institute’s religious views may conclude that the Board considers them to be uneducated about the requirements of the Maryland Constitution and potentially unfit to continue to work in government.”

One could classify this as an isolated bit of overreach on the part of the Carroll County commissioners, except that there seems to be a concerted push lately to redefine notions of religious freedom and the separation of Church and State in the United States. As The Washington Post reports, presidential candidate Rick Santorum isn’t the only conservative Christian who claims to be nauseated by President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on religion and politics.

For conservative Catholics and other conservative Christians these comments were infuriating. Religion should be the source of an unchanging morality that guides all aspects of life, including governing, they argued. Archbishop Charles Chaput, then head of the Denver archdiocese, in a 2010 speech at Houston Baptist University, called Kennedy’s address, “sincere, compelling, articulate and wrong.”

As I wrote on Saturday, the notion that America’s Constitution is a “Christian” constitution is fundamentally flawed, and those who argue otherwise generally have an agenda that includes marginalizing minority religions and voices in our country. The moment we agree that we are living under “Christian” law is the moment the rights of all non-Christians, and Christians who dare challenge such an order, are endangered. These classes, even if they don’t outright proselytize, work to reorder society away from secular pluralism, and towards a “theonomy” where we are all subject to the moral teachings of a single faith. If we do that, instead of returning to constitutional purity, we instead lose the inherent pluralism at the heart of democratic and republican systems of government.

Back in May I wrote an article looking at the issue of opening invocations at various government bodies. At the center of that piece was discussion of a recently enacted policy in Maryland by the Frederick County Commissioners. The new policy was modeled on the one adopted by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors in Virginia after they successfully survived a legal challenge by Wiccan priestess Cynthia Simpson. That policy, and the Frederick County Commissioners’ new policy, called for nonsectarian prayers, but only from members of established monotheistic faiths.

“Board members voted 3-to-2 on Thursday to invite religious leaders to attend their meetings to invoke “divine guidance” for the commissioners and their deliberations. The religious leaders must be ordained and affiliated with a monotheistic religion with an established congregation in Frederick County. Their prayers must avoid referring to any particular religion, denomination or sect.”

An NBC Washington headline called it the “Wiccan-proof prayer policy” and that spin must have caught the attention of County Attorney John Mathias, because the commissioners voted to alter the policy yesterday.

“They voted Thursday in Frederick to adopt changes recommended by County Attorney John Mathias. A key revision eliminates language allowing only those of monotheistic religions to offer the opening invocation. Mathias says such a restriction would have required the county to determine which religions are monotheistic.”

This is an interesting development. In theory, they should be on solid legal ground. Back in 2005 the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Chesterfield County’s policy was diverse enough, meeting the standards set by the Supreme Court in Marsh v. Chambers (though the Hindu American FoundationThe Buddhist Peace FellowshipThe Association on American Indian Affairs, and The Interfaith Alliance did not agree). So either this is a public relations move, or, they think that if this policy is challenged as-is it might not stand up in court. Considering the rather rah-rah “one nation under God” rhetoric of the original press release in May, I don’t think their hearts were suddenly moved by the absence of polytheists, or that they were worried over losing the critical polytheist vote in Frederick County (though they were contacted multiple times for comment by the DC bureau of the Pagan Newswire Collective). So it must mean that there is real concern, perhaps even outside Frederick County, that explicitly excluding non-monotheistic religions could ultimately bring down the “nonsectarian monotheist invocations only” house of cards in Chesterfield as well.

Now that Frederick County is open to polytheist invocation, at least in theory (one that I hope gets tested soon), perhaps it’s time for the ACLU in Virginia to return to Chesterfield County and begin building a new case. In the meantime, I applaud the Frederick County Commissioners for doing the right thing, albeit a few months later than I would have liked.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

As various government bodies in the United States navigate what is and isn’t a violation of restrictions against the endorsement of a particular religion (aka the separation of church and state) when giving an opening invocation, two models have emerged. The first model says you can have sectarian prayer (ie specific invocations to named deities or powers) so long as everyone is invited to participate, and the second model says that only nonsectarian (ie generic invocations to “god”) prayers are acceptable. Conservative Christians activists generally favor the first model, while secular civil liberties organizations broadly prefer the second. Between these two poles a variety of variations have been tested, often in the courts.

In many cases modern Pagans, specifically Wiccans, have been caught in the tumult of what is and isn’t permissible. For example, there’s the “include a Wiccan” gambit to protect yourself from accusations of “open” invocation models that seem to only invite Christians (though mere randomness sometimes isn’t enough), and then there’s the “we don’t want to include a Wiccan” model famously undertaken by Chesterfield County, Virgina. In that case a rotating sectarian model was challenged by a Wiccan when she wasn’t allowed a turn, the county board changed their policy to nonsectarian during litigation and that seemed to be enough to make exclusion of minority faiths permissible. This “nonsectarian monotheist invocations only” policy seems to have made an impression as it is now being emulated by Frederick County, Maryland.

“Board members voted 3-to-2 on Thursday to invite religious leaders to attend their meetings to invoke “divine guidance” for the commissioners and their deliberations. The religious leaders must be ordained and affiliated with a monotheistic religion with an established congregation in Frederick County. Their prayers must avoid referring to any particular religion, denomination or sect.”

The restriction to only “monotheistic” faiths is echoed in local coverage as well. An NBC Washington headline specifically called it the “Wiccan-Proof Prayer Policy.” Here’s what County Commissioners say about their new policy in a press release.

The Frederick Board of County Commissioners today approved an invocation policy to allow prayer at certain of its meetings, consistent with the Chesterfield County, Va., invocation policy upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. [...] “We do not believe there would be any disagreement from the majority of Americans that we are still ‘one nation under God,’ as we say in our pledge of allegiance, and that it says on our dollar bill, ‘In God We Trust.’ Our policy does not mandate a one-county religion or endorse any religion over another, but we do acknowledge our Creator.”

While one commissioner was against the new policy because it didn’t allow sectarian prayers to Jesus, he is no doubt mollified by the reassurance that no polytheist will be allowed an invocation. Since the Chesterfield County policy went all the way to the Supreme Court (who refused to hear the appeal) no doubt many will see this path to exclusion as legally bulletproof. The only reason it hasn’t been more widely adopted by conservative Christian-dominated government bodies is that they hate nonsectarian prayer almost as much as they hate non-Christian religions. Indeed, at this moment the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, who ruled in the Chesterfield case, is hearing case on the legality of sectarian prayer on a supposed open first-come-first-served model.

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, the senior judge among the three hearing Thursday’s arguments on appeal, at one point said that the county’s policy seemed geared to favor the “faith of a majority of residents in the county.” “The result of the policy is that the prayer is overtly sectarian,” Wilkinson later said. [...] Katherine Parker, the attorney for the residents who sued the county, said that despite the wording of the county policy, the real effect — as shown by the prayers that have been prayed — was to advance Christianity by the county government.

If the 4th Circuit paves the way for more sectarian prayer, will the Frederick County Government change policy? Is wink-and-a-nudge nonsectarianism enough? Either way, government officials seem to be ensuring that only monotheist lips utter prayers at meetings. Whether these models will ultimately remain “Wiccan-Proof” remains to be seen.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

As I mentioned recentlyCherry Hill Seminary held the first graduation ceremony under their new program at the Sacred Space Conference in Maryland. On hand for the ceremony was a team from PNC-Washington DC (aka Capital Witch). They have put together this very nice video report.

“One of the first events of Sacred Space 2011 was hosting the first event graduation ceremony of Cherry Hill Seminary. Six students graduated from the ceremony with three in attendence. We had the chance to sit down with Cherry Hill staff and talk about the importance of the graduation and their work moving forward in the field of higher education for Pagans.”

Kudos to David and the team at PNC-Washington DC, and congratulations to the six Cherry Hill Seminary graduates! To find out more about CHS’s educational offerings, please check out their web site.