Archives For SCOTUS

The movement towards marriage equality in the United States has taken on a different tone in the year 2014. The term “marriage equality” itself is a seismic shift from the debate over “same-sex marriage” of only a few years ago, indicating that the question being asked is not one of gender, but one of fairness.The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) declined the opportunity to address the issue, apparently preferring to let it play itself out socially, and playing out it is.

"Rainbow flag and blue skies" by Ludovic Bertron [CC lic/Wikimedia]

“Rainbow flag and blue skies” by Ludovic Bertron [CC lic/Wikimedia]

As of today, it is possible for same-sex couples to obtain a marriage license in 32 out of 50 states, including those places where it was banned by constitutional amendment or voter referendum.* To understand what’s been going on in recent weeks, The Wild Hunt decided to talk to Buddha Buck for a fresh voice and “Pagan on the street” perspective.

Buck is effectively a lifelong Pagan, having been reared that way since he was a child in the early 1980s. He’s not personally impacted by the question of marriage equality, since, “I have no desire to marry and am not gay, but I have been actively paying attention.” For Buck, following important legal struggles is a life-long hobby. Perhaps its because he’s a computer programmer; Buck’s “paying attention” involves a very close focus on the extreme details and complexities of a given case – including this one.

First, he was quick to point out that the ways this legal environment impacts people is quite nuanced: “I know folks … who have moved so as to be able to get married, who married primarily to get health insurance and other benefits, who live in pro-equality jurisdictions but don’t plan on marriage, etc. How each of those react to the developments is more nuanced than, ‘have been or are being denied marital rights.'”

For many people, what happened this month was anticlimactic. SCOTUS simply chose not to get involved in the debate. Five states, in which marriage bans had been overturned by federal courts, had those rulings effectively ratified by the decision of SCOTUS not to hear an appeal. Six other states with bans were drawn in by virtue of sharing a federal court district with the affected states. A flurry of legal activity followed and, when the dust finally settled, 32 states allowed same-sex marriage. That number has changed several times and could again soon.

screen-shot-2013-03-26-at-2-48-50-pm-650x0“They took more action than I expected,” Buck said of the court. “For each of the 7 cases, their choices were (a) grant cert, (b) deny cert, or (c) hold on to them, doing nothing. I expected (c), a true lack of action. After no case was announced as being granted cert on Friday, I expected them to hold onto all of them, re-listing them for a later conference or generally waiting until a circuit split. I was surprised that all 7 were denied certiorari.”

The road to this point has been anything but smooth. A 1996 law, the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, received strong support in Congress as well as the signature of President Bill Clinton. This marriage act protected states and the federal government from being forced to recognize same-sex unions performed in other states where it was legal.

In 2000, Vermont was the first state to grant any sort of legalization for the union of same-sex couples. However, the legislature acted under a court order and called the product civil unions, rather than marriage. In 2004, another court case led Massachusetts to open marriage to same-sex couples. That year also saw protest marriages performed by the mayors of San FranciscoNew Paltz, NY and others.

In reaction to the perceived “war on marriage,” state legislatures passed a number of laws expressly forbidding gay marriage, indicating a strong backlash to the trend. At the same time, several states either passed laws in support of civil unions or domestic partnerships, or were forced to accept full marriage by the courts. The year 2008 saw intense activity on this front, with actions in two states standing out. On the east coast, New York governor David Paterson signed the first-of-its-kind law to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages from a state that hadn’t legalized them. On the west coast, California’s residents voted to amend the commonwealth’s constitution to ban same-sex weddings, making it the first state to overturn court-imposed same-sex marriages.

In the following year, Vermont’s legislature took a leadership role by passing a same-sex marriage bill and overriding a gubernatorial veto. Other states, largely on the coasts, followed in using the word “marriage” in legislation. But the biggest blow to the fight to preserve so-called “traditional marriage” did not come until June 26, 2013, when SCOTUS hit it with a double whammy. The court invalidated a key provision of DOMA and turned away an appeal on behalf of California’s Proposition 8, which had been found unconstitutional by a lower court.

The court’s 2013 ruling on DOMA is an area the Buck was quick to clarify, saying, “Not all of DOMA has been struck down, just some of the more important bits. DOMA still says that states don’t have to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Striking down DOMA was an important event legally, and certainly made the subsequent court cases across the country easier to argue. Without it, advancement of marriage equality through the courts would have been much slower (especially as the alternative to saying DOMA is unconstitutional would be saying it is constitutional, and thus making it harder to strike down the bans). More importantly, it got rid of the federal ban on marriage recognition, which for actually married couples was immensely important.”

From one perspective, the recent flurry of court rulings seems quick, but in context, the fight has been going on for decades. On the other hand, Buck points to a recent and eye-opening xkcd comic, comparing the acceptance of same-sex marriage to that of interracial marriage:

 

 

While same-sex marriage seems long overdue, particularly for those who have waiting a lifetime to marry, the trend towards general popular acceptance reached the mainstream in record time when compared to the popular acceptance of interrracial marriage. And this happened despite the deep ideological divisions in this country. Could full nationwide legal acceptance of same-sex marriage now be close-at-hand? Could nationwide acceptance of true marriage equality, across and between any social divisions, be not far behind?

 

 

*32 States include: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina,Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming (as of Oct 23 2014)

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!

On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States [SCOTUS] ruled 5-4 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that some for-profit employers with religious objections do not need to provide contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Wild Hunt breaks down the ruling and features commentary from Pagans from across the U.S.

Basics of the case
Under regulations written in 2012, after the ACA was passed in 2010, all employers with over 50 employees were mandated to provide female workers with no-cost access to twenty different kinds of FDA approved contraceptives. Male contraceptives, such as vasectomies, are not covered under the ACA. The regulations were immediately challenged by religious groups and non-profits who objected to paying for contraceptives. The Obama administration worked out a compromise where religious groups and non-profit corporations would not be forced to pay for contraceptives.  Women would still receive no-cost contraceptives, either paid for by the insurers or the government. It’s estimated that a third of Americans are not eligible for employer-provided, no-cost contraceptives.

In 2012 the families that own Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties filed suit to opt out of providing four of the twenty women’s contraceptives on religious grounds, citing the Clinton era 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). These four contraceptives include the morning after pill, Ella, IUD with progestin, and the copper IUD.

RFRA is a federal law that prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on a person’s ability to practice his religion unless that burden advances an important government interest and does so in the least restrictive way possible. The question on which SCOTUS was asked to rule was whether the contraceptive mandate burdened Hobby Lobby’s and Conestoga Wood Specialties’ religious rights under RFRA. There are five steps to the legal test to check if any rights are being violated.

Person
The first, and publicly most contentious, hurdle was determining if Hobby Lobby, a for-profit corporation, is a “person” under RFRA. Corporate personhood has a long history in American law. The first mention of corporate personhood was the 1819 case Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. In this case, corporations were ruled as persons so they can engage in contracts and be party to lawsuits. In the next almost 200 years, corporations have been ruled as persons with rights in matters ranging from protection from illegal search and seizure; to free speech; to the right to own property. Yet corporations do not have all the same protections and rights as individuals.

In the Hobby Lobby ruling, Justice Samuel Alito emphasized that corporate personhood falls in line with historical precedence. It’s not really about faceless corporations; it’s about the individual people who own the corporations. He states, “A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends….When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people.”

Yet a stronger case exists in the The Dictionary Act of 1871, which set the definitions of words unless a law specifically defines them another way. The Dictionary Act says “the words ‘person’ and ‘whoever’ include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” RFRA did not spell out another definition of the word person so the meaning is defined by the Dictionary Act.

Practice his religion
The next question that needed to be answered was: Can corporations practice a religion? They can’t go to a house of worship, nor can they pray. Yet the government and courts have acknowledged in the past that non-profit and for-profit corporations can exercise religion. In the case of for-profit corporations, they can have a mission other than making a profit and many list charitable causes and actions in their mission statements. For legal experts who dispute the ruling, this is the area on which most of them focus. Although they agree that corporations can be people with rights, they do not feel freedom of religion should have been granted to for-profit corporations.

Substantial Burden
Hobby Lobby had to demonstrate that complying with the contraceptive mandate would be a ‘substantial burden.’ The company said the mandate could add as much as $475 million in costs and would require the company to go against its religious beliefs.  Despite medical evidence, Hobby Lobby contends that the four types of contraceptives cause the abortion of fertilized eggs.

For this legal test it didn’t matter if Hobby Lobby’s beliefs are correct. The court wasn’t to pass judgment on the reasonableness of its beliefs, just to ascertain if the beliefs were sincere. The court believed Hobby Lobby was sincere in its religious beliefs and that there was a substantial burden placed on those beliefs by the contraceptive mandate.

Important Government Interest
SCOTUS only addressed this in passing. The justices assumed that the government has valid and important reasons for requiring employers to provide their female employees with no-cost birth control.

Least Restrictive Way Possible
If the government does have an important interest in mandating employers pay for contraceptives for their female employees, is that enough? Under RFRA the answer is no. The government must choose the method which is the least restrictive on religious rights.

The court noted that the government already has another way of ensuring women receive no-cost birth control – the same method it proposed and uses for non-profit corporations. Under the compromise to the contraceptive mandate, non-profit corporations do not have to pay for contraceptives for their employees; yet women still receive them at no cost. The insurer or the government pays for them. SCOTUS decided that the government could do the same for employees of for-profit corporations.

Unintended consequences
The court took pains to note that the case was not to be considered a slippery slope and that it was very limited in nature. It only applies to “closely held” corporations where a family owns the company and is actively managing the operation. They also said that the ruling doesn’t give corporations the right to avoid paying for things like vaccines or blood transfusions; nor can they racially discriminate in their hiring practices. Justice Kennedy, who agreed with both the majority’s reasoning and its result, even wrote in his concurring opinion that this decision is “a ticket for one day only.”

But is it? In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsberg said that this could open the floodgates to future cases on any procedure to which an employer objected on religious grounds, and all cases would now need to be reviewed under the RFRA “substantial burden” test. Another concern was if GLBT discrimination would be allowed since sexual orientation is not a federally recognized protected class. The dissenting justices disagreed that Hobby Lobby could practice its religion and felt the majority went too far in granting rights to groups that should be reserved for individuals.

Ginsberg’s position of dissent could come back to haunt her. When Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion which struck down the Defense of Marriage Ac (DOMA)t, he said this ruling shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that state laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Justice Scalia wrote a scathing dissent saying the majority opinion did exactly that. Lower courts, when striking down state gay marriage bans, used Scalia’s dissent as justification. Ginsberg’s dissent could be used in exactly the same way.

Now that we’ve looked at the case and heard from the justices, we wanted to give Pagans from around the U.S. a chance to sound off about the SCOTUS decision.

Pagans sound off on ruling

Rev. Philipp J. Kessler [photo credit Phil Kessler]

Rev. Philipp J. Kessler [photo supplied by Phil Kessler]

I’m a man, I’m gay, but I am a person. SCOTUS is granted the legal right to make decisions that may have direct effect on me and others in the United States. When others in the United States seek to use those decision to have discriminatory effect on other citizens then they, in this case business, are over stepping their bounds. Fine, Hobby Lobby and certain other privately owned multi-million (multi-billion) dollar companies have won their case with SCOTUS and do not have to follow the Obamacare requirement to provide coverage for certain forms of contraceptives, including abortion. That does not open the doors, on moral and ethical grounds, for other companies to apply for religious exemptions when it comes to hiring and firing of people that they perceive to be gay, people that are of another national origin or race. Etc. Etc.   –  Rev. Philipp J. Kessler, from an op-ed on Scotus Reproductive Rights

Lauren Snow [photo supplied by Lauren Snow]

Lauren Snow [photo supplied by Lauren Snow]

I’m not just freaked out here because I’m a woman. I’m also freaked out about this – perhaps more so – because I am not a Christian.

I consider myself a member of earth-based religion. (Or, perhaps more accurately, Universe-based religion)… I am devout in my relationship with divinity. I am passionate about interfaith work, as I see that the more differing faith practices are understood between people, the more we can sense a common thread of unfolding love unifying them together.

Here’s the thing. Conservative government officials keep saying they’re ruling in favor of “religious liberty”, but they’re not. They’re ruling in favor of Christian supremacy. And it scares me deeply. How can you shout “religious liberty” while forgetting about the religious liberty of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, Humanists, Agnostics, and Atheists? Are we not Americans? Are our faiths less “legitimate”? Have we, along with women, been banished from legitimacy as second-class citizens? Where is this slippery slope headed?

Ruth Ginsburg said, “The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention. One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.” – Lauren Snow

 

Victory White [photo supplied by Victory White]

Victory White [photo supplied by Victory White]

Although I am addressing this as a Pagan, I feel very strongly that the religious reference to this case is masking the more important issues that are secular. I’ll address one of these here; it is important to understand the way health insurance works. For years people, including the news media, have blamed health insurance providers for every rejected medication or treatment option. We have all been led to believe that it was completely the insurance companies who decided which medications they covered and which they did not. This is not entirely true, I learned while working at one of the largest prescription providers in the US, that the formularies which we all go through whenever our doctor prescribes a new medication, are a negotiated compromise between our employers and the insurance provider they choose. How this is affected by the Hobby Lobby decision is to me more a potential problem than any religious connotations. With this decision the SCOTUS has opened the door for employers who object or who don’t feel like paying for any category of drugs for “religious” or other moral objections they want to impose. That to me is the main danger of this decision and the precedence it sets….

…The real problems of affordable health care have been hijacked by politics, religion and sexism; and meanwhile people die every day who might have lived had they been able to afford the appropriate care in a timely fashion. All this media driven miss-direction drives the profits for drug companies, insurance companies higher and we all come out the poorer for it as people and as a society. The main reason I am upset about this decision is that using religion inserts a huge amount of emotion in a subject that has already saturated with too much emotion and not enough logical thought. I ask myself how Socrates would look at this and what questions would he prod us to think about? Victory White

 

Anne Hatzakis [photo from Anne's blog]

Anne Hatzakis [photo from Anne’s blog]

Religious beliefs about things vary. And as a corporate “person” cannot actively participate in actual religious activities, I have trouble with the idea that the corporation’s “religious beliefs” should be able to trump mine — especially when their religious beliefs are not supported by actual science and only target insurance items that one sex utilizes while allowing things for the other sex.

Hellenic Polytheism, in my opinion, is a faith tradition that actively allows for equality of the sexes in modern society. Although the Gods and Goddesses fulfill different roles, there is no such thing as a “weak” goddess in our faith, and there is no need to “control” what those goddesses do — something that this ruling seems to do for women in our society. This ruling seems to be more about controlling a woman’s ability to manage her own life in accordance with HER religious beliefs than it is about anything else. And THAT is something that I cannot agree with. –  Anne Hatzakis

 

Kayla Loy [photo supplied by Kayla Loy]

Kayla Loy [photo supplied by Kayla Loy]

As a Pagan and a Libertarian I am tickled pink about the Hobby Lobby ruling. I find the Affordable Care Act to be just another way for government to be involved in my life. It is a terrible law, and anything that is poking holes in it is fine by me. Also, if you are really that tore up about your employer not paying for your birth control, drop the $30 a month out of your own pocket, and buy it yourself. – Kayla Loy

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Robert Anthony Parobechek [photo supplied by Robert Parobechek]

Robert Anthony Parobechek [photo supplied by Robert Parobechek]

This country is run by corporations… simple enough. The main way the government keeps people complacent about it is with organized religion and its flagrant endorsement of it. Bust your ass to keep the corporate elite because it is part of God’s plan… here is the problem. There is no God, intellectuals who know what is really going on (meaning the smart people ) cannot stand this government. So it is OK for one company to deny someone health coverage for this religious belief and that…. what happens if a Muslim company wants to do it because it violates sharia law… like denying a woman the right to see a doctor after she was beaten by her husband? Should the supreme court uphold that too? Religion belongs in private institutions and out of the government period. Frankly the men on the Supreme Court are traitors for not doing their jobs properly in my book!  - Robert Anthony Parobechek

On June 26, the Huntsville, Alabama City Council scheduled a regular monthly meeting to address typical city issues. The meeting, as always, was slated to begin with an invocation offered by a community member. On the schedule for June 26 was Blake Kirk, a local Wiccan priest and interfaith advocate. Two days prior to the meeting, the council secretary published the agenda online. That is when the trouble began.

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

According to reports, “concerned” citizens immediately contacted council members regarding Blake’s invitation to speak. This community pressure led to the Council excusing him from service. Blake’s name was removed from the agenda and the meeting moved forward, opening with a moment of silence.

Several hours later, the local news media reported on the story. “No Wiccan Priest for Huntsville City Council Prayer” wrote AL.Com, the first outlet to break the story. While the immediate situation has generated considerable buzz, it is actually part of much larger story; a saga that has been ongoing since 2012. In fact, this was not even the first time that the Council invited Blake to read an invocation.

Huntsville is not the homogeneous small southern town one might assume. According to Blake there are two Hindu worship centers, two Buddhist groups, several mosques, two or three Orthodox congregations, several Catholic parishes, a whole lot of Protestant Christians, and, what he believes, is the oldest Jewish congregation in Alabama. As for the Huntsville Pagan community, the population is small, made up mostly of solitary practitioners who gather occasionally for small social gatherings.

Black and his wife, Carol, are from the Oak, Ash and Thorn tradition. In 1996, they founded the Tangled Moon Coven in Clarksville, Tennessee but eventually had to move due to their military careers. Then in 2011, they settled in Huntsville where Blake took a civil service position and Carol began studying with Cherry Hill Seminary. As part of her course work for the Masters of Divinity program, Carol became involved with Huntsville’s active interfaith community and hospital chaplaincy.

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Blake Kirk [Photo Credit: B.Kirk]

Not long after the Kirks arrived in Huntsville, the City Council’s invocation policy was legally challenged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Prior to spring 2012, the city council had offered only Christian prayers despite the relative diversity of its population. By May, the city opted not to waste money with a lawsuit and, based on legal precedent, instituted a policy that welcomed invocations from different faith traditions.

To help identify local faith leaders, the council turned to Presbyterian minister Frank Broyles and Huntsville’s Interfaith Mission Council (IMC). At that very same time, the Kirks were working on a project with IMC. Blake says:

After Carol and I discussed the idea, I went to Frank and volunteered to offer an invocation, pointing out that if they really wanted to demonstrate diversity, it didn’t get much more diverse than having a Wiccan involved …Frank agreed.

Rev. Broyles scheduled Blake for the Jan. 23, 2014, meeting and added his name to the agenda as “Blake Kirk, a leader in earth-based spiritual communities.” The meeting took place without incident. Blake read the following invocation:

O gentle Goddess and loving God, we pray tonight that You will bless this Council with wisdom and judgment so that they may make sound decisions for the governance of our city. And further, we pray that You will visit upon these chambers an atmosphere of comity and peace, so that all who are here tonight to make their views known may do so in an air of civility and respect, without needless rancor or hostility. These things we ask of You as children do of their loving parents, trusting that You will give unto us those gifts that we truly need. Amen.”

Blake admits that the prayer is not overtly Pagan but he didn’t want the moment to be about him. He says:

Giving the invocation for something like a city council meeting is not an occasion for demonstrating how cool one’s religion is, nor how different it is, nor to engage in behaviors calculated to shock one’s audience. It’s a very small part in a formalized structure that is as rigid in its way as kabuki theater.

There was no complaints or backlash; the meeting continued on as planned. Then, about three weeks ago, Rev. Broyles invited Blake to read once again. He agreed and was scheduled for the June 26 meeting.

On June 24, the Council’s secretary called Blake to verify his name and title for the agenda. That had not happened earlier in the year. Blake says, “Without thinking much about it, I provided her with my name … and preferred title.” This time the agenda read, “Blake Kirk, priest of the Oak, Ash and Thorn tradition of Wicca.” This wording is what sparked the controversy within the community.

Carol Kirk [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]

Carol Kirk after speech at Vietnam Women’s Memorial [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]

Over the past two days, several large organizations have become directly involved in the debate. The FRFF sent a letter to alert the Council to the “serious constitutional violations committed.” Demanding a response by Aug. 1, FRFF asks that both Blake and an Atheist be allowed to speak.

Americans United also contacted the Council directly explaining, “the U.S. Constitution does not permit local governing boards to bar anyone from giving a pre-meeting prayer on the basis of religion. Nor may anyone be barred from speaking because of the prejudices of the members of that community.” As quoted in the AU press release, senior litigation counsel said, “The city may not treat Wiccans as second-class citizens.” AU has also asked that Blake’s invocation be rescheduled, wanting a response within the next 15 days.

Both organizations reference the recent SCOTUS ruling: Town of Greece vs. Galloway (2014) rules legislative prayer as constitutional with certain limitations. As pointed out by both organizations, the SCOTUS decision states that cities must “maintain a policy of nondiscrimination.” In addition, the decision reads:

It would also be unwise to conclude that only those religious words acceptable to the majority are permis-sible, for the First Amendment is not a majority rule and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech.

The Huntsville City Council violated both stipulations when it excused Blake from service. City Attorney Peter Joffrian admitted to AL.com that the “dis-invitation” was prompted by community pressure. He also said, “We decided to pull back, to do some education maybe, and to introduce him more gently at another time.” Joffrian was unavailable for further comment.

Fortunately for the Kirks, they have not received any personal backlash. Since the story broke, they themselves have been contacted by several Pagan organizations. Cherry Hill Seminary, where Carol is a student, released a statement which reads in part:

Cherry Hill Seminary supports Carol and her husband Blake as they are pulled into public scrutiny by the viral effect of online media.  We know Carol to be an exemplary student with an honorable record of military service, nursing and service to their communities.  We encourage reasoned dialogue among all parties involved locally.  We also admonish the Huntsville City Council to refrain from inappropriate discrimination, and also to recognize the diversity represented by their one in four citizens who do not identify as Christian, understanding the strength and beauty which that diversity brings to the region.

Lady Liberty League, who has been following the case closely, said:

Blake and Carol, of the Oak, Ash and Thorn Wiccan tradition, have served the Pagan community for many years in Alabama and Tennessee. Both are U.S. Army Veterans and active in interfaith work. Join us and others in sending blessings of spiritual strength and well-being to them as they work to have a positive resolution emerge soon that upholds equal opportunities for Wiccan clergy and those of other religions in doing opening invocations for meetings of the Huntsville, Alabama City Council.  May this situation be a transformative teaching moment for Huntsville and beyond about the need to uphold Equality, Liberty and Justice for All.

Blake and Carol are both overwhelmed by all the recent attention. Although Carol herself has been doing public work as a Wiccan and as an Army Veteran, this was Blake’s first time “performing a public religious function outside of Pagan event.” He adds:

I’m doing this because if we ever want to reach a point where being a Pagan is just another religious choice, no more remarkable in general conversation  than it would be to admit to being Jewish or Lutheran, we have to start becoming engaged with the society we find ourselves living in.  …  This simply looked like the first good opportunity to do that that came along.

The Kirks hope that this issue is quickly resolved locally and amicably without the need for legal action. Blake told AL.com, “I expect the decision was made with an intent to do the right thing for what [the Council] thought were good reasons, but, whatever their intention, it becomes overt religious discrimination.” Carol adds, “We are still trying to come to an equitable resolution here at home, but we are also committed to making certain this does not get swept under the rug.”

 

 

This story begins in 2002. Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan and member of a local Unitarian Universalist congregation in Virginia, approached the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to be included in a rotating lineup of local clergy who gave opening prayers/invocations at board meetings. Simpson was rebuffed by the County’s lawyer, saying that due to the “polytheistic, pre-Christian” nature of her faith they could not honor the request. So, starting in 2003, a lawsuit was filed.

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Cynthia Simpson

“The Chesterfield County Board opens its meetings with an invocation given by invited local clergy whose names are drawn from an official list that the County maintains. Virtually all the clergy who have delivered invocations represent Christian denominations. The County denied our Wiccan plaintiff’s request to be added to the invocation list on the ground that Wicca is “neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities,” and therefore it does not fall within “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” At the time of the denial, several of the county-board members made statements mocking the Wiccan faith. AU and the ACLU filed suit in federal court on December 4, 2002, alleging that disallowing non-Christian clergy from presenting invocations violates the Constitution. In November 2003, the district court held that the exclusion was unconstitutional. The defendants appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and in 2004 AU and its cooperating attorneys briefed the appeal. Oral argument was held on February 3, 2005. Unfortunately, we drew a very conservative panel (Judges Niemeyer, Wilkinson, and Williams) that, on April 14, 2005, issued a unanimous decision on the defendants’ behalf. The court reasoned that Marsh v. Chambers permits municipalities to limit prayer-givers to the Judeo-Christian tradition. We filed a petition for rehearing on April 26, 2005, but it was denied shortly thereafter. We filed a petition for certiorari on August 8, 2005, but it was denied on October 10, 2005, thereby concluding the case.”

Simpson’s case, and the Darla Wynne case (also a Wiccan), would go on to help advocates of public government prayer craft policies that ensured things stayed in comfortable Judeo-Christian territory so long as the prayers were not sectarian in nature. This “Christian only, so long as you don’t say ‘Jesus'” status quo (or the “Wiccan-proof policy” as I liked to call it) endured until the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“In essence the Court ruled that Greece’s prayer program was non-coercive and fully reflective of American historical tradition and the town’s own cultural heritage. If a legislative body employs sectarian prayer to “lend gravity” to its proceedings and does so in a way that is non-threatening, then religious prayer before a governmental meeting does not violate the Establishment Clause.”

While the SCOTUS ruling opens the door for sectarian prayers, it also notes that having a policy of full inclusion is constitutionally vital in such circumstances.

“Justice Kennedy writes the majority opinion for five Justices.  He concludes that the prayers are constitutional, because they aren’t overly sectarian or overly coercive.  It’s enough that the Town of Greece opened the prayer opportunity up to everyone, and allowed anyone to say anything.  It doesn’t matter that the prayers ended up being overwhelmingly Christian in tone and in number — that wasn’t the Town’s fault.  And it doesn’t matter that citizens attending these meetings may have felt pressure to pray — they had no solid reason to feel any such pressure.”

So the SCOTUS case that involved a sectarian Wiccan prayer, built on lower court decisions that involved Wiccan prayers, now comes full circle and returns to Chesterfield County.

ACLUVA_logo1“The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent county leaders a letter Thursday stating that the county’s policy must be changed to allow any person from any faith to pray before public meetings for the county to comply with the First Amendment. The county will consult with its attorney on that particular point, but County Administrator James J.L. “Jay” Stegmaier acknowledged that another portion of the policy prohibiting prayers specifically praising or opposing one religion appears at odds with the Supreme Court’s new guidance. In a shift from its previous guidance that prayers be generic, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Supreme Court’s decision that local governments ‘cannot require chaplains to redact the religious content from their message to make it acceptable for the public sphere.'”

You can read the full letter from the ACLU and AU here.

So here is where the rubber hits the road on the Supreme Court’s prayer idealism. The notion that sectarianism within a government context is OK so long as it’s an open sectarianism. Can the court enforce a truly inclusive model, or will it fail on the local level as politicians and Christian activists scramble to find some way of enforcing a Christians-only policy? Will we finally see Cynthia Simpson give a Wiccan prayer in Chesterfield County, and if we do, does that mean that we’ve won a victory? Will inclusion bring acceptance and understanding, or will its symbolism only reverberate within our interconnected communities? Whatever happens, it looks like we might find out.

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.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

  • You would think that all conservative evangelical Christians would be cheering the recent Supreme Court prayer ruling, but some have misgivings about the ramifications. Quote: “The court’s ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway is being widely celebrated by evangelicals as a victory. Is it? Or have we rendered unto Caesar a franchise to pray, otherwise thought to be a privilege of conversing with God that we ascribe to his followers?” Meanwhile, another evangelical Christian says that they’ll have to accept that praying Pagans comes with this victory. Quote: “Zarpentine’s prayer illuminates the issues: Did the town of Greece officially beseech Athena and Apollo for wisdom? Was the local government endorsing paganism? Did the use of we imply the approval and participation of everyone in attendance? Should Christians be troubled by prayers to false gods? Should they protest? If they did so, would they have trouble presenting their other business to the board? Now apply those questions to explicit Christian prayers. […] From a Christian perspective, of course, not all prayers are efficacious. But we’d rather the pagans pray as pagans than eliminate prayer altogether.”
  • In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on prayer before government meetings, the New York Times profiles Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund). Quote: “These are heady days for Alliance Defending Freedom, which, with its $40 million annual budget, 40-plus staff lawyers and hundreds of affiliated lawyers, has emerged as the largest legal force of the religious right, arguing hundreds of pro bono cases across the country. It has helped shift the emphasis of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution. For decades, courts leaned toward keeping religion out of public spaces. Today, thanks to cases won by the alliance and other legal teams focused on Christian causes, the momentum has tilted toward allowing religious practices with fewer restrictions.” This Christian, socially conservative, version of the ACLU has been behind almost every major court case involving issues like public invocations, same-sex marriage, abortion, and other hot-button issues that invigorate their supporters.
  • The Chief Justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court seemingly believes that First Amendment protections only apply to Christians, at least until he’s called out on it. Quote: “Speaking at an event in Mississippi in January, the chief justice stated that the United States was founded on the Biblical scriptures. He claimed Americans had been “deceived” about the meaning of the word “religion” in the First Amendment. He suggested the word referred only to Christianity. […] Moore said Monday that the First Amendment protected all religions, not just Christianity. ‘It applies to the rights God gave us to be free in our modes of thinking, and as far as religious liberty to all people, regardless of what they believe,’ Moore told the Montgomery Advertiser.” So, no worries, I’m sure he’ll be totally fair to non-Christians when ruling on cases.
  • Is the world of Protestant Christianity about to rocked by sex scandals on a scale that would dwarf the Catholic Church? That’s the argument in an engrossing long-form article at American Prospect. Quote: “For years, Protestants have assumed they were immune to the abuses perpetrated by celibate Catholic priests. But Tchividjian believes that Protestant churches, groups, and schools have been worse than Catholics in their response. Mission fields, he says, are “magnets” for would-be molesters; ministries and schools do not understand the dynamics of abuse; and “good ol’ boy” networks routinely cover up victims’ stories to protect their reputations. He fears it is only a matter of time before it all blows up in their faces and threatens the survival of powerful Protestant institutions.” 
  • Is meditation overrated? Scientific American thinks it might be. Quote: “Many people who meditate believe that the practice makes them healthier and happier, and a growing number of studies suggest the same. Yet some scientists have argued that much of this research has been poorly designed. To address this issue, Johns Hopkins University researchers carefully reviewed published clinical trials and found that although meditation seems to provide modest relief for anxiety, depression and pain, more high-quality work is needed before the effect of meditation on other ailments can be judged.”
  • PopMatters reviews Ronald Hutton’s “Pagan Britain,” and finds it to be a “magical history tour.” Quote: “In conclusion, four-hundred pages of this solidly presented, thoughtful narrative (given the sheer mass of material to sift through and present for both a scholarly and a mainstream audience, no small feat; my only regrets are too few maps and few typos) repeat a characteristic humility for this affable yet eminent scholar of paganism. This is a big book on a vast subject, presented intelligently. It reminds us of how quickly academic “proof” can shift, and the 20-odd years since his 1991 study reveal how technology and our own mentalities filter into dim corners of the past.”

  • Occult comic book character John Constantine will be coming to NBC in the Fall, and a trailer for the show has already been released. Quote: “Executive produced by David S. Goyer (“Man of Steel,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) and Daniel Cerone (“Dexter,” “The Mentalist”), the series stars Matt Ryan (“Criminal Minds”) as John Constantine, a master of the occult with a “wickedly naughty wit.” The cast also includes Lucy Griffiths (“True Blood”) as Liv, Harold Perrineau (“Lost”) as the “authoritative angel” Manny, and Charles Halford (“True Detective”) as Constantine’s good friend Chas.” As an old-school fan of the character (as in, I think Jamie Delano’s run in the comic was the definitive take) I have to say it does seem very John Constantine-y.
  • The Pew Forum has released a report on the shifting religious landscape of America’s Latino population, and includes a section on “the spirit world.” Quote: “Some Latinos take part in other forms of spiritual expression that may reflect a mix of Christian and indigenous influences. For instance, a majority of Latinos say they believe people can be possessed by spirits, and about three-in-ten say they have made offerings to spiritual beings or saints. Whether these practices derive mainly from indigenous or traditional Christian sources – or a combination of the two – they point to a strong sense of the spirit world in the everyday lives of many Latinos.”
  • Are hipsters the perfect source for occult revival? Quote: “The real factors behind an occult renaissance may be the Twitter-fication of society, in which everything we say and do is supposedly significant, along with a culture that prizes personal expression and defines ‘authenticity’ as constantly remaining one step ahead of popular trends. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the magician Aleister Crowley said that, ‘Every man and woman is a star.’ This magical utterance is truer now than ever before.”
  • What can be done to stop the looting of antiquities in Egypt? There seems to be no consensus on how to solve the issue. Quote: “Looting in Egypt has reached crisis point, but there is widespread disagreement over the best way to stop the theft and illegal trade of antiquities. Cultural heritage experts in the US have signed a pact to tackle the issue, and companies such as eBay and Christie’s have pledged their support. Meanwhile, ordinary Egyptians are turning to Twitter to try to save their heritage. Monica Hanna, the Egyptian archaeologist who tweeted for help last August after thieves swept through the Malawi National Museum in Minya, is campaigning to create watchdog groups around Egypt who will use social media to alert others to looting. Public pressure is also causing the US government to act.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these we may expand into longer posts as needed.

On Monday the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) upheld the right of legislators to offer sectarian prayer before conducting business. The landmark decision overturned a U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the now famous case, Town of Greece vs. Galloway. SCOTUS’ concluded that “the town’s prayer practice does not violate the Establishment Clause.”

Photo By Jarek Tuszynski (Jarekt) (Own work) via WikiCommons

Photo By Jarek Tuszynski (Jarekt) (Own work) via WikiCommons

The case began in 2007 when Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens challenged the town’s legislative prayer practice which, to that point, had only included Christian clergy. The case was heard by the U.S. District Court in Western New York which ruled in favor of the town stating:

The Christian identity of most of the prayers givers reflected the predominantly Christian character of the town’s congregations, not an official policy or practice of discriminating against minority faiths.

The District Court also stated that the town was exempt from seeking clergy outside its own borders in order to maintain religious diversity. This ruling was eventually reversed by the U.S.Court of Appeals who felt that aspects of Greece’s prayer program, seen as a whole, did indeed endorse Christianity and were therefore unconstitutional.

In November 2013 the case moved to the Supreme Court. Monday’s ruling reflects the opinion of the District Court decision which declared the legality of the town’s prayer program. However SCOTUS’ focus moved away from the concept of “religious endorsement” toward a test for “coercion.” Are the town’s legislative prayers being used to coerce attendees into practicing or fiscally supporting the Christian faith?

The Court didn’t believe so. In its deeply divided 5-4 ruling, SCOTUS states:

Municipal prayers in this case bear no resemblance to the coercive state establishments that existed at the founding which exercised government power in order to extort financial support of the church, compel religious observance or control religious doctrine.

The Court’s opinion, as prepared by Justice Kennedy, emphasizes the historical and cultural aspects of legislative prayer. He says that the purpose of such prayer is chiefly “to lend gravity to the proceedings” or “public business” not to coerce. The prayers are for the legislators; not the attending constituents.

SCOTUS’ ruling also places a powerful emphasis on national tradition and heritage. It reads:

Legislative prayer has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment clause … This fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and State Legislatures.

In essence the Court ruled that Greece’s prayer program was non-coercive and fully reflective of American historical tradition and the town’s own cultural heritage. If a legislative body employs sectarian prayer to “lend gravity” to its proceedings and does so in a way that is non-threatening, then religious prayer before a governmental meeting does not violate the Establishment Clause.

The Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States [Public Domain Photo]

Not all of the Justices agreed. Two of the four dissenting opinions came from Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Stephen Breyer. Kagan’s strongly worded opinion begins:

For centuries now, people have come to this country from every corner of the world to share in the blessing of religious freedom. Our Constitution promises that they may worship in their own way, without fear of penalty or danger, and that in itself is a momentous offering. Yet our Constitution makes a commitment still more remarkable— that however those individuals worship, they will count as full and equal American citizens. A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim (and so forth)—each stands in the same relationship with her country, with her state and local communities, and with every level and body of government. So that when each person performs the duties or seeks the benefits of citizenship, she does so not as an adherent to one or another religion, but simply as an American.

I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality—the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian

Kagan goes on to point out that prayer in front of a large Congressional body is very different from that of a small town council. The intimate setting of the latter allows for a scenario that could lead to religious coercion through simple social pressure. That type of pressure is less likely within a giant legislative body where it might be easier to walk out, not bow your head or simply ignore the proceedings.

Justice Breyer agreed with Kagan and, in his own comments, said that legislative prayer is not solely for the officials. In that small town setting, attendees are often active participants in legislative business. Breyer also believes that Greece made “no significant effort” to mediate the issue, to invite non-Christian clergy or to create diversity guidelines for its speakers. He says:

During more than 120 monthly meetings at which prayers were delivered during the record period (from 1999 – 2010), only four prayers were delivered by non-Christians. And, all of these occurred in 2008, shortly after the plaintiffs began complaining about the town’s Christian prayer practice and nearly a decade after the practice had commenced.

Since Monday the National American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United, Hindu American Foundation, The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Freedom From Religion Foundation and many other organizations have expressed their fear and disappointment in the SCOTUS decision. As stated by Rob Boston from Americans United for Seperation of Church and State (AU), “This ruling is out of step with the realities of modern-day America, which is marked by expanding religious and philosophical diversity.”

Pagan Artist RC DeWinter tweeted, “This is just the first chink in the wall.” The wall being the one established between religion and government. It is the one that provides for the religious freedoms described in Kagan’s opening statement.

Pagan Blogger Literata, expressed her owns concerns saying “The decision is all about accommodating the majority rather than protecting the minority. In the meantime, we run a serious risk of being used as cover – call it the “I Have a Wiccan Friend” defense.”

[Public Domain Photo]

[Public Domain Photo]

Their fears and frustrations may very well be justified. In Roanoke County Virginia, Board Supervisor Al Bedrosian has already established a plan to overturn the County’s prayer policy which currently allows for the region’s “expanding religious diversity.”

After Monday’s SCOTUS ruling, Bedrosian said “I think we have to say more or less that we’re a Christian nation with Christian ideology … we need to move toward our Christian heritage.” He has openly expressed concerns about the County’s policy being one that could allow for “Wiccan and Satanist” prayers. When the local Roanoke reporter asked if his proposed policy would permit non-Christian prayers, he said “probably not” adding that non-Christians were welcome to pray during the “allotted time for citizen comment.”

Despite Bedrosian’s grandiose statements, SCOTUS did not offer a complete free license to pray in any form before governmental meetings.There are limits and boundaries.The decision reads:

If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.

In that statement, the Court recognizes the potential for abuse. However SCOTUS didn’t feel it is place of the Courts to determine the constitutionality of specific language within a single prayer speech or what can and can’t be said. In addition the Judges themselves could not agree on the exact boundaries of the “coercion test.”  What constitutes a coercive prayer or action and what doesn’t?

With the new approach is the Court suggesting that it is now constitutional for a government to endorse a single religion through legislative prayer provided that the prayer speech does not coerce anyone into participating or threaten “damnation?” How important is historical precedent or tradition in deciding future policy in a changing culture?

As AU’s Rob Boston said “I suspect we haven’t seen the last of this issue.”

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up. I know it’s April 1st, and thus, April Fools day in the land of journalism, but I promise we’ll keep the fooling to an absolute minimum.

Rev. Kevin Kisler prays prior to the start of a Greece, N.Y., Town Board meeting in 2008. Photo: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Rev. Kevin Kisler prays prior to the start of a Greece, N.Y., Town Board meeting in 2008. Photo: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

  • Let’s start with the religious origins of April Fool’s Day traditions, which the Religion News Service explores. Quote: “Some argue that April Fools’ Day is a remnant of early ‘renewal festivals,’ which typically marked the end of winter and the start of spring. These festivals, according to the Museum of Hoaxes, typically involved ‘ritualized forms of mayhem and misrule.’ Participants donned disguises, played tricks on friends as well as strangers, and inverted the social order.” 
  • The Associated Press checks in with the town of Greece in New York, as the nation awaits the Supreme Court’s decision regarding prayer at government meetings. Quote: “After the complaints, the town, in 2008, had a Wiccan priestess, the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation and a lay Jewish man deliver four of the prayers. But from January 2009 through June 2010, the prayer-givers were again invited Christian clergy, according to court documents.” I’ve written extensively on this case, and the outcome could have far-reaching affects on religion in our public square. When the decision comes down, you can be sure we’ll cover it.
  • An LAPD police officer who identifies as Buddhist and Wiccan has filed suit claiming sexual and religious harassment in her workplace. Quote: “DeBellis told Tenney that she no longer practices Catholicism and was now a Buddhist-Wiccan and a priestess, the suit states. ‘Tenney was visibly upset and appeared disgusted by plaintiff’s comment and told (her), ‘Women cannot be priests,”  according to the complaint. Tenney later told DeBellis she ‘cannot switch religions’ and that she ‘will burn in hell,’ the suit states.”
  • The New York Times Magazine interviews Barbara Ehrenreich about her new book “Living With A Wild God” which documents her exploration of an intense mystical experience she had when young. Quote: “I didn’t see any creatures or hear any voices, but the whole world came to life, and the difference between myself and everything else dissolved — but not in a sweet, loving, New Agey way. That was a world flamed into life, is how I would put it.”
  • Metro has a story on Pagans and Witches serving in the British military. Quote: “Prof Ronald Hutton said pagan worship is ‘pretty well’ suited to being in the military. ‘There is no pacifism necessarily embedded in modern pagan or Wiccan religious attitudes, and ancient pagans could make formidable soldiers,’ he said.”

  • The Miami Herald has an interesting piece on Santeria, and the challenges it faces as it grows and changes in an increasingly interconnected world. Quote: “The growth of the back-to-roots movement has kindled infighting, widening rifts between the Yoruba faiths’ spreading branches. It’s a friction particularly felt in Miami, where Lukumi has become more mainstream since the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the religion in a landmark 1993 case. Highly visible Miami priest Ernesto Pichardo considers many so-called traditionalists nothing more than ‘religious tourists,’ being fleeced by Nigerians, who return with strident views that their faith is somehow more authentic.”
  • The Wiccan Family Temple in New York won’t be able to hold a Summer Solstice festival at Astor Place because the group couldn’t prove they were “indigenous” to the neighborhood. Quote: “But the chairman of Community Board 2′s Sidewalks and Street Activity Committee Maury Schott told DNAinfo that the organization had to prove that the proposed street fair was ‘indigenous’ to the street between Broadway and Lafayette, although he could not explain what that meant.” There’s still a chance they could get approved though, so I guess we’ll see how “indigenous” to that part of Manhattan they really are.
  • Sorry Reiki healers, but Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is not on your side. Quote: “Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals—that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately. What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of ‘true scientific discourse.’ It isn’t.”
  • At HuffPo, Tom Carpenter endorses a military chaplaincy for “all the troops.” Quote: “Emergent faith communities in the military are properly seeking recognition. Many of these communities not only include but celebrate gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender service members. Humanists and Wiccans seek to join Buddhists, Hindus and other minority groups seeking recognition and representation in our military […] The Forum on the Military Chaplaincy strongly supports the recruitment and retention of highly qualified, clinically trained chaplains who are representative of and committed to a chaplaincy reflecting a broad and inclusive range of interfaith, multicultural and diverse life experiences.”
  • There’s worry over proposed military housing that could potentially block the solstice sunrise at world-famous Stonehenge. Quote: “A plan to build thousands of new homes for soldiers returning from Germany could have to be changed – because they will be built on the horizon where the sun rises on summer solstice at Stonehenge. The Ministry of Defence said they were ‘aware of the issues’ and were organising a meeting with experts on the stones.” In other news, the nearly-as-famous Nine Ladies Stone Circle was recently vandalized. This is why we can’t have nice things, folks.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

On October 25, the United States Air Force Academy announced that the words “So Help Me God” would be optional when cadets recite the Honor Oath.  Established in 1984, the cadet Honor Oath reads:

We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God.

Photo By Dennis Rogers (US Air Force Public Affairs)

Photo By Dennis Rogers (US Air Force Public Affairs)

In an official press release Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson said:

Here at the Academy, we work to build a culture of dignity and respect, and that respect includes the ability of our cadets, Airmen and civilian Airmen to freely practice and exercise their religious preference — or not…In the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the Honor Oath with ‘So help me God.’

Since that October announcement several media outlets and blogs mistakenly reported that it was the Air Force itself who had made “so help me God” optional. Currently all branches of the United States Armed Forces use an official Enlistment Oath which ends with that very same phrase.  According to congressional law, this oath must be recited before serving in the military.

While there may be no legal allowance for religious difference, there is apparently some leeway in practice.  Administrating officials have been known to permit the omission of the final phrase. In fact an official U.S. Army document states: “The words ‘So help me God’ may be omitted for persons who desire to affirm rather than to swear to the oath.”

Looking beyond the Military, the word “God” permeates a great deal of American social space. In this supposedly post-Christian society, the word “God” becomes increasingly cumbersome in secular settings; its use more glaring and far more difficult to digest within a pluralistic environment.  Regardless, “God” is ever-present in both the American vernacular and United States legalese – from idioms to oaths.

Just this past week the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) debated the constitutionality of prayer before government meetings. Ironically SCOTUS opened the session with its usual phrase: “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

Photo By Jarek Tuszynski (Jarekt) (Own work) via WikiCommons

Photo By Jarek Tuszynski (Jarekt) (Own work) via WikiCommons

As with the Military the Justice department requires its judges, justices, and laywers to take an oath ending with the phrase “So Help Me God.”  The lawyers’ oath reads in part:

Do you solemnly swear or solemnly and sincerely affirm, as the case may be, that you will do nothing dishonest, and will not knowingly allow anything dishonest to be done in court …. so help you God or upon penalty of perjury…

Unlike that of Justice Department, the general lawyer’s oath is devoid of religious language.  However a few states, such as South Carolina, have opted to include that popular ending phrase.

The use of the word “God” is not limited to legal oaths and appears in many very public arenas.  All U.S. currency is inscribed with the words “In God We Trust.”  According to the U.S. Treasury, the stress of Civil War led to a marked increase in religiosity.  As a result the government received multiple requests asking for “God” to be acknowledged on our national money.  One such letter reads:

You are probably a Christian… Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; within the ring the allseeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.

In 1864 the U.S. Mint began printing coins etched with the phrase “In God We Trust.” Over time and with the necessary acts of Congress, these words began to appear on all U.S. coins. Finally in 1956 Congress made it mandatory for the phrase to be printed on all money and, if that wasn’t enough, the phrase became the country’s motto.  During the 1950s the U.S. was paralyzed by a fear of a communist take-over and as a result clung tightly to a conservative sensibility.

1in_god_we_trust

Interestingly, the words “Under God” which are nested within the Pledge of Allegiance followed a similar historical pattern.  The pledge itself was first adopted right after the Civil War in an effort to unite a broken nation.  In 1953 the Knights of Columbus lobbied to add the words “Under God” in order to combat the “godless communism.” The addition was made official in 1954.

Since their inception both phrases have been legally challenged again and again.  However the courts generally dismissed these cases.  In September atheists lost yet another lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the public use of “In God We Trust.” According to AP U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baer Jr. , “the Supreme Court has repeatedly assumed the motto’s secular purpose and effect.”  This summarizes the general position of the courts.  Despite the religious nature of the word “God,” these phrases are considered secular and, consequently, do not put a “substantial burden” on any citizen.

One term that has never been legally challenged is the phrase “act of God”  which appears most frequently in legal settings or the insurance business.  An “act of God” is a “natural phenomena whose effects could not be prevented by the exercise of reasonable care and foresight.”  Here is another situation where we are to accept “the motto’s secular purpose and effect” despite the religious verbiage.  Is this problematic? To many Pagans, tornado damage might be called “an act of the Goddess” or to an atheist, “wind.”  Should our public communication reflect these differences?

Pledge Of Allegiance 1899

Pledge Of Allegiance 1899

Language can be very interesting in that it tells the story of social change through the “colloquial residue” left by ages long gone. Think of all the idioms that are commonly tossed around  such as “God Bless You,” “God Only Knows,” “God-Given Right,” “Swear to God,” “For God’s sake” and of course all of those colorful phrases using “Jesus.”

Most of these colloquialisms have indeed lost their religious meaning.  When someone yells “God Damn it!” after stubbing a toe on a chair, he isn’t expecting the settee to spend an eternity in Hell. One of my favorite examples is the phrase: “come-to-Jesus meeting.” This is a synonym for the word “intervention” – of whatever sort.  While the secular meaning is quite clear, the undertones still remain.  The phrase clings to its origins bringing with it the story of a culture’s religious heritage.

Need another example? The full lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner include the phrase, “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’” Before the song became our official national anthem in 1931, the most popular patriotic song was “God Bless America.” As we continue move into this post-Christian world, the courts will continue to face challenges to any and all religious language used within the public sector – money, oaths, pledges and perhaps even the singing of these patriotic songs.

Congressman Pete Olson.  Photo courtesy of Flickr's euthman

Congressman Pete Olson. Photo courtesy of Flickr’s euthman

On October 30, Republican Texas Congressmen Sam Johnson and Pete Olson have introduced bill H.R. 3416 in response to the Air Force Academy’s Oath change.  If passed, the bill would require Congressional approval for all oath changes. Congressman Olson laments,

It was disheartening to see the Air Force Academy succumb  to anti-religious zealotry … The military personnel being trained to defend the rights of Americans should be able to exercise their religious convictions by affirming their oath with so help me God.

The Congressmen must have missed the word “optional” in the Air Force Academy’s release.

But the question still remains:  Can there ever truly be a secular use of the word “God?”  While their use today may indeed feel secular, does the residual religiosity subvert the growth of a peaceful and respectful multi-culturalism within the public sphere?  Does the argument have to be all or nothing, God or Godless?  Can our country reach a comfort level within its social pluralism that allows for variations like “so help me Goddess.”  Only time and the courts will tell.

Today’s the day. The Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, which centers on the role of prayer at government meetings, and could shape the legal landscape on this issue for decades to come. I have written extensively on this case, and you can find a round-up of my coverage here. The ever-essential SCOTUSblog gives us a preview of the arguments expected to be made today.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court

“It is no exaggeration to say, then, that the constitutional meaning of church-state separation is very much in flux, and it is tempting to think that the Court has taken on a case from a town in New York to reach for some new clarity. At its core, the Town of Greece case is about the constitutional test to review government involvement in practices that have or can have religious meaning.  Should such involvement be judged by its potential effect in endorsing or promoting one religious faith over others?  Or should it be judged by its capacity to coerce what one believes about faith principles? That is basically the either/or choice that now is before the Justices.  But even making that choice is not at all simple when either alternative test is applied to prayer at the opening of a government meeting.”

SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston notes that this case could endanger the “endorsement test” in regards to displays of religious belief at government functions.

“This case, at its most significant potential level, could put the “endorsement test” into significant jeopardy.   It no longer enjoys real favor with a majority of the Court, and the sustained denunciation of it by the town board’s lawyers here could further energize that skepticism.  It is far from clear, however, what would be left of modern church-state precedents if the Court were to opt to abandon that test altogether. That, perhaps, is why the town board’s attorneys have not suggested the total demise of that test, instead recommending only that it be walled off from use in the context of legislative prayers.”

If the endorsement test is gutted, it would most likely be replaced with a coercion standard, which would greatly benefit the religious majority at the expense of religious minorities. Linda Stephens, an atheist and co-plaintiff of the Town of Greece case, told CNN that she felt marginalized during town board meetings, which overwhelmingly featured Christian prayers to Jesus Christ.

“Galloway and Stephens say the elected board of the community outside Rochester almost always invited Christian clergy to open the meetings, usually with sectarian prayers. And they say they felt ‘marginalized’ by the practice. ‘When we tried to speak with the town, we were told basically if we didn’t like the prayers, we didn’t have to listen,’ said Stephens, ‘or could stand out in the hallway while they were going on.'”

The New York Times, in reporting on this story, focuses on the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers, the case which almost every amicus brief is referencing.

“Thirty years ago, a state senator and a Presbyterian minister faced off in the Supreme Court over whether the Nebraska Legislature could open its sessions with a prayer. The court said yes, siding with the minister, and for three decades that settled matters. Such prayers are commonplace.  On Wednesday, the question of legislative prayer will return to the Supreme Court, in a case from upstate New York. But the actors in the earlier drama — the senator and the minister — have not left the stage. They continue to differ about the proper role of religion in public life. But they agree that later court decisions have twisted the facts of what went on in Nebraska.”

At The Daily Beast, Eric Segall thinks the correct answer to this prayer impasse is clear.

“Most constitutional cases the Supreme Court decides to hear raise difficult interpretative questions that don’t yield easy answers. Greece v. Galloway, however, is not one of those cases. The inherent unfairness that results from overtly religious exercises at government hearings is easy to see. A Jewish man wearing a yarmulke trying to obtain a zoning variance immediately after being asked to bow his head and pray to Jesus may feel like an outsider to the process. On the other hand, many people believe it is important to dignify official government business with a prayer. The obvious answer is to have a moment of silence during which people can pray to whatever god they want to or not pray at all. There is no coercion or identification of the town, city, or state with a particular god, or indeed with any god. That solution has worked well for public schools, and there is no good reason not to apply it to legislatures, courts, and executive sessions.”

The New York Times Editorial Board seems to agree.

“The prayers in Greece are constitutional, the defenders say, because they may be delivered by anyone, and the town does not compel citizens to pray. But compulsion is not the only issue. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in a 1984 case, when a government appears to endorse one religion, it “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.” After the Greece lawsuit was filed, one of the plaintiffs received a letter, signed “666,” that read, “If you feel ‘unwanted’ at the Town of Greece meetings, it’s probably because you are.” There are many ways to solemnize official functions without sending such a message, including a nonsectarian prayer or a moment of silence, which is what the Greece town board did for years without incident. To some degree there will always be a tension in cases such as these. On the one hand, Americans deeply value the First Amendment, which protects religion and government from each other. But as the Supreme Court has recognized, the country’s history “is replete with official references to the value and invocation of Divine guidance in deliberations.” In a country where religious diversity is increasing daily, the Supreme Court’s primary concern should be to ensure government neutrality toward all religions.”

At the Chicago Tribune, Eric Zorn is concerned about the reasons why the Supreme Court decided to hear this case.

“Lower courts have ruled for the plaintiffs, which suggests the high court may have another view — one that says ‘Prayers before meetings are traditional, ceremonial and voluntary. Don’ t get your knickers in a twist, non-Christians, the good people of Greece, N.Y., are simply performing public rites to reflect the views of a majority of townsfolk.’ I would pretend to be baffled why people of any faith would want to encourage government to muck about promoting one belief system over another, but of course I know why. It’s a form — not even a subtle form — of proselytizing; of encouraging conformity to a particular set of religious views. And this is a feature, not a bug, in their opinion. And, I fear, in the opinion of the current majority on the Supreme Court.”

No matter what the decision, it will no doubt have a major effect on prayer policy. Repercussions that will deeply affect all religious minorities, including Pagans, who have played an outsize role in the development of this case. By this evening, we will no doubt have some comment from the justices, giving us tea-leaves to read for the eventual decision. Let’s all pay attention as events unfold.