Archives For SCOTUS

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) heard two and a half hours of oral arguments Tuesday in a case called Obergefell v. Hodges, which considers if all fifty states must allow same-sex marriages, or recognize such marriages when they legally take place in another state. The case includes more than 20 plaintiffs from four different states.

Priestess signing legal documentation for a same-sex married couple in Alabama [Courtesy K. Privett-Duren]

Priestess signing legal documentation for a same-sex married couple in Alabama [Courtesy K. Privett-Duren]

The questions to be decided
There are actually two questions the court is now looking at in this single case. The first is whether the U.S. Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriages under the Equal Protection Clause, or if it should be left up to individual states. This is similar to the way states regulate age and the degree of blood relations for prospective couples. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The second question is whether states can prohibit same-sex marriages, yet be required to recognize same-sex marriages that legally took place somewhere else under the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Article IV, Section 1 reads

Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. And the Congress may by general laws prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof.

Generally, a marriage performed in one state has been recognized in all fifty states, unless that specific union has been outlawed in another state. Up until the mid-1960’s a number of states still banned interracial marriage, and those states did not recognize interracial marriages performed in states where it was legal. The full faith and credit clause was never used to force a state to recognize a marriage that it did not wish to recognize, such as an interracial marriage. However, this question will only be decided if SCOTUS rules that states may, in fact, ban same sex marriages.

Background on the cases
Obergefell v. Hodges isn’t just one case, it’s four cases that have been consolidated into one.

April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse live in Michigan where they own a home together and have three children. Because they are not allowed to marry and jointly adopt their children, DeBoer adopted one child and Rowse adopted the other two. This creates challenges in providing health insurance coverage for all three children and custody of the children if one partner should die.

James Obergefell married John Arthur in Maryland, a state that allows same-sex marriage. A few months later Arthur died. Obergefell filed a lawsuit in Ohio, where the couple lived, to be listed as Arthur’s spouse. Because same-sex marriage is banned in Ohio, the state refuses to list Obergefell as Arthur’s spouse on the death certificate.

Sergeant First Class Ijpe DeKoe married Thomas Kostura in New York, where Kostura was living. New York permits same-sex marriage. After Sgt. DeKoe returned from deployment to Afghanistan, the couple relocated to Tennessee, where DeKoe’s new duty station was located. Tennessee refuses to recognize the couple’s marriage.

Gregory Bourke and Michael Deleon were married in Ontario, Canada. The couple and their two adopted children live in Kentucky, where same-sex marriage is illegal. The couple is arguing that Kentucky should recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions.

marriage equality

Human Rights Campaign symbol for marriage equality

Where the Justices appear to stand
Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia threw out tough questions to the attorney representing the same-sex couples. They also seemed open to the idea that states should continue to be able to regulate marriage. Justice Thomas, as usual, was silent during the oral arguments, but he is expected to rule in favor of allowing states to continue to regulate same-sex marriage and against forcing states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states where it is legal.

Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor pushed back strongly against the idea that marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples, because marriage is centered around having children and encouraging parents to stay married to care for their children.

Justice Kennedy appears to be, once again, a swing vote and there isn’t consensus on which way he will rule. If he sides with the four liberal Justices and rules that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional, everything is cut and dry. If he’s either undecided or leans more toward the three conservative Justices, Chief Justice Roberts may try to broker a compromise.

Chief Justice John Roberts appeared concerned that the court, by issuing a decision that changes the status quo, would prematurely shut down societal debates on this issue. He also noted that marriage has been commonly defined as a union between a man and women up until just “just a dozen years ago.” Yet Roberts is known as a compromiser and appeared to already be proposing a deal between the liberal and conservative wings of the court. Leave the question of gay marriage up to each state, but force states to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in other states where it is legal. This would, effectively, make same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states without eroding each state’s right to regulate marriage laws as their citizens’ see fit.

SCOTUS is expected to issue their ruling on this case in late June.

Now that the season has turned and we are nearing the end of the calendar year, we look back, one last time, to review the year. What happened? What didn’t happen? What events shaped our collective thoughts and guided our actions? In our worlds, both big and small, what were the major discussions? What were the high points and low?

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public domain

The year 2014 kicked off with several debates already simmering. Early in January, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart’s quest to capitalize Pagan, which had begun in the fall of 2013, came to an end as the coalition mailed its petition to various style guide editors.  Although the immediate response was less than encouraging, The Associated Press did eventually revise its style guide to include Wicca. Whether the coalition’s work influenced that change is unknown. However, its letter may have triggered some level of awareness leading to that addition.

Another conversation brewing in those early months culminated in a packed PantheaCon session hosted in the CoG/NWC/NROOGD suite. The debate over “Wiccan Privilege,” which began with a single article in the November 2013, inspired or incited a four-month blog-based debate. If nothing else, those conversations showcased the diversity and breadth of religious practices that, not only fall under the Pagan umbrella, but also run alongside it and near it; and often intersect with it.

Over the remainder of the year, many of these non-Wiccan based traditions and practices continued to demonstrate growth and forward momentum. For example, in September, Polytheist.com was successfully launched and, more recently, Many Gods West, a new Polytheist conference, was announced. In August, the U.S. Air Force added Heathen and Asatru to its religious preference list.

Open Halls Project
As winter thawed into the brightness of spring, our collective communities were rocked with the news of Kenny Klein’s arrest. It served as almost a “wake-up” call, unearthing buried concerns, personal pain and collective traumas. Eventually the difficult conversations led to action. In May, the Council of the Phoenix was born, created by Green Egg Magazine editor Ariel Monserrat. In August, the Covenant of the Goddess established its own internal abuse advisory committee led by professional social workers and a psychotherapist. More recently, Lydia Crabtree established Pagan Pro, a project that proposes to qualify leaders. While time eventually gave way to other concerns, Klein’s arrest and the ensuing conversations brought to light serious problems that lurk in the shadows of many communities – not just Pagan or religious ones.

By late spring and early summer, attention had turned to the national and international news arena. In May, SCOTUS ruled on legislative prayer, “upholding the right of legislators to offer sectarian prayer before conducting business.” In June, SCOTUS ruled on the Hobby Lobby case, concluding that “some for-profit employers with religious objections do not need to provide contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).”

During that same period, Middle East violence began to heat up, drawing our attention to a world in crisis. ISIS, ISIL and now the IS became a household name, as the militant organization continued its assault on Middle Eastern territories and peoples. In addition, the Israeli and the Palestinian conflict escalated into a new round of military action. Israeli Pagans, reporting from within the war-torn region, called out for compassion and peace.

Inside an Israeli Pagan store, The White Wood Shop. [Courtesy Photo]

Inside an Israeli Pagan store, The White Wood Shop. [Courtesy Photo]

Throughout 2014, we covered other big stories originating from or affecting international Pagan communities, like the one in Israel. For example, the U.K.’s Centre for Pagan Studies, together with the Doreen Valiente Foundation, commemorated Gerald Gardner with a Blue Heritage Plaque. In South Africa, we spoke with SAPRA’s Damon Leff about the continued use of Witchcraft as a political weapon.  And, in Italy, the new Unione Comunità Neopagane was born.

As the wheel turned and summer came to an end, Pagan Pride Day and other harvest events were in full swing worldwide. For many people, it was “festival-as-usual,” but not for the Wisconsin-based Circle Sanctuary. Samhain 2014 marked the organization’s 40th anniversary, which it celebrated with month-long podcasts culminating in a single big birthday celebration.

At the same time, a uniquely modern problem emerged. First publicized by Sister Roma and other members of the drag queen community, Facebook’s “real name” policy became a thorn in many Pagans’ sides. Some of those affected included Silver Ravenwolf, Storm Faerywolf and Raven Grimassi.

Ironically, as many Witches struggled with Facebook over use of their Craft names, many of these chosen names were being featured in the mainstream news media. October is the month to interview a witch.

Outside of the festivities, celebrations and Halloween hullabaloo, this Samhain had a particularly pronounced sobering affect. We marked the passing of many Pagan loved ones, elders and leaders. As listed in our Wild Hunt Samhain post, those lost in 2014 included Margot Adler, Morning Glory Zell-Ravenhart, Jeff Rosenbaum, Lady Loreon Vigne, Sparky T. Rabbit, Apolinario Chile Pixtun, Peter Paddon, Brian Dragon, Donald Michael Kraig, Judy Harrow, Stanley Modrzyk, Colin Wilson, Jonas Trinkūnas, Eduardo Manuel Gutierrez (Hyperion), Randy David Jeffers (Randy Sapp), Chris Keith and Olivia Robertson. Since that Samhain article was published, Pete Pathfinder Davis and Niklas Gander have also passed, along with many others who are not named here.

Mother Tongue Singing at  Margot Adler's Memorial Oct. 31 [Courtesy Photo]

Mother Tongue Singing at Margot Adler’s Memorial Oct. 31 [Courtesy Photo]

In addition to the loss, the fall brought good news for two very public religious freedom cases. The Huntsville Alabama’s City Council invited Wiccan Priest Blake Kirk back to offer a pre-meeting invocation despite the citizen complaints. And, perhaps even more uplifting, the Maetreum of Cybele won its expensive and lengthly legal battle for property tax exemption.

These were not the year’s only triumphs. In Aug., Wiccan Janie Felix won her legal challange to Bloomingfield, New Mexico’s erection of a Ten Commandments monument. In Virginia, Priestess Maya White Sparks led the successful quest to remove antiquated anti-Tarot codes from the Town of Front Royal’s books. We also saw two Georgia college students defy the odds and form a campus-based “Old Faith Community” in their highly conservative school environment. And, finally, the New Alexandrian Library earned a certificate of occupancy and began the slow process of unpacking.

To add to that positive momentum, 2014 saw four openly Pagan or Heathen political candidates, including Cara Schulz in Minnesota, Kathryn Jones of Pennsylvania, Robert Rudachyk, in Canada’s Saskatoon West, and Ireland’s Deirdre Wadding, who won a seat on her local council.

As the final days of 2014 approached, holiday celebrations were once again tempered by national events. Just before Thanksgiving, our attention was drawn to a new place – Ferguson, Missouri. Since that day, the United States has not been the same. Frustration, pain, confusion and feelings of helplessness mingle with daily protests and pure rage. Over the past month, many people have donated time and money; spoken words of solidarity in many forms; have grieved; and have looked for ways to be part of a solution. This is story yet to be fully written.

Courtney Weber of the Pagan Environmental Coalition of New York

Courtney Weber of the Pagan Environmental Coalition of New York at #ClimateMarch

Above are only a fraction of the many stories, reports and events that have touched our lives over the past year. There are so many others – ones that we reported on and even more that we didn’t. If we could sum the year up in one phrase or term, it might simply be #2014. The hashtag has become an increasingly useful rallying point, external to its Twitter origins, for many of the events and actions that have occurred throughout the year, from #PantheaCon, #PACO and #PaganPride to #MyNameIs, #ClimateMarch, and #blacklivesmatter.

As the final days of 2014 tick to a close, we say goodbye to what has been, and now ready ourselves for what is to come. #Bringon2015

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.

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  • 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.

IMG_0691

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.