Archives For Separation of Church and State

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.

Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen

  • Noted naturalist and author Peter Matthiessen died on Saturday after battling leukemia. Mattheiseen, a Zen Buddhist, wrote over 30 novels, was an environmental activist, co-founded the Paris Review, and famously wrote “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” which chronicled the story of Leonard Peltier. Quote: “Matthiessen is held in such high regard as a nonfiction writer by nonfiction writers that they sometimes say, ‘How is it possible that this guy can be such a virtuoso fiction writer, and give his equally substantial body of nonfiction work such short shrift?’ Because all the rest of us are trying to do what we can to mimic his nonfiction work.” What is remembered, lives.
  • Two people in Western Kentucky have been arrested on charges of committing sexual offenses against children. One of them, Jessica M. Smith, allegedly described herself as a Witch and threatened the children with her powers. Quote: “Prosecutors say the two threatened the children with ‘hexes and curses’ [...] Police said Smith described herself as a witch and told the kids ‘she was going to put a spell on them’ and that ‘if they told anyone, something bad would happen to them.’”
  • A federal appeals panel has ruled that New York City has the right to block religious services in public schools. Quote: “The decision does not mean that the city must force religious groups out of the schools, but merely that a city prohibition on religious worship services in schools would comply with the Constitution.” Appeals are expected.
  • It seems that “real housewife” Carlton Gebbia isn’t the only reality television star who has practiced Wicca. It seems that Millionaire Matchmaker star Patti Stanger was a “real Wiccan” for six years. Quote: “I’ve studied Kabbalah, I’ve studied Wicca, so you can’t be like that. You can’t throw stones at people, because karmically it’s going to come back to you even worse then you threw it at them.”
  • Is the Internet destroying religion? A new study makes the case that the rise of the Internet has been an important factor in individuals abandoning traditional forms of religious practice. Quote: “Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet. He concludes that the increase in Internet use in the last two decades has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation.” Of course, correlation is not causation, but Downey says that “correlation does provide evidence in favor of causation, especially when we can eliminate alternative explanations or have reason to believe that they are less likely.”
Terence Spencer—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Terence Spencer—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

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.

Here are some updates on stories previously mentioned or reported on at The Wild Hunt.

Hollicrop-589x1024At Patheos, Holli Emore, Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, writes about her meeting with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, as part of an interfaith proclamation that was issued for the month of January. Quote: “I don’t support Haley politically. But that is not the point; politics is not what brought us together on this occasion. Once elected, Haley became my governor, and I am deeply grateful for her support of interfaith work. To our knowledge, South Carolina is the only state in the U.S. to acknowledge the importance of religious plurality and issue a formal proclamation. Haley may understand, better than any other governor in the nation, that nurturing diversity will strengthen us, not just spiritually, but also economically and in the public sector.” Last month, Wild Hunt staff writer Heather Greene wrote about Gov. Haley’s proclamation, and the role Emore (as a Pagan) has played in South Carolina’s interfaith community.

marianne-williamson-smilingBack in December I noted the Congressional candidacy of New Age superstar Marianne Williamson, author of the immensely popular self-help book “A Return to Love.” Now, the Religion News Service has a piece up about her “prayerful” bid for political office. Quote: “With about four months before primary elections, Williamson is seeking to tap into widespread discontent and disillusionment and apply her own brand of well-packaged, transformational wisdom to stoke ‘a people’s movement. It’s the people who have to intervene, because the political status quo is part of what has taken us to where we are,’ Williamson said in an interview this week, highlighting corporate money as a primary cause for the present state of affairs. ‘It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment.’ Williamson launched her campaign in October. She wants to end the status quo of capitulation to corporate money in politics and encourage an engaged, loving electorate.” With the recent retirement announcement of Democrat Henry Waxman, who currently holds the contested California seat, what was once a long-shot now seems somewhat more likely.

religion-50-year-change-Figure2We talk a lot about the “nones” here at The Wild Hunt, those folks who refuse to be pinned with a religious label, and who have experienced rapid growth in recent years. The ongoing question is: what will their ascent mean for our society and how we conceive religion’s role in it? Americans United points to some new data from Baylor University researchers, which shows the United States becoming more religiously diverse, including the rise of “nones” and “others.” Quote: “The proportion of Americans who identify with “Other” religious traditions has doubled, an increase that is closely tied to the increased immigration of Asian populations who brought non-western religions (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam) with them. While still a small proportion of the overall population, they contribute greatly to the increased religious diversity of the American religious landscape. In 20 states, scattered in the Midwest and South, Islam is the largest non-Christian religion. Judaism is the largest non-Christian religion in 15 states, mostly in the Northeast, and Buddhism is the largest religion in 13 western states. In Delaware and Arizona, Hinduism is the largest non-Christian religion, while in South Carolina it is the Baha’i.”

blog-jesusinschool-500x280_1At the end of January, I profiled how a Buddhist student was harassed by the Christian majority at a public school district in Louisiana, prompting litigation from the ACLU. Since then, the story has exploded across the Internet. Now, prominent culture blog Boing Boing points to an ACLU-penned petition to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking for a federal investigation. Quote: “No child should be subjected to the type of humiliation that our son has endured. The Department of Justice has the power to end this unlawful religious discrimination at schools in Sabine Parish and set an example for the rest of Louisiana— but we have to make sure they take the case. Please join us in calling on the Department of Justice to launch an immediate investigation into this unlawful religious discrimination so that no other child has to go through the harassment that our son has endured.” We will keep you updated as this story develops.

President Obama at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast.This past Thursday was the National Prayer Breakfast, for those who missed it (that would include me). You can read President Obama’s full remarks, here. Quote: “Now, here, as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion.  And, yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too — because religion strengthens America.  Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.” As I’ve pointed out in the past, despite the bipartisan good-naturedness and calls for religious freedom, the National Prayer Breakfast has deeply problematic elements for anyone who isn’t a Christian. Activist groups have called on politicians, to seemingly no avail, to boycott this event. At least the existence of gays and non-believers was invoked this year. Maybe we’ll actually get to a point where it’s robustly interfaith too.

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

For culturally conservative Christians in the United States a familiar topic of discussion is how the Supreme Court “took God out of school” and the subsequent moral/intellectual decline landmark decisions like Engel v. Vitale had engendered in American society. For decades, activists have been trying to erode legal barriers in government-funded learning institutions, hoping for a return to Protestant Christian moral hegemony in the classroom. These efforts are almost always couched in terms of “freedom,” but time and again when conservative Christians do gain unchallenged control over a school district the result isn’t freedom, but harassment and bullying of any who don’t toe their line. Such is the case at Sabine Parish School Board in Louisiana.

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 11.36.06 AM

“When my stepson, who has been raised a Buddhist, enrolled in the sixth grade at our local school, Negreet High, it became personal, and I could no longer turn a blind eye to the very real harms that occur when school officials violate the separation of church and state. My stepson started at Negreet in the same class as one of my children. By the end of the first week of school, he was having serious stomach issues and anxiety. We couldn’t figure out why. In the mornings, my wife would pull over on the side of the road as they approached school so he could throw up. At first, we thought he was sick and we let him stay home. Soon it became apparent that this was not a cold, but something much worse. Our children informed us that their teacher had been chastising and bullying my stepson for his Buddhist beliefs.”

Yes, as a new federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU alleges, the stepson of Scott Lane was singled out by teachers, and bullied for the crime of not being Christian in a Christian dominated area.

download“The lawsuit said Roark has ‘repeatedly taught students that the earth was created by God 6,000 years ago, that evolution is ‘impossible’ and that the Bible is ’100 percent true.’ She also regularly features religious questions on her tests such as “Isn’t it amazing what the ______ has made!!!!’ When the Lanes’ son ‘did not write in Roark’s expected answer (LORD), she belittled him in front of the rest of the class.’ While studying other religions, she also has told students that Buddhism is ‘stupid,’ the lawsuit said.”

You see, religious freedom, for many of these Christian activists, means freedom to be Christian. In an editorial for the ACLU, Lane lists some of the ways the Christian-dominated staff threw their weight around, including distributing anti-Pagan/occult propaganda.

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“When we went to the school to meet with the principal, we saw a large picture of Jesus over the school’s main doors, a Bible verse on the school’s electronic marquee, and numerous religious posters and pictures on the walls. Religious images and messages are displayed throughout the school, in fact. - We learned from our children that official prayers, typically led by the principal or teachers, are routinely incorporated into class and school events like assemblies, and sporting events. The school even requires students to attend “See You at the Pole” each year, where they must take part in prayer and worship. - We discovered that school officials were distributing religious literature to students. For example, one of our other son’s teachers passed out copies of a book from the “Truth For Youth” program, a revivalist ministry. The book included the entire New Testament of the Bible as well as cartoons that denounce evolution and trumpet the evils of birth control, premarital sex, rock music, alcohol, pornography, homosexuality, sorcery, and witchcraft.”

The complaint, which can be seen here, came only after speaking to the Superintendent, being told that maybe another school with “more asians” would suit them, and finding that even that school regularly promoted Christianity.

“My wife and I were floored. I tried to point out that the “Bible Belt” was not a separate country and that we were still entitled to religious liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution. She would have none of it, however. She asked whether my stepson had to be raised as a Buddhist and even suggested that he “change” his faith to better fit in. To add insult to injury, the next day, the Superintendent sent a letter to Negreet’s principal, which he read to students over the intercom. The letter thanked Negreet’s teachers and principal for maintaining their religious values and influence in the school.”

Some of my evangelical Christian friends decry the idea of a “naked” public square devoid of faith, endorsing instead an inclusive model that would allow all faiths to share their beliefs in an open and safe manner. To that, I can only answer that such a policy would never work so long as demographic dominance allows “quiet” power to stifle all dissent and diversity. These Christian believers, left to their own devices, do not grow a pluralistic, multi-faith, shared utopia. Instead, non-Christians are routinely silenced, harassed, and forced into closets (or worse, forced into lying about their own belief systems). When non-Christians dare to assert rights they are supposed to have in these settings, the result is often shock, outrage, and attack. Meanwhile, Christian activists claim the mantle of oppression for any limitations put on them in the public square, ignoring their treatment of non-Christians where they dominate.

The saddest thing is that this case does not exist in isolation. Conservative Christian dominated areas are continually pushing for a “freedom” that means coercive proselytization and harassment of outsiders.  They don’t seem to understand that making public government-funded school events happen at sectarian churches is alienating. They truly don’t get it, or if they do, don’t care. If this case does anything, I hope it can smash open the hypocrisy and silence over what Christians call religious freedom, and what that would actually look like if minorities weren’t forced to file lawsuits in order to get a harassment-free education.

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.

Photo: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Photo: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

  • It’s always worth a mention when the New York Times takes an interest in modern Paganism. Their New York-focused City Room blog highlights the Wiccan Family Temple Academy of Pagan Studies in Manhattan, interviewing two of the program’s students. Quote: “People go to school to study the things that interest them most; some people go to law school, others to medical school,” [Shantel Collins] said. “I want to be a religious leader in my community, so the path I chose is to become a high priestess. I am learning how to counsel people in my community. No one is born a pastor or a reverend or a rabbi — you have to work at it, and that’s what I’m doing. So for me, these classes are worth every minute and every penny.” I suspect this piece came about because the New York City Wiccan Family Temple is not afraid to promote themselves to the media. I know I’ve received a fair share of press releases from them, and it’s a tactic that does succeed in breaking through to the mainstream media from time to time. 
  • Virginia Lt. Governor candidate E.W. Jackson, who I profiled recently here at The Wild Hunt, was (unsurprisingly) a big hit at the recent Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference. Quote: “Audience members clapped most intensely when Jackson focused on the rights of parents to lay down rules for their children and on the need to preserve belief in Christianity as the foundation of the United States. “Freedom is the ability to worship God as we see fit and not be persecuted for it,” he said.” Jackson, while revving up the conservative Christian base, has also been walking back past statements he made that implied yoga can lead to Satanism. In his 2008 book “Ten Commandments To An Extraordinary Life” Jackson called tarot reading and Witchcraft “wrong and dangerous.”
  • At Sojourners Magazine, Rabbi Seth Goren discusses Christian privilege and “how the dominance of Christianity affects interfaith relations.” Quote: “Even in interreligious settings intended to be neutral, Christianity retains primacy. Exchanges emphasize concepts in Christianity, such as belief and faith, and downplay the Jewish stress on action, behavior, and ritual [...] In clergy gatherings, I feel the expectation that I should know Augustine and Aquinas without a corresponding expectation that Christian counterparts have heard of Rabbis Akiva or Eliezer [...] Even on a relatively level playing field, I start from a defensive posture and find myself envious of what Christians take for granted that I can’t and don’t.” Go read this, and share it. I’m hoping the relatively high-profile nature of the venue will prompt some reflection. 
  • Chas Clifton reports that the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has cleared the way for a suit against Oklahoma’s license plate design to move forward. Why is the license plate being challenged? Because it allegedly endorses “Indian religion.” Quote: “Cressman, who says he “adheres to historic Christian beliefs,” objects to the image of a Native American shooting an arrow toward the sky. He claims the image unconstitutionally contradicts his Christian beliefs by depicting Indian religious beliefs, and that he shouldn’t have to display the image.” The plate is based off of a famous statue depicting a sacred act, but does it really endorse a religion? It seems rather tenuous, considering the arguments we hear consistently about “secular” Christian crosses. You can’t have church-state separation absolutism without it cutting both ways. A “win” for this Christian could create ripples he may not enjoy.
  • Advocacy organization Amnesty International has condemned the rise of blasphemy cases in Egypt, saying it uses defamation of religion as a way to silence critics. Here’s more on the issue from Daily News Egypt: “Slapping criminal charges with steep fines and, in most cases, prison sentences against people for simply speaking their mind or holding different religious beliefs is simply outrageous,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, in the report. Luther added that defamation of religion charges should not be used to “trample over people’s right to freedom of expression and conscience” 
The "Other Religions" section of the Urbana Free Library (post-culling).

The “Other Religions” section of the Urbana Free Library (post-culling).

  • The picture you see above is the “Other Religions” section at the Urbana Free Library in Illinois after a hugely controversial culling that has gained national attention from library observers. In essence, any book acquired more than ten years ago was culled from several non-fiction sections before local outcry halted the process. This has left books on Pagan religions decimated, with only 3 or 4 left visible on the shelf. Libraries are in important first step for many people exploring our faiths, and for those looking to understand us, and decimating collections like this does more harm than I think people realize. Not everyone has consistent and reliable access to the Internet, and even if they do, it doesn’t replace reading seminal books like “Drawing Down the Moon” or “The Spiral Dance.” I’m hoping to have more on this story soon, as Urbana is my old home-town, and I know several library workers there. Stay tuned. 
  • The United Nations World Conference of Indigenous Peoples is taking place in New York, September 2014. A recent gathering in Alta, Norway, home of the Sami People, resulted in an adopted outcome document for the conference. Quote: “Our purpose was to exchange views and proposals and develop collective recommendations on the UN High Level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (hereinafter referred to as HLPM/WCIP), which will convene in New York, 22 – 23 September 2014. This document sets forth our recommendations along with the historical and current context of Indigenous Peoples.” I think the document is important and thought-provoking reading for anyone interested in indigenous and Native American issues. 
  • Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes about the holiness of the Earth for the Washington Post’s On Faith section. Quote: “I deeply feel that we need to reclaim our spiritual relationship with this beautiful and suffering planet, feel it within our hearts and souls. We need to develop an awareness that the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the energy we use, are not just commodities to be consumed, but part of the living fabric of a sacred Earth. Then we are making a real relationship with our environment, respecting the land on which we live, the air we breathe. We still carry the seed of this primal relationship to the Earth within our consciousness, even if we have long forgotten it. It is a recognition of the wonder, beauty, and divine nature of the Earth.”
  • Move over Beltane, because Summer Solstice is all about sex! Quote: “In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice has a history of stirring libidos, and it’s no wonder. The longest day of the year tends to kick off the start of the summer season and with it, the harvest. So it should come as no surprise that the solstice is linked to fertility — both of the vegetal and human variety. ‘A lot of children are born nine months after Midsummer in Sweden,’ says Jan-Öjvind Swahn, a Swedish ethnologist and the author of several books on the subject.” 
  • There are some places in Scotland where being transgendered will get you accused of being a witch. Quote: “Walking down the street I’d get a lot of abuse sometimes. They’d shout at me a lot, call me gay and even accuse me of witchcraft. I feel like I’ve lost a lot of my friends because I had to leave Johnstone. My past was almost completely wiped away.” The ugly strain within humanity that persecutes “the witch,” the “other,” is still very much a part of us I’m sad to say. 
  • The commemorative blue plaque for Doreen Valiente at her home in Brighton has gained the notice of the BBC. Quote: “Doreen Valiente, who was known as the “mother of modern witchcraft”, lived in Tyson Place until her death in 1999 and is to be honoured with a blue plaque on the side of the block of flats where she lived. Ralph Harvey who read the eulogy at her funeral, described her as ‘a very gentle lady’. ‘Witchcraft was always shrouded in mystery and medieval superstition,’ he said. ‘Doreen and Gerald Gardner brought it into the 20th century, they blew away the cobwebs and this was the renaissance of witchcraft as it truly is.’” You can read all of my previous coverage of the plaque, here

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.

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.”

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann today announced that she would not be seeking re-election to her seat in 2014. While partisans on both sides of the left-right divide can speculate on why she has chosen to do this, I think it’s important to take a quick look at the legacy left by her somewhat unorthodox and highly effective mixture of (politically and socially) conservative Christian populism. Specifically, I think it’s important to showcase how religious minorities (including modern Pagans) were made increasingly anxious by the affiliations she celebrated and stances she took.

Michele Bachmann

Michele Bachmann

“We’re in a state of crisis where our nation is literally ripping apart at the seams right now, and lawlessness is occurring from one ocean to the other. And we’re seeing the fulfillment of the Book of Judges here in our own time, where every man doing that which is right in his own eyes—in other words, anarchy.”Michele Bachmann

Whatever Bachmann’s plans are in the future, I’d prefer they be outside of a political office. It’s easy to make a “greatest hits” of Bachmann’s various comments, but I was always more concerned by her unwavering allegiance to inserting a very particular kind of Christianity into our political discourse. It’s easy to paint Bachmann as “kooky” but I think few people took her as seriously as they should have. Whatever one’s opinion of her, Bachmann was effective at winning elections and influencing the discourse, and considering her religious views that rightfully made a lot of religious minorities very nervous.

Earlier this week I reported on how the Supreme Court of the United States will be hearing a case about sectarian prayers before government meetings. Defenders of various inclusive sectarian models say that it promotes a healthy discourse in which all citizens are able to fully represent themselves. The truth is that when pluralistic-on-paper invocation models are tested, the results are usually far from ideal.

Rep. Steve Smith. Photo: Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

Rep. Steve Smith. Photo: Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

“An atheist lawmaker’s decision to give the daily prayer at the Arizona House of Representatives triggered a do-over from a Christian lawmaker who said the previous day’s prayer didn’t pass muster. Republican Rep. Steve Smith on Wednesday said the prayer offered by Democratic Rep. Juan Mendez of Tempe at the beginning of the previous day’s floor session wasn’t a prayer at all. So he asked other members to join him in a second daily prayer in “repentance,” and about half the 60-member body did so. Both the Arizona House and Senate begin their sessions with a prayer and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

“When there’s a time set aside to pray and to pledge, if you are a non-believer, don’t ask for time to pray,” said Smith, of Maricopa. “If you don’t love this nation and want to pledge to it, don’t say I want to lead this body in the pledge, and stand up there and say, ‘you know what, instead of pledging, I love England’ and (sit) down. That’s not a pledge, and that wasn’t a prayer, it’s that simple,” Smith said.”

I’d say that this was an isolated incident, but it isn’t. Time and again, when a non-Christian dares to speak in a space some Christians believe is theirs alone, the result is outrage and protest. What did Rep. Juan Mendez say that was so offensive that it required a Christian do-over the next day?

“This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration, but this is also a room where, as my secular humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love. Carl Sagan once wrote, ‘For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.’” 

Shocking, right? The fact is that any deviation too far from the (theologically conservative) Christian default setting provokes these reactions. We can comfort ourselves by saying this is a symptom of changing demographics, that we are becoming more pluralistic and these are the last gasps of a increasingly reactionary rump, but that’s a cold comfort when such changes happen slowly over the course of generations. The simple fact, the message sent to religious minorities and non-Christians is: it’s different when you do it. That’s true whether you’re talking about prayers in America, or even legally binding Pagan wedding ceremonies in the UK.

Sir Tony Baldry doesn't like Pagan weddings.

Sir Tony Baldry doesn’t like Pagan weddings.

“If we can just go to the Scottish example … we have seen in Scotland pagan weddings celebrated, spiritualist weddings celebrated and weddings celebrated by the White Eagle Lodge. I think this is a question that ought to have been properly consulted on with our constituents. I can’t speak for other MPs, but I have had enough problems in my constituency with same-sex marriage. If I go back to the shires of Oxfordshire and tell them that Parliament’s now about to endorse in England pagan marriage they’ll think that we’ll have lost the plot completely. If they think then that Labour is supporting pagan marriage and masonic marriage then they really will think that we’ve lost the plot.”

In a culture that has been dominated by a distinct form of monotheism for hundreds of years, real pluralism is radical. Real pluralism acknowledges the vast imbalances in privilege and power and acts accordingly. If you pretend that power and privilege is not there, you end up with the legal case now heading to the Supreme Court where pluralism-on-paper resulted in an overwhelming affirmation of Christian power.

“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.”

Real change is hard, because it effects real changes. Cosmetic changes are easy, because they ultimately change nothing. You cannot simply declare a space pluralistic and fair and then expect it to be so. If Christians want the public square to be a multi-religious space, it has to come with real concessions, or else it’s simply another tool to enforce the majority’s power, because it’s always different when the “other” does it.