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What’s it like to be a religious minority in a Christian-dominated culture? Jews on First has published a must-read in-depth exploration of what it’s like for Jewish students going to public schools in the South, consistently exposed to peer pressure and conversion attempts by their Christian classmates, behavior often (directly and indirectly) supported by faculty.

Hint: The "Fifth Quarter" is about Jesus.

Hint: The “Fifth Quarter” is about Jesus.

“It can be the little stuff, like my classmates wishing me to have a ‘blessed day’. I know that really means that Jesus blesses you,” says Jane. “I have a friend who introduces me as her ‘Jewish friend, Jane’. It’s always in your face. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded that I’m a Jew.” [..] One parent relates how his son would eat breakfast in the school cafeteria when a group of athletes would come in and “perform” for the students. “They would basically lift weights for about 30 minutes,” then go to the microphone and “announce that Christ helped them become athletes. After five or 10 minutes of sermon, they would pray and leave,” but meanwhile the students eating breakfast were not allowed to leave the cafeteria and were obviously a captive audience with no option to “not hear.”

Because court rulings have largely forbade faculty and staff from directly proselytizing, local churches use various tricks like the aforementioned “performance” to introduce stealth missionary work into the student body. One Rabbi in Atlanta notes that Christian students are urged by their churches to work towards the conversion of non-Christian students.

“…according to Rabbi Greene, one of the largest evangelical churches in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, even provides literature to its young members about “how to approach your Jewish friends.” He calls the effort “love bombing.” Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim, which isn’t far from Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, agrees that ‘they are very aggressive in their proselytizing and will teach Christianity to anyone who will listen. One of my former Hebrew School students came to me recently and said he accepted Christ; he’s confused.’”

In public school systems that are religiously and culturally diverse, the issue of student conversions is almost non-existent, evangelical Christian students are simply one voice among several; but when your school is in a region dominated by mission-minded Christians, the tone and tenor of student interactions suddenly changes. Instead of one voice, Christianity becomes the only voice, the dominant voice, among the student body. Those who don’t fit into that template find themselves consistently battered by the expectation that they too will fall in line. Christian leaders in these areas are well aware of this power, which is why they fight for state constitutional amendments that open “the door for coercive prayer and proselytizing” and “religious freedom” laws that they know will benefit the majority at the expense of minorities.

Join us. Jooooooiiiiin ussssssss.

Join us. Jooooooiiiiin ussssssss.

Public schools are supposed to be secular by design, they have to serve the needs of all students, not simply those who are in the majority. These initiatives by local churches and missionary groups are trying to “game” the system by turning the student body into a peer pressure engine against non-Christian students. These are not natural conversion experiences that arise after deep contemplation or introspection, this is the equivalent of religious bullying, turning all those who resist into social outsiders. The experience of these Jewish students and parents is shared by other religious minorities in deeply Christian areas of the country, including modern Pagans. Sadly, these students often have to turn to outside help, or even litigation, to make sure their own religious autonomy is respected, as the faculty and staff are often sympathetic to these conversion efforts.

Christians, if they truly want to see earnest conversions among non-Christian populations, need to understand that these tactics do nothing but create ill will and adversarial feelings among parents and non-Christian religious leaders. It makes them the enemy, and they turn the message of Christ into a sort of bludgeon in which to control behavior they don’t like.

Here are some updates on stories The Wild Hunt has reported on previously.

Teaching Paganism in British Schools: On Sunday I deconstructed the sensationalist Daily Mail’s assertions regarding the teaching of Paganism in British religious education courses, specifically in Cornwall. I pointed out that there is no hard-and-fast mandate requiring schools to insert Pagan religions into their curriculum, and that the RE advisory council is exactly that, advisory. Still, why let facts and reason get in the way of a good rant? That’s seems to be the position of conservative Catholic columnist Christina Odone, who uses the story as a jumping-off point to rail against any who dare place non-Christian faiths on equal ground with Christianity.

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

How long indeed! It seems that individuals like Odone are all for pluralism when it’s the other groups being tolerant and inclusive, but watch the knives come out when Christians are asked to make a bit of room to allow differing views. You know things have gone off the rails when a columnist makes The Daily Mail seem restrained by comparison (heck, even The Christian Post simply rewrites The Daily Mail’s article with no further editorializing).

The Problem With Passive Distribution: Last week I reported on the latest developments regarding the Buncombe County School Board in North Carolina’s policy regarding religion in its schools. The new policy passed at that meeting was the culmination of months of activism that began when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. However, the larger question about the distribution of religious materials by non-student groups was tabled until next year, with talk of a religion fair of sorts where local churches could distribute literature. Now, advocacy group Americans United weighs in on that idea, warning the school board to tread carefully.

Can we really expect that future incidents of favoritism in distribution would not occur? What would happen if a Muslim group tried to drop off Korans, or Hindus left the Bhagavad Gita? Would local residents and the school board be open to letting impressionable minds read literature from minority faiths or anti-religion groups? There is absolutely no need to allow outside organizations to engage in “passive distribution” of materials at public schools, plus one would like to think that the school board has better things to do with its time than deciding whether or not a copy of the Satanic Bible is appropriate for students. [...] Getting religious materials into student hands is simply not a void that public schools should fill.”

Local activists have noted that constant vigilance will be needed to make sure schools don’t seek out loopholes to their new rules, or try to create an unfair distribution policy once the glare of national attention is off of them. For more on the school board’s new policy, check out the two-part post from local Pagan activist Byron Ballard. She wisely notes that “we won’t be resting on our laurels but we will take a breather and figure out the next steps. Because it ain’t over. Not by a long shot.”

A Brief Update on the “Occult” Library Filtering Case: Back in January I reported on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri against the Salem Public Library, accusing the institution of  unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.’” I’ve taken a keen interest in this case as I believe there shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided. Since my initial report there hasn’t been much word as the case slowly worked its way towards trial, though Religion Clause does have a brief update on the city of Salem, Missouri being dismissed from the lawsuit.

“…a Missouri federal district court dismissed as to one defendant a free expression and and Establishment Clause challenge to the Internet filtering policies of the Salem, Missouri public library.  Plaintiff, who was attempting to conduct research on Native American spirituality and on the Wiccan Church claimed that the library’s policy of blocking religious websites categorized as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal skills’ while allowing access to the websites of more mainstream religions” was a content and viewpoint-based restriction on speech and has the effect favoring one religious viewpoint over another in violation of the Establishment Clause. The court dismissed the city as a defendant finding that the city retained no control or oversight over the library that was governed by a separate Library Board. The suit however will move forward against the Library Board and the library’s director.”

So not much has changed other than the city itself being removed from the case. I posted this update because I want to keep this story, which I think is very important, fresh in our minds. The results of this case could have far-reaching implications for adherents to Pagan and minority faiths looking for information in federally-funded institutions, and may even change the Internet filtering industry itself. Once the trial starts, or there’s more information to be shared, you’ll find it here. Oh, there is one other thing, the Library Board did file a response in March, which you can find here. They, naturally, deny all the allegations (seriously, “deny each and every allegation” is repeated at length).

Spotlight on Project Conversion (Spoiler: He Didn’t Actually Convert): Amanda Greene writes a profile for the Religion News Service (RNS) on Andrew Bowen’s Project Conversion, which I’ve mentioned a couple times previously here at The Wild Hunt. The goal, “convert” to 12 faiths in 12 months, including Wicca, and share what he’s learned. The RNS piece constructs the story as a personal journey through tragedy (his wife’s ectopic pregnancy that had to be aborted), the 12 religions were each there to help him “find faith in humanity.”

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

“…the 29-year-old Lumberton resident doesn’t call himself by any of the 12 faiths he practiced for a month at a time last year [...] It was an obsession – his personal intervention. [...] Bowen was one of the best students of Wicca Greenville resident Melissa Barnhurst has had. “He gave it a lot more than some students who’ve come to me wanting to become Wiccan,” she said. Meanwhile, his wife worked as a labor and delivery nurse at a local hospital. Things were hard financially, at times, because Bowen wasn’t working.”

Interestingly, this personal journey isn’t even referenced in the “about” page of Project Conversion, or his bio, which claims that “theology is a playground” to Bowen. Project Conversion caused some controversy in the Pagan community for what was seen as a too-blithe tourism through the Wiccan faith, nor did his account of an experience he had with some from-the-book “shamanism” he engaged with in 2003, do much to reassure folks. Bowen mentions in his Paganism wrap-up post the “firestorm of criticism” he received, and how he managed to rise above it all and find the true meaning of Wicca. In a sense, Bowen is just another “embedded” journalist, tasting our wares, and passing his judgment from a limited engagement. Very few such arrangements ever end up with the writer or journalist converting, but does lead them to have stories to tell at parties about that time they did a Pagan ritual.

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

Muck-raking (and hugely successful) British tabloid The Daily Mail reports on the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education’s (SACRE) syllabus for schools in Cornwall, saying that it encourages the teaching of modern Paganism alongside other religions (sorry, I still don’t link directly to them).

The Daily Mail: Your source for sensationalism on Paganism.

The Daily Mail: Your source for sensationalism on Paganism.

“Cornwall Council has told its schools that pagan beliefs, which include witchcraft, druidism and the worship of ancient gods such as Thor, should be taught alongside Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the Daily Mail reported. The requirements are spelled out in an agreed syllabus drawn up by Cornwall’s RE advisory group. It says that from the age of five, children should begin learning about standing stones, such as Stonehenge. At the age of 11, pupils can begin exploring “modern paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall.” The syllabus adds that areas of study should include “the importance of pre-Christian sites for modern pagans.” An accompanying guide says that pupils should “understand the basic beliefs” of paganism and suggests children could discuss the difficulties a practising pagan pupil might face in school.”

Something about this story tickled my memory, so I did a quick search of my archives and found a very similar story from 2010 about religious education in Lincolnshire County (also reported on by The Daily Mail). Beyond the misleading headline, ”Schools get go-ahead to teach Paganism alongside major religions,” you find a quote from the Assistant Director of Children’s Services making it clear that there is  ”no direct guidance about whether [Paganism] should be included in the school curriculum and it is left to individual schools to make a decision about whether to include it.”

“So, in essence, individual schools could, if they wanted to, teach Paganism alongside other faiths. But it isn’t a mandate from on high, nor are there any concrete plans reported from any school to start including Paganism. It’s a story about a possibility, one that seems inspired by the recent Charity Commission approval of The Druid Network‘s application for religious charity status (both articles mention it).”

So how about this new story? Are schools in Cornwall mandating the teaching of Paganism? Well, first off, before we even read the syllabus, you should know that advisory councils are, well, advisory.

“The agreed syllabus is a statutory document for Cornwall LA community, trust, foundation and controlled schools.  It can be adopted by aided schools, academies and free schools with the consent of their governing bodies or board of directors to support the delivery of the syllabusAgreed syllabus implementation booklet sets out how the syllabus may be implemented, but it is for schools to implement the syllabus, as they decide, as long as they are meeting the statutory requirement.  The booklet should not be used as a definitive guide to how schools must use the syllabus.”

So lets go to the posted syllabus itself. Here’s the first thing it says about Paganism.

“It is clear that Christianity should predominate at each key stage and should feature in no less than 60% of the religious education taught. The other religious traditions should occupy no more than 40% of RE time over the key stage. [...] At times schools may wish to teach religions not in their key stage or not in the syllabus at all. This teaching should be clearly identified in the scheme of work, it must be for a specified amount of time and it may occur in an academic year where Christianity and one other religion are already being delivered. An example of this in the past has been the desire to teach primary aged pupils about modern Paganism where there are the children of Pagan parents at the school. Schools are free to do this but must be clear about two things: 1. that the teaching of such a religious tradition is not at detriment to the programme of study and is at a level which clearly links attainment to the expectations of the syllabus; 2. that the school has clear justification for doing so based on evidence from the school. It should not be the case that teachers focus on religions that they feel most comfortable with or that appear to be more relevant in their estimation.”

So not exactly a “rah, rah, let us teach Paganism to children” moment.  Let’s go to the second and only other mention in the main syllabus.

“Cornwall as a place of spiritual inquiry: The development of modern Paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall. The importance of pre-Christian sites for modern Pagans. How modern Paganism is diverse and how this diversity is expressed in Cornwall.”

That’s it. A mere mention, and dwarfed by every other religious tradition mentioned. I would be surprised if this lead to even a full day in any British school on modern Paganism. So fantasies of Miss Rose teaching about phallic symbols and the rites of May Day are just that, fantasies.

This story is hung around the idea that a school might dare to take the advice of SACRE and  include Paganism alongside other British religions, and The Daily Mail quotes the Christian Institute for reaction who (naturally) call it “faddish” and “political correctness.” They apparently lost the number for the local Pagan Federation chapter.

If a serious journalistic resource covered this story they might give more than a soundbite to the local SACRE members, or interviewed some Pagans, or perhaps spoke with historian Ronald Huton, who’s hosting an upcoming documentary about how Wicca is a religion born in Britain and given to the world. Why would a responsible British religious education class not spend at least a few minutes on that subject? Or on the Charity Commission approval of The Druid Network‘s application for religious charity status, and the long history of Druidry/Druidism in the British Isles? Modern Paganism and esoteric religion has been interwoven with British history for generations now, acknowledging that isn’t “political correctness.” That the mere possibility of inclusion sparks tabloid headlines, one wonders what will happen when a school actually follows through on the council’s advice and includes Paganism in a religion education class.

Last night the Buncombe County School Board in North Carolina unanimously passed a policy regarding prayer, religious activities, and the distribution of religious materials by students in their schools. It was the culmination of months of activism that began when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible. Strivelli, along with local activist and Pagan leader Byron Ballard, and a growing coalition of local residents, made clear that the board needed to remain neutral on matters regarding religion. Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog, who has covered previous meetings on this issue, has posted her impression of last night’s events.

Ginger and Sybilsue Strivelli (Photo courtesy of Fox News).

Ginger and Sybilsue Strivelli (Photo courtesy of Fox News).

“When it came time to vote everyone was on edge. I can only imagine this is what it’s like in a murder trial or something. The board got hung up about the word neutrality and whether or not it should be replaced with the word unbiased. The Fundies were clapping and whooping because I think they thought the vote would get tabled again. Honestly, I am not sure what they were excited about because the Americans United rep said that the words meant the same thing and wouldn’t change the policy in any way. Personally I thought they might table it again too the way they were hung up on one dang word and I was panicking a bit. Fortunately they voted. And it passed unanimously.

So what does this mean? As of now school officials have to remain neutral in regards to religion. They can still have their prayer over their lunch, wear religious jewelry, and have awesome bumper stickers on their cars. They cannot lead children in prayer (it must be student led), no distribution of materials, and no promotion of any specific religion. There is still more work to be done with the policy, including implementing the policy, but for now we can take a deep breath and move on to the next bit of work. I think I am going to request being a volunteer with the County schools acting as a consultant in regards to religions in the schools. There was something said about that at a meeting with Mountain Area Interfaith Forum.”

At the Strivelli Family Support Page on Facebook, Ginger Strivelli, expressed that there were “lots of loopholes” in the policy, and that concerned citizens would “have to stay on watch forever to keep them honest.” This sentiment was also expressed by Byron Ballard, who posted at her Citizen-Times blog the night before the vote.

“Sadly, even if the board approves the two policies tomorrow night, it still won’t be over. We will have to police the system for years to come, calling, demanding, emailing. Every time a child whose parents practice a minority religion is othered or belittled or otherwise bullied because of that–someone will have to contact the system and demand that something be done.”

Missing from the policies passed last night were guidelines on the distribution of religious materials by outside groups, the issue that initially sparked this saga. That matter won’t be taken up formally until next year, when the board will consider allowing a yearly religions fair open to all faiths. It is assumed that until then, distribution of religious materials by any group won’t be allowed, though Strivelli and Ballard’s calls for constant vigilance will no doubt be required to make sure that remains the case. We’ll keep you updated of future developments in this matter when they arise.

student says kids have told her they can't sit near her or be her friend because she is pagan. #avlgov
@APippinger
Angela Pippinger

For Pagans and other adherents to esoteric, indigenous, or non-Christian minority faiths, what has happened in Buncombe County should be an object lesson in the importance of being vocal, engaged, and active in supporting our equal treatment. Ginger Strivelli has risked personal attacks, a death threat, and ostracization in the name of protecting her children, and making sure local government works for the benefit of all citizens, not just the Christian ones. Modern Pagans have come very far since we first emerged into the public eye back in the 1950s and 60s, but we still have a long way to go. Even in seemingly cosmopolitan enclaves, many hold misconceptions about what our religions are like. This is why it’s so important to stand behind these brave individuals when they step up, in addition to supporting organizations like the Lady Liberty League who provide on-the-ground assistance and advice. Together, we can slowly change our culture into one that is open and welcoming to modern Pagans.

The idea of the United States as a pluralistic, secular, society where no single religious expression is enshrined has always gotten push-back, and experienced robust dissent over the years. To many, America is a “Christian” nation (sometimes a “Judeo-Christian” nation), and all others live here under their sufferance. The Rev. Dennis Terry’s recent comments at a Rick Santorum presidential rally typify the more vituperative side of this particular sentiment.

“I don’t care what the naysayers say. This nation was founded as a Christian nation. The god of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. There is only one God. There is only one God, and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words. I’m tired of people telling us as Christians that we can’t voice our beliefs or we can’t no longer pray in public. Listen to me. If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, get out! [...] We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Terry clearly articulates a popular view among conservative Christians concerning religious freedom. To these Christians, government-enforced secularism isn’t a neutral ethos, but a method of attacking their faith and limiting their free expression. In the minds of these Christians “religious freedom” means, in this time of demographic dominance, the right to let the majority dictate the religious norms of a society. Any deviance from that, in limiting prayer in schools, or sectarian prayer at government meetings, is a persecution of their church. To combat this “war on religion” (ie religion = Christianity) a variety of laws have been passed at the state level in order to “protect” the religious freedom of the overwhelming majority. A recent example is the new Florida law enabling students to give “inspirational messages” at school events.

“SB 98 states that its purpose “is to provide students with the opportunity for formal or ceremonious observance of an occasion or event.” Although “prayer” is never used in the bill, opponents claim it allows religious messages to be delivered in public schools. They also question allowing students to have an unrestrained venue to air their opinions at a school event.”

Such measures are almost always worded carefully to avoid legal challenge, though the wink-wink, nudge-nudge subtext is that it will allow majority Christian schools to have de facto sectarian Christian prayer so long as it’s a student willing to say it. As Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, put it: “legislators are clearly inviting Florida school boards to plunge into a legal swamp.” It’s a swamp that Tennessee seems ready to plunge into as well.

“The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden was approved by the House Education Committee on a voice vote. The companion bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. Holt said he proposed the legislation after talking with a concerned school board member in his district. He said the proposal would allow school districts to develop a so-called “student speaker policy” for school officials to follow.”

Here’s the thing though, while such laws almost always privilege the majority religion, it also opens the door to expressions of non-Christian religion within public schools (at least if the law if applied fairly).  Prayers to Jesus are all well and good, but what happens when a Wiccan gives an “inspirational” message?

Rep. Richard Montgomery, a Sevierville Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said he likes the idea of the bill, but believes it’s going to cause an uproar when a student decides to discuss a not-so-popular religion, such as Wicca. ”You might have 1 percent that actually believe that way, and 99 percent don’t believe that way,” he said. “You’re going to have an uproar out of this world in a lot of communities.”

This sentiment was echoed by David Barkey, Religious Freedom Counsel for The Anti-Defamation League, when asked for comment on the new Florida law.

Protesters in Pensacola support highschool educators on September 17, 2009. The educators are on federal trial following the ACLU charge that they prayed in school. (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com)

Protesters in Pensacola support highschool educators on September 17, 2009. The educators are on federal trial following the ACLU charge that they prayed in school. (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com)

“Our public schools are for all children regardless of their religion. But this law could require children as young as five to observe prayers to Allah, Buddha, Jesus or other faiths contrary to their religious upbringing at mandatory student assemblies. It is completely contrary to our public schools’ inclusive nature, and the law will only serve to divide students, schools and communities along religious or other lines. In America, the question of one’s religion or faith is extremely personal and private. It is not a question that is put to the discretion of government or other people. To ensure all children’s religious freedom, we urge school districts not to implement this imprudent law.”

Despite these warnings, student “religious liberties” laws have already been passed in Arizona and Texas, places where the majority feels confident that these laws will act as proselytization tools of the majority faith. Think I’m overstating this? Don’t listen to me, listen to the Texas House Research Organization’s own analysis of the then-pending bill.

“The bill could serve as a tool to proselytize the majority religious view, Christianity, in Texas schools. The United States is a nation made up of people of many faiths. Children are required to attend school and should be permitted to do so without someone else’s religion being imposed on them … A school should be a religion-free zone – leaving religion for homes, places of worship, and individual hearts.”

In truth, the “a Wiccan might be allowed to invoke the Goddess publicly” scenario is more a gambit than a true threat. It can occasionally work to stymie Christian overreach into the public sphere, but in many other cases, those lone non-Christian students who speak out face incredible intimidation and threats. In most cases the tyranny of the majority, once unconstrained by the law, proceeds to do its level best to silence all dissenting voices through threats, intimidation, violence, or simply peer pressure. That said, this new wave of “student expression” laws aren’t, legally speaking, bullet-proof. There’s a new legal precedent being built that looks not just at the openness and neutrality of a law’s language, but how well it maintains a balance of religious and philosophical viewpoints.

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist, who was bullied and threatened out of her school after successfully challenging a Christian mural.

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist, who was bullied and threatened out of her school after successfully challenging a Christian mural.

“…legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible — itshould send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. Itshould not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one.Infrequent references to specific deities, standing alone, donot suffice to make out a constitutional case. But legislativeprayers that go further — prayers in a particular venue that repeatedly suggest the government has put its weight behinda particular faith — transgress the boundaries of the Establishment Clause. Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal, and the government should not appear to suggestthat some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

While that decision looked at legislative prayer, it isn’t so far a stretch to see that precedent being applied to government-funded public schools as well. If a school enacts a policy under a student free expression law, and the vast majority of “inspirational messages” are endorsing one single sectarian message, it could be seen a an official endorsement of religion, even if the teachers and administrators never utter a word. That gives adherents to minority faiths some hope, but as challenges work their way through the courts, we still face the very real situation of schools in several states where Christian expressions of faith are going to receive pride of place, marginalizing Pagan students.

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

Tonight, the Buncombe County School Board in North Carolina is scheduled to vote on a new policy regarding the distribution of religious material in public schools. This vote, if it happens, will be the culmination of controversy that began this past December, when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible.

At the time, the school defended their policy of distribution for religious materials, saying it was open and neutral, but when tested with Pagan books the school’s tune quickly changed. The Buncombe County School Board now said their policy was under review, while Strivelli received a death threat for speaking out. On February 2nd, the school board held a meeting to unveil (but not vote on) a new distribution policy for religious materials. In a packed room, a climate of fear and anger held sway, according to Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

For awhile there seemed to be a balance of people who supported and opposed the policy. But then some preachers got up and made direct personal attacks to Ginger. They claimed she was the only one with a problem with the bible distribution. Little do they understand how many pagans in the county that fear coming out and speaking up. And after that meeting, I completely understand!  Then it got even worse when a preacher spoke up that only bibles should be allowed in schools. And that is when the preaching began. People after people felt the need to quote scripture. One guy even read from the bible and stated that if we were real pagans that our ears would burn after listening to the scripture.

All through this we quietly sat and allowed people to speak their minds. While I fully support freedom of speech, this was quite difficult. It was off topic. It was all about the “us vs them” mentality. I wanted to speak because it had been so long since anyone from the pagan community spoke. But I was scared. Yep, you read that right. The hostility was so thick that I wasn’t sure that I could handle standing before those people and be subject to a possible attack. When Ginger spoke about her feelings of being bullied and that she was the only one brave enough to stand up to the masses, the crowd rebuked her. The same crowd we respectfully allowed to speak their minds now could not handle her speaking her own. I will speak at the next meeting. I have things to say and I need to stand by my desire for a strong interfaith world by standing up and speaking.”

That entire contentious meeting was recorded by the school board, and you can listen to it in short excerpts if you’d like to wade through it all. Regarding the proposed policy that will be voted on tonight, it states that school officials  “while acting in their official capacities shall not use their positions to endorse, promote, or disparage a particular religious belief, viewpoint or practice.” It also requires ongoing training to staff, and to have principals consult the superintendent over any instance that might violate the Constitution. Ginger Strivelli, and local Pagan activists, will be in attendance to speak up in favor of the new policy, and document the proceedings. Local activist and Pagan leader Byron Ballard posted yesterday about the preparations she is making, and what she plans to say at tonight’s meeting.

“…maybe I’ll talk about bullies and bullying because we had plenty of examples of that at the last meeting. And maybe I’ll talk about how deeply ashamed I am of grownups who use their religion as an excuse to dominate and intimidate children. How humiliating it is for me–as a parent, as a mountain woman–to hear a young child say to an adult: You are going to burn in Hell. We used to have good manners here. We used to respect our elders–even when they didn’t earn it.”

Meanwhile, Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog will be live-tweeting the meeting.

I am excited and yet still nervous. I guess that's normal when you feel like walking into the lion's den.
@APippinger
Angela Pippinger

“I have spoken with the Communications committee at the BoE and I will be taking my laptop and will be able to live tweet the event. Please follow my Twitter account or follow the hashtag #avlgov to watch the public commentary portion of the meeting as well as the outcome of the vote. During the live tweeting I will not be able to respond to tweets but if you use the hashtag, you can freely discuss amongst yourselves what is happening. Depending on my ability to plug the laptop in the while will dictate how long I can tweet for. I simply won’t do it from my phone during public commentary, my thumbs were killing me last time. If I cannot plug in, I will tweet the public commentary as long as my battery will hold out.  I will tweet from my phone the outcome of the vote. I won’t leave anyone hanging!”

Finally, Selena Fox and the Lady Liberty League has sent out a blessing to Strivelli and her supporters.

“Lady Liberty’s Flame of Freedom & the Strength of the Sacred Oak be with you during Tonight’s meeting & in times to come in this quest for upholding separation of church & state and for fair & equal treatment of those of differing religions & belief in the Buncombe County, NC public school system!”

Our thoughts and prayers go out to our Pagan brothers and sisters fighting the good fight in North Carolina, and all those who would stand with them in the name of equality and upholding the separation of church and state. The meeting is scheduled to start at 6:30pm EST tonight, so tune in to Angela Pippinger’s Twitter feed for the latest word. We will update this post once we have word of the vote.

ADDENDUM: Angela Pippinger’s account of last night’s meeting is now up. In short, the board postponed the vote for another month, so it was another round of public comments.

“Now I am sure you all are curious as to the outcome of the voting. Well. There was no vote. Chairperson Rhinehart stated that they wanted to work on the policy a bit more and create procedure for handling religious literature specifically. They felt that it would be better to vote on a policy and procedure instead of handling this matter in bits and pieces. To be honest, this didn’t thrill me too much. It felt more like a stonewalling move than an actual step forward. Perhaps I am wrong.

The next meeting will be held on April 12 and they are supposed to vote that night. Initially I panicked because it falls on the last week of tax season and I am afraid I won’t be able to go. But really, I can’t not go at this point so I will be there again. I may or may not speak, will depend on the amount of stress I am under at that time. I will be live tweeting the event, it’s too important of an issue.”

I highly recommend reading her entire account. You may also want to check out Patti Wigington’s blog at About.com, as she was also at the meeting.

This past December, North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible. The school claimed their policy of distribution for religious materials was open and neutral, but when tested with Pagan books the school’s tune quickly changed. The Buncombe County School Board now said their policy was under review, while Strivelli received a death threat for speaking out. Last night, the school board held a meeting to unveil (but not vote on) a new distribution policy for religious materials. In a packed room, a climate of fear and anger held sway, according to Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

For awhile there seemed to be a balance of people who supported and opposed the policy. But then some preachers got up and made direct personal attacks to Ginger. They claimed she was the only one with a problem with the bible distribution. Little do they understand how many pagans in the county that fear coming out and speaking up. And after that meeting, I completely understand!  Then it got even worse when a preacher spoke up that only bibles should be allowed in schools. And that is when the preaching began. People after people felt the need to quote scripture. One guy even read from the bible and stated that if we were real pagans that our ears would burn after listening to the scripture.

All through this we quietly sat and allowed people to speak their minds. While I fully support freedom of speech, this was quite difficult. It was off topic. It was all about the “us vs them” mentality. I wanted to speak because it had been so long since anyone from the pagan community spoke. But I was scared. Yep, you read that right. The hostility was so thick that I wasn’t sure that I could handle standing before those people and be subject to a possible attack. When Ginger spoke about her feelings of being bullied and that she was the only one brave enough to stand up to the masses, the crowd rebuked her. The same crowd we respectfully allowed to speak their minds now could not handle her speaking her own. I will speak at the next meeting. I have things to say and I need to stand by my desire for a strong interfaith world by standing up and speaking.”

Ginger pointed out that she has felt bullied. Crowd told her she didn't have to be here.
@APippinger
Angela Pippinger

Regarding the proposed policy, it states that school officials  “while acting in their official capacities shall not use their positions to endorse, promote, or disparage a particular religious belief, viewpoint or practice.” It also requires ongoing training to staff, and to have principals consult the superintendent over any instance that might violate the Constitution. Local activist and Pagan leader Byron Ballard called the proposed policy “fair,” but also commented on the atmosphere of the meeting, saying it “was like an audition for preachers,” and that many in attendance seemed “desperate and fearful.”

As for Ginger Strivelli, she bravely faced the crowd, telling them that “I am the only one who is courageous enough to stand up to your bullying,” and that “this is not a church [...] this is a public school board meeting.” What she is doing is not easy, but her work, along with the work of Byron Ballard, is slowly changing the culture in Buncombe County. Next month the school board will likely vote on the new rule, Byron Ballard suggests sending them an email of support.

@ You could send them an email of support. Put "I support Policy 652" in the subject line. http://t.co/B5xhhxOt
@ByronBallard
Byron Ballard

I am expecting an official response from Ginger and Byron’s media liaison on last night’s events, and I will post that here as an update once I receive it. You can be sure I will be keeping an eye on this situation, and will report on any progress or developments.

UPDATE: The Lady Liberty League’s Education Task Force has issued a press release with statements from Selena Fox, Byron Ballard, Ginger Strivelli, Lady Miraselena, and Lady Arsinoe Meri Ma’at. Here’s Selena Fox’s statement on behalf of the Lady Liberty League:

“Having liberty and justice for all in this country may be in the Pledge of Allegiance, but it is not an automatic reality. The large volume and intensity of sectarian religious rhetoric in the February 2nd meeting proves the necessity to have a religiously neutral public school policy, It also demonstrates that, all of us, need to be vigilant and willing to work together to make this happen wherever discrimination occurs. And, we have been very pleased to see that Pagans and those of other beliefs have been collaborating, networking, and speaking out in favor of the separation of church and state in this Buncombe County public school situation. We ask that you continue to send support to Ginger, Byron, and others who are on the front lines of this quest. We will post any updates on the Strivelli Family Support and Lady Liberty League Facebook pages.

In her statement, Ginger Strivelli simply adds: “Thanks to everyone who has been giving us support.”

Last month, North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli decided to challenge her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible. The school, when challenged, said the policy applied to all faiths, so Strivelli decided to test their commitment to theological neutrality. According to local Pagan leader and activist Byron Ballard, who’s been assisting Strivelli, the school’s tune quickly changed.

Ginger Strivelli

Ginger Strivelli

“We were there to deliver the materials that she was assured would be “made available” in the same way the Gideon material was, right before the winter break. No surprise to find that, in consultation with the system’s superintendent Dr. Baldwin, the principal Jackie Byerly and asst principal Danny Fusco couldn’t do that at all because the central office was reviewing its policy regarding religious materials in schools. They suggested that they would “hold onto” the books, in case the school system needed to review them for appropriate content, once the policy was vetted.”

The school is now officially “reviewing” their policy on distributing religious materials. Since then, Strivelli’s story has been covered by a number of mainstream media outlets, including Fox News, CBC News, the Houston Chronicle, and several others. Due to the intense level of coverage for this issue, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Ginger Strivelli recently received an anonymous death threat.

“Buncombe County investigators are looking into a threatening phone call made to a local woman who made headlines when she criticized a county school for making Bibles available to students. [...] Strivelli believes that the threat is related to her speaking out. “It’s definitely related. He (the caller) said he saw me on the news,” she said. “I’m hoping it’s just some idiot trying to scare me into shutting up.” The man called Thursday night, claiming he was calling from Moscow, according to Strivelli. He told Strivelli that he had 20 or 30 people working in this area, and “I was done for. I was dead,” Strivelli said Friday.”

The Lady Liberty League, along with a coalition of local and national Pagan organizations, are coordinating to support Strivelli during this time of trial, and have started a Facebook page for those looking to give aid and support. Here are the Lady Liberty League’s recommendations for those seeking to help.

  • Do prayers, meditations, rituals of Protection, Healing, & Well-being to Ginger Strivelli & her family.
  • Learn more & Post words of support for Ginger & her family on their support page on Facebook.
  • Speak out in support of separation of church & state in comments sections of media sites carrying news and editorials about this issue.
  • Those with interfaith and/or law enforcement contacts in North Carolina interested in working with Lady Liberty League in providing support to the family and this situation should contact: liberty@circlesanctuary.org as soon as possible.
  • Share this email & support page link with others – by email, through social networking sites, on blogs & websites.

Prominent Pagan mom-blogger Mrs. B, from Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom,  who dealt with Christian death threats over a blog ranking contest, says that “there is nothing more frightening than thinking that some nutball is threatening your family.” These threats are part and parcel of any who have the temerity to challenge Christian norms or traditions that intersect with government-funded institutions, and represent a time when their cultural dominance when unquestioned. This is the reactionary shadow side of a religion who feels its dominance fading, the anxiety over changes they can’t control. The hope is always that these threats will amount to nothing, that they are ravings of powerless individuals wanting to inspire fear, but we must practice vigilance and solidarity in the off chance that this is no idle threat.

Our prayers and best wishes go out to the Strivelli family, may they remain safe and free of fear. The Wild Hunt will be keeping an eye open for future developments. In the meantime, you can get the latest from their support page on Facebook, and from Byron Ballard’s blog at The Citizen-Times.

On December 20th, I reported that a Pagan, Ginger Strivelli, was challenging her son’s school in Buncombe County, North Carolina on allowing the distribution of Bibles, claiming that the manner of distribution crossed the line into unconstitutional endorsement. Strivelli, and noted North Carolina Pagan activist Byron Ballard, decided they would test the supposedly open-door policy for the distribution of religious materials as asserted by principal Jackie Byerly of North Windy Ridge school.

“Jackie Byerly, principal at North Windy Ridge, defended the availability of the Bibles. She said they were not handed out, and students had the option to take them. She checked with Superintendent Tony Baldwin and was given permission to make them available. She said the Bibles arrived Monday morning from a local group of Gideons International, and the box containing the books was opened in the main office. Byerly said the students picked them up during their break time. “If another group wishes to do the same, I plan on handling that the same way as I have handled this,” she said.”

So, how did North Windy Ridge school do when presented with boxes of Pagan literature free for the taking? According to Ballard, their tune had suddenly changed when it came to non-Biblical text distribution.

Ginger Strivelli with her rejected Pagan books.

Ginger Strivelli with her rejected Pagan books.

“We were there to deliver the materials that she was assured would be “made available” in the same way the Gideon material was, right before the winter break. No surprise to find that, in consultation with the system’s superintendent Dr. Baldwin, the principal Jackie Byerly and asst principal Danny Fusco couldn’t do that at all because the central office was reviewing its policy regarding religious materials in schools. They suggested that they would “hold onto” the books, in case the school system needed to review them for appropriate content, once the policy was vetted.”

Local news outlets are now reporting on the sudden change of heart, with the Asheville Citizen Times getting Jan Blunt, spokeswoman for Buncombe County Schools, to entertain the idea that perhaps their method of distributing Bibles in a public school wasn’t altogether legal after all.

“This whole thing has raised an issue of were we in compliance with any laws or were we not,” Blunt said. “There’s a lot of gray area. Perhaps we were in the wrong, and that’s why we’re going to review.”

Blunt also noted that a group in New York offered to send them 500 Qurans, and that feedback on their policy has been “mixed.” As for Ginger Strivelli and Byron Ballard, they are vowing to continue fighting and see this through till the end.

“The Earth religions community is frankly tired of dealing with this every few years. As long as any child in a public school system is bullied, coerced or ostracized for the spiritual path of their family and themselves, the situation is not fixed and the school environment is not safe. There will be more media, more “good Christian” people threatening violence, more bullying and “othering” before this is settled. But settled it will be. Of this you can be certain.”

Again and again it seem like certain Christian activists love the idea of inserting religion into the public sphere until it’s made plain that other, competing, ideas will be allowed as well. Then, the value of secularism suddenly reveals itself, at least until the law, or the demographics, change enough to allow them complete religious hegemony.  Pagans (and other minority religions) it seems, are either being invoked to test the resolve of supposedly “open” programs of religious activities that receive governmental funding, or used to prove how open a program is to avoid litigation. As non-Christian practices and beliefs become more and more common, I think we’ll start to see some realignment on the question of religion in public school or local government, until then, local Pagans continue to fight for true equal treatment and inclusion.

A North Carolina Pagan, Ginger Strivelli, is challenging her son’s school on allowing the distribution of Bibles, something the school said is perfectly acceptable since they didn’t actively hand them out.

"Oh look, a Bible, you shouldn't have."

"Oh look, a Bible, you shouldn't have."

“Jackie Byerly, principal at North Windy Ridge, defended the availability of the Bibles. She said they were not handed out, and students had the option to take them. She checked with Superintendent Tony Baldwin and was given permission to make them available. She said the Bibles arrived Monday morning from a local group of Gideons International, and the box containing the books was opened in the main office. Byerly said the students picked them up during their break time. “If another group wishes to do the same, I plan on handling that the same way as I have handled this,” she said.”

But Strivelli’s son said that the “break time” was constructed especially for picking up a Bible, that all the students went, and that copies were distributed to the children by a teacher. Strivelli called the incident “totally inappropriate” while local Pagan leader (and blogger) Byron Ballard called the distribution “problematic,” and “potentially illegal.”

“Byron Ballard, an active Pagan in Asheville and freedom of religion advocate, said the situation is “terribly inappropriate.” She said she plans to contact the school system’s legal department and the local American Civil Liberties Union.”

Now, Strivelli plans to see if Jackie Byerly is true to her word and will handle the distribution of other religious material in the same fashion, of if the Christian Bible will be privileged in a public school.

“I have 2 lovely Pagan Authors already promising me copies of their books…and I need to contact the Editor who used my Chapter in her book, surely she can chip in some for my work on that book for her….and dropping all those and more off Jan 3rd I hope..but asap for sure…WE WILL SEE how equally they ‘make them available’.”

Longtime readers of this blog may remember that a similar test was given to another school district in North Carolina, and they didn’t exactly pass with flying colors.

The Brunswick County Board of Education in North Carolina.

The Brunswick County Board of Education in North Carolina.

“Way back in 2006, the Brunswick County Board of Education in North Carolina was on track to approve a controversial and vaguely-worded policy that would allow for the distribution of religious materials on school grounds. Legal threats didn’t seem to faze them until Llewellyn Worldwide offered to distribute free books on Wicca and Paganism to school children. Faster than you could say “Galloping Gideons”, the Brunswick board backed down from their plan, and someone fortuitously caught that delicious moment in a photo.”

Is Buncombe County ready for its “Pagan moment,” or will they blink the face of true equal treatment?