Archives For Religious Freedom

PORTLAND, Ore. — Sacramento Elementary School is poised to become the first public school in the country to permit the operation of the newly-formed After School Satan club. On Nov. 15, the Portland Chapter of The Satanic Temple hosted an evening event at Parkrose Middle School with guest speakers Lucian Greaves and Jex Blackmore. They answered questions about the temple’s work and about the new after-school program. Then, on Nov. 16, the chapter scheduled a morning open house session at the host elementary school, in order to answer more questions and share its intended program. The club will open for children Nov. 23, and reportedly host meetings once per week on Wednesdays.The After School Satan clubs are the creation of The Satanic Temple (TST), which recently established  a new headquarters in “America’s Witch City,” Salem, Massachusetts. The clubs were launched in reaction to the proliferation of Christian-based, evangelical after-school programming, more specifically CEF’s Good News Clubs.

In a press release, TST co-founder and spokesperson Lucien Greaves said: “It’s important that children be given an opportunity to realize that the evangelical materials now creeping into their schools are representative of but one religious opinion amongst many.”

Greaves goes on to say that the “After School Satan Clubs will focus on free inquiry and rationalism, the scientific basis for which we know what we know about the world around us. We prefer to give children an appreciation of the natural wonders surrounding them, not a fear of everlasting other-worldly horrors.”

As quoted in OregonLive, Finn Rezz, who is TST’s Portland chapter spokesperson, said another focus of the clubs is to teach “benevolence and empathy for everybody.” This ideal is something that TST sees as being in direct contrast to the Good News Clubs’ evangelical programming. In a press release, TST explained, “Unlike the Good News Club, After School Satan Club does not try to convert children to one religious ideology. Instead, it teaches children to think for themselves.”

The Good News Club, as we have reported in the past, is one of the missions of the Child Evangelical Fellowship, the purpose of which is to “evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living.” The CEF after-school program is specifically “designed to bring the Gospel of Christ to children on their level in their environment.” The intent of CEF is not hidden.

While the Good News Clubs are not the only evangelical after-school program in the country (e.g. Rise Up for Christ), they are the most well known and the most common found within public school systems. CEF reported that in 2015 there were 78,000 total clubs in operation worldwide. Together with its teen program, the foundation claims to be serving 19.8 million children with “good news.”

When talking about religion-based clubs in public schools, a question of legality always arises. In 2001, CEF and the Good News Clubs were, in fact, at the center of legal battle that challenged the constitutionality of their presence within the public school environment. The city of Milford, New York had denied Stephen and Darleen Fournier’s request to establish and hold a Good News Club at their local high school. The city stated that the “the proposed use–to sing songs, hear Bible lessons, memorize scripture, and pray–was the equivalent of religious worship [and, therefore,] prohibited by the community use policy.”

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), the justices of which ruled in favor of the clubs with a decision stating that “Milford’s restriction violates the Club’s free speech rights and that no Establishment Clause concern justifies that violation.” (The Good News Club v. Milford Central High School).

As explained in the ruling, public school buildings are considered “limited public forums” and, as such, the city of Milford “discriminated against the Club because of its religious viewpoint in violation of the Free Speech Clause.” That ruling paved the way for not only an expansion of the Good News Clubs but also the birth of similar religious programs nationwide, including now TST’s After School Satan clubs.

14910418_1803244776624243_6609693793544342953_nDespite the SCOTUS ruling, Good News Clubs have continued to spark protests. In 2014, the city of Portland had one of the largest and most vocal coalitions pushing against CEF and the clubs. Its formation was propelled, in part, by the publication of journalist Katherine Stewart’s book, The Good News Club: The Religious Right’s stealth assault on American Children. Local Portland parents and other concerned citizens engaged in protest and signed petitions in an attempt to stop the clubs from expanding any further.

At the same time, the group Protect Our Children was formed. Its mission statement reads, in part, “We support freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and everyone’s right to worship as they please at home or at church. We also support the separation of church and state, and hold that public schools, which serve people of all beliefs, should be religiously neutral and free from evangelizing.”

In an August 2016 article in Willamette Week, local Pagan grandparent Lana Buchanan described how, in the fall 2015, Good News Club volunteers were aggressively passing out fliers in front of Harrison Park K-8. Buchanan was quoted as saying, “I quickly informed them we are a Pagan household and have enough gods, thank you very much.”

Despite any of those efforts, the Good News Clubs have continued to pop up in the area. Today Portland’s school system plays host to several after-school CEF programs.

In spring 2016, The Satanic Temple, which is known for its religious freedom actions, decided to join what is in essence a religious freedom debate. TST created its own school club. If schools allow the formation of Good News Clubs or the like, they must also allow the After School Satan clubs.

To begin its work, TST sent letters to a select group of school districts nationwide, noting its intention to start a school club. Greaves explained, “All of the districts we’ve approached are nearby to local chapters of The Satanic Temple, and each school district has hosted, or is now hosting, Good News Clubs in their schools. This being the case, we are sure that the school districts we’ve approached are well aware that they are not at liberty to deny us use of their facilities, nor are they at liberty to deny us any level of representation in the schools that they afford to other school clubs — such as fliers, tables, brochures, and school-wide announcements.”

Since sending out the requests in August, TST has been dealing with the questions, backlash, and obstacles. However, despite the challenges, the temple is now celebrating the opening of at least two after-school programs by the end of the 2016. Portland’s Sacramento Elementary School club is set to open for business this month. In December, a second club will reportedly open in Tacoma, Washington.

Other cities on the TST radar include Powder Springs, Georgia; Panorama City, California; Taylorsville, UT; Pensacola, FL; Springfield, Missouri; Tucson, Arizona; Capitol Heights, Maryland. In addition, there are reports stating that the small town of Nehalem, Oregon, has also given a green light to After School Satan.downloadOver the past month, the announcement of the Tacoma Washington-based club has drawn notable media tension and backlash. Originally slated for Mount Vernon, the new After School Satan club was moved to Point Defiance Elementary due to the strong presence of Good News. In reaction, as reported by the local news, 75 religious leaders came together to create a plan to stop TST. Many Facebook news-related posts on the subject have since garnered 100 of comments, both in support and against.

In addition, it has also been reported that the club’s proposed opening has been a catalyst for parent protests and petitions. However, the reports do not agree on the size, scope, and number of any of those recent actions.

Despite any outrage or debate, TST was ultimately successful in its mission; Point Defiance Elementary will be getting an After School Satan club in December. The first open house will be held Dec.14. Like all of its clubs, the instructors are or will be volunteers, who “have been vetted by the Executive Ministry for professionalism, social responsibility, superior communication skills, and lack of criminal history.”

In all of its work to promote religious freedom, The Satanic Temple attempts to make one point very clear. It “does not advocate for religion in schools” nor does it want to convert children to Satanism. The organization explains that “once religion invades schools, as The Good News Clubs have, The Satanic Temple will fight to ensure that plurality and true religious liberty are respected.”

UNITED STATES — The Interfaith Council for Greater Portland called to its community to gather Nov. 10 in the Pioneer Courthouse Square to rally for peace and inclusion. As Rabbi Ariel Stone said, “Today we will seize the high ground to demand from ourselves and all others the ongoing awareness and action to demonstrate that kindness is our only hope, truth our rallying flag, and that we will never stop affirming that love trumps hate.” The interfaith rally drew members of the area’s Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, First Nations and Pagan communities, and was only one of many in the immediate area. 

[Photo Credit: Matt Morris / Twitter]

T. Thorn Coyle, who offered a prayer to Brigid during the event, said, “The reason I wanted to be out last night is to make a clear statement that I stand with Muslims, with immigrants, with our trans siblings, with the poor, and with my black and brown and indigenous comrades. Leading up to and immediately following the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, hate crimes are on the rise in this country. We must work together in as many ways possible, to ensure the safety and well-being of those who are most at risk.” 

Coyle was joined by other Pagans, including Sister Krissy, Ravyn Stanfield, Blaedfyr, Crow Walker and Patrick Garretson. She noted that her aim is, as always, was “to work for love, equity, and justice, and to counter hatred and oppression.” What Coyle expressed and what is exemplified by this interfaith event is a genuine and visceral rising fear, one that was already keenly felt by many minority communities.

While the 2016 Republican platform officially reads, “We oppose discrimination based on race, sex, religion, creed, disability, or national origin and support statutes to end such discrimination,” the party’s official statement did nothing to ease the growing stress found in marginalized communities; nor did it buffer or censor Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric. (Republican Campaign Platform, p. 9)

The concerns expressed at the Portland rally are not limited to those attending individuals or any of the others protesting across country, blocking highways, and attending vigils. On Nov. 11, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took out a full page advertisement in the New York Times, which states: “If you do not reverse course and endeavor to make these campaign promises a reality, you will have to content with the full firepower of the ACLU at your every step.”

aclu

In the wake of the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has created an online petition calling for Trump to renounce his campaign’s hateful rhetoric. According to the organization, there has been an unprecedented number of hate crimes reported since Nov. 9.

Similarly, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) has said that “it will work vigorously to oppose any attempts by the administration of Donald J. Trump to undermine religious freedom in the United States.” In a Nov. 9 press release, AU executive director Rev. Barry W. Lynn said, “Donald Trump’s rhetoric shows a shocking disregard for core principles of religious liberty […] Religious freedom is far too valuable for us to lose and far too fragile for us to leave unguarded.”

In both their public statements, the ACLU and AU noted specific campaign promises that have led to their organization’s outrage. With regard to religious freedom, what were those promises?

In the section titled “The First Amendment: Religious Liberty,” the 2016 Republican Party platform begins by stating, “The Bill of Rights lists religious liberty, with its rights of conscience, as the first freedom to be protected. Religious freedom in the Bill of Rights protects the right of the people to practice their faith in their everyday lives.” (p. 11)

From there, the document continues on to discuss the “ongoing attempts to compel individuals, businesses, and institutions of faith to transgress their beliefs” and the “misguided effort to undermine religion and drive it from the public square.” More specifically, the platform urges the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which would remove the 1954 IRS code restricting tax-exempt entities, including religious bodies, from engaging in partisan politics. (p. 18)

This is one of the issues raised by Americans United. As its press release states, the Johnson Amendment “prohibits all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing candidates for office,” thereby creating a definitive boundary, at least in law, between church and state.

Where does the Trump campaign and now administration stand specifically on this issue? According to Time, Republican platform committee member Tony Perkins said, “[Repealing the Johnson Amendment] is a priority in the platform, and from the Trump folks, it is a priority of the campaign, and will be a priority of the administration.”

The Republican Party platform goes on to endorse the proposed First Amendment Defense Act (HR 2802) (FADA) that addresses “discriminatory actions against a person on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction.” The promise to support FADA includes a repeal of the IRS tax code, as noted above, as well as other protections for faith-based institutions. The platform reads, “[the act would] bar government discrimination against individuals and businesses for acting on the belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.” As such, the platform “condemns the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor.” (p. 11)

This is another issue specifically noted in the AU statement. As the watchdog organization suggests, FADA “would allow people who hold the religious belief that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman, or that extramarital relations are sinful, to ignore laws that conflict with that belief. Individuals, businesses, health­care providers, taxpayer-funded so­c­i­al service providers and even government employees would be allowed to use FADA to get around non-discrimination protections.”

The FADA is similar in purpose to the decades-long RFRA movements around the country. Future Vice President Mike Pence has been a vocal supporter of that movement, having signed into law one of the most publicized and notorious of RFRA acts. It was the 2015 Indiana RFRA that sparked Wiccan and ATC High Priest Dusty Dionne to speak out publicly in order to defend religious freedom. In response to overwhelming criticism, Pence said, at the time, that the Indiana RFRA law was never intended to be used as a tool for discrimination. Under pressure, Indiana’s state legislature was forced to clarify its RFRA’s original language, but those changes did not make any significant changes to the law’s premise or application.

In his 2015 book Crippled America, Trump writes, “What offends me is the way our religious beliefs are being treated in public. There are restrictions on what you can say and what you can’t say, as well as what you can put up in a public area. The belief in the lessons of the Bible has had a lot to do with our growth and success. That’s our tradition, and for more than 200 years it has worked very well.” (p. 132). In October of the same year, he reportedly told Iowa supporters, “I’m a good Christian […] If I become president, we’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas at every store … You can leave happy holidays at the corner.”

Returning to the 2016 party platform, religious language can be found in many parts of the document, even outside of those devoted specifically to First Amendment concerns. However, the platform once again directly addresses religious freedom in a discussion on foreign policy. It expresses support of governments and systems that “protect the rights of all minorities and religions.” (p. 47) The document reads:

The United States must stand with leaders, like President Sisi of Egypt who has bravely protected the rights of Coptic Christians in Egypt, and call on other leaders across the region to ensure that all religious minorities, whether Yazidi, Bahai, Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant Christians, are free to practice their religion without fear of persecution. (p. 59)

During the campaign, Trump himself was not silent on topics related to Daesh. He repeatedly proposed strong action against terrorism, even using the subject as a distraction during the debate. However, some of his statements veered drastically from the above stated ideal of ensuring protection for religious minorities. Americans United wrote, “Trump has also proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States or subjecting them to heightened forms of scrutiny simply because of their faith. Such a policy would violate our nation’s fundamental commitment to religious freedom.”

Since Trump’s initial 2015 statement calling for a ban, Pence has said that the administration “no longer wanted to impose a temporary ban on Muslim immigration.” In July 2016, Trump clarified his plan, explaining that the original statement was about “territory” and not religion. More recently, Pence denounced the entire proposition, saying that this was no longer Trump’s position.

[Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Wikipedia]

[Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Wikipedia]

Outside of policy promises, Trump’s campaign rhetoric has been very clear in its religious focus. At a September rally in Iowa, for example, he asked his supporters to raise their hands if they were Christian conservatives. “Everybody,” he said. After cheers, he followed with, “Raise your hands if you’re not a Christian conservative. I want to see this? Right. Oh, there is a couple of people. That’s all right. I think we’ll keep them. Should we keep them in the room? I think so.”

Just before the November election, the campaign released one final commercial that fueled a heated- response from the Anti-Defamation League. This would not be the first time that Trump had been accused of using anti-Semitic rhetoric based on the false assumptions of a global Jewish conspiracy. After the Nov 8. election, ADL said in a press release that it “cannot and will not simply ignore the fact that this campaign brought out many of the worst elements of our society.  We saw a mainstreaming of anti-Semitism and a normalization of bigotry that deeply concerned us. […] We will not shrink from the fight ahead regardless of where it takes us.”

At the same time, the ADL also shared words of hope, saying that it is prepared to work with the president-elect and his administration “to seek the common ground and reconciliation that has been the hallmark of all presidential transitions that follow American elections.”

While not a religious-based group, the NAACP has also stated that it is watching the incoming administration. As one of the oldest civil rights organizations in the U.S., the NAACP offered congratulations to the newly elected president, but added: “[We] must bluntly note that the 2016 campaign has regularized racism, standardized anti-Semitism, de-exceptionalized xenophobia and mainstreamed misogyny.”

While implementation of the more extreme policies and promises may not be possible and any attempts will quickly be countered by the many U.S. civil rights organizations, the rhetoric fueling Trump’s success continues to linger in the minds of many Americans, who now are asking, “Where do we go from here?”

For Pagans, Lady Liberty League (LLL) stands behind its policies of inclusiveness and will stand ready to discuss any legal issues or religious freedom concerns that do arise in the coming months or beyond. Rev. Selena Fox added that LLL has seen an increase in reports over the past year and, as a result, LLL has been restructured in order to handle them. Anyone needing assistance can reach the organization through its website.

As unstable as the U.S. appears to be at this point, the NAACP ended its press release on a positive note, echoing an idea that is similar to the message coming out of the local Portland interfaith rally and the new hashtag action #lovetrumpshate. The NAACP wrote: “Our beauty as a country shines brighter than the ugliness of this election. It is up to all of us to reveal the beauty of who we are as a people as we yet see the possibilities of the nation we can become.”

UNITED STATES — As November looms ever closer, Americans continue to grapple with the many issues and the rheteroic surrounding the 2016 Presidential election process. The national conventions for the Democratic and Republican parties are now over, and candidates officially declared. At the same time, the smaller Libertarian and Green parties have also declared candidates. To date, this race has been one of the most contentious, and only promises to continue in that vein.

images
One of the most critical issues for Pagans, Heathens and polytheists is a candidate’s position on religious freedom and the protections granted by the First Amendment. The Pew Research Center recently published an  overview of “Religion and the 2016 Election.” Where do various religious communities fall within candidate support? According to the June polls, GOP candidate Donald Trump finds his biggest support among white Evangelical Protestants. “Roughly eight-in-ten white evangelical Protestant voters (78%) say they would support Trump if the election were held today.” That percentage is up slightly from 2012.

On the other hand, black Protestants strongly favor Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. “Nine-in-ten black Protestants who are registered to vote say they would vote for Clinton if the election were held today (89%), as would two-thirds of those with no religious affiliation.” The unaffiliated is defined as the ‘nones,’ or those not connected with any religion.

Pew’s report did not record any interest in third-party candidates, nor did it analyze the responses from voters within non-Christian religious populations. Pew states, “There were not enough interviews with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and members of other religious groups to analyze their responses separately.” That includes Pagans, Heathens and polytheists, unless some were labeled “unaffiliated.” Regardless, the data aren’t there.

Another Pew study published in January discusses the value of candidate’s religion within the campaign process. Does a candidate’s religious affiliation matter to voters? According to that study, 51 percent of Americans are less likely to support a candidate who “does not believe in God.” That statement could be read as meaning simply an atheist candidate, which is how Pew analyzes the data, or it could also be read as a candidate practicing a minority religion, who does not believe in the Abrahamic god. This nuance was not addressed.

At the same time, Pew does note that the percentage of people concerned about a candidate’s “faith” has been dropping. That figure is down twelve points from 63 percent in 2007. Similarly, the number of Americans who are “less likely” to support a Muslim candidate is also down from 46 percent in 2007 to 43 percent in 2016.

And, this trend follows with other major religions as well. The candidate’s own religious affiliation is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the election process, paralleling the growth of the ‘nones,’ an increase in minority religious practices, and other similar trends that suggest a movement toward greater secularization.

While the candidates’ religious beliefs are of decreasing interest, their position or their party’s position on religious freedom is still a vital part of the campaign process. Religious freedom was and is still one of the backbones of the American system.

usa-1127885_1280

[Courtesy Pixabay]

So where do the parties stand? Here is a look at the official 2016 party platforms with statements by the candidate in no particular order.

2016 Democratic Party Platform

“Democrats will always fight to end discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.” (p. 22)

The Democratic platform predominantly addresses religious freedom in general terms. It is included in discussions of general civil liberties, diversity in the military, LGBT rights, and the condemnation of profiling and hate speech. Democrats state, “It is unacceptable to target, defame, or exclude anyone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. ” (p. 18)

The platform talks more specifically about religion in three places. First, when discussing marriage equality, Democrats say, “[We] applaud last year’s decision by the Supreme Court that recognized that LGBT people—like other Americans—have the right to marry the person they love.” They go on to indirectly reference the run of Religious Freedom Restoration acts (RFRAs) in the following statement: “We will do everything we can to protect religious minorities and the fundamental right of freedom of religion.” (p. 47)

U.S._Democratic_Party_logo_(transparent).svgThe Democrats also mention religion in a section titled “Honoring Indigenous Tribal Nations.” They pledge to “empower tribes to maintain and pass on traditional religious beliefs,” among other things. And, they offer to “acknowledge the past injustices” that have led to the destruction of such beliefs. (p. 22-23)

Under the title “Religious Minorities,” Democrats say, “We are horrified by ISIS’ genocide and sexual enslavement of Christians and Yezidis and crimes against humanity against Muslims and others in the Middle East. We will do everything we can to protect religious minorities and the fundamental right of freedom of religion.” (p. 51)

This idea is supported by a comment in Clinton’s own book, Hard Choices, published in 2014:

Religious freedom is a human right unto itself, and it is wrapped up with other rights, including the right of people to think what they want, say what they think, associate with others, and assemble peacefully without the state looking over their shoulders. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that each of us is born free to practice any religion. (p.74)

Clinton herself is reportedly a Christian and, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, said, “[It] is our duty, to build that bright future, and to teach our children that in America there is no chasm too deep, no barrier too great–and no ceiling too high–for all who work hard, never back down, always keep going, have faith in God, in our country, and in each other.”

More recently, in an Op-Ed for the Deseret News, owned by the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and with a Mormon readership, Clinton wrote, “As Americans, we hold fast to the belief that everyone has the right to worship however he or she sees fit. I’ve been fighting to defend religious freedom for years.” She ends noting the “blessings” of Constitution and promise to uphold the President’s “sacred responsibility” to protect it.

2016 Republican Party Platform

“[Republicans] oppose discrimination based on race, sex, religion, creed, disability, or national origin and support statutes to end such discrimination.” (p. 9)

The Republican Party tackles religious freedom head-on. In a section titled “The First Amendment: Religious Liberty,” the party begins by saying, “The Bill of Rights lists religious liberty, with its rights of conscience, as the first freedom to be protected. Religious freedom in the Bill of Rights protects the right of the people to practice their faith in their everyday lives.” (p. 11)

From there, the Republicans continue on to discuss the “ongoing attempts to compel individuals, businesses, and institutions of faith to transgress their beliefs” and the “misguided effort to undermine religion and drive it from the public square.” More specifically, the urge the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which removes the 1954 IRS code restricting tax-exempt entities, including religious bodies, from engaging in partisan politics. (p. 18)

Republicanlogo.svgThe Republican Party platform goes on to endorse the proposed First Amendment Defense Act (HR 2802) that addresses “discriminatory actions against a person on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction.” This includes the repeal of the IRS tax code as well as further protections for faith-based institutions. The Republicans explain, “[the act would] bar government discrimination against individuals and businesses for acting on the belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.” As such, the platform also “condemns the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor.” (p. 11)

Religious rhetoric can be found in other sections of the platform, similar to the party’s position on marriage equality. However, the Republicans do not directly address religious freedom again until their discussion on foreign policy with regard to Israel and Syrian refugees. In both cases, they acknowledge their support of governments and systems that “protect the rights of all minorities and religions.” (p. 47) The platform reads:

The United States must stand with leaders, like President Sisi of Egypt who has bravely protected the rights of Coptic Christians in Egypt, and call on other leaders across the region to ensure that all religious minorities, whether Yazidi, Bahai, Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant Christians, are free to practice their religion without fear of persecution. (p. 59)

Where does Trump stand specifically? He has reportedly spoken out briefly on the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. According to Time, Republican platform committee member Tony Perkins said, “[Repealing the Johnson Amendment] is a priority in the platform, and from the Trump folks, it is a priority of the campaign, and will be a priority of the administration.”

Trump’s running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, is a supporter of the RFRA movement, having signed one of the most publicized of such laws. Trump wrote in his book Crippled America, published in 2015, “What offends me is the way our religious beliefs are being treated in public. There are restrictions on what you can say and what you can’t say, as well as what you can put up in a public area. The belief in the lessons of the Bible has had a lot to do with our growth and success. That’s our tradition, and for more than 200 years it has worked very well.” (p. 132)

Trump’s foreign policy has been a hot topic after he suggesting banning Muslims from entering the country. However, he has since explained that his statement is about “territory” and not religion. As noted in the New York Times, Pence recently supported this idea when he stated that the campaign suggested an immigration ban on all people coming from certain Daesh-controlled territories.

In July, Trump himself was quoted in The Washington Post, saying “We have a religious, you know, everybody wants to be protected. And that’s great. And that’s the wonderful part of our Constitution. […] I live with our Constitution. I love our Constitution. I cherish our Constitution.”

2016 Libertarian Party Platform

“As Libertarians, we seek a world of liberty; a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.” (p. 1)

The Libertarian Party published its 2016 platform in May after holding its own national convention. The platform is far shorter than either of the two major parties. Similar to the Democrats, the Libertarians did not address, condone, or endorse any specific religious freedom actions or proposed legislation. They simply expressed their general position with regard to religious liberty. In section “1.2 Expression and Communication”, the party writes:

Libertarian_Party_US_LogoWe support full freedom of expression and oppose government censorship, regulation or control of communications media and technology. We favor the freedom to engage in or abstain from any religious activities that do not violate the rights of others. We oppose government actions which either aid or attack any religion. (p. 2)

That is the only section that directly mentions religion or religious freedom; however, it is implied within other held positions affecting “personal liberty,” such as abortion, parenting and marriage equality. In all cases, Libertarians stress that government should “stay out of the matter.” (p. 3)

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson supports the platform in full. However, in his book Seven Principles of Good Government, he did note a nuance with regard to child care. He supports the use of government vouchers for child care, if and when it is within a religious facility. (p. 96-97)

More recently, The Deseret News published an op-ed with Johnson, who addresses religious freedom to the news agency’s Mormon readership. He wrote, “Given the divisiveness and pain that have accompanied several state religious freedom laws, I approach attempts at legislating religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws with great sensitivity and care.”

Johnson goes to say that he supports religious belief but fears “politically-driven legislation which claims to promote religious liberty” and is used to for discrimination. Here he is referring to the RFRAs.

In his conclusion, Johnson writes, “America is big enough to accommodate differences of opinion and practice on religious and social beliefs. As a nation and as a society, we must reject discrimination, forcefully and without asterisks. Most importantly, as president I will zealously defend the Constitution of the United States and all of its amendments.”

2016 Green Party Platform

“As a matter of right, all persons must have the opportunity to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment. We must consciously confront in ourselves, our organizations, and society at large, any discrimination by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, nationality, religion, or physical or mental ability that denies fair treatment and equal justice under the law.” (10 Key Values)

logo-of-the-gpusa_square_weblogo_0The Green Party addresses religious freedom throughout its platform. In its Ten Key Values, the party condemnes the “systematic degradation or elimination of our constitutional protections,” and as part of that, they support the “U.S. constitutional guarantees for freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and that there shall be no religious test for public office.” The Greens go on to say that they look to eliminate laws that “discriminate against particular religious beliefs or non-belief,” as well as eliminating the use of public funds to support “faith-based initiatives.” (Democracy)

In the Social Jusice section of the document, the Greens restate their support of the Bill of Rights, and then go on to offer a call to action with regard to a number of common situations in which religious freedom enters the debate. These situations include “curricula in government-funded public schools,” the Pledge of Allegiance, displays in public spaces, courtroom oaths, Boy Scouts, abortion, tax exemptions and more.

The Greens say, “We affirm the right of each individual to the exercise of conscience and religion, while maintaining the constitutionally mandated separation of government and religion. We believe that federal, state, and local governments must remain neutral regarding religion.”

On her own site, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein reiterated key components of the party platform. She only mentions religion specifically once, and that is with regard to foreign policy. She writes, “U.S. policy regarding Israel and Palestine must be revised to prioritize international law, peace and human rights for all people, no matter their religion or nationality.”

In a 2016 interview with OntheIssues, Stein spoke about religious freedom within the U.S. She said “We don’t live in a religious country–in the sense of having no national religion, and instead the separation of church & state–so faith should not be a public issue. […] Failing to separate church and state is a bad prescription.” Stein added that she brings a “perspective of religious neutrality,” which she believes is needed in this diverse “modern world.”

  *    *    *

While statistics appear to tell a story of a decreased interest or concern with religion’s place in politics, the decline is still very small. Whether religion is dealt with in specific terms, as the Republican Party did, or in more general ways like the Libertarians, it will continue to play a significant role in the American political machine. Religious conviction can be found underlying many major social issues, such as marriage equality and abortion rights, and at forefront of other debates, such as in public prayer and holiday displays. The U.S. may not be a religious country, but it is a country that continues to concern itself profoundly with the practice of religion, or lack thereof, in its many forms.

Editor’s Note: The Wild Hunt Inc is a non-profit news journal and does not take a position for or against any one party.

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

[From court document]

[From court document]

CHICAGO — Wiccan inmate Gilbert Knowles sued the warden of the Pontiac Correctional Center, located in Pontiac, Illinois, for refusing to allow him to wear his pentacle necklace. According to Appellate Briefs, the facility was concerned that the “star” was gang-related or would promote gang activity. Other sources say the same, reporting that the correction center had banned “all inmates from possessing five- and six-point star symbols” for that reason.

Knowles, who is serving a 52-year sentence in the death of a toddler, sued the warden under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the case was recently heard by the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago. The court ruled that Knowles’ religious rights had been violated, and the judge granted a temporary injunction, allowing the inmate to wear his pentacle. The opinion concludes, “His freedom of religion has been gratuitously infringed by the prison. The judgment of the district court is reversed with instructions to grant the preliminary injunction sought by the plaintiff.”

Related: Broadly published an article for its readers concerning Pagan practice in prison. Titled Witch Trials: There Is Nothing Magical About Being a Pagan in Prison, the article details a decade-long religious freedom case in California, and includes an interview with Starhawk.

Religion, Politics and Taking a Stand

  • Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) has published an article discussing a recent statement by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. At the Republican National Convention, Trump vowed to work hard to repeal the laws that limit religious organizations from endorsing, supporting and promoting political candidates. He said, “You have so much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits.”  In the AU article, writer Simon Brown explains the history of this federal tax code amendment, called the Johnson Amendment, and how Trump is not the only politician actively seeking its removal.. Brown writes, “The issue is currently under consideration in Congress. Republicans in the House of Representatives have added a rider to an appropriations bill (H.R. 5485) that would make it harder for the IRS to enforce the Johnson Amendment.”  AU has set up a petition to oppose any change to these tax laws.
  • In a landmark move, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) passed a measure that supports the 2015 Paris Climate agreement. According to The Huffington Post, 30,000 members met in Philadelphia at the organization’s annual conference, where the measure was adopted in coordination with the interfaith group Blessed Tomorrow. In a statement, Bishop John White, President, Council of Bishops of the AME Church, said, “Damage to our climate puts the health of children, elderly, and those with chronic illnesses at greater risk and disproportionately impacts African Americans. We believe it is our duty to commit to taking action and promoting solutions that will help make our families and communities healthier and stronger.”

Around the World

  • In Guan Yu Park in Jingzhou, China, there now sits a 1,320-ton statue depicting the god of war. Designed by artist Han Meilin, the statue is reportedly 58 metres (190 ft) tall, contains over 4,000 strips of bronze, and has a museum in its base. General Guan Yu is one of the most popular figures in Chinese history. He lived from 162-219 C.E. and was a major character in the 13th-century Chinese novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. His popularity has grown over time and, in more recent years, Guan Yu has become a common figure in pop culture. At the same time, Guan Yu is revered as a god. According to one website, “It is said that a shrine for him is in every Hong Kong police station. He is also a patron god of Chinese criminal groups for his bravery and fighting prowess. Business people and shop owners put up shrines in order to gain wealth. He is worshipped as a Daoist god, a Buddhist deity, and by Confucianists.”  The new statue was just recently unveiled, and will tower over the city of Jingzhou for many years to come.

[Courtesy BoredPanda.com]

[Courtesy BoredPanda.com]

Arts and Culture

  • The Huffington Post recently featured an interview with Reverend Yolanda, a “Genderqueer Singer-Songwriter/Interfaith Minister.” In 2003, Reverend Yolanda was awarded the title of “outmusician of the year” by New York City newspaper Gay City News. Huffington Post writer Jed Ryan speaks to her about that award, her work since that point, and how her spirituality informs her music. Reverend Yolanda told Ryan: “At the heart of all spiritual paths is the understanding that we are all one … and that there is a divine life source energy that animates all life on Earth. That energy needs to be respected […] I do not subscribe to any one religion, but I do connect with that universality which is in all paths. I love paganism and Wicca and goddess-based spirituality which really honors the Earth.”
  • It was announced last week that the Jim Henson Company would be producing a film adaptation of Sir Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men.  Award-winning writer and Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna Pratchett will be creating the screen adaptation. For those who aren’t familiar with the work, “The Wee Free Men is the first in a series of Discworld novels starring the young witch Tiffany Aching. A nightmarish danger threatens from the other side of reality. Armed with only a frying pan and her common sense, the young witch-to-be must defend her home against the monsters of Fairyland.” The Jim Henson Company will serve as the production company, with Pratchett, backed by her company Narrativia, serving as one of the executive producers. Filming will begin in 2016. No release date has been announced.
  • Did you know there is a secret world in Tumblr? And it’s filled with Witches. MIC has published an article exploring Tumblr’s teen Witch culture, including several interviews on coven activity and practice.
  • Coming soon to a computer screen near you will be the new webseries Brujos. Written by New York University student Ricardo Gamboa, and directed by both Gamboa and Reshmi Hazra Rustebakke, Brujos will follow the story of “four gay Latino grad students who are witches” as they battle witch hunters. Gamboa writes, “Supernatural has double meaning as these characters access their magic to fight evil and are also depicted struggling to love themselves and combating oppressions like poverty, gentrification, police, sexual trauma…”  The show is in production now and will be available in winter 2017. Here is a preview.

Brujos (2017) — Teaser Scenes from Open TV (beta) on Vimeo.

PHOENIX, Ariz. –When the Phoenix Goddess Temple was raided for prostitution in September 2011, the ensuing perp walk made headlines. The idea of a religion embracing sacred sexuality in this heavily Catholic area was too much to resist. After more than four years, the case against the temple’s leader, Tracy Elise, has finally reached trial. She agreed to speak with The Wild Hunt about the case as it has progressed thus far. An unexpected hiatus — due to a medical problem faced by the judge — gave her the opportunity.

Phoenix Goddess Temple members. [Jamie Peachey.]

“I’m facing 70 years in prison,” Elise said during a wide-ranging phone interview, “but I think I will be found innocent.” That’s because she is confident that the jurors recognize that the Phoenix Goddess Temple was never the brothel that prosecutors claimed. Instead, it is simply a place where a religion is practiced, albeit one that is quite different from what is generally considered sacred in this heavily Catholic city.

Jason Pitzl-Waters covered the case when it first broke in 2011, making international newswires:

It is now revealed that charges include prostitution, pandering, and conspiracy. Most reports I’ve read seem pretty confident that this was nothing but a brothel with a veneer of spirituality painted on as a legal smokescreen. I’ve never seen so many scare quotes being used in a mainstream newswire report before.

Those quotes included some from county attorney Bill Montgomery, who said at a press conference, “This was no more a church than Cuba was Fantasy Island.” It also included a statement from police spokesman Sergeant Steve Martos, who framed the temple operations as only semantically different than a brothel: “Instead of johns, they were called seekers. Instead of sexual intercourse, it was called sacred union. The women were not called prostitutes, they were called goddesses.” Over 30 people were arrested in the raids.

What Elise has come to believe in the years since is that the case against her temple was driven by a distinctly Roman Catholic bias, as personified by county attorney Montgomery. He wasn’t appointed to that position until November 2010. Prior to that, while there had been concerns raised by neighbors, city officials seemed satisfied that the temple practices were protected by the first amendment to the Constitution. While some of the prosecution witnesses, including Montgomery, were asked if they were Catholic, Elise said that the line of questioning was halted by the judge.

As to what exactly was going on in there, Elise does not shy away from the concept of sacred sexuality and its healing powers. “If someone is sincere in their beliefs, has a doctrine, and follows it consistently, then the state has the burden of proof,” she explained. That doctrine wove together goddess-focused Pagan rituals, tantric sexual practices, and Native American ceremonies overseen by the temple’s sponsoring organization, the Okleveuha Native American Church.

“I can’t do a seven-chakra rebalancing and ignore the red ray,” Elise said, using one of the terms she has for the root chakra, where the genitals are located. “If a man is starved for affection for whatever reason,” a woman in the temple’s sacred precincts might “receive him and unburden him” in a ritual as sacred as that conducted within a confessional booth, she said, and it’s no one’s business exactly what occurs between them, emotionally or physically. “He may love his wife completely, but they are not sexual. We’re not interested in stealing him away from her.”

Among the core tenets in the temple, Elise said, are self-sovereignty and “unconditional loving witness.”

Some defendants interviewed after being arrested maintained that they were not engaged in prostitution, and that intercourse did not even occur.  Elise did not say anything to contradict those assertions. Instead, she pointed to the various traditions of sacred sexuality that temple doctrine stems from, and maintains that the raids and ensuing charges should be characterized as a “hate crime” for its impact on the religious and healing work which was being done at the temple.

During the trial, Elise has brought in expert witnesses to show that the temple was in fact a place of legitimate religious practice, not the thinly-veiled prostitution ring it was described as in media accounts at the time. It is a position that was first brought up publicly in an article published in the Phoenix New Times; Elise referred to that report as an “attack.”  She maintains that none of the people arrested — who were mostly, but not exclusively, women — were coerced in any way, which she believes is a key difference between temple practices and prostitution.

The trial is expected to conclude this week.  Despite the heavy interest in 2011, news coverage this time around is decidedly lacking, fueling Elise’s belief that there is an orchestrated media blackout of the trial.

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

  • Let’s begin with a community note. The New York City Pagan community celebrated its 4th annual Witchfest USA in July.The event is a “Street Faire” that is hosted on Astor Place in the heart of Manhattan. The 2015 event was visited by a Broudly journalist who published her, somewhat skeptical or baffled, take on the entire experience. She wrote, “The crowd looked exactly as you’d expect a crowd of polite pagans to: Near the corner of Lafayette and Astor Place...” Regardless, the article offers a nice array of vivid photographs of WitchFest, its people and happenings. For more photos or information on next year’s faire, go to the organization’s Facebook page.
  • Now for less festive news, several Kentucky lawmakers appear to be unwilling to end their quest to publicly support the so-called “Ark Park.” According to Americans United, “Kentucky Sens. Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) and Chris Girdler (R-Somerset) said they will file a bill (SB 129)” to delay the start of Kentucky public schools in order to “give more tourists the opportunity to visit state attractions in August.” More specifically, Senator Thayer was quoted as saying that Ark Encounter will become a major tourist destination, and that delaying school will give local children an expanded opportunity to visit. The bill, which will be considered in 2016, comes on the heels of “Kentucky officials [rejecting] up to $18 million in tax rebates” for the theme park. Owned by the group Answers in Genesis, the park is scheduled to open in Summer 2016.
  • Unfortunately, attacks related to “witchcraft” continue to plaque sub-Saharan Africa. But this month, one story shares the hope hope being brought to those who have been victimized by such violence.Tanzanian children, who are born with albinism and are often targets of such violence, are finding aide through a New York-based charity called The Global Medical Relief Fund (GMRF)With guidance from Under the Same Sun, GMRF is bringing young victims to the U.S. for medical assistance. According to an Associated Press article,There has been a sharp increase in attacks in Tanzania and neighboring Malawi in the past year,” despite laws against “witch doctors” using human body parts. The first five children sponsored by GMRF are being fitted with prosthetics in New York City. The Fund’s founder Elissa Montanti said, “They’re not getting their arm back … But they are getting something that is going help them lead a productive life and be part of society and not be looked upon as a freak or that they are less than whole.”
  • On a similar note, a recent Namibian article demonstrates the depth of the problem in sub-Sahran Africa. The media outlet recently had to run a counter article to an older one that reported on the death of a man from tapeworms. According to the second article, there were “a number of comments on The Namibian’s Facebook page show that there is a deep misunderstanding of what is or what causes tapeworms.” They go on to illustrate and describe what actually does cause this medical condition. But the article starts the lesson by saying, “In actual fact, having tapeworms has nothing to do with witchcraft or any form of curse.” And to be perfectly clear, the article is titled, “Witchcraft does not cause tapeworms.”
  • Now moving to entirely different global region,The Independent has published an interesting and detailed article on an entirely different religious observance. Entitled “Beer and blood sacrifices: Meet the Caucasus pagans who worship ancient deities,” the article opens a window on a little known religion and culture in the country of Georgia. As one follower describes, “[The people] are the true inheritors and passers-on of the tradition, but they cannot explain it metaphysically. They cannot tell you why they are doing this or that and what it means. They cannot touch bears or wolves, touch chicken or eggs, or touch a woman when she has her period, but if you ask them why, they don’t know. It’s supernatural, it’s a mystery.” The article goes on to share the specifics on the ritual observance as well as other aspects of their theology, dedication and customs.  
[Photo Credit: Fabian Reus / Flickr ]

2010 Toyko Obon observance [Photo Credit: Fabian Reus / Flickr ]

  • Photography: Many people in Japan will be observing the Buddhist festival of the dead, Obon (お盆) in mid-August. The site Global Voices has brought together a number of recent photographs posted to Instagram from various events, festivals and observances. The article, entitled “Instagram Photos Offer a Peek Into Nagasaki’s Unique Send-Off for the Dead,” paints a vivid picture through text and these snapshots of the traditions and the reverence paid to ancestors at this time.
  • Books: National Geographic writer Simon Worrall interviews Isabella Tree about her new book called The Living Goddess. The book’s subject is “the Kumari of Nepal: young girls who embody the creative, female energy, or Shakti.” In the published interview, Tree speaks about her experience in researching and writing the book. She says, “It’s one of the things that I found most striking of all, this idea of worshiping a child, particularly a girl. Throughout much of Nepalese history, the King of Nepal has knelt at these little girls’ feet—nowadays it’s the president—in order to receive permission to rule the country.” Tree first met a Kumari when she was very young, and the book is the culmination of thirteen years of research.
  • Art: Inspired by several of the world’s natural disasters, actor and artist Lorenzo Quinn has created a dynamic sculpture series dedicated to Mother Earth. On his blog, he explains his purpose,”This would be reminiscent of the early statues made as peace offerings to the Gods in the hope of quenching their anger.” Each piece, part of a “Forces by Nature” series, depicts a female figure swinging the Earth around. Versions have been installed in multiple locations worldwide including England, the United States, Monaco, and Singapore. The Bored Panda has published a number of photos of the various statues.
  • Film: Lastly, the trailer for the award-winning film The Witch is now available on YouTube. Directed by Sundance Best Director Robert Eggers, The Witch is a horror film based in 17th century New England. After seeing the film at the festival, one reviewer described the film, “In this exquisitely-made and terrifying new horror film, the age-old concepts of witchcraft, black magic and possession are innovatively brought together to tell the intimate and riveting story of one family’s frightful unraveling.” The Witch is due out in 2016.

OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma – In late June, the Oklahoma State Capitol monument of Ten Commandments was declared unconstitutional and would have to be removed. This came after several years of public controversy and pressure from numerous religious freedom groups. One of these groups is the The Satanic Temple, who has recently funded and completed a large statue of Baphomet specifically to sit alongside the Oklahoma Ten Commandments. Now that the monument has been ordered down, the question on everyone’s mind is, “What will The Satanic Temple (TST) do with Baphomet?”

Ten Commandments Monument by Texas State Capitol, identical to the Oklahoma monument. [Photo Credit: Kevin via Wikimedia]

Ten Commandments installed at Texas State Capitol, identical to the Oklahoma monument. [Photo Credit: Kevyn via Wikimedia]

Lucien Greaves, spokesperson for TST told The Wild Hunt:

Given the Court’s ruling, TST no longer has any interest in pursuing placement of the Baphomet monument on Oklahoma’s Capitol grounds.The entire point of our effort was to offer a monument that would complement and contrast the 10 Commandments, reaffirming that we live in a nation that respects plurality, a nation that refuses to allow a single viewpoint to co-opt the power and authority of government institutions. This is the very essence of our explicitly secular Constitution. Any one religious monument on public grounds is intolerable. However, once one is allowed, it is orders of magnitude better that many should be represented, rather than a single voice claim unique privilege.

Greaves also noted that his organization’s efforts to erect the “Baphomet’ monument alongside the 10 Commandments … was soon credited by many as being instrumental in the Court’s decision.” He said, “After all, it could not have been lost on the presiding judges that a ruling in favor of the 10 Commandments would necessitate their consideration of a suit in favor of Baphomet, and any rationale preserving the 10 Commandments could also be leveraged in TST’s favor.”

The court’s decision came on June 30 and stated that the Ten Commandments monument must be removed from the Capitol in Oklahoma City because it violates the state Constitution. In a 7-2 decision, the justices said the privately funded monument violated Article 2, Section 5 of the state’s Constitution.

No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.

The Ten Commandments monument was funded by state lawmaker Mike Ritze (R) and was installed at the capitol in 2012. Then in 2014, it was destroyed by a man who crashed his car into the 6 ft high stone monument, saying “Satan told him to do it.” It was promptly replaced by Rep. Ritze.

However, by that point, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had already filed suit asking that the monument be removed on grounds that the “the monument stands alone, with no other monuments or memorials in the immediate vicinity.” The ACLU also objected to the specifically Judeo-Christian religious nature of the stone Ten Commandments tablet.

At the same time, TST started crowdfunding to create a 7ft high bronze statue of Baphomet to be placed at the state capitol next to the Ten Commandments monument. The organization said that adding the statue of Baphomet would show religious pluralism and address the ACLU’s concerns. As noted in the IndieGoGo campaign:

By accepting our offer, the good people of Oklahoma City will have the opportunity to show that they espouse the basic freedoms spelled out in the Constitution. We imagine that the ACLU will also embrace such a response. Allowing us to donate a monument would show that the Oklahoma City Council does not discriminate, and both the religious and non-religious should be happy with such an outcome. Our mission is to bring people together by finding common sentiments that create solutions that everyone can appreciate and enjoy.

The crowdfunding project attracted 1,041 donors and raised $28,180 in one month.

The Satanic Temple, a non-profit religious group headquartered in New York, has a history of working for religious pluralism, women’s reproductive rights, and ending child abuse.

TEMPLE-OF-SATAN-unfinished-statue-of-Baphomet-May-9-2014

[Courtesy of The Satanic Temple]

In 2014, the organization unveiled a full size template of the proposed statue showing Baphomet sitting on a pentagram throne with two children looking up at him. TST planned to donate the completed statue to Oklahoma’s Capitol Preservation Commission for display upon Oklahoma City’s capitol grounds next to the Ten Commandments monument. However, the Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission had placed a moratorium on any requests to donate art to the capitol pending the resolution of the ACLU lawsuit.

The finished statue “weighs one ton and [towers] nearly nine feet tall.” It is scheduled to be unveiled at Berts Warehouse Entertainment in Detroit, Michigan on July 25. Because the statue was destined for the Oklahoma state grounds, this unveiling event was considered to be “a call-to-arms from which [The Satanic Temple would] kick off [its] largest fight to date in the name of individual rights to free exercise against self-serving theocrats.”

Now that the court has ruled that the Ten Commandments must be removed, Baphomet’s future is uncertain. Greaves said, “Unfortunately, our insistence that Baphomet only be displayed to complement and contrast a pre-existing public monument of religious signification doesn’t limit our options nearly enough … there are plenty of areas in the United States crying out for a counter-balance to existing graven tributes to archaic Abrahamic barbarism. Arkansas is looking rather appealing.” Greaves is referring to a newly signed law allowing for the placement of a privately-funded Ten Commandments monument on the Arkansas’ state capitol grounds.

As for the Baphomet statue, it is now being protested by members of Detroit’s religious community ahead of the upcoming unveiling. Change Agent Consortium (CAC), a faith-based community organization whose mission is to engage “people in our democracy to improve food access, better job skills and the economic development of citizens,” is organizing these protests.

“I am horrified by The Satanic Temple’s decision to unveil their ‘Baphomet’ in Detroit. They are a satirical group that attempts to mock religion and destroy the fabric of sincere religious belief and the value of true religious expression,” said Change Agent Consortium leader David Bullock. The group says the statue is not good for Detroit and plans to host a prayer protest on the day the statue is presented to the public.

As for the Ten Commandments monument, Oklahoma lawmakers have said the battle isn’t yet over. They plan to amend the state constitution to remove the section of Article 2, Section V that prohibits the use of public property for religious purposes.

While the fight in Oklahoma is not completely over, Greaves said, “Hopefully, when all is said and done, TST will have helped to awaken within a generally lackadaisical public rightful disgust towards public officials — like Pruitt and Rapert — who so mindlessly and shamelessly pursue these infuriatingly unconstitutional undertakings at the expense of taxpayer dollars.The people of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and the world over, deserve better than to suffer politicians who fail to comprehend the very premise of their public duty: the duty to uphold an environment of viewpoint neutrality and plurality, where all people — whether Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, Muslim, Satanist, or any ‘other’ — can enjoy equal protection under the law, with preference for, and bigotry against, none.”

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, there is small town called Dahlonega. This quaint southern town is home to wineries, apple orchards, antique shops and picturesque views. It is also home to a small college called the University of North Georgia (UNG), which is made up of both a traditional university and one of only six prestigious senior military colleges in the entire U.S.

Downtown Dahlonega [Photo Credit: Gwringle, CC lic. via Wikimedia]

Downtown Dahlonega [Photo Credit: Gwringle, CC lic. via Wikimedia]

Demographically speaking, the college is quite typical for the Dahlonega area. According to City-Data.com, the town is 89 percent Christian. The dominant religious practices are Southern Baptist, United Methodist and Old Missionary Baptists.This is echoed in the makeup of the student body as shown by the represented faith groups on campus. Of the 9 religion-based clubs, all are Christian except for the Interfaith Alliance. Additionally, there is a Secular Student Alliance or Skeptics Society.

As such, UNG is not a place that one might readily expect to find a Pagan or Heathen student. However, not only are they there, but they just earned official status as a formal university club.

The story begins in the fall of 2013 when a Heathen soldier, who is enrolled in the cadet program, applied for admission to the Corps Cadet Chaplaincy training program. At first the program administrators ignored his application. Then he applied again in the spring of 2014 and was informed that, in order to be accepted, he had to be Christian.

This allegedly was not an isolated case. According to multiple reports, other non-Christian cadets have been rejected in the past. While these other cases could not be confirmed, the accusations are plausible considering the program website. The Corps Cadet Chaplaincy advertises itself by opening with a biblical passage and, in secondary document, quotes a cadet chaplain saying, “Keeping the Lord’s purpose as our goal that should be our purpose our drive.”

UNG senior Trevor Graham, a civilian psychology major and Hellenic Reconstructionalist, heard the Heathen cadet’s story in August 2014 after meeting him for the first time. In an interview with The Wild Hunt, Graham said that he was not at all surprised. However, he was surprised to find another Pagan or Heathen on the UNG campus.

Graham, better known on campus as the kilt-guy, spent three years not having any Pagan community. Over this past summer, he decided that it was time to look for like-minds. So when school started back, he placed a letter in the campus non-denominational meditation center. Inside this former evangelical church, students can engaged in contemplative, quiet thought and peaceful correspondence. Graham’s letter, which invited other Pagans to contact him, sat with other correspondance on a desk within the space.

Trevor Graham, UNG Student, co-founder of the Old Faith Community [Courtesy Photo]

Trevor Graham, UNG Student, co-founder of the Old Faith Community [Courtesy Photo]

At the very same time, the cadet had been posting fliers around school with a similar intent. Frustrated by what had happened to him, he made up his mind that it was time to try organizing. Unfortunately, he declined an interview due to complications with his position and pending deployment. However, he did say,”I can’t change anything for myself [being a senior] but maybe I can make this better for the next students and cadets that come in behind me.”

Within hours of Graham placing his letter in the meditation center, the cadet answered the call and the two met. Graham said, “It felt amazing to have somebody to talk to.He may not do what I do but it’s somebody.” Shortly after, the two launched an advertising campaign to build a Pagan club and establish a community. Graham took the lead and began chalking the sidewalks and posting flyers.

Within a week, they had a response. By mid-October, the group had grown to 16 students. It was, and still is, comprised an eclectic mix of Wiccans, Hellenic Reconstructionalists, Asatruar, Naturalist Pagans, Polytheists and others. Graham said that their goal is simply to build a comfortable and welcoming place for any student that practices any of these alternative religions.

As one might expect, the newly formed club experienced some backlash from the conservative religious community. Fliers were removed and chalked signs were washed away. Around Halloween, the group placed a cauldron with candy and a harvest blessing message inside the university meditation room. Within 24 hours, the candy was completely removed and, in its place, were Christian pamphlets that read “Atone for your sins.” Despite all of that, Graham did add that he has yet to experience any real personal backlash or threats.

Although the new Pagan group was formed by mid-October, it was not an official university club. They could only meet off-campus or discreetly on campus. However its goal was ultimately to earn university recognition. Both the Interfaith Alliance and Secular Student Association reached out to offer guidance to the fledgling Pagan organization.

During the final weeks of October, the group prepared paperwork on its structure, constitution and mission. Due to club diversity, it was renamed The Old Faith Community of UNG. Then, with the support of faculty member Dr. Michael Bodri, Graham presented its application to UNG administrators on Oct 31. Several days later, the Old Faith Community was awarded its official student club status. The UNG Pagans, as they are still known, have become both the first Pagan group on campus and only the second official non-Christian religous club.

UNG Campus [Photo Credit: Hermione1980, CC lic. via Wikimedia]

UNG Campus [Photo Credit: Hermione1980, CC lic. via Wikimedia]

But the story doesn’t quite end there. While the group was preparing its application, Graham decided to reach out to the Corps Cadet Chaplaincy program. He asked the administrators if they would consider accepting a student from the fledgling Pagan club. To his surprised, the Chaplaincy agreed and the aforementioned Heathen cadet was finally accepted into the program. He was able to walk into his first training meeting openly without compromising his own Asatru beliefs.

Why did the chaplaincy administrators change their minds only six months after rejecting the Heathen candidate?

During this period of time, UNG came under fire from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), an advocacy group that seeks to “ensure that members of the United States Armed Forces receive the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.” According to UNG school newspaper, The Vanguard, the Secular Student Alliance invited MRFF’s Mikey Wienstein to speak at the school. On Aug. 18, he addressed a large crowd about the problems with school-sanctioned prayer at Corps Cadet events, saying:

We were asked to come here …We want to express in no uncertain terms that we do have a constitution. This is our founding document of this country. In this country, unlike North Korea or Saudi Arabia, we do separate church and state. It does not mean you cannot have your religious faith.

On Oct. 1, the MRFF sent a letter to UNG after learning that the state school had allowed a Christian prayer during a mandatory Corps Cadet 9/11 memorial program. The letter’s intent was to “to make the University aware of its’ “illegal actions.” As an aside, MRFF also did note that the college was only allowing “Baptists into the chaplaincy program.” On Oct. 29, MRFF announced “plans to take litigious measures against the university.”

logo_interior800x600In response, school President Bonita Jacobs stated:

There is no substance for a complaint against the University. MRFF has provided the University with supplemental information regarding their concerns, and the University is examining those claims.

Jacobs also stressed that administrators respect MRFF’s opinion, saying that “the university should not endorse religion” but that ” it is equally important that we strike a balance that also protects the constitutional right of genuinely student-initiated speech afforded by the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment.”

While Graham and the other members of the Old Faith Community had absolutely no involvement, or even knowledge, of the mounting tensions with MRFF, it is not insignificant that these two situations happened simultaneously. It may very well be that the attention brought to UNG by MRFF helped facilitate the acceptance of the UNG Pagan club. It may have also spurred the Chaplains into finally accepting a non-Christian cadet.

Regardless of that influence, the work done by the UNG Pagans cannot be attributed simply to opportunism or luck. The club’s beginnings, including the dream behind it, began long before MRFF ever came to campus. When we asked Graham what he might tell other students facing a similar environment, he said, “You are not alone. We are all a community.” He specifically wants that message to be heard by any other UNG Pagans or Heathens that have yet to find the Old Faith Community.

As for the cadet who was unable to be interviewed, we asked if he would be willing to, at the very least, offer a few words of wisdom to other Pagan or Heathen cadets or civilian students who may feel alone. He said this: “If there is no local community, be the local community. If you aren’t going to do it, who is.”

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

Holt-v.-Hobbs-Infograph1

  • A prison beard ban case currently before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) could have far-reaching implications for religious freedom in our prisons. An anaylsis at SCOTUSblog of Holt v. Hobbs notes that SCOTUS have already ruled that corporations have the ability to avoid complying with some government mandates that they believe infringe on their religious beliefs, but what about prisoners? Quote: “Having ruled that a corporation can rely on the devoutly Christian beliefs of its owners to avoid complying with the Affordable Care Act’s birth-control mandate, will at least five Justices be equally receptive to an inmate’s desire to comply with his Muslim religion by growing a half-inch beard? Throw in yesterday’s announcement that the Justices will review the case of a Muslim teenager who alleges that she was not hired for a job at a popular clothing chain because she wears a headscarf, and it looks like it could be another significant Term for religious freedom at the Court.” The Becket Fund frames the case as whether prison officials can arbitrarily ban a religious practice (in this case beard-growing).
  • Is religion on the wane in the West (say that ten times fast)? There’s some recent evidence that it might be. Ben Clements at British Religion in Numbers analyzes the latest British Election Study (BES), which shows a huge growth in “nones” (those who don’t identify with having any particular faith identity). Quote: “The most common response is that of not belonging to any religion, at 44.7%.” It should also be noted that “other” faiths are also on the rise among younger respondents. Meanwhile, in the United States, a growing majority thinks that religion is losing its influence over American life. This is according to a Pew Research poll. Quote: “Nearly three-quarters of the public (72%) now thinks religion is losing influence in American life, up 5 percentage points from 2010 to the highest level in Pew Research polling over the past decade.” 
  • Religion News Service covers the latest iteration of people over-reacting to Halloween, in this case a school district in New Jersey that banned, then un-banned Halloween parties. Quote: “For years, Christian evangelicals have objected to what they see as Halloween’s pagan origins. Some churches have adopted alternative harvest celebrations, while others have constructed elaborate “Hell Houses” designed to depict the torments of hell and the promise of salvation through belief in Jesus. But a day after canceling the in-school Halloween celebration, parents received a note home from Acting Superintendent James Memoli saying the cancelation has been reversed, and the event would take place as it has in the past.” Of course, Halloween is NOT a Pagan holiday, it’s a Christian holiday that was thoroughly secularized over the last 100 years. Now, Samhain (and other pre-Christian harvest/Winter festivals), that’s a different matter. Anyway, what’s truly ironic is re-labeling Halloween as a “Harvest Festival” just makes is sound MORE Pagan, not less. Stick with the jack-o-lanterns and candy.
  • Catholicism is slowly losing its grip on Brazil, but that hasn’t dimmed the popularity of an annual processional in honor of the Virgin Mary. Quote: “An arduous public display of devotion, Cirio (pronounced see-rio) has persisted and thrived as a centerpiece of Amazonian regional culture — maintaining consistent levels of participation year to year — even as Catholicism loses ground to evangelical faiths in a dramatic transformation of Brazilian society.” Why the enduring popularity? Because the festival goes deep into the cultural history of their society, quote, “in Brazil, where African and indigenous traditions melded with Christianity for centuries and where Catholicism has deep cultural roots, religious identities are not so clear-cut.” Indeed, indeed. Meanwhile, practitioners of Afro-Brazilian faiths feel under attack.
  • Affirming belief in a higher power, or going back to jail? Thanks to a lawsuit in California, that may be a choice that’s on its way to extinction. Quote: “The real victory here is that California will no longer be able to force anyone into a faith-based treatment program. It’s fine to have different rehab programs available to drug offenders – even if they’re faith-based – but religious ones must remain optional.”
  • The Miami Herald reports on how two prominent Santeria organizations (Kola Ifa and Church of the Lukumí Babalú Ayé) have joined forces to, quote, “establish a central and very visible hierarchy for a faith often associated by outsiders with mysterious rites, colorful deities and animal sacrifices.” Here’s a video report on this new agreement. I’m thinking this move could have significant ripples into the wider Santeria/Lukumi world.

That’s all I have for right now, as always, some of these stories may be expanded on in future Wild Hunt posts. Thanks for reading, have a great day!

In Canada’s Quebec Province, there has been an on-going debate over the teaching of a government mandated Ethics and Religious Culture Program (Programme Éthique et culture religieuse.) The ERC school curriculum was created and implemented in 2008 by former premier Jean Charest. Since that point it has caused multiple controversies and court cases which have now taken the debate to the steps of Canada’s highest court.

Canadian Supreme Court (Photo Credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson, cc lic. Wikimedia)

Canadian Supreme Court (Photo Credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson, cc lic. Wikimedia)

According to this mandate all Quebec schools, private and public, must teach a prescribed Ethics and Religious Culture curriculum or an equivalent. The province’s website explains:

For the purposes of this program, instruction in ethics is aimed at developing an understanding of ethical questions that allows students to make judicious choices based on knowledge of the values and references present in society. The objective is not to propose or impose moral rules, nor to study philosophical doctrines and systems in an exhaustive manner.

Instruction in religious culture, for its part, is aimed at fostering an understanding of several religious traditions whose influence has been felt and is still felt in our society today. In this regard, emphasis will be placed on Québecs religious heritage. The historical and cultural importance of Catholicism and Protestantism will be given particular prominence. The goal is neither to accompany students in a spiritual quest, nor to present the history of doctrines and religions, nor to promote some new common religious doctrine aimed at replacing specific beliefs.

To summarize, the program’s goal is twofold:  to expose children to aspects of Quebec’s own culture and to engage in a type of diversity training. Religions included are Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), Judaism, Native spirituality, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and “other religions.”  The aim is not at all spiritual instruction. Author Brendan Myers, a Druidic Humanist and Philosophy professor explains:

Quebec was, up until around 50 years ago, a Catholic theocracy in all but name. Several Christian institutions, most prominently the Catholic Church, were the main taxpayer-funded service providers in education, health care, low-income housing and the like … The Quiet Revolution changed that and now most Quebecers want a vigorously humanist state. [The]  “Ethics and Religious Culture” course is in some ways a continuation of Quiet Revolution values. Its purpose is to expose students to a lot of different ethical world views from a lot of different religions, and thus continue to move the culture further away from the Catholic lock-step of life before the Quiet Revolution. 

In other words, the ERC is aimed at building a better secular state by educating its youth on the religious diversity found within its borders.

Brendan Myers

Brendan Myers

This government educational requirement is applicable even to the province’s private institutions. As Myers explains, Quebec regulates private schools with a “light tough.” For example, it might offer partial tuition subsides for “students attending schools meeting certain regulatory criteria.” However the ERC mandate has been handled differently. Myers says, “A private school which doesn’t offer this course won’t get its tuition subsidies for its students and might have its charter revoked.”

Since implementation in 2008 the program has come under considerable fire from both secular and religious communities. Should the government be allowed to force private religious schools to teach ethics that are contrary to their own belief structure? Should parents have the right to exempt their children from the program if its teachings are contrary to family belief? Should the teaching of religion and ethics instruction be allowed in secular schools at all?

The most recent battle began when a Montreal-based Catholic high school, Loyola, challenged the mandate by asking the government for an exemption. The school does not want to include what it considers to be a “neutral” teaching of Christianity.  In its place the school would teach the ERC material but from “its own Jesuit style” that would be “respectful to [its] Catholic faith and morals.”

In 2008 the Quebec government refused the school’s request for exemption which sent the case to court. In 2010 a provincial Judge upheld the request saying, “The province’s order places Loyola in an untenable position: either it teaches the ERC program required by the Minister and thus violates its religious precepts, or it teaches the ERC course with its own program and thus violates the Act.”

In 2012 the province won an appeal which eventually led to the current Supreme Court case:  Loyola High School, et al. v. Attorney General of Quebec. According to reports, the debate is now centered on a new issue – one that is particular to the reading of Quebec law. In its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms religious rights are granted to “every person” and to “human beings.” The Charter never refers to institutions. Are the same religious freedoms, protections and rights granted to organizations such as Loyola?

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

[Photo Credit: Flickr’s Liz cc-lic Wikimedia]

In support of Loyola, various organizations have recently come forward. The World Sikh Organization of Canada said,

Freedom for collective religious activity is important to Sikhs in Canada as it is impossible to be a Sikh by oneself but only as a part of a larger community of believers. A broad interpretation of freedom of religion is critical for the protection of minority religious groups which are more vulnerable to government interference in their internal functioning.

Other groups acting as interveners at the March 24 Supreme Court hearing were The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada, Home School Legal Defence Association of Canada and a variety of Christian-based organizations. The CCLA wrote:

This appeal is of particular importance to the CCLA as it could determine and clarify – for the first time – whether and when a body corporate can invoke freedom of religion against the State. This is an increasingly pressing issue at the national and international levels

Should the school, as a “corporate body,” be granted the same religious freedom as an individual?  Should it realize that freedom by way of exemption from teaching a mandated ethics curriculum that is in direct conflict with its own belief structure but aimed at the betterment of society?  Can the celebration of religious pluralism within a multicultural environment overstep its bounds?  These are the issues now facing the Canadian Supreme Court. The debate will continue as the province and country now await on the Court’s ruling.

(Webcast of hearing available.  French only)