Archives For Separation of Church and State

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

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

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

 

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.

Mass grave for the dead Lakota after the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.

Mass grave for the dead Lakota after the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.

  • The historic site of Wounded Knee is now for sale on the open market. The current owner, James Czywczynski, makes some rather insulting claims about why he’s selling it. Quote: “For some reason, they cannot see economic development and they cannot see tourism and they cannot relate. They want everything for free is what it amounts to I guess.” The Oglala Sioux see the price as artificially inflated, trading on the massacre when the land itself is valued in the thousands, not millions. Quote: “We see that greed around here all the time with non-Indians. To me, you can’t put a price on the lives that were taken there.” What happens next is uncertain. There are claims that some buyers are interested in buying the land and giving it back to the tribe, but it’s just as possible someone will buy it in order to make money off someone else’s tragedy. 
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center shares the experiences of a lone Jew in a highly racially segregated prison. Quote: “It is an inviolate rule that different races may not break bread together under any circumstances. Violating this rule leads to harsh consequences. If you eat at the same table as another race, you’ll get beaten down. If you eat from the same tray as another race, you’ll be put in the hospital. And if you eat from the same food item as another race, that is, after another race has already taken a bite of it, you can get killed. This is one area where even the heads don’t have any play.” I think it’s important to share this after my story yesterday about Even Ebel. This is the toxic atmosphere in which Paganism behind bars is being practiced. 
  •  Jack Jenkins, a Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, writes about how mainstream journalism still doesn’t do religion coverage very well. Quote: “Yet religion seems to be having an increasingly hard time getting a fair shake from another major player in American life: the media. The breadth and quality of religion reporting in the United States has atrophied in recent years, with once-robust religion sections now all but erased from the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers. Meanwhile, religion reporters have either been laid off or forced to re-shift their professional focus to covering religion ‘on the side.'” The truth is that it’s even worse if you’re a member of a religious minority. We just hope the new episode of “Wife Swap” treats us gently, and we scarcely dream of the coverage larger faiths get. 
  • Just thought you should know that being for gun control laws is very, very, Pagan. Quote: “Frankly, it almost would seem that animism won’t go away. The left, which is largely made up of people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ’s blood as being necessary for our salvation, view inanimate objects as possessing their own will. That’s animism, that’s a return to the most pagan of paganism and look at what nutty political views it ends up supporting.” That’s Larry Pratt, thexecutive director of Gun Owners of America, an organization that believes the NRA is too soft on protecting the 2nd Amendment. Here’s one Heathen’s response to Pratt’s animist ramblings. 
  • In response to a number of recent articles, Evangelical Christians Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead confront the issue of predatory proselytism. Quote: “Moreover, friendship is sometimes abused, when it is reduced to the end of evangelism. In one instance where an Evangelical has been involved in a high-profile relationship and dialogue with a Mormon scholar, many Evangelicals have called for an end to the relationship after a period of time because the Mormon has not converted. Aren’t relationships valuable in and of themselves without being used merely as a tool to convert others? For all our emphasis on personal relationships, one might be left to wonder how relational the Evangelical movement as a whole is.” For more on my personal interactions with Paul Louis Metzger, click here.
Kryja Withers reading to Peter Dybing at her home.

Kryja Withers reading to Peter Dybing at her home.

 

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.

A group of Republican politicians in North Carolina have decided to introduce a resolution that would declare an official religion for the state (no prizes for guessing which religion that would be).  House Joint Resolution 494 argues that the United States Constitution can’t actually stop the establishment of a sectarian official religion at the state level, and that North Carolina can ignore judicial rulings that say otherwise.

Representative Harry Warren (R) and Representative Carl Ford (R), who introduced the official religion bill.

Representative Harry Warren (R) and Representative Carl Ford (R), who introduced the official religion bill.

“Whereas, Rowan County, North Carolina, requests and encourages the North Carolina General Assembly to pass a resolution declaring that the State of North Carolina does not recognize the authority of federal judicial opinions arising from the exertion of powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution of the United States; Now, therefore, Be it resolved by the House of Representatives, the Senate concurring: SECTION 1. The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion. SECTION 2. The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

Before we go any further, let’s be clear that this bill has almost no chance of becoming a law, and even if it did, it would not be enforceable so long as North Carolina is a part of the United States (in fact it has already been declared dead on arrival by the House Speaker). The legal argument put forth is somewhat clever, but  has never succeeded in gaining traction. In short, this is grandstanding, a show, it’s lawmakers trolling the news media because they know doing this will garner them a lot of outrage and attention. However, the reason I’m writing this isn’t because I’m fearful and outraged over this bill’s introduction, it’s because I think stunts like this send a clear signal to religious minorities living in the state that they aren’t welcome. I think maneuvers like this create a chilling environment for those outside the Christian paradigm who want to fully participate in government.

North Carolina is a place where acceptance of religious minorities isn’t a given. For instance, there was the issue regarding the distribution of religious materials in Buncombe County schools, which involved the local Pagan community.

“We will have to police the system for years to come, calling, demanding, emailing. Every time a child whose parents practice a minority religion is othered or belittled or otherwise bullied because of that–someone will have to contact the system and demand that something be done.”

North Carolina also recently passed a state constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, despite the fact that not all religious groups in the state agree with such a prohibition. Finally, North Carolina’s legislature has been engaging in sectarian Christian opening prayers, despite the fact that their state was involved in a major legal case involving the use of said prayers.

The Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari (judicial review) in the case of Forsyth County, North Carolina v. Joyner, which challenged the local government’s opening prayer policy. In this instance, Forsyth County had constructed an ”inclusive” (and thus theoretically constitutionally protected) model where all comers could have a turn, but challengers to the policy noted that the prayers were overwhelmingly Christian, and created a chilling atmosphere towards non-Christian faiths.”

The arguments in the case mentioned above were shaped by legal cases involving Pagans and public invocations. That case may have also been the inspiration for the current sectarian religious proposal.

All of this, including this most recent stunt, sends a message: non-Christians aren’t welcome. They aren’t considered full members of North Carolina society and should accept that Christianity is dominant and will remain so. That Christianity will never willingly release the reigns of cultural and political power. That’s the real problem with this proposal, and it is why we should take it seriously despite the obvious trolling nature of it. North Carolina is a religiously diverse state, one that includes Pagans, and they should feel as entitled to a place at the table as any Christian.

It’s election day here in the United States, and most Americans are glued to their news sources of choice to see who will guide this nation for the next four years. In addition, control of our Senate, and the outcome of several local ballot initiatives will decided this day, making for an exciting evening for those invested in our democratic republic. Many American Pagans, like every other group in this country, also find themselves deeply invested in our political process if my Facebook wall is any indicator, and so they should, as the very notions of democracy, of a republic, originated in pagan thought, in pre-Christian societies.  Thomas Jefferson, a key architect of America’s religious freedoms, was proud that our country, in principle, encompassed “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” 

So on this election day, as we wait for the results to roll in, let’s focus on some electoral/election stories of interest to, or involving, modern Pagans.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, shortly after voting this morning in Wisconsin.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, shortly after voting this morning in Wisconsin.

  • The ever-politically active Starhawk shares some final thoughts on the election, making her endorsements, but also stressing the importance of voting in general. Quote: “Still need inspiration?  Consider the sixty years women struggled to get the right to vote.  Think of those suffragists on hunger strike, force-fed through tubes, lying in rat-infested prisons—they want you to vote!  Think of the civil rights workers in the South, risking their lives to register voters, think of the three who were murdered in 1964, Shwerner, Chaney and Goodman.  They want you to vote!”
  • A Witch-Doctor from the Kenyan village where Barack Obama’s father is buried says his reading predicts our current president will win in a landslide. Quote: “Mr Dimo, who claims to be 105, says that the mystical items dispute news that the election will be a close call.  Pointing to a white shell, he declared: ‘Obama is very far ahead and is definitely going to win.'” I’m sure Nate Silver won’t argue too much with that prediction.
  • AlterNet digs up some rather embarrassing assertions from Republican Massachusetts State Senate candidate  Sandi Martinez, including how popular children’s shows of the 1980s will turn you towards Witchcraft. Quote: “On her cable access show in 2004, Martinez warned that trick-or-treating, Harry Potter books, and the “new age images” presented in 1980s-era programming such as “The Smurfs” and “The Care Bears” could destigmatize the occult and leave children vulnerable to the lure of witchcraft.” Awesome. Well, good thing there aren’t any Witches in Massachusetts … oh, wait.
  • An activist is trying to engage the Buddhist-derived mindfulness movement in politics, and voting. Quote: “If meditation can calm hyperactive kids, ease the pain of drug addicts and tame the egos of Fortune 500 CEOs, it can surely help a stressed-out and polarized country choose a president, says the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams. An artist and veteran activist from Berkeley, Williams is the force behind MindfulVOTES, a nonpartisan campaign that she believes is the first attempt to mobilize mindfulness meditators.” Here’s the MindfulVOTES website.
  • It looks very likely that Tulsi Gabbard, the Democrat running for Congress in Hawaii’s 2nd district, will win her race and become the first Hindu to serve in the United States Congress. Quote: “It is clear that there needs to be a closer working relationship between the United States and India. How can we have a close relationship if decision-makers in Washington know very little, if anything, about the religious beliefs, values, and practices of India’s 800 million Hindus?” How exciting!
  • Meanwhile, you do know there’s a Heathen running for Congress this election, right? New York’s Dan Halloran, a conservative, Republican, Tea Party politician, is facing off against Grace Meng in the newly drawn 6th Congressional District. There hasn’t been too much non-partisan polling for this race, so each are holding up their internal polls to claim the race is will be won by their campaign. Odds are long for Halloran in this Democratic-leaning district, but who knows for sure? You can read my pretty extensive coverage of Dan Halloran here.
  • Let’s not forget the same sex marriage-related initiatives being voted on today, and the role “nones” might play in how those races turn out. However, Saumya Arya Haas, a Hindu and Vodou priestess, reminds us that nobodies vote on gay marriage should matter. Quote: “American is not a religion; it is a nation. We claim to hold certain truths to be self-evident. That means some truths should be a given — not debated, not voted on. Given. By virtue of being a citizen of this country, each American should have access to the same rights. Instead, we have created, in America, in the year 2012, a priestly caste of people who believe that their interpretation of certain Scriptures should be used to decide others’ fate.”
  • Americans United is fed up with the IRS not enforcing the ban on partisan endorsements from the pulpit, exclaiming “enforce the law already!” Quote: “This is a critically important issue for our democracy. We already have serious problems with vast amounts of money being dropped into campaigns. Imagine how much more devastating it would be if every house of worship jumped into elections, too.”
  • Finally, Jason Mankey over at Patheos reminds everyone that voting is “ours.” Quote: “Voting is one of the great legacies of ancient paganism. All democracies have a bit of classical paganism in their DNA, even when they don’t want to admit it. Want to make your Evangelical uncle’s head explode today? Remind him that democracy began in a town dedicated to the Goddess Athena! Democracy and the vote are our legacy as Pagans!”

No matter who you vote for, don’t forget to vote, and honor the struggles, and origins, of our political system. We’ll check in post-Election Day to what the results might mean for modern Pagans.

Oh, and yes, I already voted. Oregon has a mail-in system that’s quite convenient.

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.

  • NPR does a Samhain-inspired spotlight on New York City’s Lady Rhea, owner of Magickal Realms in the Bronx, and a spiritual mother to many influential Pagans, including Phyllis Curott. Quote: “I am a Wiccan high priestess and Witch queen. My age, I’ve been in the craft since ’73. I have a lot of coven people and people who are attached to me over the last years, so one of them coined me Pagan Mother. Call them up and I’ll say hello, are you listening? This is Pagan Mother, call me.” For more in this series, check out Faith in the Five Boroughs.
  • God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but did you know that by simply hoarding rose quartz or buying a lucky cat statue you can instantly block him? It’s true according to Fr. Jose Francisco Syquia: “When paganism and the occult contaminate the faith, the relationship with God is blocked and we can end up saying to ourselves that God is not interested in us, personally and as a nation [not knowing that] His blessings and protection… would not be able to fully enter into our lives.” So remember, God’s blessing, kinda easy to block (darn free will).
  • The Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom has made it illegal to accuse a child of witchcraft,though activists point out that Christian churches will also have to be reigned in if real changes are to be made in this problem. Quote:  “But some say churches in the impoverished state where unemployment is rampant, must also be reigned in. Some activists cite the churches as the source of the belief that children are sorcerers or witches.” For more on this problem, visit  Stepping Stones Nigeria, an organization that is fighting against the branding of children as witches.
  • Meanwhile, four women were arrested for practicing witchcraft in the United Arab Emirates. According to a news report they were caught in the midst of practicing sorcery, and that “a large number of substances and herbs including detergents and bodily fluids” were confiscated. Quote: “Colonel Salem Sultan Al Darmaki, Director of the Criminal Investigation Department at Ras Al Khaimah police, said that the case details date back to when they received information from an Arab lady reporting that four women were practicing sorcery from their flat.” Lucky for them the UAE doesn’t kill women for sorcery like Saudi Arabia does, but it still presents a chilling portrait of what fundamentalism run amuck looks like.

INDIA TREES PAINTING

  • Artists in the Indian state of Bihar are painting trees and bushes with images of Hindu deities in hopes it will stop locals from cutting them down. Forest cover for the state is under 7%, which worsens effects of floods and extreme weather.  Quote: “The unusual campaign, using coats of paint and brushes, has been launched in Madhubani, a northern Bihar district known for its religious and cultural awareness, resulting in hundreds of otherwise untended roadside trees covered in elaborate artwork. Artists are depicting the moods of deities, scenes from Hindu classics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, or an imaginary scene showing an elderly woman restraining a man coming with an axe to cut trees.” 
  • Amy Wilentz, author of the forthcoming “Farewell, Fred Voodoo,” gives some perspective on zombies in the New York Times. Quote: “There are many reasons the zombie, sprung from the colonial slave economy, is returning now to haunt us. Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.” This is a seriously great read – don’t miss it.
  • Salem Witch Richard Ravish, who passed away earlier this year, is remembered by his friends, loved ones, and co-religionists, during the annual walk to Gallows Hill in Salem. Quote: “I am doing a widow’s walk,” Ravish’s wife of 31 years said before the ceremony. “I’ve never done it before. This is the first year that the high priest … my partner, is not here to walk the circle with me. So I want to walk the circle round in a special walk.”
  • Science thinks we all might be a little bit psychic, albeit not in the bending spoons, having visions, sense. Quote: “What the studies measured was physiological activity—e.g., heart rate or skin conductance—in participants who, for instance, might have been shown a series of images, some harmless and others frightening. Using computer programs and statistical techniques, experimenters have found that, even before being shown a troubling image, participants sometimes display physiological changes —a faster heart rate, for example—of the kind that would be expected only after seeing the image, and not just because the subjects know a scary snake picture is coming sooner or later.” 
  • Reasons why I’m glad to be a Pagan: Christian alternatives to Halloween. Plus, here’s some bonus Halloween season “exwitch” stuff, if you’re into that.
  • Samhain at the joint Lackland military base: “Cammen is among a curious multiplication of Wiccans at Lackland. Hundreds of basic military trainees have chosen to study witchcraft at the base. “When we come over here on a Sunday, often times, there are 300 to 400 (trainees),” Tony Gatlin said.”
  •  Texas schools love Jesus, and litigation. Imagine how the handful of non-Christian students feel when Christian prayers are blasted throughout the school on their speaker system. Do you think they feel empowered to share their own faith, or are they instead pushed deeper into the “broom closet”? This is why a strong separation of church and state is necessary.

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

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

Hint: The "Fifth Quarter" is about Jesus.

Hint: The “Fifth Quarter” is about Jesus.

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

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

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

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

Join us. Jooooooiiiiin ussssssss.

Join us. Jooooooiiiiin ussssssss.

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

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

According to Grey Matter Research, Americans think our country is far more religiously diverse than it actually is. In a survey of 747 adults the research and consulting firm found that most underestimated the size of Christianity and over-estimated the size of atheists, Muslims, and other religious minorities.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

“The typical American adult pegs religious affiliation in the U.S. as follows:  24% Catholic, 20% Protestant, 19% unaffiliated, 9% Jewish, 9% atheist or agnostic, 7% Muslim, 7% Mormon, and 5% from all other religious groups. In reality, according to the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Americans are right on target with the proportion of Catholics and the “all other” category, but way off target on the rest of the landscape. The typical American badly underestimates how many Protestants there are in the country, and way overestimates the presence of religious minorities such as Mormon, Muslim, and atheist/agnostic.”

In fact, if you check the Pew Forum data from 2008, you’ll see that Muslims in America only comprise 0.6% of the population. In contrast “Unitarians and other liberal faiths” comprise 0.7% and “New Age” faiths (ie Pagans) comprise around 0.4%. There are more Buddhists in the United States than there are Muslims. Likewise, respondents guessed large for  atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated. Speaking with the Religion News Service, Grey Matter president Ron Sellers noted that media attention is a likely reason for the over-inflated guesses of non-Christian or non-religious populations.

Sellers also mentioned that with Mitt Romney running for president as a Mormon and the current emphasis on Islamic-American relations, “smaller faith groups also may be getting disproportionate media coverage.”

Likewise, younger Americans, who tend to have more friends who are atheists or religiously unaffiliated, guesses in favor of their own experience. Also unsurprising is the news that adherents of a particular tradition tend to guess high on their own numbers.

Not going to become the 3rd largest religious group any time soon.

Not going to become the 3rd largest religious group any time soon.

“One thing that is clear from this research is that people tend to overestimate the proportion of their own faith group.  Among people who identify with the Catholic Church, the average estimate is that 39% of the country is Catholic.  Not only is this estimate much higher than it is among non-Catholics, it is far higher than the reality of 24%. Similarly, among people who identify with a Protestant faith perspective, the average estimate is that 27% of the population is Protestant.  While this is far higher than the numbers among non-Protestants, it is still almost half the correct figure. Among people who identify as atheists or agnostics, the average estimate is that 16% of the American population is atheist or agnostic.  As with Catholics, not only is this estimate far higher than among any other group, but it is much higher than the reality.  Finally, among people who express no particular faith identification, the average perception is that 35% of Americans believe in God but have no actual religious preference.  Again, this is nearly double the average American’s perception, and far higher than the real figure in the U.S.”

So what’s the take-home message of this data? Sellers says that “this skewed perception of religion in America may benefit smaller faith groups and be detrimental to Protestants.” In other words we are over-estimating the influence of religious minorities, and under-estimating the influence of Protestant Christians. This may seem like a good thing, a hastening of the demographic shifts many of us existing in religious minorities have been waiting for, but it could also feed into the fears of certain Christians who are increasingly uneasy with our mere existence. Then again, maybe feeling like a religious minority could teach a valuable lesson to those willing to encounter it.

Being a minority tests the temper of a faith, its resilience and fiber [...] Being a member of a minority entails the ability to bend and to negotiate. This, in turn, demands a deep understanding of the majority and local conditions, deeper than the majority may have about the minority; respect for them whenever possible; diplomacy; patience; and the building of relationships, infinitesimal gesture after infinitesimal gesture.”

People are over-estimating religious minorities, and those with no religion at all, but maybe this misconception will instill a willingness to embrace secularism once more, to re-enforce those church-state separations so that the “others” don’t exert undue influence. In which case, beware Christians, Pagans are growing at an alarming rate! Quick! Everyone join Americans United for The Separation of Church and State, it’s your only hope!