Archives For SCOTUS

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.

The Supreme Court of the United States opened a new term this week, and America’s highest court will be hearing a number of “weighty” cases that could have far-reaching implications.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court judges.

“There isn’t one single blockbuster case on the docket, as in recent Supreme Court terms, but the high court will consider a number of weighty issues. The nine justices will hear cases dealing with campaign finance, abortion, prayer in government, presidential power, affirmative action, and housing discrimination.”

One of those cases, Town of Greece v. Galloway, which involves prayers given before government meetings, is one that I’ve been paying very close attention to. One, the stakes for the ruling are very high, and could change the way prayer before government functions are approached.

I think the legal experts at SCOTUSblog put it quite well:

“The Court’s decision in Galloway could conceivably matter in several ways.  First, the custom of legislative prayer itself is widespread in national, state, and local governments.  All of these will be looking to the Supreme Court for guidance on what is constitutional.  Second, the Court’s law on legislative prayer provides the most relevant guidance for a range of religious expressions by government that have not yet been evaluated directly by the Court – customs like opening Supreme Court sessions with the phrase “God save this honorable Court,” inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, adoption of the official motto of the United States, “In God We Trust,” and public prayer by military chaplains.  Third, the case presents the Court with an opportunity to revisit the legacy of Justice O’Connor, who was especially influential in this area.  Her “endorsement test,” which was embraced by the Court during her tenure, prohibits government from sending messages that endorse one or all faiths in a way that disadvantages outsiders and harms their standing as members of the political community.  That test, which informed the circuit court’s analysis in Galloway, is vulnerable and could be weakened or explicitly eradicated now that the composition of the Court has changed.”

Secondly, this case directly involves modern Pagans, specifically Wiccans, in the case and in the legal maneuvers that led to it. Something I’ve been harping on for some time, even to the point of chastising religion reporters for not picking up on it. Well, it seems that angle is finally getting a bit of attention now that arguments are looming. First up, the Wall Street Journal’s law blog zooms in on the one Wiccan sectarian prayer that took place in Greece, noting that it might be enough of a fig leaf for the town to escape accusations of coercion and Christian endorsement.

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

“It’s not too often that a Wiccan priestess factors into a U.S. Supreme Court case. But that moment will come next month when the high court considers a public prayer case involving a Rochester, N.Y., suburb [...] A key point made by Greece in its defense is that its invocations are inclusive and not discriminatory, as claimed by two of its residents. To back that up, the town is highlighting a board meeting in 2008 that began with a prayer recited by Jennifer Zarpentine, identified as a Wiccan priestess from the Sanctuary of the Crescent Moon. Ms. Zarpentine was invited to deliver the prayer after two residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, began complaining about the prayers and filed their suit.”

Meanwhile, the Center for American Progress notes that Greece “includes residents who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, and Baha’i” and that a Wiccan prayer was one of the very few non-Christian invocations.

“For 10 years, Christian clergy have offered virtually every prayer that has opened the town board meetings in Greece. Two-thirds of their 120 recorded prayers contain specific references to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son,” or the “Holy Spirit.’” In 10 years of the board meeting once per month, only four non-Christian prayers have been given, including two prayers from a Jewish layman, one prayer from a Wiccan priestess, and another from the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation.”

Other news outlets that have mentioned the Wiccan angle to this case including CNN and The Economist.

“In 1999 the town of Greece, in upstate New York, invited citizens to open its monthly town-board meetings with a prayer. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Baha’i and Wiccans have all had a go. Most prayers have been Christian, but no citizen who wishes to offer an invocation has been turned away. [...] This time, the Court will probably side with Greece. Christians used to burn witches; some see it as progress that the two groups now pray together.”

With Witches being the hot thing in pop-culture right now, and with this being October, expect more outlets to dig into this angle. I’d expect three basic takes among the opinion-shapers.

  1. They included one Wiccan, therefor the Town of Greece is very inclusive (perhaps even too inclusive) and should win this case.
  2. They included a Wiccan, and other religious minorities, as a desperate gambit after it became clear a lawsuit was heading down the pike, and so Greece should lose.
  3. Look! Wiccans! Witches! Halloween! Let’s include a picture from [Harry Potter/Wizard of Oz/Bewitched/American Horror Story/etc] and make jokes about cauldrons and brooms. Do we still have that strobe light and fake spiderweb from a few years back?

Ambitious outlets will no doubt go for the trifecta.

I would advise Pagan and Wiccan/Witchcraft organizations to have responses to this case (whatever they may be) crafted beforehand should the need arise. Journalists may very well come calling for an “official” Wiccan take on the case, and we should have a clear, coherent, and focused take on the case and its ramifications. For those who want a quick recap of my own take, here are a selection of recent posts I’ve written about this issue.

This case will be important, and Wicca’s role in this case should not be underestimated. A lot may hinge on our inclusion in this case, and on the lawsuits of the past that shaped invocation policy. However the ruling goes, we should be prepared to understand how we’ve shaped the result.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway could have far-reaching affects on prayers and invocations made before government and state-sponsored events. At its heart is the question of government endorsement of a particular faith, and whether sectarian prayers overwhelmingly weighted towards one faith can be made so long as a fig-leaf of neutrality is maintained in written policy. I have written about this case before, and how modern Pagans have been deeply intertwined with the development of the “model invocation policy” being challenged and with this case itself.

“In just a few seconds’ time during the April Town Board meeting, Jennifer Zarpentine made Greece history. Zarpentine, a Wiccan, delivered the first-ever pagan prayer to open a meeting of the Greece Town Board. Her hands raised to the sky, she called upon Greek deities Athena and Apollo to ‘help the board make the right informed decisions for the benefit and greater good of the community.’ A small cadre of her friends and coven members in the audience chimed in ‘so mote it be.’”

Senator Marco Rubio

Senator Marco Rubio

Now, with the case on the Supreme Court docket, “friend of the court” briefings have been trickling in, most notably from a bi-partisan group of United States Senators (over 30 Republicans and one Democrat), and from a coalition of states lead by the Attorney Generals of Indiana and Texas. The first, spearheaded by Marco Rubio, seems to argue that the Supreme Court upholding (or expanding on) the Court of Appeals verdict in this case could eliminate the Establishment Clause carve-out for a paid government chaplains (as established in Marsh v. Chambers).

“This Court should eliminate the uncertainty and affirm the strong constitutional footing on which legislative prayer stands. In a nation of broad religious diversity, the best means of ensuring that the government does not prefer any particular religious view in the context of legislative prayer is to allow all those who pray to do so in accordance with their own consciences and in the language of their own faiths.”

In essence, Rubio and the other senators are playing the religious freedom card, hand-waving away the fact that Greece’s “neutral” policy “virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint” according to the appeals court judges. However, even more problematic is the brief submitted by 23 states, which not only argues that sectarian prayers before government meetings to be upheld, but raises the bar in terms of challenging prayer policies.

“The amici States urge the Court to re-affirm the central holding of Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 792 (1983), that legislative prayers are permissible as “simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country,” and to disclaim any role for the so-called endorsement test when it comes to analyzing legislative prayer practices. The Court should also consider using this case as an opportunity to clarify Establishment Clause doctrine more generally by requiring a showing of religious coercion as a touchstone for proving any type of unlawful religious establishment.

In other words, government-sponsored prayers should not only have an Establishment Clause carve-out, individuals should have to prove “religious coercion” in order to bring an establishment of religion challenge against a government body. Such a high bar would throw current precedent on Establishment Clause challenges into chaos. It would also mean that rather famous cases involving Pagans, like Darla Kaye Wynne’s successful struggle against the town of Great Falls, South Carolina, would most likely have been thrown out. Because how, exactly, does a religious minority prove coercion in a town dominated by Christians set on praising Christ before every function?

Justice Brennan

Justice Brennan

Marsh v. Chambers, a SCOTUS decision which both the States and Rubio’s coalition places front-and-center in their amicus briefs to argue the Establishment Clause does not apply to government-sponsored prayer, featured a telling dissent by Justice William J. Brennan and Justice Thurgood Marshall that spoke directly to the question of coercion.

“The “primary effect” of legislative prayer is also clearly religious. As we said in the context of officially sponsored prayers in the public schools, “prescribing a particular form of religious worship,” even if the individuals involved have the choice not to participate, places “indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion. . . .” Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 (1962). More importantly, invocations in Nebraska’s legislative halls explicitly link religious belief and observance to the power and prestige of the State.

In short, the coercion is already happening, but it is being ignored in the name of tradition. These State Attorney Generals, and Senators, and conservative Christian organizations like the Family Research Council, and the Liberty Institute want desperately for that coercion to continue, and indeed, for it to be trumpeted as “freedom.”

“Courts that impose religious “neutrality” categorically exclude certain religions that require the use of those prohibited terms and violate the mandate of the Establishment Clause that all persons be treated equally by the government, regardless of religious creed.”

In short, making Christians not say “Jesus” before government assemblies and functions hinders their freedom. Somehow.

As I’ve noted before, the outcome of this verdict will likely decide the fate of opening invocations before government meetings. Will the “model invocation policy” used by Greece (and several other towns) be allowed to stand? If so, we can look forward to a huge groundswell of sectarian Christian prayer being instituted across large chunks of the United States. After all, this model policy clearly states that public bodies are “not required to extend any extraordinary efforts to include particular minority faiths” and  “no apology is necessary for the demographics of the community that the public body serves.” This could be a chilling roll-back of advances by religious minorities, and those who hold no religious affiliation at all.

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

I’m hoping that the Supreme Court is prudent here, and commits no drastic change to our understandings of the Establishment Clause, though I’m less optimistic since their Voting Rights Act decision. Recent rulings in the 2nd and 4th Courts of Appeals should be respected, and their understanding of how invocations slanted towards the largest demographic can create the appearance of establishment (and coercion) listened to. The current Supreme Court is made up of Roman Catholics and Jews, two religions that once fought very hard against the unthinking privilege of the Protestant Christian majority. Now, there is a chance to make the United States a truly pluralistic nation, not one that claims to be pluralistic, but looks the other way in the name of tradition.

Whatever happens, modern Pagans, and all religious minorities, should pay very close attention to Town of Greece v. Galloway.

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.

Chantal Commons, left, and Star Raven Hawk. Photo by Lael Hines.

Chantal Commons, left, and Star Raven Hawk. Photo by Lael Hines.

  • The Villager profiles two Wiccans on the Lower East Side of New York who are working with their local community to try and open a Pagan community center in the Village. Quote: “This religion allows people to connect with each other,” she said. “In most religions it’s about the man being above the woman or parents being above the kids in a constant struggle for power. In this religion we can have power with each other. A lot of women flock to this religion because women are honored, respected and treated as equals; it’s like a breath of fresh air. We are open to people of all orientations, all races and all ages. I have a lot of gay friends who come to this religion because other religions condemn them; this religion isn’t about that, it’s about your growth.” Their goal will start with funds raised at the 2nd annual WitchFest USA on Sat., June 29, on Astor Place.
  • In England, David Novakovic King, who is a practicing Pagan, has been found guilty of murdering his partner’s father in 2009, after having squandered an inheritance the man had received. Quote: “A practicing pagan murdered his partner’s dad before dumping the remains in woodland he used for regular rituals. David Novakovic King, of Middleborough Crescent, Radford, even hid tools in Wainbody Wood – the patch of land where he buried the remains of Hiralal Chauhan. He faces a life sentence after being found guilty of murder earlier today (Thursday) at Leamington Justice Centre. Police said the 44-year-old, who will be sentenced tomorrow, had thought he carried out the perfect murder before a determined investigation by officers.” It should be noted that there were no religious elements to the “Killer of Keresley’s” actions, despite his victim being buried in a grove, and the motivations were all too mundane (and terrible). His Paganism, simply a detail of questioning during the trial that was seized on by the newspapers. I’m glad he has been brought to justice, and hope he pays fully for his crimes.
  • Archbishop Charles Chaput says that “many self-described Christians” are “in fact pagan.”  This comment was not taken very well by some Christians it seems, so Philadelphia’s NBC affilate got some Catholics to expound on all the wonderful things “pagan” can mean. Quote: “Pagan can mean anyone who isn’t a believer, anyone who doesn’t practice Catholicism or even a term some Catholics who believe in a more ethereal interpretation of the religion use for themselves. ‘The word pagan can mean several things to different Catholics in different contexts,’ said Father James Halstead, associate professor & chair of the Department of Religious Studies at DePaul University. ‘In my university here when people claim to be pagans or neo-pagans they claim to be very spiritual, very religious and very moral.’ ‘It is not always a disparaging term,’ added Priest Michael Driscoll, theology professor and co-director of the sacred music program at Notre Dame University.” I think this may be the first time Catholics have (sorta) praised modern Pagans in order to soften an insult towards other Christians.
  • Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath fame wants you to know that while the band dabbled in the occult back in the day, they weren’t Satanists. Quote: “Asked about whether the band had performed in a way that played up to their Satanic image, the band’s guitarist Tony Iommi told HARDtalk’s Shaun Ley they had ‘dabbled’ in the occult in the early days, but said they had never been Satanists. ‘It was creating music, and that’s all I do. I don’t try to create anything to destroy people or to upset anybody,’ he added.” 
  • Chas Clifton points to an article by Thad Horrell, a Heathen and graduate student, published in the Journal of Religion, Identity and Politics, that explores Heathenry as a postcolonial movement. Quote: “In this paper, I explore the relationship of the contemporary white racial identification of the vast majority of Heathens and the postcolonial stances taken in common Heathen discourses. I will argue that Heathenry is a postcolonial movement both in the sense that it combats and challenges elements of colonial history and the contemporary expectations derived from it (anti-colonial), and in the much more problematic sense that it serves to justify current social and racial inequalities by pushing the structures of colonialism off as a thing of the past (pro-colonial). Rather than promoting a sense of solidarity with colonized populations, Heathen critiques of colonialism and imperialism often serve to justify disregard for claims of oppression by colonized minorities. After all, if we’ve all been colonized, what is there to complain about?”
Solstice Stonehenge revelers in 2009.

Solstice Stonehenge revelers in 2009.

  • Summer is here again, time for a new, new, theory about what Stonehenge was for. Quote: “Stonehenge wasn’t built in order to do something, in the same way you might build a Greek temple to use it for worship. It seems much more likely that everything was in the act of building—that you’d construct it, then you’d go away. You’d come back 500 years later, you’d rebuild it in a new format, and then you’d go away. I think we have to shake off this idea of various sorts of priests or shamans coming in every year over centuries to do their thing. This is a very different attitude to religious belief. It’s much more about the moment. It’s about what must have been these upwellings of religious—almost millennial—belief, and once the thing is done, then everyone disperses and goes back to their lives.” If you’re interested in hearing more, there’s a book out from the scientists involved.
  • Shanghaiist interviews a Witch in Shanghai who uses tarot cards as her primary medium. Quote: “Mache’s own credentials as a witch include working with a doctor, treating people with terminal illnesses by using different techniques of energy healing and alternative therapies. As much as she would like the tarot cards to reveal a happy ending for all her clients, ‘life is not always happy.’ ‘More important than anything I’ve learnt as a witch, is how to communicate with people. Someone can think square, say triangle and the other person will hear circle. Still I am very far from being a perfect human being, of course. But I’m learning like everybody else.’”
  • You may not believe in magic, by why tempt fate? Quote: “I don’t believe in any of that witchcraft mumbo-jumbo junk, but this morning I woke up with a stiff neck of unholy proportions. I’m talking supernatural stiff. Like, I can’t look to the right because I have a bad case of taco-neck kind of stiff. Any person with a hint of common sense would say it’s from sleeping on it wrong. But I’ll have you know I have a memory-foam mattress, meaning I sleep like a stoic statue surrounded by contoured foam. In all honesty, I have this haunting feeling it’s because I trolled an Internet con man and he turned out to be a goddamned voodoo shaman.”
  • The gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court has repercussions outside the South, Native Americans in Arizona and Alaska are deeply concerned about discrimination at the polls. Quote: “By a 5-4 vote, the justices held that Section 4 was based on an outdated formula that does not reflect current attitudes about racial discrimination. The decision means that several states — including Alaska and Arizona, where American Indians and Alaska Natives have been subject to discrimination at the polls — won’t be subject to extra scrutiny by the Department of Justice until Congress updates the law.” Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has formed the White House Council on Native American Affairs to foster more effective government-to-government relations. 
  • In another piece brought to light by Chas Clifton, it seems that Pagans in Poland held a historic conference to overcome theological differences and find ways to work together towards common interests. Quote: “In the registry of the Ministry of Administration and Digitization there are currently four religious Rodzimowiersto organisations: the Polish Slavic Church, Native Faith, Slavic Faith and the Native Polish Church. They try to find the principles of the faith of their ancestors in historical sources. They believe in the gods, who are identified with the forces of nature. Mother Earth is Mokosh, the Sky — Swiatowid, the Sun — Svarog, and Lightning — Perun. However, there have arisen theological differences between the adherents. ‘Some Rodzimowiercy claim that their religion can be combined with other faiths. I think that is unacceptable. I am counting on the congress helping to dispel theological doubts,’ says Stanislaw Potrzebowski of Native Faith.” 
  • Oh, and before I go, it isn’t just Archbishop Charles Chaput who has a “pagan” problem, Irish Catholic priests are also perturbed by “pagan” urges within their flocks. Quote: “The people, they told us, have bought into the evils of materialism and consumerism, and don’t have time or interest in faith any more. They have, to all intents and purposes, become pagan. And they believe that ‘evangelisation’ is the answer [...] there didn’t seem to us to be any practical ideas, or indeed energy, around how this evangelisation could be progressed.” Things are tough all over it seems. 

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.

As was widely reported yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down decisions in cases affecting DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages in that state. Both rulings were broadly seen as victories for marriage equality (with the caveat that there is more still to do, and legal hurdles remain). In the immediate wake of the decisions being released I spotlighted several Pagan reactions to the rulings, but I received and read far more than that. So I would like to do another post today highlighting further reactions to these landmark decisions.

Yeshe Rabbit

Yeshe Rabbit

“The past 24 hours have been huge for personal sovereignty in America. Wendy Davis and the women of Texas took a stand and told the GOP, “Hands off my uterus,” and SCOTUS declared DOMA unconstitutional. I am rejoicing in these outcomes, along with many of my Pagan sisters and brothers, because these outcomes represent the triumph of free will in two highly-charged matters: women’s freedom of choice and marriage equality. I celebrate both of these decisions. And yet, it still troubles me that both of these high-level governmental decisions revolved around what takes place in the most private areas of our lives: our sexuality and reproduction. As if it is OK that these things are regulated in the first place. As if we should feel content to have won the right to determine what choices we make about our bodies at a fundamental level. As if we were not free and sovereign in our sexuality all along. As if the law could ever regulate the way one’s heart sings when one looks upon a beloved. May the wheels of change, now with greater momentum, spin faster toward a future of profound sovereignty in our sexual bodies, in our heart’s loving desires, beyond even what this moment of celebration can provide.”Lady Yeshe Rabbit, CAYA Coven

Cherry Hill Seminary's Holli Emore

Holli Emore, Executive Director, Cherry Hill Seminary

“A long twilight of injustice finally sees the light of reason and clear conscience!  That I lived to see this day, after well over 25 years of marching, speaking, contributing, showing up at rallies and challenging narrow minds – this is a day to celebrate and remember and tell to the generations to come.  To those who are cynical or anti-government – this is the American way at its finest, the beauty of justice, the possibility of admitting wrong and making it right.”  - Holli Emore, Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary

Diana Paxson

Diana Paxson

“In the Germanic countries in pre-Christian times, although the gods would be asked to bless the union (as they did every other rite of passage), marriage was a social contract between two individuals or more properly, between their families, that changed their status and relationship to the community as well as to each other. Since same-sex couples are as capable of forming long-term relationships, raising children, and functioning as a household in a community as hetero-sexual couples are, they ought to have the same legal status and protections. The Troth has always supported equality, and our clergy have officiated at many same-sex weddings (where legal), and hand-fastings (where not legal yet).”Diana L. Paxson, Elder, Clergy Coordinator, The Troth

Lord Blackcat

Lord Blackcat

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling striking down DOMA is an important victory on the expansion of freedom for all people and pagans in particular. Since the 1990′s, there has been a well documented effort by certain conservative Christian groups to shape American law in accordance with their philosophical and religious views. Opponents of marriage equality repeatedly cite Judeo-Christian reference as a basis for the legal definition of marriage. As pagans, most of us have long recognized our deities as transcending culturally based gender roles.  Most pagans have similarly embraced all aspects of consensual adult love as inherent rights.  Today’s recognition that diverse members of society are Constitutionally entitled to equal access under the law sets an important precedent.  Mob-mentally, majority rule does not trump individual liberty.  It is this individual liberty that allows for minority religions, such as make up most pagan practice, to openly exist.  Whatever one’s politics, religion, or sexual orientation, everyone should celebrate this recognition that religious views of a majority cannot and should not be permitted to squash the diversity which is the basis of life,liberty and the pursuit of happiness, guaranteed by our US Constitution.”Lord Blackcat, HP, Sylvan Grove, Seattle WA

Rev. Philipp J. Kessler

Rev. Philipp J. Kessler

“As a Pagan I am thrilled by both rulings. “All acts of love and pleasure” are the rituals of the Gods. I personally feel that the government should have no say in whether legal consenting adults get married, regardless of their sex or sexual identity. Marriage in this context is a religious institution. How politicos view marriage is as a legal contract. If you are going to view marriage as a legal contract, then any two consenting adults should be able to enter into such a contract. I am a legally ordained and recognized minister in the state of Nebraska, and many other states that recognize my ordination. I have been asked many times to do weddings and handfastings. I’ve not had the joy or the privilege to perform a same-sex ceremony. I have been asked, but things changed in the lives of the couples and the unions did not take place. If I were asked today to go to one of the 12 (soon to be 13) states that have legal same-sex marriage (and the District of Columbia) to perform such a glorious union, I would gladly do so. If I were asked today to do a same-sex handfasting or other such ceremony in any of the 50 states or anywhere else in the world, I would gladly do so. I am now and always have been of the firm opinion that all adults have the right to love who they want and how they want as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others or place themselves or others at risk of undue harm. There is still a long uphill battle in the United States for marriage equality. The provision of DOMA that allows states without same-sex marriage to ignore the validity of a same-sex marriage from a state that does still stands. SCOTUS declared Section 3 of DOMA to be unconstitutional. The rest of DOMA still stands, which means that each state still has the right to define marriage according to its voters or law makers.”Rev. Philipp J. Kessler, Co-founder and Nebraska Facilitator of the Pagan Alliance Network

Fire Lyte

Fire Lyte

“We’re hoping that our federal government will get a majority of its House and Senate to enact a federal law giving sweeping marriage equality nationwide. DOMA doesn’t give us that. Prop 8 doesn’t give us that. And there isn’t anything in the United States Constitution to challenge in a judicial setting. It is possible that the President could give an Executive Order attempting to force the issue, but this would likely get overturned in Congress, since it’s been found in the past that an Executive Order cannot be used to create law, but rather to clarify or enforce current law. Though, in this Rioter’s opinion, if an Executive Order can be used to go to war, it should be able to be used to give equal marriage rights. But, it’s not like the President doesn’t have enough on his plate right now. And that’s where we stand, folks. There is a lot to celebrate today, but the war is nowhere close to over. And, for folks like me in states where gay marriage still isn’t recognized, today is just another day. I can’t rush out and marry my Partner. I can’t file my 2013 tax return jointly. I can’t receive one of the over 1000 legal rights only married couples receive. I’m just Partner’s roommate for most legal purposes. Bittersweet, definition of.”Fire Lyte, Inciting A Riot podcast

T. Thorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle

“This morning, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down both the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. To me, this time, the legal system stood for love and justice. I’ve said before that we ought not to give one set of citizens rights that another set does not have. If we are to have laws, they must be equitable. That said, I think government should get out of the marriage business. I also recognize that my own relationships are much larger and more fluid than this sort of marriage can encompass. Yes, I came out about this last time we were discussing DOMA.  Today the Supreme Court decided in favor of equity and love. Yesterday, the Supreme Court did the opposite. Yesterday, the Supreme Court gutted the Voters Rights Act, an action which threatens to disenfranchise many people who still need the support of things like district elections in order to give themselves a proper voice in a political system stacked toward the privileged. That does not sound like justice. Nor does it sound like love. It sounds like a further separation of us from one another.”T. Thorn Coyle, Solar Cross Temple

Teo Bishop

Teo Bishop

“When I say that this is a small step toward equal treatment under the law, I’m not just talking about us queers here. I’m also talking about moving toward a place of greater gender equality, too. Our society is built within a binary gender paradigm which favors one gender over the other. In many ways, the LGBT rights movement threatens that very paradigm, because jumping on board the gay train requires you to suspend all of your “normal” assumptions about gender roles in relationship. Do that, and you start seeing imbalance and injustice nearly every place you look. LGBT rights are like a gateway drug in that way. Start supporting the homos, and before long you’ll end up a complete social justice activist. (I’ve seen it happen.) It’s good to remind people who may think of LGBT rights as a “fringe issue” that today’s ruling fits into a much larger discussion about personal liberty and equality — two principles which can, with enough political firepower, be jeopardized for even the most mainstream among us. Even hetero-normative folks need to be on the lookout. But not today. Today is a day worth celebrating. I believe that equality is a Pagan value, and equality was upheld today.”Teo Bishop, Bishop In The Grove

I have no doubt there are even more thoughts and responses out there that I have missed. Have you weighed in? Please let me know in the comments. The DOMA and Prop 8 rulings were just one of several major rulings made this term, and I’m also hoping to explore the changes to the Voting Rights Act from a Pagan perspective soon. For now, I’m content to celebrate this step forward for equality. Have a great day!

Today the Supreme Court of the United States handed down rulings on United States v. Windsor, which challenged the constitutionality of DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and Hollingsworth v. Perry, which centered on California’s Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment that banned legal same-sex marriages. In short, both rulings are seen as victories for proponents of marriage equality, and for clergy who perform same-sex marriages. The first ruling this morning from the Supreme Court was on the matter of DOMA, and it was ruled unconstitutional in a 5-4 vote. Here’s SCOTUSblog’s “Plain English” take on the ruling.

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

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

“The federal Defense of Marriage Act defines “marriage,” for purposes of over a thousand federal laws and programs, as a union between a man and a woman only. Today the Court ruled, by a vote of five to four, in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, that the law is unconstitutional. The Court explained that the states have long had the responsibility of regulating and defining marriage, and some states have opted to allow same-sex couples to marry to give them the protection and dignity associated with marriage. By denying recognition to same-sex couples who are legally married, federal law discriminates against them to express disapproval of state-sanctioned same-sex marriage. This decision means that same-sex couples who are legally married must now be treated the same under federal law as married opposite-sex couples.

The California Proposition 8 ruling was more complex, and hinges on issues of standing, but it is widely seen as clearing the way for legal same-sex marriages in the state.

“The court’s action, while not a sweeping ruling, sends the case back to California, where state and federal judges and the state’s top officials have said same-sex marriage is a matter of equal rights.”

As I’ve reported several times before at this site, this issue is both about the basic human rights of same sex couples, and the rights of clergy who officiate their unions. The banning of legal same-sex unions was seen by many as privileging the religious views of those opposed to legal recognition over those who supported it. Now, with this latest hurdle crossed, same sex unions performed in states where it is legal (soon to include California) will be federally recognized, and those couples will receive all the benefits currently granted to married couples by the government. Washington DC Pagan, and Human Rights Campaign employee David Salisbury, in reacting to the SCOTUS decisions, celebrated today as a “watershed moment.”

David Salisbury

David Salisbury

“Although we were hoping for a broader decision, this is still an incredible day to be working for equality and a watershed moment for this movement. I am so proud of my colleagues at the Human Rights Campaign for all the work we’ve done to encourage nationwide support and excitement around this issue. We still have a lot of work to do in this area and many others in the future, but we here in Washington DC will celebrate this momentous day at the Supreme Court with cheers from the rest of the nation behind us. It is also a proud time to be an American Pagan, which is a movement of people who have largely always supported equality for all.”

Kathryn Robinson Kyair, a Gythja in the Asatru faith who was legally married to her partner in California before Prop. 8 won passage in 2008, was initially in a state of shock over the news, but eventually realized the ramifications: “We are equal.”

“How long have we fought, tooth and nail, for this?  Every step along the way has been a fight.  And suddenly, this one makes our marriage equal.  WOW. Prop H8:  thrown back to CA.  Judge Walker’s ruling stands.  Prop H8 is unconstitutional…his words…and now marriage in CA can resume!  Wow! It all slowly sinks in.  It’s all good.  Yes, there are still details to fight, but, it’s good! Holy S***!  My wife, Jeani, and I are married!  REALLY married.  It DOES feel different.  It finally feels REAL!”

For decades, many within the modern Pagan movement have performed marriage rites for same sex couples, and welcomed them into their religious groups and communities. Ivo Dominguez, Jr., an Elder of the Assembly of The Sacred Wheel, noted the irony of being able to officiate federally recognized wedding without be able to obtain one himself.

Ivo Dominguez Jr.

Ivo Dominguez Jr.

“In the decades that I’ve been a Wiccan priest, I have officiated many federally recognized weddings. My lover and I will have been together 35 years next February. I have always noted the irony of being able to perform such a service without ever being able to be the recipient of the same. Today’s Supreme Court decision finally makes this possible, and we will soon be married. However I will remain vigilant because every step forward also brings out those who wish to drag us backwards. My religion views all love as sacred, but some other religions have different perspectives on this matter. Neither my religious views nor their religious views should matter in the eyes of the law. However my beliefs as a Wiccan will encourage me to make choices to defend my rights and the rights of others. I am overjoyed, and I am also prepared for this to be the beginning of yet more decades of work towards a nation that sees the intrinsic value of all love and all beings.”

Michael Lloyd, co-founder of the Between the Worlds Men’s Gathering and author of “Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan,” who has performed same-sex marriages as a Gay Pagan priest, noted the historic inequality between different religious views of same-sex relationships as this debate has evolved.

“As I look back on the debate that has surrounded the struggle for marriage equality in this country, I am struck by how much deference has been paid to the beliefs of religious institutions which have a long history of antipathy toward the gay community, while for the most part ignoring the beliefs – and the rights – of those institutions which have recognized the innate humanity of LGBT people who wish to form loving, supportive families. [...] Leaders of these religious organizations certainly bear a responsibility for their own dogma and how they manipulate it to maintain control over their own followers. However, they have no right to impose those beliefs upon society as a whole. In matters of faith, we are each the master of our own soul. And for that reason, I am joyful that the SCOTUS has seen fit to allow those who have lawfully taken this most public of private steps to be recognized by their government. May we all be so free within my lifetime. So mote it be.”

This is just a sample of the flood of positive reactions from Pagan leaders, clergy, and activists on these rulings. Covenant of the Goddess (COG), released a statement saying that “today we celebrate with all of our LGBT members, their friends, families and communities as they take a huge step forward in their struggle for acceptance and freedom under the law.” Author and Priestess Crystal Blanton said that today’s decision “brought us all one step closer to true spirituality,” while Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary exclaimed: “May our society continue to work toward having Equality, Liberty, and Justice for All!” David Shorey, GLBT Liaison for the House of Danu, looked to the future saying that he celebrates the rulings today but knows “that Love knows no borders. I know that one day Gay and Lesbian couples will be able to declare their commitment and love in all 50 states.” For many Pagan clergy, the sentiments of Lisa Morgenstern seem to hold true.

Lisa Cowley Morgenstern

Lisa Cowley Morgenstern

“As the former Public Information Officer for COG, back when the first CA court decision was rendered legalizing gay marriage,I am thrilled to see DOMA struck down, and Prop 8′s suit dismissed. COG clergy have been performing same gender marriages since the inception of the organization, in 1976, as their consciences permit.  As a member of The Troth who also performs Heathen weddings as well as Wiccan and Pagan ones, I believe that this step of legal recognition was long overdue. Right of survivorship is an important one, as well as the federal income tax benefit of filing jointly as a married couple. These benefits will apply to members of our military as well. The Troth does not discriminate against our gay members and never has. I have performed many same gender marriages and I look forward to resuming that joy in a legal capacity.”

Michele Morris, Distinctive Faith Group Leader for Fort Hood Open Circle, US Army Fort Hood, TX, noted how these decision will also affect same sex couples in a military setting, saying that for “most of the people that I work with it’s about the things that so many of us take for granted, like the right to be notified if your spouse is injured. To be able to be married in the faith and community of your choosing is something everyone should have access to and this decision will give pagan clergy the opportunity to grant that access to even more people.”

“Today’s Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8, while not as decisive and far-reaching as they could have been, are an important step in the decades-old movement to secure marriage rights for same-sex couples. Paganism has been at the forefront of that movement – many of us have performed religious marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples long before other religions started following suit. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but as of today, the writing on the wall is sharper and bolder than ever.”Andras Corban Arthen, The EarthSpirit Community

In the long run, what this is about, and why so many Pagans support marriage equality is simple. As Mage and Chiromancer Jim Barker puts it, “by allowing marriage between two people of the same gender, I can actually call my domestic partner “husband.”  When people ask if we are married, I can simply say, YES.  I don’t need all kinds of funny explanations.  And neither do my loved ones.  They can just say we’re married.” Our community embraces multiplicity, it embraces difference and all manifestations of love. “Our diversity is our wealth,” says Chris Moore, and he’s not wrong. 

There’s so much more to say here, and we’ll be doing follow-up posts. For now, I want to leave you with the words of Pagan author and activist Lydia M. N. Crabtree.

Lydia M. Crabtree

Lydia M. Crabtree

“I am struck at how yesterday the idea that there is discrimination against minority voters was scoffed at by the Supreme Court and today that same Court embraced the idea that the United States is discriminating against same sex marriage. It is almost as if we as a society do not have an ability to hold in our minds the prejudice of two groups at the same time. In both cases, these fights have been sent back to the state level – upholding the view that state rights is paramount. As a Southerner this disturbs me. I am all too familiar with what happens when States have control of making and governing minority groups. Things here in Georgia are unlikely to change for my friends who wish to marry whom they love regardless of gender. Just as I suspect that more voting laws will be attempted making voting more difficult for minority groups and redrawing district lines to keep Georgia a red state for as long as possible, given the fact that these practices of voter suppression have been on going. I do not think the United States people should breathe a sigh of relief. This Court clearly shows the great imbalance between the will of the people and the people who hold power. A clear reflection of the disparity of power between the will of the people and the Senate and Congress. Now isn’t the time to celebrate, it is the time to recognize two important thing. 1. Any minority discrimination is too much discrimination, whether the issue is around same-sex marriage or voting rights. 2. If the states retain the right to restrict minority groups indirectly, we should understand the dangerous precedent and remember the historic cost of state rights throughout history.”

Today we have a victory, but our collective work for justice continues. Let’s all keep standing for love.

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

Courtesy of Flickr's fruity monkey

Courtesy of Flickr’s fruity monkey

Now back to our regularly scheduled program….

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

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

Ellery Schempp

Ellery Schempp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abington To Appeal Newspaper

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

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

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

Here are three very recent related cases:

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

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

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

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  mksfly

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s mksfly

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

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case stemming from sectarian prayers before local government meetings in Greece, New York. At the heart of the case is the question of if a policy regarding invocations can be pluralistic and inclusive in letter, but not in spirit.

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

“Town officials said that members of all faiths, and atheists, were welcome to give the opening prayer. In practice, the federal appeals court in New York said, almost all of the chaplains were Christian. [...] Two town residents sued, saying the prayers ran afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition of the government establishment of religion. The appeals court agreed. “The town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint,” Judge Calabresi wrote.”

This is a very big deal. One that strikes to the very heart of a “model invocation policy” peddled by conservative Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF – formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund). The thesis is that sectarian prayers (rather than the “ceremonial deism” that permeates many government bodies) are constitutional so long as the written policy is inclusive of all faiths. However, they calm nervous Christian government officials worried about an influx of religious minorities by noting that no special efforts to be inclusive are necessary.

“If a public body implements a legitimately neutral policy and procedure to invite local clergy from established congregations in its community to offer an opening invocation, that public body is not required to extend any extraordinary efforts to include particular minority faiths. In other words, no apology is necessary for the demographics of the community that the public body serves.”

In short, opening invocations can overwhelmingly reference Jesus Christ, and they can send invitations only to “established congregations” (ie brick-and-mortar churches) so long as they include a religious minority who inquires/complains. Something I’ve dubbed the “include a Wiccan gambit,” which is exactly what Greece, New York did.

“In just a few seconds’ time during the April Town Board meeting, Jennifer Zarpentine made Greece history. Zarpentine, a Wiccan, delivered the first-ever pagan prayer to open a meeting of the Greece Town Board. Her hands raised to the sky, she called upon Greek deities Athena and Apollo to ‘help the board make the right informed decisions for the benefit and greater good of the community.’ A small cadre of her friends and coven members in the audience chimed in ‘so mote it be.’”

For a time, this gambit seemed to work in the lower courts. Then, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals both handed down rulings that called into question whether this invocation tokenism could really offset a regular schedule of Christian prayer.

“We conclude, on the record before us, that the town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint. This conclusion is supported by several considerations, including the prayer-giver selection process, the content of the prayers, and the contextual actions (and inactions) of prayer-givers and town officials. We emphasize that, in reaching this conclusion, we do not rely on any single aspect of the town’s prayer practice, but rather on the totality of the circumstances present in this case.

The town’s process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint. Christian clergy delivered each and every one of the prayers for the first nine years of the town’s prayer practice, and nearly all of the prayers thereafter. In the town’s view, the preponderance of Christian clergy was the result of a random selection process. The randomness of the process, however, was limited by the town’s practice of inviting clergy almost exclusively from places of worship located within the town’s borders. The town fails to recognize that its residents may hold religious beliefs that are not represented by a place of worship within the town. Such residents may be members of congregations in nearby towns or, indeed, may not be affiliated with any congregation. The town is not a community of religious institutions, but of individual residents, and, at the least, it must serve those residents without favor or disfavor to any creed or belief.”

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

These cases, and the “model invocation policy” itself, are haunted by the involvement and activism of modern Pagans. It isn’t just that Greece included a Wiccan sectarian prayer among thousands of Christian prayers. The ADF’s policy blueprint was partially constructed around two 4th Circuit cases involving public prayers and modern Pagans: Simpson v. Chesterfield County, the case that helped create the so-called “Wiccan-proof” invocation policy, and the Darla Wynne case, in which a Wiccan from South Carolina won a battle against sectarian government prayer. These two cases helped set the precedents that advocates of sectarian prayer have been navigating through, and their efforts at mob-rule prayer sectarianism will finally be tested by America’s highest court.

How will the court decide? It’s hard to say. SCOTUS took a pass on considering the similar 4th Circuit decision, letting their decision stand, but they may have simply been waiting for a case that would suit the Court’s needs better. For the most part, the modern Supreme Court doesn’t like to corner itself into making sweeping decisions, and it could be that the justices see a needle-threading solution to the issue at hand. Then again, we could be in for another “ministerial exception” moment where broad new freedoms are outlined and defined. At this point it’s anyone’s guess, but I’m sure advocates on both sides of this issue are readying themselves for a fight that could shape invocation policy for a generation.