Archives For Pennsylvania

It may not surprise anyone that the word “God,” “Almighty God,” or similar, is written into the constitution of all 50 states. In most cases, such words are found in the preambles and in the, often required, oaths of office. The mention of “God,” or the like, is used predominantly in reverent thanks or acknowledgment of a divine goodness.

However, what most people do not realize is that eight of the states also include a religious component to a citizen’s eligibility to hold public office and, in two cases, to testify in court or serve on a jury. These states include Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. While the language of each state’s “religious test” is slightly different, the ultimate idea is the same. In all cases, the laws exclude the Atheist from participating in officials roles. Beyond that and depending on one’s beliefs, these constitutional regulations could potentially exclude many citizens of minority faiths, including Pagans and Heathens.

[Photo Credit:  roberthuffstutter/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: roberthuffstutter/Flickr]

The states of North Carolina, Maryland and Tennessee use language that most closely connotes a Christian or an Abrahamic religious worldview. Maryland’s constitution reads, “no religious test shall ever be required” to hold office, “other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God.” The other two constitutions state that persons who “deny the being of God,” or “Almighty God,” as termed in North Carolina, are ineligible for public office. Tennessee goes a step further saying, “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” A “future state of rewards and punishments” refers to heaven and hell.

In four states, the constitutional restrictions are worded with a more expansive concept of deity. In South Carolina, Texas and Mississippi, persons are ineligible for public office if they “refuse to acknowledge” or “deny the existence of” a Supreme Being. In Arkansas, the limitation is imposed on people who deny the “being of a God.” In all four cases, the language used allows for a broader interpretation of deity and, ostensibly, could include some Pagans and Heathens.

Pennsylvania‘s constitution deviates from the other documents in that it reverses the burden. It states:

No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.

In this case, the state does not explicitly exclude persons who deny “a God.” However, it does imply that it could potentially happen. An acknowledgment of the “being of a God” and a heaven and hell secure one’s ability to be appointed. In that sense, the statement is a legal warning or even a compelling suggestion.

Additionally, two states include a religious test for jurors and those testifying in court. In Maryland and Arkansas, the constitution prohibits any persons who deny “the existence of God,” in Maryland, or “the being of a God,” in Arkansas, from testifying in court or serving on a jury.

While all of this may be frustrating and troublesome, the reality is much less bleak than at first glance. In Article 6, the United States Constitution clearly states:

no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States

Additionally, the 14th Amendment states:

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

In 1961, a Maryland Atheist challenged the “religious test” requirement after being excused from his appointment as a notary public.The famous case, Torcaso v Watkins, worked its way through the courts and eventually landed at the Supreme Court of the United States. The justices ruled in favor of Torcaso stating, “This Maryland test for public office cannot be enforced against appellant, because it unconstitutionally invades his freedom of belief and religion guaranteed by the First Amendment and protected by the 14th Amendment from infringement by the States.”

The 1961 Supreme Court ruling rendered the state religious tests unenforceable. However, the constitutions were never changed. Fifty-three years later, Maryland’s Declaration of Rights still makes the following statements:

Art 36 … nor shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefor either in this world or in the world to come.

 Art. 37. That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.

Much of this language appears to be legal “left-overs” and wording from the original state constitutions; some of which were adopted prior to ratification of the U.S. Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1791). In fact, some states, such as Arkansas, still disqualify people from serving in public office if they have have engaged in a duel. This evolutionary editing process may explain, in part, the oddities and religious language still found in many of the constitutions

"Hamilton-burr-duel" by Illustrator not identified. From a painting by J. Mund. - Lord, John, LL.D. (1902). Beacon Lights of History. Vol. XI, "American Founders." (London: James Clarke and Co Ltd. Republished as a Project Gutenberg eBook, 2004-01-08. eBbook no. 10644.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hamilton-burr-duel.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hamilton-burr-duel.jpg

“Hamilton-burr-duel” by Illustrator not identified. From a painting by J. Mund. – Lord, John, LL.D. (1902). Beacon Lights of History. Vol. XI, “American Founders.” (London: James Clarke and Co Ltd. Republished as a Project Gutenberg eBook, 2004-01-08. eBbook no. 10644..[Public domain via Wikimedia]

As Pagan lawyer Dana Eilers points out in her book Pagans and Law, there is a common misconception that America was colonized to grant religious freedom to all minority faiths. Unfortunately, the difficult reality is that our country was filled with much religious intolerance, exclusivity and violence. Eilers says, “Given the dark and barbaric miasma of our past, the enormity of the American experience in separating religion and government represents a landmark event in human history.” In this statement, she not only refers to American history, but also to world history. (Chp. 8, God and Government)

Eilers then quotes a Supreme Court statement saying, “The Fathers of the Constitution were not unaware of the varied and extreme views of religious sects … They fashioned a charter of government which envisaged the widest possible toleration of conflicting views. Man’s relation to his God was made no concern of the state.” (Chp. 8, God and Government)  While Founding Father Thomas Jefferson may have mentioned the Muslim, Jew, Hindu, pagan and Christian in his work, other early lawmakers may not have been as progressively aware.

During that early period, the use of the word “God” or “a God” or “Supreme Being” may have seemed inclusive enough to satisfy the new American concept of religious diversity. For example, Maryland’s original 1776 constitution required a person interested in public service to declare “a belief in the Christian religion.” This was later changed to “God” in 1851 in order to be more inclusive by contemporary cultural standards.

While these historical details do explain why religious language, like “in the year of our Lord,” appears sporadically in state constitutions, it does not explain how 8 state constitutions have maintained a religious test to qualify someone for public office. Regardless of the historical aspect, such a test has been unconstitutional for centuries.  How, in the early revisions of the state constitutions, did those religious tests survive? How have they been overlooked all these years? More importantly, how have they remained unchecked since the 1961 Torcaso case or more recent legal contests?

Eilers explains, “they need to be tested individually…that is … each of them must be challenged.” Furthermore, each state has to be willing to engage in its process to change the constitution, a task that is long and difficult. That has yet to happen.

 

 

[Author's Note: Special thanks to Pagan lawyer Dana Eilers for taking time to offer insight and expertise on the subject.]

On June 7, Rev. Kathryn Jones, a Wiccan minister from Uniontown, Penn. announced her candidacy for state representative in the 51st District. Rev. Jones is running on the Green Party ticket against Democratic incumbent Timothy S. Mahoney. Although this will be her first time running for public office, Jones has had years of experience working around and with the structure of local politics.

Rev. Kathryn Jones [Campaign Photo}

Rev. Kathryn Jones [Campaign Photo}

Since 2010 Jones has been an active presence in city and county prisons, where she performs general ministerial duties for local Pagan inmates. As noted in a Pittsburgh Tribune article, county officials have, in the past, fully recognized and supported her work. Commissioner Vincent Zapotosky said, “We all have a right to worship the God of our choice.”

Then in fall 2013, local officials began to reject her requests to enter the very prisons that she had already visited. In May 2014, Jack Henekes, the local district attorney and a member of the county prison board, told the Pittsburgh Tribune that Rev. Jones was denied access because her religion “is not federally recognized.”

Although these verbal attacks focus on her Wiccan practice, Jones believes that religion is not really the issue. Over the past decade, she has become an outspoken political activist in Fayette County. She joined the local Occupy movement and is currently fighting “the construction of a new $100 million prison facility to be funded by taxpayers and contracted out to for-profit corporations.”

Jones firmly believes that religion is just a reason to stop her activist work. She says, “Being refused the opportunity to minister to Pagan inmates is why I am [now] running for office.” She sees her candidacy as the next step in her personal crusade to make the local community a better place. She explains:

Our community is falling apart.  We have lost too many of our young people to gun violence and drug overdoses, while the rich get richer and the poor fill the prisons for profit.  …  I am fighting decades of corruption in an area that votes 60%+ for Democrats and where Obama lost [twice]. I am fighting apathy and poverty and illiteracy.

The 51st District of southwestern Pennsylvania is a region with a long coal mining history. It has been a Democratic stronghold for years. Rep. Mahoney has been the district’s state representative since 2006 and, before him, other Democrats have won the seat since 1969. Republicans do not even regularly offer opposition. Jones says that if she doesn’t run, Rep. Mahoney will run unopposed once again.

For years Jones herself was a Democrat but, over time, she became disillusioned with the local political scene. She says, “The [region's] Democratic Party has done a disservice to our community and to the national Party in general.” She adds that they are “way too corrupt” and only want “perpetuate the status quo.”

Kathryn Jones during local Occupy protests. [Photo courtesy of K. Jones]

Kathryn Jones during local Occupy protests. [Photo courtesy of K. Jones]

Jones believes her district needs change and needs it now. She told the Tribune, “We just need a two-year break to catch our breath and find a different direction, because the direction we are going is nowhere.”

At first she looked to the Tea Party for support because, like herself, it wants to see Mahoney out of office. However Jones quickly realized that she, “could not overcome the social issues divide.” Then a friend told her to contact Jay Sweeney, chair of the Green Party of Pennsylvania. After speaking with Sweeney, Jones says that she “found a home.” She likened the feeling to first finding Wicca in the mid-nineties.

The state’s Green Party fully supports her candidacy. Sweeney says, “The Green Party is Wiccan and Pagan friendly … I don’t anticipate any backlash, but, will certainly cite our values if necessary to defend any such controversy.” Those values include a “respect for diversity” which includes religion and spirituality. These ideals are incorporated into the Party platform.

After filling out a questionnaire and meeting with representatives from the Green Party of Allegheny, Jones attended the Party’s June 7 state committee meeting in Bethlehem. She says that the delegates asked probing questions but nothing out of the normal. Sweeney agreed saying:

Kathryn has been clear about her religious beliefs.  I would say she was universally accepted.  The only question was a clarification in regard to her position as a minister. Someone wanted to know if she was a UU minister.  A member immediately raised an objection to any question regarding religion.

Along with being the first Wiccan candidate to run, Jones will also be the first third Party candidate. And if elected, the first woman to hold that particular office for the 51st District. She says that the pressure is now on. She wants to be a good representative of the Green Party and of the Wiccan community, saying, “I don’t want to let down either group.”

Kathryn Jones performing a local wedding ceremony.

Kathryn Jones performing a local wedding ceremony. [Photo Courtesy of K. Jones]

To help deal with the pressure, Jones regularly taps into her spiritual beliefs and training. She says that she is in a “constant state of meditation” which help maintains balance. She also regularly uses Viking runes. As she explains, “there are days when I wonder,’What have I done?’ or ‘Why am I doing what I’m doing?’” The runes and meditation bring her back to a center point so she can focus on her goals.

One of these goals is to show her community that regular people can run for office on a shoestring budget. Whether she wins or loses, she wants to prove that individuals can be heard and can make a difference in politics.

Currently Jones is working on the petition needed to add her name to the district ballot. She is confident that she’ll have the needed 300 signatures by the July 31 deadline. She and her campaign team are aiming for 500 just in case there are any questions. In the meantime, Jones will be setting up the back-end logistics to run her campaign, raise funds and garner support. Her focus is now on social media outreach and the petition.

Supporting her is a group of dedicated volunteers made up of locals from all faith back grounds. Jones has yet to experience any backlash from the community due to her religion. The local press has covered her campaign with interest and curiosity. Jones says there there have been some light jokes about “bonfires in the parks, but that has been it.”  Local Wiccan Priestess Lady Annabelle of Grove of Gaia, says:

It is good to see someone who is openly Wiccan run for public office in Pennsylvania. It sets a standard for other Wiccans to lead and become candidates for State Representatives themselves, or seek other government roles … Her chances depend on how she presents herself. It will be interesting to see if she is successful as this would suggest that PA voters can look to the substance of the candidate, regardless of her religion.

Once Jones collects the needed signatures, her name will go on the ballot for the November 2014 election. At this point, it is too early in the process to know if she will receive any real resistance due to her religion but Jones says that she is ready for anything. She welcomes a public debate, open conversation and whatever else may come.

 

 

 

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

Donald Michael Kraig and Holly Allender Kraig. Photo: Elysia Gallo.

Donald Michael Kraig and Holly Allender Kraig. Photo: Elysia Gallo.

Yesterday, I shared the sad news that author and magician Donald Michael Kraig had passed away after battling pancreatic cancer. Today, I wanted to showcase a tribute to Kraig by his longtime employer and publisher Llewellyn Worldwide. Quote: “Don has been an important part of Llewellyn for over 40 years, and has been a tremendous colleague, teacher, mentor, and inspiration to many. Don first started his journey with Llewellyn as an author, when he submitted Modern Magick with encouragement from his then roommate Scott Cunningham. Shortly after he was hired as a writer and moved to St. Paul to work at Llewellyn headquarters.  He eventually became the editor of FATE magazine as well.  Later, he moved back to California but continued on as a writer and editor of New Worlds magazine and as an acquiring editor, where he continued using and sharing his extensive subject-matter knowledge. Don has touched so many lives and will be dearly missed. We are grateful to his life lived, and for his teachings and words that will continue to live on through his many books. Our thoughts go out to Holly and their friends and families.” Updates on a memorial service, and a place to leave donations to help with expenses, can be found here.

OBOD founder Ross Nichols.

OBOD founder Ross Nichols.

Modern Druid group The Order of Bards Ovates & Druids turns 50 this year, and a special golden anniversary grove is being planned to honor the occasion. Quote: “2014 is the 50th year of The Order of Bards Ovates & Druids. We have asked ‘Trees for Life’ in Scotland to plant a sacred grove to commemorate this anniversary, and have started the project with a donation of 98 trees. We’re calling it ‘Nuinn’s Grove’ after the Druid name of our founder, Ross Nichols. Have a look at the special web-page for this grove here. You’ll see that you can donate a tree for just £5 and ask for a dedication to be read out at its planting. The Order has 17,000 members, a mailing list of 10,000 newsletter susbscribers, and 16,000 listeners to our podcast every month – if every one donated a tree we could plant a whole forest with many sacred groves in it! Wouldn’t that be wonderful?!  Do help make this vision a reality, if you can, by gifting at least one tree now and spreading the news! Trees for Life have made the process incredibly simple!” 

logo-bsfGede Parma, author of “Ecstatic Witchcraft: Magick, Philosophy & Trance in the Shamanic Craft,” will be presenting this week at BaliSpirit Festival on the Indonesian archipelago of Bali. According to Parma, ze is the first Witch to present at this high-profile yoga/dance/music festival. You can see Parma’s listing on the official web site, here. Quote: “Gede spends his time actively promoting conscious engagement with Place and the Planet, teaching and writing about Witchcraft and Magic, and deepening connection with the Many Bright and Cunning Spirits that people this Cosmos. Ze is also a Reclaiming Witch, a modern tradition of the Craft co-founded by several individuals in California, most famously Starhawk, author of The Spiral Dance. Reclaiming does the work of (re)uniting politics with spirituality and is an activist and ecofeminist expression of Witchcraft and Paganism.” Parma recently relocated to Bali, and is half Balinese. The festival runs from March 19th through the 23rd.

In Other Pagan Community News:

  • The always-interesting Norse Mythology Blog, run by Dr. Karl E.H. Seigfried, is once again up for a religion-category Bloggie in the fourteenth annual Weblog Awards. If the blog wins this year it will, according to Seigfried, “be the first religion blog (on any religion) to be installed in the Weblog Awards Hall of Fame.” Voting is open through Sunday.
  • The 2014 Ostara issue of ACTION, the official newsletter of AREN, is now available. As always, it is chock-full of interesting interviews (plain text version). Featured interviews this time out include Cairril Adaire, Laura Perry, Rufus Brock Maychild, and P. Sufenas Virius Lupus (who talks about Wiccanate privilege, and if it’s a problem). ACTION, as I’ve said many times before, is a quiet gem of a resource, don’t miss out on reading it.
  • Open Hearth Foundation in Washington DC, which recently announced that it would be closing its community center space, has made announcements regarding plans for new initiatives moving forward, and the election of new officers to guide the foundation. Quote: “The Open Hearth Foundation Board of Governors has decided to focus the organization’s efforts on building community support and funding for its mission, with the goal of reopening a Pagan lending library within the next two years.”
  • The Temple of Witchcraft in Salem, New Hampshire will be holding a Spring Open House on April 6th. Quote: “On Sunday, April 6, 2014, The Temple of Witchcraft will be opening its doors to the public for our Spring Open House in Salem, New Hampshire. Join us in sharing the magick with coffee, tea, refreshments, and lively company. Curious? Have your questions answered by our knowledgable ministers and learn the facts and fantasy about modern Witches and Witchcraft. Come learn about our various ministries, including our work in Healing, Art, Women’s Spirituality, Grief Support, Prison Ministry, and Rites of Passage.”
  • A Pennsylvania coven fighting to perform legal handfastings, whom I’ve mention before here, has won their struggle to navigate the red tape. I’m glad this has been resolved for them.
  • Cosette writes about an unrepentant Australian Pagan predator in the community. Quote: “In my quest to discover the movers and shakers of the Pagan community in Australia, it was bound to happen that I would eventually stumble upon him. He is a man that everyone talks about through cautious whispers and shameful glances. Nobody says his name. I didn’t know his name until the internet magically revealed it. He’s the Voldemort of Victoria, but worse because he is real. His name is Robin Fletcher.”
  • Challenges for Pagan youth, in their own words. Quote: “I don’t think there is a catch-all solution for providing youth with more resources. Everyone has a different need, style of communication, and a learning pace that we just can’t issue a panacea for. I think the first step is acknowledging that young people are still coming to Paganism and polytheism in droves and that it’s up to us to help meet that demand in whatever ways we can.”
  • Panegyria, the newsletter of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, turns 30 this month. Quote: “For thirty years, Panegyria has aimed at connecting the Pagan communities and individuals in the greater Seattle area. During the early 80’s the scene was filled with a disjointed community consisting of small groups, and scantily published newsletters. Pete “Pathfinder” Davis saw a need for a more comprehensive publication to showcase and bring together the voice of the Seattle-area Pagan community.”

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

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.

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  • Climate Progress reports on efforts by an alliance of Native American nations, activists, and environmental groups, to stop the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline through Lakota land. Quote: “In the wake of the State Department’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statementfor the Keystone XL pipeline which sparked nearly 300 protest vigils across the country, a group of Native American communities have added their voices to the calls to reject Keystone XL. In a joint statement — No Keystone XL pipeline will cross Lakota lands — Honor the Earth, the Oglala Sioux Nation, Owe Aku, and Protect the Sacred announced their intention to peacefully resist the construction of the pipeline slated to cut through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska.” You can read the full statement, here.
  • Amnesty International has released a statement saying “after 38 years time to release indigenous leader Leonard Peltier.” Quote: “It is time for the USA authorities to release Leonard Peltier, an Anishinabe-Lakota Native American and leading member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who has been imprisoned for 38 years despite serious concerns about the fairness of proceedings leading to his conviction. Leonard Peltier was arrested 38 years ago today in connection with the murders of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, during a confrontation involving AIM members on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in June 1975. While he admits to having been present during the incident, Leonard Peltier, who in 1977 was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the murders, has always denied killing the agents as alleged by the prosecution at his trial.”
  • A woman charged with the sexual abuse of children allegedly tried to silence victims by saying she was a witch, and that she would utilize spells against them if they talked. Quote: “Shocking is perhaps the best word to describe the allegations against Jessica Smith. But perhaps it also best describes her self-proclaimed job title. “Ms. Smith led the children to believe that she was a witch, a practicing witch. [She]would place hexes or spells on the children if they revealed any of the facts that had happened,” Richmond said. “Of course, these children are young and they believed her. As if what [the victims] witnessed at that point wasn’t enough, now they think someone is going to cast a spell on them.” There’s no confirmation of whether she actually adhered to some form of religious witchcraft, or if it was merely a ruse.
  • “Conscience” laws are redundant, and largely politically motivated, and even lawmakers in South Dakota realize that. Quote: “As Americans United has pointed out several times, the First Amendment already protects members of clergy from being compelled to officiate at marriage ceremonies. Why can’t a same-sex couple demand a church wedding? For the same reason that a Protestant couple can’t just walk into a Roman Catholic church and demand that the priest marry them. Members of the clergy have an absolute right to determine the parameters for the sacraments they offer. If a couple doesn’t meet those criteria, the pastor is free to show them the door.”
  • Religion Clause reports that a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling in State v. Armitage says Native Hawaiians are not infringed on by making them obtain a permit to enter an island reserve. Quote: “The Hawaii Supreme Court held that the rights of Native Hawaiians are not infringed by a statute limiting entry into the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve only to those who obtain authorization to do so through a written application process.  Defendants claim they were traveling to the island to proclaim the right of the “Reinstated Kingdom of Hawaii” to the island. The court rejected defendants’ arguments that their entry was protected by the Art. XII, Sec. 7 of the Hawaii Constitution which protects the right to engage in traditional and customary Native Hawaiian subsistence, cultural and religious practices.”
A young man wears a blindfold in an initiation ritual. (Jan Sochor – GlobalPost)

A young man wears a blindfold in an initiation ritual. (Jan Sochor – GlobalPost)

  • Global Post has a photoset up focusing on Palo in Cuba. Quote: “The cultures of Cuba’s many African descendants run deep across the island. They blend with the country’s traditional Roman Catholic practices to create vibrant mixtures. Photographer Jan Sochor captures the ritual scenes here in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, in particular capturing Palo rituals. A religious practice often confused with Yoruba religion (Santeria), but distinguished by more underground practices and initiations.”
  • Is cultural Christianity dead? That’s what  R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary asserts. Quote: “There was in the center of the country — and I don’t mean that geographically, but culturally — a cultural religiosity that was, in the main, a cultural Christianity that trended in one direction for the better part of 60 to 70 years, and it had a kind of moral authority that is disappearing before our eyes.” 
  • Don’t be a jerk, don’t deface ancient rock formations. Quote: “Prosecutors have filed charges against two former Boy Scout leaders accused of toppling one of the ancient rock formations at Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park. State Parks officials say Glenn Taylor is charged with criminal mischief. David Hall is charged with aiding criminal mischief, another felony.”
  • Early Americans really didn’t like the Quakers much. Quote: “Known today for their pacifist and quietist ways, Quakers had an altogether different reputation in the seventeenth century: belligerent and boisterous rabble-rousers. Fueled by evangelical zeal, and asserting radical ideas for the time, the Quakers were aggressive proselytizers. As a result, they faced violent persecution in England and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands, where many migrated. News of their beliefs (e.g. equality for women, refusal to swear oaths, etc.) and their tactics (e.g. preaching loudly and publicly, disrupting worship services, etc.) reached the colonies before the Quakers did. Connecticut, in fact, banned Quakers in October 1656—prior to any Quakers having ever reached the colony.”
  • What’s it like being a Pagan at Penn? Pretty lonely, it seems. Quote: “Deidre Marsh, a College senior, founded Penn Wheel a semester ago in order to build a community for earth-based religions and paganism. But even in a school of over 10,000 undergraduates, Marsh has been unable to find anyone else who shares her religious beliefs.”

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.

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

cup-bearer-tea-time-300x215The Pagan Tea Time initiative spearheaded by Patheos Pagan channel editor Christine Kraemer, meant to encourage face-to-face discussions in a Pagan & polytheist blogosphere that has, at times, grown decidedly combative, is now well under way. According to Kraemer, there have already been some remarkable conversations taking place. Quote: “So far, I’ve seen some great reports of Tea Times involving Rhyd WildermuthConor O’Bryan Warren, and a three-way chat between John Halstead, Sannion, and Galina Krasskova (wow!). I haven’t had any tea times with people I haven’t already met yet — one of the blessings of being managing editor here is that getting together with writers via video chat happens semi-routinely, as does attending conferences, so I’ve met many of you already. (Yay!) I did get to do a nice catch-up with Niki Whiting, though, and I have a few more dates set for next month.” The project runs through the month of February, when established Pagan conventions like PantheaCon and ConVocation take place, providing more chances for interaction. Here’s to civility!

amaundex3Pagan learning institution Cherry Hill Seminary has announced that Lauren Raine will be their artist-in-residence for 2014-2016. CHS President Jeffrey Albaugh, in a public statement, said “it is my pleasure to announce our new Artist in Residence, Lauren Raine. Lauren is a visionary painter, mixed media sculptor, and choreographer, although I know her best from her beautiful and moving theatrical and ritual masks.” Raine, a painter and mixed-media sculpter, is perhaps best known within the Pagan community for her “The Masks of the Goddess” series. Quote: “I’ve always been fascinated with masks as sacred tools – as what Carl Jung called ‘vessels for the archetypal powers’. In 1998 I began a collection of masks of Goddesses from spiritual traditions around the world, first worn at the 20th Annual SPIRAL DANCE in San Francisco.” For the terms of the residency, you can read them at the CHS website.

shawnus2In Pennsylvania, a local coven documents their struggle to attain the right to perform legally binding wedding ceremonies. Quote: “So i started at my County level and had voice and email exchanges for three days with a very nice, helpful and informative lady there in the right department. There is a notice posted on the Courthouse door, and i tried to paste it in here and then save this draft and WV completely wiped my post off their server. So i will just say it said, to quote, that legal marriages could be performed by Justices of the Peace or Judges or Ministers “of a regularly established church or congregation” which means from those three Religions of the Book. There is a license for Amish, Mennonites and Quakers, but i am not one of them. I am a Witch and we Do have Our Religion!” The Wiccan Priest struggling through this process is Shawnus Merlin Belarion, and he is seeking assistance from outside Pagan organizations in navigating this issue. You can find contact information here.

In Other Pagan Community News:

  • Sannion has announced that a proposed Polytheist Leadership Conference will indeed take place this Summer. Quote: “The Polytheist Leadership Conference will take place Friday, July 11th through Sunday, July 13th – though we’ve made arrangements so that you can get the block room rate if you want to come in earlier on Thursday.” Please note: “This conference will be open only to people who affirm the autonomy and diversity of the divinities, people who recognize that there are differing types of divine beings (such as Gods, Spirits and Ancestors) and that they all require different forms of cultus, people who are actively engaged in cultus, people who have respect for traditional ways and yet remain open to innovation when it’s called for and people who do not find magic (when properly distinguished from religion), mysticism and direct engagement with the holy powers to be problematic. Racists, sexists and queer- and transphobic need not apply either.”  All inquiries should be sent to sannion@gmail.com.

  • Pagan band Tuatha Dea is crowdfunding a new collection of songs based on the work of author Alex Bledsoe. Quote: “We were INSPIRED and though we had no intention of working on a new CD this soon we simply couldn’t help ourselves! So with Alex’s blessing we began writing music based on his amazing trilogy! One song for each novel, “The Hum and the Shiver”, “Wisp of a Thing” and the anticipated yet to be released “Long Black Curl” (yes we have the skinny but you’ll have to wait and read!) The project..An album called “Tufa Tales- Appalachian Fae”.a musical tribute, backdrop and celebration of these wonderful works and the world within their pages! But that won’t be all…as Tufa’s ourselves we have some other personal bits and pieces to add to the CD!”
  • The current issue of Sage Woman Magazine (#85) has been mailed to subscribers and is available to order online. Quote: “Celebrate the amazing world of women’s herbalism with this special issue. Stories of healers, visionaries, and pioneers fill us with inspiration. Discover new goddesses, old remedies, and learn how close our own healing powers are in our homes and the natural world all around us.”
  • The Imbolc edition of AREN’s ACTION newsletter is now out, featuring its usual treasure-trove of interviews. This time: Oberon Zell, Ellen Evert Hopman, PC Andrew of the UK Pagan Police Association, and much more!
  • Medusa Coils has information on the 2014 Glastonbury Goddess Conference. Quote: “The 19th annual Glastonbury Goddess Conference will begin July 29 and run through August 3, with fringe events beginning July 26, Kathy Jones, conference organizer, announced. The theme of this year’s conference is “Celebrating the Crone Goddess: The Cauldron & the Loom.” The conference is held in Glastonbury, England, aka Avalon, also the location of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple.”
  • Paganicon in Minnesota (held in March) has announced two new featured guests: Taylor Ellwood and Steven Posch. Quote: “We are increasingly excited about this year’s ever-expanding line-up including Oberon Zell, Deborah Lipp, Ivo Dominguez, Jr., and now Taylor Ellwood and Steven Posch. We hope you sign up right away! Remember if you wait too long you’ll have to pay extra, so get the good rate while you can!”

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

What happens when one suburban county decides that it doesn’t like its state’s laws and openly defies them? 

It all began on June 26th when the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) declared DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act) unconstitutional in the case of The United States vs. Windsor. By that ruling, all legally married same-sex couples are now entitled to federal benefits. The key phrase here is “legally married.”  The U.S. federal government does not issue marriage licenses. That job falls to the states, many of which do not recognize same-sex marriage at all.

One of the these is Pennsylvania who, in 1996, was one of six states to adopt the proposed DOMA statutes which read:

“Marriage.” A civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife.  (Section 3304, Title 23, Part II, Chapter II, Section 1102)

But this Pennsylvania state law didn’t sit well with local Montgomery County officials who said we “want to come down on the right side of history.”  After the SCOTUS ruling, Montgomery County, the third largest county in Pennsylvania, began issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples in direct violation of the statute. To date, Montgomery County as issued over 115 licenses to same-sex couples.

Love_Park

One of these licenses was issued to Wiccan High Priestesses Lady Emrys and Lady Aradia of Innana’s Well of Philadelphia. The two women met in 2006 while attending Pagan classes in Atlanta. They have been sharing their lives ever since. When Montgomery County announced its intent, the couple jumped at the opportunity to finally enjoy the benefits of a legally binding marriage. Lady Emrys recalls:

Someone posted an article on Facebook about Montgomery County going “rogue.” My initial thought was that the state had probably already put a stop to it and we had likely missed our chance. I was thrilled to hear the following day that they continued to issue licenses to same-sex couples. A couple of days after that, when our schedules allowed, we went to the Clerk’s office and got our license. It was thrilling to say the least!

Register of Wills

D. Bruce Hanes, Registrar of Wills

The County Clerk and Registrar of Wills, D. Bruce Hanes, has now become somewhat of a local hero. He told the Associated Press that he “believes he has the authority to issue the licenses in part because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision.” He reports that there has been a “steady influx of five to 10 couples a day and only polite demonstrations by either side.”

Lady Emrys and Lady Aradia commented how “deeply touched and appreciative” they are of Hanes and his staff.  He was polite, enthusiastic and even apologetic when explaining that the County marriage forms still ask for the names of a “husband” and “wife.” Unphased the couple remarked  “[We are] inspired and awed by [the staff’s] courage and willingness to take a stand against discrimination.”

They also thanked Attorney Robert Heim with Dechert law firm, who has taken up the case for the county.  What case?  The State of Pennsylvania is now suing Montgomery County for flagrant disobedience.  In late July, Governor Tom Corbett and the State’s Department of Health filed a petition with the courts to force Hanes to “cease and desist.”  On Monday, August 12th, they filed another brief to move forward with the suit.

In support of the Governor’s position, Pennsylvania lawmaker Daryl Metcalf said:

For a man to start violating the law as [Hanes] has and commit such a lawless act should be offensive to everyone, no matter what side of the issue you’re on. It doesn’t matter how many licenses he issues, they’re not worth the paper he’s printing them on.

Now, here’s where it becomes a bit more complicated.  On July 9th, the ACLU and ACLU of PA filed its own federal lawsuit against Pennsylvania for its discriminatory statutes on marriage. In a press release, the ACLU stated:

The plaintiffs come from across the commonwealth and from all walks of life… [They] reflect Pennsylvania’s rich diversity: they are African-American, Caucasian, Latino and Asian; they are Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Quaker, Jewish, Buddhist, and secular. Many have been together for decades, and some are raising children together. The situations faced by these couples are similar to those faced by the thousands of same-sex couples in Pennsylvania who are being denied the basic rights that are afforded by marriage.

That diversity also includes many Pagans like Lady Emrys and Lady Aradia. These two pending court cases will determine not only their legal fate as a couple but also affect their ability to perform legal marriages as Wiccan Clergy for other same-sex couples in the State. Lady Aradia said:

It’s my hope that Pagan clergy will be safe-havens for Pagan LGBT individuals and couples making life-changing commitments, just as they would for straight couples seeking spiritual guidance and counseling for marriage and starting families.

From Lady Emrys and Lady Aradia's Handfasting

From Lady Emrys and Lady Aradia’s Handfasting

To add more fuel to the fire, on July 11th, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Kathleen Kane spoke out in defense of marriage equality saying that she would not support Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act in court.  In a press release, Kane said:

We have always stood strong in the face of discrimination, which in its various forms has never withstood the test of time…It is our duty, each and every one of us, to protect the constitutionality, to protect the rights and dignity of others, and to protect the equality of all men and women in this Commonwealth. 

So Pennsylvania’s saga continues with the Governor locking “horns” with the Attorney General as a rogue county official continues to issue same-sex marriage licenses in defiance of state law.  It is has been called “civil disobedience at its best.”

Lady Emrys believes the situation will only escalate. She said:

This is likely going to turn into a battle similar to Prop 8 in California. I, for one, am concerned about repercussions the Clerk and his staff may face because of their stand. I think everyone feels certain, however, that in the end marriage laws that exclude same-sex couples from the institution of marriage will be deleted. 

Lady Aradia, who works in Montgomery County, agreed and added:

When [marriage equality is] brought up, people are aware of [what is going on.] It seems as if the topic has been normalized… There’s an acceptance of this movement and more than anything, a sense of, “it’s about time.” 

A recent Franklin and Marshall Poll reflects her observations, reporting that 52% of the state population supports the elimination of Pennyslvania’s DOMA statutes with 8% undecided.

Selena Fox and Washington DC Pagans performing a rite for freedom and justice in the DOMA decision back in March.

Selena Fox and Washington DC Pagans performing a rite for freedom and justice in the DOMA decision back in March.

For many Pagan LGBT members and those of similar minority religions, the elimination of these DOMA statutes has additional meaning. As noted by Lady Emrys:

What excites me most about this, aside from the joy of being legally joined with my partner, is that I see this as a step toward true religious freedom in this country. The exclusively heterosexual right to marriage has always been religious (primarily Christian), regardless of how the argument is packaged. The issuing of marriage licenses and certificates to same-sex couples frees people of the constraints of religions to which they do not subscribe, constraints which have no place in the United States.

Until these cases are settled, Lady Emrys and Lady Aradia ask that “ Pagans…throughout the U.S. surround Hanes and his staff with loving and protective energy so they can continue to perform their important work.”  To this day, Montgomery County is still issuing licenses. The ACLU’s case will be heard in a Federal court in Harrisburg on September 30th. The story has not yet been written and we will be watching for new developments.

Before I begin this week’s topic, I would like to acknowledge that today is Father’s Day.  As with Motherhood, becoming a father is transformative and the beginning of a life-long journey.  A very happy Father’s Day to all that walk that path offering a piece of themselves to the next generation.

Courtesy of Flickr's fruity monkey

Courtesy of Flickr’s fruity monkey

Now back to our regularly scheduled program….

Tomorrow is the 50th Anniversary of the SCOTUS ruling on the Abington School District, Pennsylvania vs.Schempp case.  What’s that?  This 1963 Supreme Court case is considered to be a major historical marker in the on-going struggle to affirm religious equality within American public schools. The Schempp ruling was an indicator of a coming cultural revolution and an acknowledgement of America’s diverse religious tapestry.

In 1956 Ellery Schempp, a 16-year-old student at Abington High School, became increasingly frustrated with the school and state policy that required students to read daily Bible passages in home room.  Ellery and his family were Unitarian Universalists and minorities in their Pennsylvania community.  The Bible readings conflicted with their personal religious beliefs.

Ellery Schempp

Ellery Schempp

One day in protest Ellery stood up and read from the Qur’an.  He was immediately sent to the Principal’s office and disciplined. But the story doesn’t end there.  With the help of his father and the ACLU of Pennsylvania (then Philadelphia), Ellery sued the Abington school district. The case worked its way up through the courts.  It was eventually merged with another similar and more famous case involving the controversial Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an Atheist activist and founder of American Atheists.

Finally, the Schempp case reached the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).  On June 17, 1963 the Court declared it unconstitutional for public schools to require mandatory Bible recitation and other similar religious activities:

Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment by Congress of any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day — even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents. (from Cornell Law School)

Pennsylvania and several other states had to immediately “scrap” the laws that mandated student participation in religious recitation activities.

The Schempp case set a legal and cultural precedent that upended the widely-accepted place of religion in public education. But it was not the first case of its kind. In an interview with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, First Amendment Scholar Steven K. Green said:

…as we mark the anniversary of these seminal decisions, we should acknowledge that they were not cases of first instance; rather, they built on a long-developing body of jurisprudence that was affirming the centrality of religious equality and church-state separation to our nation’s democratic system. 

In the brief interview, Green discusses America’s historical battle for religious equality within public education. The earliest cases were brought to trial by Catholics who didn’t want their children reading Protestant-based Bible passages or prayers.  In 1869, Ohio became the very first state to officially declare unconstitutional the practice of forced Bible recitation in public schools.

As the American population became more religiously diverse, the issue evolved beyond a Catholic- Protestant polarity. The Schempp case exposed the reality of religious diversity in the United States and opened up a new dialog concerning the separation of church and state.  And it did so as the country began to experience a dramatic social change.

Abington To Appeal Newspaper

Since the 1963 ruling there have been countless protests, backlash and legal maneuvers on all levels to bring school-sponsored prayer back into the classroom.  In the early 1980s former President Ronald Reagan proposed a new constitutional amendment that would officially allow voluntary public school prayer.  It failed to pass. Green says:

So long as lawmakers believe they can gain mileage by manipulating the school prayer issue, then there will be no end to prayer and Bible reading proposals. These efforts are cynical as they play on fears and misperceptions among religious conservatives about the Supreme Court’s holdings. Students enjoy many freedoms of religious expression in schools, but enforced religiosity is not a cure for society’s ills.

Here at The Wild Hunt we have and will continue to report on any such school cases that directly involve Pagans and Heathens (e.g. the Buncombe County situation in 2012).  However, all such cases are pertinent to all parents with school-age kids.  Legislative policies affect every child – not just the one whose parents spoke up.  What is going on in my school district?  What are my state’s policies on religion in public school?  Rev. Selena Fox, co-founder of Lady Liberty League, once said, “Having liberty and justice for all in this country may be in the Pledge of Allegiance, but it is not an automatic reality.”

Here are three very recent related cases:

  1. On June 1st in Liberty, South Carolina, Roy Costner IV paused his prepared and approved high school valedictorian speech to recite The Lord’s Prayer.  He told the media that “This is what God wanted me to do.” The event was not school-sponsored. Therefore no disciplinary action is being taken against Roy or the school.
  2. On June 13th Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law the so-called “Merry Christmas” Bill (H.B. 308).  It protects the free expression of religion, through symbols or holiday greetings, regardless of faith within public school settings. To date the new law has provoked little opposition.  The ACLU of Texas has declined to comment.
  3. On June 13th Americans United attorneys sent a letter to an Ohio school district warning them to keep creationism out of the school system. The Springboro district has planned to introduce controversial subjects such as global warming, gun rights, pro-life vs. abortion, and creationism vs. evolution.  Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United said, “Any public school contemplating teaching creationism might as well just hang up a giant banner that reads “Sue Us Now.”

There are many challenges out there and many that have yet to be addressed. Is it constitutional for religious organizations to hold services in school buildings on the weekends?  What about school vouchers and the wording of the “Pledge of Allegiance”?  Can religious clubs advertise and hold functions during school operating hours?  Is it possible to teach religion historically in a secular format without crossing the constitutional line? These are some of the questions that pop up time after time.

As a way of honoring the 1963 SCOTUS decision, Pennsylvania’s legislature has declared June “Public School Religious Freedom Month.”  While you go about your day tomorrow, take a moment to reflect on religious freedom in public education and the importance of the Establishment Clause in your own life.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  mksfly

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s mksfly

The Schempp ruling paved the way for Pagans and Heathens to be able speak out and protect the rights of their growing children. It allowed for the birth and growth of groups like the Lady Liberty League who use their resources to protect the religious freedoms of Pagan children within the public school systems.  Today our children are not forced to read The Lord’s Prayer.  But perhaps more importantly, we can readily recognize the problem when and if it occurs and we have the language and backing of SCOTUS when we say “That’s wrong.”

Yesterday, local news reporters in Chester County, Pennsylvania covered what law enforcement and animal control officials called a “dark and disturbing” scene. The alleged slaughtered corpses of half-a-dozen dogs, surrounded by occult books and paraphernalia.

“Two people are in custody after police found more than a half dozen dismembered dogs inside a Chester County house Monday night. SPCA officers carried out bags and boxes of evidence from a home in the 2400 block of Wayne Avenue in the city of Coatesville. Officials say the scene inside was dark and disturbing with elements of witchcraft and the occult on vivid display. In the living room, investigators say they found two dog skulls and a dog skeleton that had been gold-leafed. They then walked into the kitchen and found two dog skeletons on the counter and a dog’s head in the freezer.

This seems pretty bad. It’s one thing to tolerate the sacrifice of a livestock animal like a chicken or goat, but dogs? People love dogs, and those who harm and abuse them are usually treated as no better than if they murdered a human being. Plus, “witchcraft and the occult”? You know that local Pagans, not to mention adherents of Santeria or Vodou, will have to do damage control for years because of this. But what if, just what if, those weren’t dog skulls. What if they were something else?

“Since the remains found in Caln Township haven’t been confirmed as canine, [George Bengal, the director of law enforcement for the state's SPCA] said there may not be cause for alarm. In his experience, goat and dog skulls can be easily confused.

It’s true! If you aren’t an expert in such matters, and if you are full of adrenaline responding to a “suspicious activity” call, it can be quite easy to confuse a goat skull with a dog skull. Here’s a side-by-side comparison with a domestic dog skull and a domestic goat skull.

For the sake of argument, if these were goat skulls, wouldn’t that explain why they were keeping some in a freezer? Why there were charred bone remains in a fire pit? That they were, you know, eating the goats? Now, I don’t eat meat, so goats aren’t on my menu, but I hear that goat is the most-consumed type of meat in the world, and is increasingly trendy here in the United States. So wouldn’t having a decorated goat skull in your house be no more different than the many, many, folks I’ve met who display decorated cow skulls in their homes (particularly in the Southwest)?

Regardless of veracity, because of the “sacrificed dog” angle that all the initial reports have put out, the local occult/metaphysical community is now on the defensive.

“In my 41 years of practicing the occult, I’ve never come across any ritual or activity that involves killing dogs or cats,” [Eric Lee, co-owner of Mystickal Tymes] said. “This person sounds more like a sadistic individual that should be heavily sedated than an occult practitioner.”

Now think of the owners of that house. Even if the remains were goats that they ate, will they ever have peace again? Or will they be forever branded as the “dog sacrifice” family, and be slowly ostracized and exiled from the community? Will the local media do big flashy “exonerated” stories, or will we just get a quiet addendum that nobody pays attention to?

A final question. Why did the local SPCA officials on-scene instantly jump to the conclusion that these were dog remains, comments that were soon walked back after the fact? Could it be that many SPCA officials received training in “occult” matters from biased sources? In fact, state SPCA official George Bengal, who is quoted above, has made odd remarks about animal sacrifice in the past.

“An animal welfare official says a beheaded dog and cat found in Philadelphia appear to be the result of a ritual sacrifice. George Bengal, Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals director of investigations, said the dog and cat were found … near a bike path in Philadelphia’s Olney neighborhood along with three beheaded chickens. He said he believes the animals were killed elsewhere and the remains dumped where a passer-by found them. Mr. Bengal said there is usually an increase in ritual animal sacrifices at this time of year because of “a lot of high holidays that different groups celebrate.” But he said most of those sacrifices involve goats and chickens.”

A different Pennsylvania-based SPCA official in 2009 harassed a Satanist, accusing him of abusing his pets, despite no evidence that this was occurring. He too was the victim of a “suspicious activity” call. Which makes one wonder, why does the Pennsylvania SPCA think occult practitioners are routinely harming dogs and cats? What data or evidence are they basing this on, and why were officials so quick to exclaim “dog” in Chester County, Pennsylvania when it might have been “goat” instead?

It looks like holiday display battle season has officially begun. The Chester County, Pennsylvania board of commissioners have voted to change their holiday display policy at the historic county courthouse in West Chester. Once open to all comers, displays will now be handled solely by the county.

The new policy would revoke previously adopted policies that allowed private organizations, such as the Freethought Society, the Pennsylvania Pastor’s Network, the Chabad of Chester County, and the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce, to erect displays on the front and south side lawns of the county’s 1846 courthouse facing High and Market streets. The resolution adopted calls for the county to “erect and maintain its own seasonal holiday displays to celebrate the traditions of the holidays” to support the troops, celebrate peace, and promote commerce. The displays, it stated, would conform to “constitutionally permitted … applicable law.”

No one is sure what will happen yet, but the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia is donating its news-making “Tree of Knowledge” to the county in hopes it will continued to be used.

“The Tree of Knowledge has become a beacon of enlightenment and has drawn visitors to Chester Count y from around the country,” society President Margaret Downey said in the letter. As a gesture of goodwill, FS will donate the Tree of Knowledge and its ornaments to Chester County for use in official holiday displays. However, should the Commissioners reject these donations, we request that the explanation for denying the nontheist community representation be sent to us, in writing, at your earliest opportunity,” she wrote. “The eyes of the nation are on Chester County this holiday season as you decide whether or not the nontheist community will be allowed equal participation on the public grounds of a government building.”

Supporters are pointing out that this move is just the latest in a series of maneuvers designed to eliminate the troublesome “Tree of Knowledge” from the holiday displays.

“This would have been the fourth year in which the Tree of Knowledge shared the lawn of the Chester County Courthouse with the Christmas Tree, the Jesus Crèche, and a large Menorah. Each year has been a fight for the Freethought Society to get around the Commissioners ever changing procedures designed to block them from participating in the winter festivities. Last year, the county even created “zones” in which holiday displays could be placed, but after a few days all the displays were moved to a more prominent location not in the zoned area except the Tree of Knowledge…”

While the commissioners say this wasn’t a religiously-oriented decision, claiming it was about supporting the troops, even the local press seems somewhat skeptical of that assertion. Meaning we’ll most likely be seeing a  lawsuit, or at least the threat of one, very soon. While there isn’t a Pagan angle to this particular story, the deliberate closing of a public space to a single minority religion or philosophy can create a chilling effect for us all. If atheists aren’t welcome in the public square, I can’t imagine modern Pagans are either. Over the last couple of years Pagan involvement in Winter public holiday displays haven’t always gone over very well, and now it seems like the “War on Christmas” is being won by the self-proclaimed “Christmas” partisans.

“This season, merry Christmas — not happy holidays or season’s greetings — will dominate retailer’s marketing messages. There will be Christmas sales and Christmas trees and Christmas carols galore. That has the American Family Association, arguably one of the loudest voices advocating the use of Christmas in retailer’s marketing messages over the past few years, predicting that its crusade could conclude in the next year or two.”

The public square should reflect the diversity of the public, especially when it comes to religion, lest it be seen as establishing or endorsing a religious preference for the government. A nativity scene, a menorah, and Santa Claus isn’t diversity, it’s a subtle endorsement of Judeo-Christian cultural norms. Further, this time is special for many different religions, and to browbeat government officials and retail companies into “putting the Christ back in Christmas” isn’t “defending” Christmas, or protecting tradition, its silencing inconvenient voices.

In Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District, Democratic candidate Dr. Manan Trivedi is facing off against Republican incumbent Jim Gerlach this November. While Gerlach has weathered tough political challenges in the past, PA’s Sixth District is notoriously competitive, and it isn’t outside of the realms of possibility for Trivedi to pull an upset, even in this Republican-leaning electoral climate. So why am I covering this particular horse-race? Because if Trivedi pulled an upset, he’d be the first-ever Hindu (“That’s what I put on my dog tags when I was in the Navy.”) congressman to be elected to office. This is significant, because while Indian-Americans have made great political advances in recent years, the unspoken “religion barrier” has remained very real.

“The extra attention carries both positive and negative implications for members of minority faiths, said Suhag Shukla, managing director and legal counsel for the Hindu American Foundation. “I think it sends a mixed sense of hope to young people in the Indian-American community that while we may have, as a society, gotten somewhat over the race barrier, the religion barrier is still there,” she said. At least seven other Indian-Americans are running for Congress or statewide office this year, many of whom openly embrace Sikhism, Hinduism or other Indian religions.”

While Trivedi has maintained that “issues are much more important” than what his religion is, his campaign claims that his Hinduism and Indian background have been used as a tool against him by his opponent. Most recently, Gerlach alleged that Trivedi was playing the “race card” by seeking donations from the Indian-American community. Trivedi responded, slamming Gerlach’s comments.

“These are hardworking American who pay their taxes and contribute to society.  Congressman Gerlach’s campaign is saying that somehow they aren’t good enough to participate in our democracy.  Like many Americans I am so proud of my heritage and grateful for all of the support I’ve received and believe absolutely no one, for any reason, should ever feel shut out of the democratic process.”

Trivedi is part of a record wave of Indian-American candidates this election cycle, and religious and racial issues keep coming up. While the Indian-American candidates refuse to say that their religious differences have been a hindrance, outside Hindu observers are more frank. Vidya Pradhan of India Currents magazine says that candidates like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley “felt that not being a Christian would hurt them.” Hindu American Foundation co-founder Aseem Shukla says that there is a religious litmus test for high office in America, one that sends an unhealthy message to religious minorities in the United States.

“The Indian American community may be politically mature enough to realize that Indian Americans in high office necessarily serve their constituency and not the ethnic community from whence they came. But the need to “prove” religious fidelity can be unnerving. In 2007, when 358 Christian, Jewish and Muslim members of the U.S. House passed a non-binding resolution recognizing the historical significance of the Hindu and Sikh festival of Diwali, Jindal, then a member of the House, was one of only a handful of legislators that publicly abstained.

Jindal and Haley, as brilliant and dynamic trailblazers, have thrown open the doors to political office, laying waste to minefields of ethnic slurs and perverse allegations that naysayers put in their way. Race is not an impediment to high office, and that is something to celebrate, no doubt. But in their public remonstrations of their parent’s faiths, Jindal and Haley tell well over three million Hindu and Sikh Americans that their time has not yet come as people of faith. And in their absolute denial of their religious heritage, they deny something far greater: a society that privileges pluralism, that no one religion has the monopoly on Truth, and that Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Pagans, agnostics and atheists may invest differently towards the afterlife, but can live in this life with all of the humanity, generosity and yes, frailty of any of those that presume to lead our states or nation today.”

If America is to live up to its promise, it needs to reflect the pluralism and diversity of its citizens. Eventually, an openly Hindu, Jain, or Sikh candidate will overcome the obstacles to election, and it could be Dr. Manan Trivedi in Pennsylvania, or Dr. Ami Bera in California. If either, or even both, were elected they would join Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Hank Johnson of Georgia, who became the first two Buddhists to be elected to the United States Congress. This is in addition to three Unitarian-Universalist, and two Muslim members of Congress. What will the reactions be if they win? Would they be protested? Demonized? Shouted at during congressional proceedings? Or would we finally realize that having religious minorities in office is not only important for other religious minorities, but for the health of our nation?

The Wild Hunt doesn’t endorse candidates, nor am I going to start now. Pagans in Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District should vote their conscience, and not be guided by any endorsement I could give. But I do think that we could be on the cusp of a history-making election (from a religious standpoint), and I want my readers to be aware of that. I’ll be keeping track of these races, and of the race for Nevada State Assembly, where Tea Party-backed Pagan candidate Erin Lale is in the running.