Archives For Missouri

The cultural negotiations concerning religious freedom in the public sphere are continuously peppering America’s daily socio-political dialog. As our country becomes more diverse, or more open about its diversity, with respect to religion, the violations or perceived violations of the “separation of church and state” become more numerous and more of a burden on any given population. Most recently legislative prayers were the focus of this debate. SCOTUS ruled and the dialog shifted.

[Public Domain Photo]

[Public Domain Photo]

However legislative prayer hasn’t been the only point of contention in the past month. While town meetings stole the spotlight for a time, the debate over religious expression within public schools has recently flared up in several states. Here are two issues brought to the forefront this summer.

Student Religious Liberty Act

In June, both North Carolina and Missouri adopted a student religious liberty act, similar to one already in place in Mississippi. According to the North Carolina legislature, its Senate Bill 370 is:

An act to clarify student rights to engage in prayer and religious activity in school, to create an administrative process for remedying complaints regarding exercise of those student rights, and to clarify religious activity for school personnel.

Missouri House Bill 1303, known as the Missouri “Student Religious Liberty Act,” has the similar aim. It states in part:

A public school district shall not discriminate against students or parents on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression. A school district shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and shall not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.

The two bills were hotly debated over a period of months. Regardless of any complaints, they were eventually passed and signed into law. On June 19, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrary signed SB 370 after a landslide victory in both the state House and Senate. Similarly, on June 30, the Missouri bill was passed with overwhelming legislative support and then signed by Governor Jay Nixon.

In both cases, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made the same protest statement:

Students’ rights to voluntarily express and practice their faith in the public schools are already well-protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Students already have the ability to pray and express religious viewpoints and attempts to statutorily protect those rights is unnecessary. (Press Statement May 6, 2014, ACLU – NC)

The ACLU contends that the additional law will only add confusion and potentially lead to “the excessive entanglement of school personnel in religious activity while ostracizing students of different beliefs.”

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

Byron Ballard, a North Carolina resident who has worked very closely with her local school districts on issues of religious freedom, agrees adding:

It will change things because it will embolden people to be even more belligerent than they already are. It will make the school day more difficult for teachers … This is an “open carry” prayer law. Certainly it applies to anyone who wants to pray, so there are Pagans in the state who are pleased to see it. But we are such a minority that this law will continue to serve the majority Protestant Christians in the way they have always been catered to in NC and elsewhere. It codifies the Protestant Christian privilege that is endemic in the public square.

Credits For Religious Education

On June 12, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed House Bill 171, an act that “permit[s] public school students to attend and receive credit for released time courses in religious instruction conducted off school property during regular school hours.” In a guest post on Cleveland.com, State Rep. Jeff McClain – R applauded the passage of the bill saying:

The Ohio legislature made great gains last week when it comes to protecting the moral and educational rights of our students … these types of programs have a positive impact on children. They help to create a constructive outlet where students can learn morals and manners in an educational environment. I would argue that it makes one a better student and certainly a more respectful one.

The ACLU of Ohio disagrees. In December 2013, they testified against the legislation, calling HB 171 “misguided.” They clarify that the law allows credit for “purely religious instruction, whether done via a private school, place of worship or other non-entity.” The complaint goes on to say, “A public school providing credit for purely religious teaching unquestionably violates [the First Amendment government neutrality] mandate … House Bill 171 is replete with practical and constitutional problems.”

In 2012, a similar statue brought legal action in South Carolina. In the case Moss v. Spartanburg Cty School District, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) challenged the City of Spartanburg’s issuing of credit for religious education during “released time.” The case worked its way through the courts to the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the city issuing credits for religious instruction. In the summer of 2012, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case leaving the lower court’s ruling as final.

Ohio is now the second state behind South Carolina that will issue educational credits for religious classes attended off-campus during “released-time.”  While no-school funds can be used to support the religious instruction, the schools do have say on which external classes quality for credit. Could a Pagan or Heathen organization offer such education to its own children for school credit? As pointed out by the ACLU of Ohio, the potential for legal entanglements is very high.

Buffalo_reflex_Buffalo_Mo_18690821 (1)

The first issue of the Buffalo Reflex, the object of my desire, from 1869. Ah, for the days when poetry got top billing. Retrieved from the Missouri Digital Newspaper Project.

The research room of the Missouri State Historical Society Archives is not much to look at. It’s a dark room in the basement of the Ellis Library at the University of Missouri, the institution I now call home. The largest section is nothing but work tables and census catalogs, tracking the names of every person who has lived in the state for more than a century. Rows of obscure books stretch off in the opposite direction; I have no idea what any of those books are. I come here for newspapers; the archives have virtually every newspaper ever printed in the state of Missouri since its inception, all maintained in cabinet upon cabinet of black 35 millimeter microfilm. For the third day in a row, I have been sitting here in the dark, staring at the projection of the microfilm on a computer monitor, looking for something I doubt anybody but me even cares to find.

It was not that long ago – just about two months, now – that I spent most of my time in a different basement room, also staring at a computer screen. In some ways, my days have not changed much.

But make no mistake: in the month since I last wrote here, I have changed almost everything about my life.

I don’t say that to brag; when I made the decision to quit my (admittedly awful) job, leave my beloved hometown of St. Louis, and come here for my doctorate, I figured that the odds of it being the worst decision of my life were around 40%. It might still turn out to be – I’m going for a PHD in English, after all, and the job market for that particular specialization tanked over a decade ago and hasn’t yet stopped sinking. One of my classes is, essentially, a semester-long investigation into ways this might turn out poorly.

But in the meantime, I’m having a tremendously good time. I tend to spend about twelve or thirteen hours every day working, and I make less than half of what I did at my “real world” job. But it’s good work, and I feel more welcome here in my new home than I have felt anywhere else in years.

We’ll see how it turns out.

I’m searching in the archives for newspaper articles from the region around Springfield, Missouri, dated late October or early November 1983-84. I’m searching for stories about a fire that would have happened just after Samhain. According to my coven’s legends, we held our sabbat on a member’s farm a little ways north of Springfield, near the town of Buffalo, Missouri, which is small enough that I had never heard of it before despite living in this state my entire life. We had built a cabin on the farm to sleep in after the ritual; after everyone had gone home, someone had burned the cabin to ashes. The person who had owned the cabin told me her sister had seen a story about it in the paper, including the detail that the reporters had discovered chicken bones in the fire pit nearby and declared it proof of animal sacrifice – when in actuality, we had merely eaten roasted chicken for dinner that night and thrown the bones in the fire.

(It strikes me, as I read over that paragraph, how effortlessly I slipped into the first person plural: I wrote that “we” did this. Of course, I had nothing to do with it. If this happened in October 1984, I was still nearly two years from being born. But perhaps that illustrates what it feels like to be a second-generation Pagan. What they have done, I have done; what has happened to them has happened to me. It is impossible for me to think of my family’s history objectively – I know too well how every event in it has shaped me.)

As best as I can tell, the newspaper article does not exist. The universe described by the local paper, The Buffalo Reflex, does not contain witches; as best as I can tell, it doesn’t contain anything except for the school lunch menu and an occasional syndicated editorial about Grenada. Perhaps the story ran in a church newsletter or some other kind of small, barely-circulated publication; perhaps that detail was just an embellishment of the story, now told so often that as far as anyone can remember it actually happened. The first thing one learns in memoir is how fickle memory can be.

What I did find, looking for articles written in the same region and roughly the same time, was one article from the Springfield Daily News, dated Halloween, 1979. Springfield, for those who think of the Midwest as flyover country, is the third-largest city in Missouri, with about 150,000 residents. Lorelei, one of my coven-mates, spent her college years there, and recalls it as a conservative place, not very welcoming to weirdoes like us.

And yet there’s this article, titled “Real witches shatter diabolical stereotypes.” It’s about the writer Kathy Maniaci’s experience meeting with members of Springfield’s Shadow Coven. It’s not a long article, and some of it plays with a vision of Wiccans that must have been clichéd even in 1979. The article begins with Maniaci running late, with the words of an unnamed friend in her mind: “The last thing you want to do is make a witch wait.” Presumably because she would shortly find herself a toad, I suppose. When one of her interviewees mentions how hard it is to find a good robe, Maniaci responds, “I winced, as if I’d just heard a vampire say, ‘You know, a good grave is so hard to find these days.’”

But I am fascinated by the article, nonetheless. While engaging in some annoying spectacle, I am moved by the attempt, however fumbling, to humanize Pagans. The Daily News served a small city in the middle of America, after all; I doubt they had any particular obligation to look out for us. The stereotypes are there, but she allows the members of the Shadow Coven to gently debunk them; at no point does she belittle them personally, nor suggest that they are anything but proud of their identities. Considering this was written on the cusp of the Satanic Panic, I find that commendable.

And considering that in a little over a month we will undoubtedly be flooded with articles not terribly dissimilar to this one, I find that certain things really haven’t changed that much.

The archives close at 4:45 most days, and my time is up. I rewind the microfilm and put it back on the cart to be reshelved, and then head out. Only a few other researchers are still there when I leave; each of them is much older than me. I doubt that anybody but me, outside of the staff, is under the age of 60. They come here for genealogy, mostly, combing through census records and obituaries, trying to fill in the bare spots of their family trees. Trying to figure out where they come from.

And of course, I understand. I spend most of my time trying to do the same thing.

A photo of the farm. Photo by William Scott.

The farm. Photo by William Scott.

I grab two pieces of firewood at a time from Alaric’s grandmother’s pile and throw them into the back of the trailer. Wood lands on wood with a solid clack, like the woodblock in an orchestra.

“Who cut this, anyway?”

Alaric drops a log onto the trailer. He is a few years older than me, old enough that we were never close until we were both adults. “Me and dad. We cut her three cords of wood for heat last winter – this is the leftovers from that. We’ll cut her another three this year.”

“Oh,” I say, setting my last load into the back. “So we’re not really stealing it from her.”

I lumber into the trailer and sit on a bale of straw. Then Alaric starts up the tractor and we’re heading across the grass and down a gravel road, traveling down into a valley, coming to rest at a circle of just-mown grass with a depression in the center.

“Fire pit,” says Alaric with a self-congratulatory grin. “For later. I just made it yesterday.”

It’s Lammas, or the Saturday closest to it, anyway. We’re at Alaric’s family farm, somewhere in Jefferson County, Missouri, where his grandmother and several other relatives live in houses scattered across the property. Alaric lives a few minutes away, on the outskirts of Imperial, but for the past few years he’s farmed wheat and vegetables out here on the weekends and after work at his day job as a tech and data guy for a law firm. Most of his farm equipment is a hand-me-down from his deceased grandfather; he’s constantly taking it apart, rebuilding it, scavenging parts from other machines. His latest acquisition is a new combine. The one he had been using was made in 1955. The new one’s from ‘65. Practically just off the assembly line.

I grew up in the city, and that’s still where I’m naturally drawn to live; when I moved back to St. Louis, a little over a year and a half ago, the idea of living in the suburbs, much less the country, never occurred to me. Alaric, who grew up out here, likes to mock me for my city-boy ways: “You feel okay out here, buddy? I know everything’s not all paved over, the way you like it.”

Still. Riding in the trailer, looking out at the tree line rising up all around us, at the creek, at the weeping willow off in the distance… It’s hard to think anything else.

This place is paradise.

*     *     *

This is the first sabbat we’ve held at the farm, mainly because Alaric’s grandmother is severely Lutheran and would have certain reservations about her property being used as the site for witchcraft. She is at church all day today, though, which is apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Alaric told her he and his wife, Amanda, would have some people over for a party at the barn. Further details were omitted.

After we unload the wood, Alaric drives the tractor across a muddy stream to an ancient barn. Our family has gathered outside, drinking beer and bantering from their camp chairs. Inside the barn, a handful of them set out the feast. There are no lights in there, and shadows overtake the interior even though it’s only six in the evening.

We spend the next few hours discussing the dangers of smoking in the barn and the extent of the property line. There is a brief episode wherein bearded men spirit away the Baby Julian so Amanda, his mother, can have a rest. And then we pile into the trailer, seated on the bales of straw, and ride off to one of Alaric’s wheat fields for the ritual, singing John Denver’s “Country Roads” as we go.

Most of our rites, it must be said, are citified. We mention the harvest, yes, but usually in a metaphorical sense: we talk about the kinds of seeds we have planted in our lives, the kinds of bounties we can expect to reap. We mention the struggles our forebears endured, but we do not live off the land, as they did. We must find other ways to connect with the meaning of the festival.

This one, however, was different: we were performing it in an actual wheat field. Alaric and Amanda had actually harvested wheat here – the communion bread was made from that crop. For the first time in my memory, our harvest sabbat was literally about the harvest.

I don’t have any illusions about Wicca being an ancient religion; I know the specific things we do were not done by any mythical set of ancestors in the Times Before. But in that bread, made from wheat reaped by my brother and his wife, I could taste just a touch of the life my people must have once lived.

Perhaps it’s coincidence: my father had been telling a story all weekend of a man he’d met at work. He saw the man had a Celtic cross tattooed on his shoulder, and dad congratulated him on our mutual Irish ancestry. Then the man admitted, while rolling up a pants leg to reveal another tattoo of the Red Lion of Scotland, that he wasn’t pure Irish – he was Scots-Irish. Again, just like us. So they started comparing notes: where their families came from, where they settled. The similarities were uncanny: they both had relatives buried in the same tiny graveyard next to the Huzzah Baptist Church, a church that serviced a town that hadn’t been there in decades. “I think we must be cousins,” my father had told the man.

The bread made me think of those Scotts, the line of our tribe that had made its way here, to the heartland of America, who had resulted in me: their lives, and their struggles, and their hopes and dreams and failures. And thinking about that, as it always does, made me think about my other family: my coven, the family of choice that I never chose.

When we finish our bread and wine, Alaric and Amanda send us out to the fields to take some wheat, like the gleaning once allotted to the poor. I take Alaric’s knife and cut nine blades.

I don’t take the hay ride back. I walk with my father back to the barn, mostly in silence. We cross through the woods, over shallow streams and bridges, over grass and gravel. I am thinking about the harvest to come.

*     *     *

Every time I’m near a bonfire now, I find myself singing the runes into it. I don’t have any justification for this, other than it seeming like a thing worth doing. It’s simple: start with fehu, work your way to othala, sending each rune into the flames and then out into the world with the smoke.

I throw each of my wheat blades into the fire as I sang. Sometimes I miss – overshoot the fire, or toss with too little force, so that the blade ends up near the edges instead of the heart. But when the flames catch one, the blade erupts in bright orange light, then blackens, crumbles into the ash. These were my sacrifices, my gifts to the gods. Something for the future.

The fire spreads out of the pit, a tiny orange finger in the living grass. As one of the only people wearing good shoes, I stamp it out before it can get out of control. My friend Megan scolds me afterwards. “Be careful!” she says, pointing a finger from me to the fire. “I saw what you were doing over there.”

I smile and stand next to her. We watch the fire for a moment before she asks the question.

“So when are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning,” I say. “We’re picking up the U-Haul tomorrow and heading out as soon as we can load up the furniture and the books.”

She nods. “I’ll miss you,” she says.

“Columbia’s only two hours away,” says Web, one of my parents’ generation, on the other side of the fire. “You act like you’re moving to another continent.”

He had a point, of course. The problem wasn’t really the distance. It was what the distance implied about the future.

In the morning I would be leaving St. Louis again, so soon after returning. I was starting a PhD program at the University of Missouri, something I thought I had put behind me until I read the acceptance email while laid over in a Dallas airport en route to Pantheacon this year. The program was scheduled to take five years to complete. After that – assuming the academic job market still exists, which sometimes seems like a big “if” – I would be searching for work any place that would take me. A place that, undoubtedly, would not be St. Louis.

Since I became an adult, since I really understood what it meant to be a second-generation Pagan, I have begun to realize just how wonderful the circumstances of my life are. I knew that I wanted to inherit the coven from my parents, to shelter it, to give it to my own children someday. That’s such a rare gift, to have something like that, to pass it down. I know now that I probably won’t be able to do that, at least not as directly as I had hoped.

But then again, I can look across the fire and see Alaric and Amanda there, cradling little baby Julian.

Families are never about one person; they are about all of us, together. And if it so happens that I can’t be with them as much as I’d like, well, my family doesn’t live in Huzzah anymore, either. This is something every family experiences.

I kiss my family good night, pack up my bags and my trash, and set off towards home. I still have things to throw in boxes and furniture to get ready for the move. I won’t fall asleep until three hours before I need to wake.

It is Lammas, my last night in St. Louis, the night of the first harvest. I pass by the Weeping Willow tree and Alaric’s grandmother’s house. I turn from the gravel road onto the pavement, and make my way out of paradise.

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.

Selena Fox's healing altar for the victims of the Boston attack.

Selena Fox’s healing altar for the victims of the Boston attack.

I’d like to begin by sending out my thoughts to all those who were affected by yesterday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon. There have been many Pagan responses to this still-unresolved tragedy, but I think Ár nDraíocht Féin Archdruid Rev. Kirk Thomas’ statement may be the best:

“We in ADF participate in a public religion. The gatherings of the folk are important for our communal worship of the Kindreds. Terrorists, such as those who bombed the Boston Marathon today, are counting on the fear of the people to disrupt our sense of community, that we may be isolated from each other, and thus lose our way. I believe that it is our duty as civilized people to resist this impulse, to find our courage, and so defy these enemies of Good, that our relationships with the Kindreds and with each other will continue to thrive.”

May the perpetrators be caught, may justice be done, may the wounded find care, and may the grieved find comfort.

Babugeri, Bansko, Bulgaria, 2010–2011 Charles Fréger, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Babugeri, Bansko, Bulgaria, 2010–2011
Charles Fréger, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

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.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press are both reporting that a consent judgment has been handed down in the case of Hunter v. Salem Public Library Board of Trustees, in which Salem, Missouri resident Anaka Hunter was denied access to websites dealing with Wiccan and Native American customs due to the filtering software being used by the library. In addition, Hunter reported that she was “brushed off” and intimidated by library employees and board members. The settlement, approved by U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber, says that the library agrees to remove the “occult” filter, among others, for library patrons. The ACLU, who represented Anaka Hunter, noted that “public libraries should be maximizing the spread of information, not blocking access to viewpoints or religious ideas not shared by the majority.”

Salem Public Library

Salem Public Library

“Even libraries that are required by federal law to install filtering software to block certain sexually explicit content should never use software to prevent patrons from learning about different cultures.”  - Tony Rothert, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri

The Wild Hunt covered this issue extensively last year when the ACLU filed their lawsuit against the library, at the time I explored the long, strange history of Internet filtering services and how many of them contain filters that remove minority and alternative religious viewpoints in deference to their (then) largely Christian user base.

“The more one digs, the more it seems that the “occult” category was one created to cater to the“constellation of values” of conservative Christian religious groups in the United States. Phaedra Bonewits, whose site, Neopagan.net, is listed as “occult” by Netsweeper, claims that the initial target market for filtering software “was Christian households, thus all the ‘cultic’ keywords being included with the porn.” I tried to contact Netsweeper by phone and email for background on how a site comes to be labeled as “occult” in their system, but a representative never responded.” 

Any library that receives federal funds is obligated to install Internet filtering software under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). However, that filter is only supposed to block only obscene material, and content deemed “harmful to minors.” Sadly, either through ignorance of what various filter groupings contain, or misplaced (and illegal) paternalism, some libraries “overblock” the Internet stymieing open information and free inquiry. This was exactly the scenario warned of by critics of CIPA, and other advocated of an open and free Internet.

shutterstock 41035354

“Libraries should be bastions of free thought and information access; but, as the actions by the Salem public library demonstrate, Internet Freedom (and freedom of religion) aren’t just under attack overseas — the same censorship technologies used by oppressive regimes are finding their ways into our own back yards.” - Sascha Meinrath, Director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.

This victory comes at a time when Pagan religions are emerging from their classification as “alternative,” or “occult” belief systems, as evidenced by the Book Industry Study Group’s decision to reclassify books on Wicca and modern Paganism as belonging in the Religion section rather than the Body, Mind, & Spirit (aka Occult) section (not to mention the fact that the University of Missouri lists the Wiccan Sabbats in it’s Guide to Religion). Still, even if Wicca and other faiths were unpopular, reviled, and relegated to non-religious categories, it would not change the fact that no belief system should be filtered by our government, under any circumstance. The adoption of Internet filters are supposed to protect children from pornography and harmful material, not keep adults from doing research. There shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided.

My only regret at this decision is that it won’t create new precedent in which we can use to stop other public institutions from over-blocking Internet search results. We need to change the very filtering industry itself, which is, as a whole, mostly unresponsive, secretive about their databases, and grudging to change. That many of the filtering companies who provide their software to libraries here also provide that same software to oppressive governments overseas is an irony that should not be lost on us. A first step towards greater freedoms is the destruction of the “occult” filter, an outdated and discriminatory filter created by the fearful. The decision handed down today in Missouri is a small step towards that goal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADDENDUM: Tucker Carlson has apologized on Twitter.

When one faith is dominant in a culture, it can sometimes lead to weird things being celebrated as positive moments. For example, certain Christians love to reference Elijah’s challenge to the worshipers of Ba’al and Asherah on Mount Carmel. Being an exemplar of intolerant monotheism, Elijah hated the idea that other (false) gods were being worshiped in Israel, so he issued a showdown, a challenge between his God and their gods.

“Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, and put no fire under; and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on the wood, and put no fire under. And call ye on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD; and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God.’ And all the people answered and said: ‘It is well spoken.’”

Having cornered the polytheists into trying to produce a miracle on demand, he proceeds to mock them as they pray.

“And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said: ‘Cry aloud; for he is a god; either he is musing, or he is gone aside, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.’”

Classy, right? Elijah then manages to miraculously light his sacrifice (after dousing it with “water”) and uses that moment of triumph to order all the priests killed.

"The Slaughter of the Prophets of Baal" by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

“The Slaughter of the Prophets of Baal” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

“And Elijah said unto them: ‘Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.’ And they took them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.”

It’s an ugly story, a tale of triumphant monotheism told by the victors (all inconvenient truths, like what was in those “water” jugs, no doubt excised). A tale that was used just the other day by former Arkanasas governor-turned-pundit Mike Huckabee in a conference call in support of Missouri Senate candidate Todd “legitimate rape” Akin.

Mike Huckabee: Akin and Elijah, just picture it!

Mike Huckabee: Akin and Elijah, just picture it!

“This could be a Mount Carmel moment,” said the former Arkansas governor, referring to the holy battle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in the book of Kings. “You know, you bring your gods. We’ll bring ours. We’ll see whose God answers the prayers and brings fire from heaven. That’s kind of where I’m praying: that there will be fire from heaven, and we’ll see it clearly, and everyone else will to.”

He’s obviously speaking metaphorically, using Biblical language in a culture war context, I’m sure Akin supporters won’t start running around with swords after the election should he win (one hopes). Indeed, Huckabee is speaking the language of conservative Christian culture, which paints anything un-Christian as akin to the worship of Ba’al (and thus always in danger of being shown up by the true super-awesome God with kung-fu bullock-lighting punch). The modern connection between Ba’al worship and liberal/progressive/secular culture is most fervent in the anti-abortion movement, who see abortion as akin to human sacrifice, and Ba’al is referenced over and over again.

The problem with this metaphor, this meme, is that it dehumanizes their opponents into demonic caricatures, and leaves the fate of those priests after the contest often unsaid. Yet the Bible-believers all know what happens next, as it’s a popular story. They know that the Ba’al worshipers are slaughtered by the mob. Invoking a slaughter as a metaphor for a social struggle is problematic, to be sure, and displays an ugliness at the heart of conservative Christian culture warriors. “Mount Carmel moments” leave no room for compromise, accommodation, civil discourse, or even mercy. It’s a winner-take-all showdown between God and all that is not His.

We live in a secular, multi-religious culture, and there is no room for winner-take-all showdowns. The priests of one god don’t get to slaughter the priests of another god in mountain-top pray-offs. We are forced to live and reason with one another. We must learn to not demonize those with disagree with, to realize that they are human and have similar wants, hopes, and dreams. To invoke the specter of intolerance and murder when talking about a political race is absurd and counter-productive. Whoever wins they’ll have to represent the Christians and the metaphorical Ba’al worshipers too. The days of calling fire from heaven is over, as are the days of one religion being allowed to eradicate another, at least in the United States. These days, that Ba’al worshiper (ie polytheist) might be your next door neighbor, your best friend, or your co-worker.

So let’s stop hoping for a Mount Carmel moment, because there’s enough intolerance and death to go around already.

In elections held yesterday, Missouri overwhelmingly passed a state constitutional amendment that claims to affirm their religious rights, reinforces a student’s “right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools,” and forces schools to post the Bill of Rights in schools. However, critics of the amendment pointed out that the ballot language doesn’t tell the whole story.

The ballot did not mention language in the amendment allowing students to refuse to participate in school assignments that violate religious beliefs, or ensuring elected officials the right to pray on government property. “This was misleading in its presentation and possibly unconstitutional in its application, so now we’re headed for the courts,” said Karen Aroesty of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois.”

Simon Brown at Americans United says the amendment “opens the door for coercive prayer and proselytizing in public schools, allows students to skip homework if it offends their religious beliefs and infringes on the religious liberty rights of prisoners.” Brown points out that supporters see this as a way to roll back judicial decisions prohibiting school-led prayers.

measure supporters don’t see it that way. They think they’re somehow “undoing” the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision barring government-mandated prayer. “Religious liberty is pretty important to [Missourians] and a high priority,” Kerry Messer, president of the Missouri Family Network, said, according to the Kansas City Star. “The public feels like the Supreme Court took this away from them over 50 years ago [with a ruling against mandatory school prayer].”

My Patheos Pagan Portal compatriot  Eric Scott, himself a Missourian, wrote a column about this amendment back in June where he assessed the changes and felt it is an attempt privilege the majority faith (Christianity) and the expense of minority faiths.

“Certainly this amendment would not lead to more open and equal protection of all religions. That protection is already guaranteed under the current wording, “Almighty God” aside. These new, specific tests of religious protection (i.e., the “freedom” to have one religion represent the beliefs of the entire state’s citizens, the “freedom” for schools to abdicate responsibility for teaching anything that might conflict with a student’s beliefs, and the stated lack of freedom for prisoners) demonstrate that this bill has nothing to do with real religious freedom. It is just an attempt to enshrine certain pet issues of conservative Christianity into Missouri’s Constitution under the guise of protecting religious expression.

I’ve been talking about religious freedom on this blog a lot lately, or should I say “religious freedom,” because most of the recent initiatives I’ve seen seem mostly to be attempts to ensure free reign for the majority at the expense of everyone else’s freedom.

“The problem with these attempts to codify “religious freedom” into law is that almost always benefits the majority at the expense of the minority. I have seen time and time again, in a number of different circumstances, when laws and policies that are supposed to be viewpoint neutral end up empowering one expression of faith in the public square. That’s bad when it involves adults struggling over the issue, but it becomes pernicious when we use our children as proxies in a fight over the nature of religious freedom and secularism within our country. It shows just how desperate and anxious sections of our  Christian majority have become.”

What this amendment will create are a lot of lawsuits, and expenses for the state of Missouri. It will, in all likelihood, be struck down once it’s appealed to the federal level. Until then, proponents of the new law will pretend they struck a blow against secularism, when all they’ve done is waste time and money in a crusade to roll back the clock on the post-Christian pluralistic reality of our society today.

In 2002 Nancy Willard, Executive Director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, issued a report that warned of the troubling confluence between content-control software and conservative religious groups.

Willard voiced concerns that the relationships between companies providing web-filtering software to public institutions may be “inappropriately preventing students from accessing certain materials based on religious or other inappropriate bias.” She went on to note that terms like “occult” or “cult” are “frequently applied to any non-traditional religions” and that it would be “unacceptable for schools to block access to non-traditional religious sites.”

Five years earlier, the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library association, issued a resolution affirming that “the use of filtering software by libraries to block access to constitutionally protected speech violates the Library Bill of Rights.”

However, today, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), passed in 2000 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003, mandates Internet filtering software on any library or K-12 school that receives federal funding. The mandate covers only obscene material, and content deemed “harmful to minors,” but the seeming intersection of religion and content-control software continues to haunt public institutions as web-filtering has become an everyday part of our virtual society.

On January 3rd, 2012, The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri announced the filing of a lawsuit charging the Salem Public Library with unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.’” It’s alleged that Salem Public Library officials refused to change their filtering policies when challenged, and that the library directory Glenda Wofford intimated that “she had an obligation” to alert the authorities to report those who were attempting to access blocked sites.

This new case not only raises the issue of web filtering in our public institutions, but why an “occult” category is even an option for secular and government-funded filtering clients where such control is unneeded or even illegal. The company that provides filtering services to the Salem Public Library, Netsweeper, currently categorizes several prominent Pagan organization sites as “occult,” including Covenant of the Goddess (COG), Circle Sanctuary, and Druid fellowship Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), while more mainstream faith sites are listed under “religion” or “general.”

Media critic and scholar Peg Aloi says she is troubled by the inclusion of Pagan sites in “occult” filters, “since this word is not even necessarily associated with Paganism, Wicca or earth-based spirituality.” Dr. Gwendolyn Reece, Ph.D., Director of Research, Teaching and Learning at American University Library notes that “whatever the initial intent of the law may have been, the software used to comply with CIPA censors numerous topics that have no bearing on protecting children and the way the software blocks access to information reflects a particular constellation of values. The real consequence is to undermine part of the necessary infrastructure in a democracy by denying citizens the requisite tools to inform themselves through free inquiry.”

The more one digs, the more it seems that the “occult” category was one created to cater to the “constellation of values” of conservative Christian religious groups in the United States. Phaedra Bonewits, whose site, Neopagan.net, is listed as “occult” by Netsweeper, claims that the initial target market for filtering software “was Christian households, thus all the ‘cultic’ keywords being included with the porn.” I tried to contact Netsweeper by phone and email for background on how a site comes to be labeled as “occult” in their system, but a representative never responded.

What is clear is that leaders and clergy within the modern Pagan movement believe that their sites should be readily available when accessing the Internet, and that blocking “occult” sites oversteps the mandate of CIPA and infringes on the Establishment Clause by favoring one religious expression over another.

In a statement, Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of the ADF, said that “only by free access to knowledge can everyone participate in the marketplace of ideas, guaranteeing true freedom for everyone,” while Selena Fox, speaking for Circle Sanctuary, said that they are disappointed in Salem Public Library’s “unwillingness to provide free and equal access to websites containing information on religions such as Wicca, Paganism, Native American traditional ways, and other paths that honor Nature.”

Rachael Watcher, one of the National Public Information Officers for Covenant of the Goddess, a 501c3 organization recognized as such by the United States government for 36 years, added that “the distinction between the labels ‘religious’ and ‘occult’ is an arbitrary one,” and that “one person’s religious group is another person’s occult group.”

It seems clear that no public library should be blocking access to minority religions, as Sylvia Linton, a librarian by profession and a Circle Sanctuary Community member said to me via email: “In this country, with our guarantees of freedom of religion and of speech, librarians respect the diversity of their patrons and allow them access to information without regard to the personal beliefs of the library staff.”

In addition, instances of “overblocking” by web filtering software here at home raise troubling inherent questions of how this technology is used by countries that don’t share our commitment to free speech or access to information. “Libraries should be bastions of free thought and information access; but, as the actions by the Salem public library demonstrate, Internet Freedom (and freedom of religion) aren’t just under attack overseas — the same censorship technologies used by oppressive regimes are finding their ways into our own back yards,” stated Sascha Meinrath, Director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.

“As a growing compendium of evidence documents, technologies developed by U.S. companies and deployed throughout the country are the same ones being used in places like Syria, Iran, and North Korea — Salem would be wise to distance itself from practices that lump them in with some of the worst human rights violators around the globe.”

The option of an “occult” filter in content-control software should be of great concern to all who value religious liberty. The boundaries of what can be labeled “occult” or “cult” are so porous that it can include everything from information on Yoga to your daily horoscope.

The journalist and author Tom Wolfe once opined that “a cult is a religion with no political power,” an opinion that seems reinforced by the sites blocked by the Salem Public Library. Occult, when used as a term in the realm of Internet filtering, is a religious and cultural value judgment that in no way protects minors from obscene or indecent material within the context of CIPA.

There shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided. One can only hope that this case goes beyond merely changing policy at Salem Public Library and instead institutes a precedent that changes the filtering industry, removing biased categories that have little purpose in a free society.

Links to full statements gathered for this story:

Yesterday the ACLU announced that it has filed a lawsuit against a library in Salem, Missouri (download the full complaint) for using Internet filtering software that blocks websites pertaining to Wicca and Native American religions. As Ars Technica notes, sites blocked by the library’s software include Wikipedia’s page on Wicca, but not Christian-run pages that are critical of Pagan religions. According to the ACLU filing, Salem’s library director, Glenda Wofford, said “she would only allow access to blocked sites if she felt patrons had a legitimate reason to view the content and further said that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities. While there’s no doubt the press are paying attention to this story because of the “Witch” angle, I am extremely glad the “occult” category on Internet filtering software is finally being pushed into the spotlight.

“It’s unbelievable that I should have to justify why I want to access completely harmless websites on the Internet simply because they discuss a minority viewpoint. It’s wrong and demeaning to deny access to this kind of information.”Anaka Hunter, The Associated Press

The default option of filtering occult and Pagan websites is an issue I’ve followed at this site over the years, its existence tied directly to the fact that Internet filtering software was initially developed by and for the Christian market. As such, the inherent values of that demographic are imprinted into the DNA of the web-filtering industry. These programs are then sold to schools, libraries, and government institutions, which can lead to controversy and litigation once individuals realize the bias inherent in the filter. At this point those original biased filtering lists have long since permeated into the secular filter market. Sadly, many (though certainly not all) libraries, schools, and public institutions take a “block everything until someone complains” policy when it comes to this issue.

I sincerely hope that this case goes to trial, as it’s long past time the “occult” filter, which inevitably includes a raft of non-Christian religious sites, was eliminated from any secular context. If a local Catholic parish wants to block a Wikipedia search for Wicca, fine, but no library or school should be engaging in the default restriction of these sites. Nor should any secular institution be purchasing software that was built on the prejudices and misconceptions of conservative Christian list-makers.

Oh, and in a final note, you’ll be glad to know that The Wild Hunt has (so far) escaped being placed in the “occult” category by Netsweeper, the filtering software used by the Missouri Public Library.