Archives For Order of the White Moon

In June of this year, I featured a guest post from Literata Hurley, a Wiccan priestess and theaologian, who had just been denied clergy status in the state of Virginia, despite meeting all stated legal requirements (clergy in Virginia must register with a circuit court to perform legal marriages). Arlington County Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson, told Hurley at the time of her application that there were unstated “other things” preventing his approval and that he didn’t “feel” she qualified.

“She left and came back with the Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson said that they were not going to approve me. I asked if it was because we don’t have a building. He said, “Yes, you don’t have a building, and there were a few other things.” I asked him if he would give me a written list of the reasons I was being denied. He refused; he offered to show me the relevant section (Sec 20-23) of the Virginia Code. I assured him that I had read the Code, and asked again if he would give me more specific reasons I was being denied. He said that approving these applications was at his “discretion” and that he didn’t “feel” I met the qualifications, but he wouldn’t tell me how. He told me that I could apply to another court in another county but that he thought they would probably give me the same answer.”

That attitude started to change after Americans United For Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the Arlington circuit court, with the court responding that it had all been a “miscommunication” between the clerk and Hurley. Having got that response, Hurley returned to the Arlington County Circuit Court, and applied again.

Literata Hurley with authorization.

Literata Hurley with authorization.

“She [the clerk] had to go get approval from someone else; she said that the person who wrote the reply to Americans United for Separation of Church and State had to review my new application and paperwork. That took a little while, but she came back and said that it was approved, and then it was a matter of paying the fee, taking an oath to uphold the Constitution and the Constitution of Virginia and to do my duty fairly and impartially, and then I got the official authorization!”

So after an journey of several months, one that included the aid of Pagan elders like Circle’s Selena Fox and Assembly of the Sacred Wheel’s Ivo Domínguez, Jr., in addition to the support of her ordaining body, Order of the White Moon, and a letter from Americans United, Arlington County, Virginia finally did what it was supposed to have done back in June: authorize a Pagan clergyperson to perform legal weddings. Hurley says that she hopes this will open the doors for other Pagan clergy looking to get their authorization, and lays out the paperwork she brought with her on the day of her approval.

For anyone who wants to apply in Arlington in the future, here’s what I took with me: Certificate of Ordination; Letter of good standing (to show that I am “in regular contact” with my religious organization); Certified copies of the articles of incorporation of the Order of the White Moon, the most recent business filing with California showing that the Order is still active; Copies of the letter from the IRS granting OWM its 501(c)3 tax exempt status and the most recent filing with the IRS showing that OWM is still active and exempt; Letters of support from Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, Ivo Dominguez Jr. of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, and Sacred Circle bookstore, attesting to my standing as a priestess and the ministry I do; and a letter of support from a coven sister who also lives in Arlington, because the court insisted that I show “a connection between [my] ministry and the Arlington community.”

Despite the completely unnecessary hassle and delay, this is in important step forward in making sure that Pagan clergy are recognized even if they don’t adhere to the “church and pews” model many Americans are comfortable affirming. In the past, Pagan clergy in Virginia would travel to a different circuit court when denied in Arlington, now this doesn’t have to be the case. I urge clergy in the area to make sure this miscommunication is never repeated, and that when you travel to Arlington for authorization remind them that they approved Literata Hurley on this day. My thanks to Literata for her work here, and to the elders who supported her, and Americans United for defending her legal rights.

[The following is a guest post from Literata Hurley. Literata is a Wiccan priestess, poet, and theaologian. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and  periodicals, including MandragoraQueen of the Sacred WayAnointed, Witches & Pagans, and CIRCLE Magazine. She blogs regularly for The Slacktiverse and her own site, Works of Literata. She is an ordained High Priestess of the Order of the White Moon, a women's spirituality organization. In between leading Rose Coven, reading Tarot, and communing with nature, she is writing her Ph.D. dissertation in history and enjoys travel and spending time with her husband and cats.]

The Arlington County Court refused to grant me the right to perform marriages in Virginia, apparently on the grounds that my “congregation” does not own a building.

I presented my certificate of ordination and documentation of the 501c3 status of the Order of the White Moon, which ordained me. Since my Order is incorporated in California, the secretary asked me if I had a congregation in Virginia; I said yes. She asked me to list the address of the congregation, and I said that we don’t have a building. She asked, “So, what, you just meet in each other’s homes?” I said yes, we meet in each other’s homes, or out of doors (Wicca is, after all, an earth-based religion, but I thought that mentioning that would only be prejudicial to my situation).

Literata

Literata

She left and came back with the Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson said that they were not going to approve me. I asked if it was because we don’t have a building. He said, “Yes, you don’t have a building, and there were a few other things.” I asked him if he would give me a written list of the reasons I was being denied. He refused; he offered to show me the relevant section (Sec 20-23) of the Virginia Code. I assured him that I had read the Code, and asked again if he would give me more specific reasons I was being denied. He said that approving these applications was at his “discretion” and that he didn’t “feel” I met the qualifications, but he wouldn’t tell me how. He told me that I could apply to another court in another county but that he thought they would probably give me the same answer.

Has property ownership now become the measure of what constitutes a “real” religion in Virginia, or at least in Arlington County? Or is this another example of anti-Pagan discrimination at work?

Patchwork enforcement and a history of discrimination

Virginia is one of the few states in the US that requires clergy members to register with a circuit court in order to be able to perform valid marriages. The requirements in Sec 20-23 of the Code state that the minister must present proof of ordination and “of his being in regular communion” with the organization that ordained him.

These requirements are apparently interpreted in widely varying ways across various circuits in Virginia, as different courts’ websites list different types of documentation – or none – that may be required. For courts that openly state they require more than just proof of ordination, the way they ask for information gives tremendous privilege to traditionally-organized, i.e., Christian, groups. And if granting these applications really is up to the “discretion” of the Clerk of Court, there is wide scope for potential discrimination against minority religions with or without the fig leaf of requiring a “location” and other organizational trappings potentially beyond the reach of minority religious organizations.

This problem goes back more than a decade; in 1999, the ACLU helped another Wiccan priestess get her application in this situation approved.

I think it’s not unreasonable that I am concerned about what kind of documentation will satisfy the court. I serve multiple groups, one of which meets in a designated location, but since it is an open circle, the people who attend are mostly not members of my ordaining organization. If I provide documentation of this group meeting in a specific location, will the court then ask how many people attend, and how often we meet? What will they require to conclude that I am “really” a High Priestess in a “real” religion?

Why this matters

This is about more than performing weddings. This decision has a chilling effect on me trying to function as clergy in other ways; if the Court will not recognize me as legitimate clergy in this situation, will my right to confidentiality be protected? How can I assure people who come to me for counseling that their communications with me are protected by clergy privilege?

Literata drawing down.

Literata drawing down.

And since this is one of the two major forms of government approval used by a wide range of institutions and organizations to determine whether someone is a “real” clergy member, it can impact my ability to reach out to those who have particular needs: people in hospitals, the military, and prisons all need clergy services, but those institutions are much more likely to deny me the ability to minister to the people involved if I can’t say that I’m approved by the State of Virginia to perform marriages.

And although I might have my application granted if I tried another court, that does nothing to resolve the doubt cast on my status by the court with jurisdiction over where I live and do most of my ministry. If another court approved me, it would only serve to highlight the irregular and potentially biased variations in granting recognition across jurisdictions.

What you can do

I currently plan to gather additional supporting documentation and reapply, and if I am denied again, to ask whether I can appeal to a judge of the court. I am also currently seeking advice from the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the Lady Liberty League. Here’s what you can do to help:

First, get the word out. The more Pagans pull together, the better our chances of being recognized as “legitimate” in these kinds of situations.

If you are a Pagan clergyperson in Virginia and you have applied to perform marriages, please write to me at literatahurley@gmail.com. If you were approved, I’d like to know when you were approved, in what court, with what paperwork, and what questions they asked, both written and verbal. People who have been declined, please tell me that too. The more information I have for comparison the better.

I would also like to be able to present letters of support from other Pagan clergy and potentially from Pagan organizations that ordain people, especially ones that ordain people all over the country. If you’re interested, please contact me. And if you have other ideas about how to help, please speak up!

People who aren’t in Virginia, please provide spiritual and magical support. Pray and send energy that I am able to gather the evidence I need and make a convincing argument, that the court will grant my new application swiftly, and that I may stay positive and be patient throughout this whole process.

I sincerely hope that together we can ensure this is the last time a Pagan in Virginia has her credentials questioned and her status as clergy denied.

[This post was republished, with permission, from Literata's blog. Please follow it for further updates and commentary from Literata on this matter. The Wild Hunt will be keeping in close contact with Literata on this issue, and will post updates as warranted.]