Archives For South Carolina

It may not surprise anyone that the word “God,” “Almighty God,” or similar, is written into the constitution of all 50 states. In most cases, such words are found in the preambles and in the, often required, oaths of office. The mention of “God,” or the like, is used predominantly in reverent thanks or acknowledgment of a divine goodness.

However, what most people do not realize is that eight of the states also include a religious component to a citizen’s eligibility to hold public office and, in two cases, to testify in court or serve on a jury. These states include Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. While the language of each state’s “religious test” is slightly different, the ultimate idea is the same. In all cases, the laws exclude the Atheist from participating in officials roles. Beyond that and depending on one’s beliefs, these constitutional regulations could potentially exclude many citizens of minority faiths, including Pagans and Heathens.

[Photo Credit:  roberthuffstutter/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: roberthuffstutter/Flickr]

The states of North Carolina, Maryland and Tennessee use language that most closely connotes a Christian or an Abrahamic religious worldview. Maryland’s constitution reads, “no religious test shall ever be required” to hold office, “other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God.” The other two constitutions state that persons who “deny the being of God,” or “Almighty God,” as termed in North Carolina, are ineligible for public office. Tennessee goes a step further saying, “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” A “future state of rewards and punishments” refers to heaven and hell.

In four states, the constitutional restrictions are worded with a more expansive concept of deity. In South Carolina, Texas and Mississippi, persons are ineligible for public office if they “refuse to acknowledge” or “deny the existence of” a Supreme Being. In Arkansas, the limitation is imposed on people who deny the “being of a God.” In all four cases, the language used allows for a broader interpretation of deity and, ostensibly, could include some Pagans and Heathens.

Pennsylvania‘s constitution deviates from the other documents in that it reverses the burden. It states:

No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.

In this case, the state does not explicitly exclude persons who deny “a God.” However, it does imply that it could potentially happen. An acknowledgment of the “being of a God” and a heaven and hell secure one’s ability to be appointed. In that sense, the statement is a legal warning or even a compelling suggestion.

Additionally, two states include a religious test for jurors and those testifying in court. In Maryland and Arkansas, the constitution prohibits any persons who deny “the existence of God,” in Maryland, or “the being of a God,” in Arkansas, from testifying in court or serving on a jury.

While all of this may be frustrating and troublesome, the reality is much less bleak than at first glance. In Article 6, the United States Constitution clearly states:

no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States

Additionally, the 14th Amendment states:

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

In 1961, a Maryland Atheist challenged the “religious test” requirement after being excused from his appointment as a notary public.The famous case, Torcaso v Watkins, worked its way through the courts and eventually landed at the Supreme Court of the United States. The justices ruled in favor of Torcaso stating, “This Maryland test for public office cannot be enforced against appellant, because it unconstitutionally invades his freedom of belief and religion guaranteed by the First Amendment and protected by the 14th Amendment from infringement by the States.”

The 1961 Supreme Court ruling rendered the state religious tests unenforceable. However, the constitutions were never changed. Fifty-three years later, Maryland’s Declaration of Rights still makes the following statements:

Art 36 … nor shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefor either in this world or in the world to come.

 Art. 37. That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.

Much of this language appears to be legal “left-overs” and wording from the original state constitutions; some of which were adopted prior to ratification of the U.S. Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1791). In fact, some states, such as Arkansas, still disqualify people from serving in public office if they have have engaged in a duel. This evolutionary editing process may explain, in part, the oddities and religious language still found in many of the constitutions

"Hamilton-burr-duel" by Illustrator not identified. From a painting by J. Mund. - Lord, John, LL.D. (1902). Beacon Lights of History. Vol. XI, "American Founders." (London: James Clarke and Co Ltd. Republished as a Project Gutenberg eBook, 2004-01-08. eBbook no. 10644.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Hamilton-burr-duel” by Illustrator not identified. From a painting by J. Mund. – Lord, John, LL.D. (1902). Beacon Lights of History. Vol. XI, “American Founders.” (London: James Clarke and Co Ltd. Republished as a Project Gutenberg eBook, 2004-01-08. eBbook no. 10644..[Public domain via Wikimedia]

As Pagan lawyer Dana Eilers points out in her book Pagans and Law, there is a common misconception that America was colonized to grant religious freedom to all minority faiths. Unfortunately, the difficult reality is that our country was filled with much religious intolerance, exclusivity and violence. Eilers says, “Given the dark and barbaric miasma of our past, the enormity of the American experience in separating religion and government represents a landmark event in human history.” In this statement, she not only refers to American history, but also to world history. (Chp. 8, God and Government)

Eilers then quotes a Supreme Court statement saying, “The Fathers of the Constitution were not unaware of the varied and extreme views of religious sects … They fashioned a charter of government which envisaged the widest possible toleration of conflicting views. Man’s relation to his God was made no concern of the state.” (Chp. 8, God and Government)  While Founding Father Thomas Jefferson may have mentioned the Muslim, Jew, Hindu, pagan and Christian in his work, other early lawmakers may not have been as progressively aware.

During that early period, the use of the word “God” or “a God” or “Supreme Being” may have seemed inclusive enough to satisfy the new American concept of religious diversity. For example, Maryland’s original 1776 constitution required a person interested in public service to declare “a belief in the Christian religion.” This was later changed to “God” in 1851 in order to be more inclusive by contemporary cultural standards.

While these historical details do explain why religious language, like “in the year of our Lord,” appears sporadically in state constitutions, it does not explain how 8 state constitutions have maintained a religious test to qualify someone for public office. Regardless of the historical aspect, such a test has been unconstitutional for centuries.  How, in the early revisions of the state constitutions, did those religious tests survive? How have they been overlooked all these years? More importantly, how have they remained unchecked since the 1961 Torcaso case or more recent legal contests?

Eilers explains, “they need to be tested individually…that is … each of them must be challenged.” Furthermore, each state has to be willing to engage in its process to change the constitution, a task that is long and difficult. That has yet to happen.



[Author’s Note: Special thanks to Pagan lawyer Dana Eilers for taking time to offer insight and expertise on the subject.]

The cultural negotiations concerning religious freedom in the public sphere are continuously peppering America’s daily socio-political dialog. As our country becomes more diverse, or more open about its diversity, with respect to religion, the violations or perceived violations of the “separation of church and state” become more numerous and more of a burden on any given population. Most recently legislative prayers were the focus of this debate. SCOTUS ruled and the dialog shifted.

[Public Domain Photo]

[Public Domain Photo]

However legislative prayer hasn’t been the only point of contention in the past month. While town meetings stole the spotlight for a time, the debate over religious expression within public schools has recently flared up in several states. Here are two issues brought to the forefront this summer.

Student Religious Liberty Act

In June, both North Carolina and Missouri adopted a student religious liberty act, similar to one already in place in Mississippi. According to the North Carolina legislature, its Senate Bill 370 is:

An act to clarify student rights to engage in prayer and religious activity in school, to create an administrative process for remedying complaints regarding exercise of those student rights, and to clarify religious activity for school personnel.

Missouri House Bill 1303, known as the Missouri “Student Religious Liberty Act,” has the similar aim. It states in part:

A public school district shall not discriminate against students or parents on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression. A school district shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and shall not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.

The two bills were hotly debated over a period of months. Regardless of any complaints, they were eventually passed and signed into law. On June 19, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrary signed SB 370 after a landslide victory in both the state House and Senate. Similarly, on June 30, the Missouri bill was passed with overwhelming legislative support and then signed by Governor Jay Nixon.

In both cases, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made the same protest statement:

Students’ rights to voluntarily express and practice their faith in the public schools are already well-protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Students already have the ability to pray and express religious viewpoints and attempts to statutorily protect those rights is unnecessary. (Press Statement May 6, 2014, ACLU – NC)

The ACLU contends that the additional law will only add confusion and potentially lead to “the excessive entanglement of school personnel in religious activity while ostracizing students of different beliefs.”

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

[Photo Credit: Flickr’s Liz cc-lic]

Byron Ballard, a North Carolina resident who has worked very closely with her local school districts on issues of religious freedom, agrees adding:

It will change things because it will embolden people to be even more belligerent than they already are. It will make the school day more difficult for teachers … This is an “open carry” prayer law. Certainly it applies to anyone who wants to pray, so there are Pagans in the state who are pleased to see it. But we are such a minority that this law will continue to serve the majority Protestant Christians in the way they have always been catered to in NC and elsewhere. It codifies the Protestant Christian privilege that is endemic in the public square.

Credits For Religious Education

On June 12, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed House Bill 171, an act that “permit[s] public school students to attend and receive credit for released time courses in religious instruction conducted off school property during regular school hours.” In a guest post on, State Rep. Jeff McClain – R applauded the passage of the bill saying:

The Ohio legislature made great gains last week when it comes to protecting the moral and educational rights of our students … these types of programs have a positive impact on children. They help to create a constructive outlet where students can learn morals and manners in an educational environment. I would argue that it makes one a better student and certainly a more respectful one.

The ACLU of Ohio disagrees. In December 2013, they testified against the legislation, calling HB 171 “misguided.” They clarify that the law allows credit for “purely religious instruction, whether done via a private school, place of worship or other non-entity.” The complaint goes on to say, “A public school providing credit for purely religious teaching unquestionably violates [the First Amendment government neutrality] mandate … House Bill 171 is replete with practical and constitutional problems.”

In 2012, a similar statue brought legal action in South Carolina. In the case Moss v. Spartanburg Cty School District, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) challenged the City of Spartanburg’s issuing of credit for religious education during “released time.” The case worked its way through the courts to the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the city issuing credits for religious instruction. In the summer of 2012, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case leaving the lower court’s ruling as final.

Ohio is now the second state behind South Carolina that will issue educational credits for religious classes attended off-campus during “released-time.”  While no-school funds can be used to support the religious instruction, the schools do have say on which external classes quality for credit. Could a Pagan or Heathen organization offer such education to its own children for school credit? As pointed out by the ACLU of Ohio, the potential for legal entanglements is very high.

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!

“If it can be done in the South, it can be done anywhere….”

A 2012 Gallup poll showed that 7 of the top 10 most religious American states are in the south east. A Pew Forum study expounds on that statistic noting that “The South, by a wide margin, has the heaviest concentration of members of evangelical Protestant churches.” Of these top ten states, South Carolina is number six. Of the estimated of 4,723,723 residents between 72-90% are protestant with up to 50% being evangelical. Informally, South Carolina has the reputation for being the “go to” state for evangelical Baptists. (Pew Forum, “Key Findings on Statistics on Religion in America”)

Commonly-seen South Carolina License Plate

Commonly-seen South Carolina License Plate

Considering that data mixed with a few assumptions and a pinch of extrapolation, why would any Pagan consider moving to South Carolina? It would appear to be a lonely and potentially hostile place for minority religions. However, America’s religious tapestry has been changing. And, as I recently found out, it’s never too soon to take a closer look “under the hood” and look beyond the numbers.

On January 3, 2013, South Carolina’s Governor, Nikki R. Haley, declared January to be Interfaith Harmony Month.

Governor's Proclamation

She invited a state-wide organization called Interfaith Partners of South Carolina to her offices to make the proclamation official and demonstrate support for interfaith work.

The Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, established in 2011, was the vision of Dr. Carl Evans, professor emeritus of University of South Carolina’s Department of Religious Studies. Among its members is Holli S. Emore, Priestess of the Temple of Osirieon and president of Cherry Hill Seminary. Originally, Dr. Evans invited Holli to be a non-voting, “adviser” with her religious-affiliation labeled as “other.” He was uncertain how some of the more conservative members would react to a Pagan presence.

However, it didn’t take long before she corrected her title. And, in the wake of that revelation and the follow-up discussions, Rev. Ed Kosak, a well-respected Charleston Unity minister, made a personal apology to Holli and a public apology to all Pagans at both his Sunday sermons. You can read Holli’s personal account called, Healing in the Bible Belt and Surprise from the Pulpit.

interfaith partners

On January 3, Holli was in attendance at the Governor’s proclamation representing Pagans along with the other members of the Interfaith Partners of South Carolina. Holli remarked that the Governor shook her hand and in no way made her feel uncomfortable. Alone, these are remarkable changes for South Carolina’s cultural landscape, but that’s not the end of the story.

Gov. Nikki Haley

Gov. Nikki Haley

Let’s look a bit closer at Gov. Nikki Haley herself. She is the first woman ever to be elected to South Carolina’s chief executive office. And, she is the first Governor of Indian descent; only the second in the nation behind Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, another Southern state.

Getting back to faith, Gov. Haley was raised Sikh in the small South Carolina town of Bamburg. Her New Age-guru sister, Simran Singh, told WISTV reporters in 2010, “the family was forced to move twice due to racial discrimination.” Although now Methodist, Nikki Haley maintains close contact with her father Dr. Ajit Singh Randhawa, who also happens to be the Sikh representative for the Interfaith Partners of South Carolina.

Adding to her multi-cultural background, Gov. Haley recently “appointed Tim Scott, the first African-American to the U.S. Senate from a Southern State since Reconstruction.” (Washington Post, “The Fix”)

Priestess Holli S. Emore is quick to say that she does not agree at all with the Haley’s conservative political agenda. In fact, when the former “Tea Party darling” announced the January Interfaith meeting, Holli did not believe it would ever come to pass. However, the meeting and proclamation have happened, surprising many in South Carolina’s interfaith community.  And, it all took place beneath the image of the Roman Goddess of Hope, Spes.

Seal of South Carolina

Seal of South Carolina

It is interesting to note that there were no cameras or reporters of any kind in the meeting room or at the Governor’s offices. Over the last few weeks, there has been little to no media attention on the Governor’s embracing of interfaith communication.  Even the Governor’s own news feed does not mention the proclamation except in one place: buried within her posted schedule.

10:30 AM: Gov. Haley proclaimed “South Carolina Interfaith Harmony Month”, Statehouse, Columbia, S.C.

This leads us to speculate on the motivation and reasoning behind Gov. Haley’s decision. Was it a political move? If so, what kind? Or, was it purely personal? I contacted the Governor’s office for a statement but received no response.

While we could speculate all day without getting anywhere, Holli made an excellent point in our interview:

Someone said to me, ‘You know that only a conservative politician could have gotten away with this in such a red state.’ I think she has a good point. A more liberal governor might have avoided openly supporting interfaith work out of fear that they would be pilloried by our mostly-conservative electorate. Even so, I give Haley credit for going out on the limb. As an Indian-American female, she certainly knows about discrimination against minorities, and she said as much during our visit with her.

She’s right. If the more traditionally conservative politicians and public figures embrace interfaith communication, their followers will be more inclined to follow suit. And, if these interfaith talks include Pagans or any other minority faith representatives, awareness, understanding and acceptance will eventually follow right behind. Culture will adapt, gradually and organically, without anyone realizing it’s doing so.

Interfaith Partners of South Carolina

Interfaith Parnters of South Carolina at the Governor’s Office, January 3, 2013


Correction: (per a reader’s comment) All videos and still photos were taken by the private cameras of the people in attendance.  There were no official cameras or media. 

One small step forward for a Pagan but a giant leap for Pagan-kind. 

Footprints in Sand

Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Blatz

Earlier this week Cherry Hill Seminary announced that the Board of Chaplaincy Certification Incorporated (BCCI), certifying body of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), granted Sandra Lee Harris MDiv the go-ahead to apply for her chaplaincy certification.  The letter reads:

“Thank you for your application for a theological education equivalency.  The Commission on Certification has reviewed your education credentials and it is the decision of the Commission that your request be granted.”

Many of you may already know that.  Sandra’s news was reported here at The Wild Hunt and was emailed throughout many of the Pagan networking organizations.  So why am I spending an entire post on this?  Why am I wasting our collective Sunday rehashing the story?

Really, is there anything better to do on a chilly, fall morning than contemplate the future of Pagan education within Academia?   I think not.   So, sit back, grab a cup of tea, and let’s examine how the implications of this announcement far exceed the personal triumphs of one Pagan’s journey.  Let me share what I’ve learned after a week of research and two interesting phone conversations.

How a step became a leap….

Cherry Hill SeminaryBefore ever graduating from Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS), Sandra began investigating the prospects of earning her professional Chaplain certification from APC.  In doing so, she realized that she would have to prove that her theological education, from an unaccredited institution, was equivalent to the academic work of any CHEA (Council for Higher Education) accredited school.  However, there were two major hurdles. First, there is no APC precedent for judging Pagan theological programs.  Second, there are no standards in theological courses of study across religious institutions. So how do you prove the equivalency of an unknown factor to something else that just doesn’t exist?

Solving this conundrum and proving equivalency became the basis of Sandra’s master’s thesis.   Her abstract reads:

The courses credited toward the first Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling from Cherry Hill Seminary are shown to parallel those of degrees from two accredited seminaries, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Tyndale Seminary, when religion-specific requirements for Bible and Christian history studies are replaced by Pagan studies and personal spiritual formation is based on the stated mission values of Cherry Hill Seminary rather than the teachings of Jesus. Further analysis, given similar accommodation, suggests that the Cherry Hill Seminary curriculum in Pagan Pastoral Counseling could satisfy the accreditation requirements of the Association of Theological Schools.

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

As you might imagine, the comparison was not cut-and-dried. Pagan theological course work does not always fit neatly with that of other religions.  For example, many Christian-based masters programs require in-depth Bible study classes. Pagan theology doesn’t have an equivalent text and, therefore, can’t have similar requirements. In the end, Sandra not only had to demonstrate academic course equivalency, she had to explain Pagan theological structure, proving its equivalency as well.

As the BCCI letter proves, she was successful, paving the way for future Pagan Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS) students.  During my conversation with her, Sandra, who is now 65 years old, emphasized that she did not apply for the sake of her own career.  Her goal was to “kick the door down for others” and to help establish the credibility of CHS Chaplaincy programs.  Her work, as she said, “is now a prototype for how it can be done” while the school remains unaccredited.

But that won’t be forever.  Holli S. Emore, executive director of CHS, verified that the administration is currently undergoing the lengthy application process that will eventually lead to full accreditation with the Distant Education and Training Council (DETC).  Holli described, in detail, how becoming accredited is a crucial step for the future of CHS and its students.

First, it will “earmark” Cherry Hill Seminary as a legitimate school of higher education on par with any other accredited academic seminary regardless of religious affiliation.  At this point, CHS has already been licensed in the state of South Carolina to award higher-education degrees.  Accreditation will take that a step further, setting the institution apart from make-shift online courses by recognizing CHS’ high academic standards, rigorous programs of study and degreed teachers.

Cherry Hill Seminary's Holli Emore

Holli Emore
Executive Director, Cherry Hill Seminary

As for the students, accreditation means two things.  For graduates seeking credentials, like Sandra, they no longer have to prove equivalency or justify the credibility of their education.  Furthermore, accreditation would allow CHS students to apply for federal tuition assistance including Veterans’ benefits and other Military-based aid.  Right now, CHS students pay out of their own pockets.

So where is CHS in the process?  The Board has jumped through the first set of hurdles.  Now they are faced with a funding problem.  As it turns out, the accreditation process is very expensive, costing thousands of dollars.  It will take some time to raise enough funds to meet the remaining accreditation requirements.  However, with its dedicated staff and the support of the greater Pagan community it is certainly a real possibility.

In the meantime the school is gaining professional respect through alternative and unexpected means, such as the BCCI letter and the upcoming partnership with The University of South Carolina  for the 2013 “Sacred Lands and and Spiritual Landscapes” symposium.  In a recent email,  David L. Oringderff, CHS professor noted:

“The fact that [Sandra] has progressed this far speaks volumes…for the growing acceptance of Pagan spiritual formations within the Interfaith Community, and Cherry Hill Seminary’s standing and credibility in the academic community.”

So what can the rest of us take away from this?  What does this mean to the greater Pagan community?  All of these advancements indicate a shift in society towards genuine respect for alternative religions within the professional world.  Pagan institutions, like CHS, are on the front lines of this social change, breaking the boundaries that separate Paganism from mainstream society and actively standing for the legitimacy of Pagan belief systems.  The benefits trickle down to each of us, allowing for positive work at the community level.  “When Cherry Hill Seminary is healthy, that well-being extends into all corners of the Pagan world,” Holli remarks.

Labyrinth Courtesy CHS

Walking the Labyrinth
Courtesy Cherry Hill Seminary

That’s a big statement.  However, Sandra clarified it best when she explained that, “the big institutions will never be able to define Paganism.”  They can never take place of the small, autonomous groups practicing throughout the country.  However, the institutions do have a very important role to play. “[They] put Paganism into [a social] context for us and for the rest of the world,” she concludes. That work benefits everyone.

As for Sandra, she will continue the APC application for Chaplaincy certification.  Beyond that, she looks forward to working with the Fairfax County Community Chaplain Corps, a local interfaith organization that “provides spiritual care and support to community members during and after a local emergency or man-made or natural disaster.”  Once again, she takes a small step forward and who knows what size leap may follow.


On Monday Republican South Carolina Representative Tim Scott, at a South Carolina Tea Party conference that also included presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, made a rather dubious assertion concerning religion in America.

Rep. Tim Scott in SC: "The greatest minority under assault today are Christians. No doubt about it."
Matt Viser

Christians are the “greatest minority under assault today?” Where does that come from? While it’s true that “the religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories,” the statistical pie, no matter how you slice it, shows Christianity is the dominant form of religion in the United States. In addition, Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, with nearly 37% of the world’s Christians making their home in the Americas. Now, are there countries where Christianity is an endangered minority? Of course, but the United States is not even close to being one. Yet time and again we hear a persecution narrative that paints Christians in North America as though they were living in Iran or North Korea. Conservative Christians have painted the Obama administration as waging a “war on religion,” with figures like New Gingrich decrying the “bigotry” of the current president. That’s nothing new for Gingrich, who claimed  in 2009 that Christians were “surrounded” by “paganism”.

“I am not a citizen of the world. I am a citizen of the United States because only in the United States does citizenship start with our creator. […] I think this is one of the most critical moments in American history. We are living in a period where we are surrounded by paganism.”

So it seems we really need to start clearly defining terms like “minority” and “persecution” when we are talking about religion in this country.  Consult any dictionary or encyclopedia, and they’ll tell you that a minority faith is smaller than the majority faith in a country or region. In South Carolina, home to Rep. Scott, 45% of residents are evangelical Christians, 18% are mainline protestant Christians, and 8% are Catholics. Guess what that adds up to? You guessed it! A majority! Catholicism taken alone outnumbers all non-Christian faiths in South Carolina combined. Yet we are led to believe that it is Christians who are under “assault.” As I’ve said before, Christianity has a historical and theological persecution narrative, which can unfortunately become something of a complex that distorts reality,  instead of calling its adherents towards a witness of tolerance and coexistence for all.

Republican Rep. Tim Scott and Newt Gingrich in November, 2011. Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images.

Republican Rep. Tim Scott and Newt Gingrich in November, 2011. Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images.

If Rep. Scott were clear-eyed on the issue of religion he’d see which religious groups were truly struggling in his state. He’d see a Wiccan ostracized and harassed when she objected to sectarian government prayer (and later held up as an example of Christians being denied their freedom of religion), he’d see Pagans in local interfaith groups fighting to be recognized as something other than “other,” a place where any religion can get a religiously-themed license plate, so long as it isn’t a Wiccan wanting one. Despite this, we are forced through the looking glass into an inverted world where the increase of freedom and rights for a non-Christian group somehow decreases their rights and freedoms. It’s as if anything short of total hegemony were oppression.

Yesterday, in addition to it being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it was also National Religious Freedom Day, the anniversary of when the Virginia General Assembly adopted Thomas Jefferson‘s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That statute provided the framework for religious liberty in the United States, ensuring free exercise for all citizens.

“Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”

As Jefferson himself said, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” So even if Scott’s nightmare scenario were true, if Christianity were shrunk to the size of Paganism, Hinduism, or Buddhism in America, they, like us, would still have the secular protections of State to save us from the worst excesses of religious majoritarianism. If Scott, and Gingrich, and other politicians truly believe that Christianity is under threat, all the more reason to vigorously defend religious liberty, and the separation of Church and State, lest the tyranny of a imaginary non-Christian majority sweep into power.

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.

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.


Religion Clause reports that South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster has issued a ruling that clears the way for a non-profit group to have the infamous “I Believe” Christian licence plates produced.

The new “I Believe” design.

“Nine months after a federal judge barred the state from making legislatively approved plates with the religious message, Attorney General Henry McMaster says a similar plate designed by a nonprofit group is legal. The plate under review at the Department of Motor Vehicles reads along the top. It features a golden sunrise and on the left, three crosses symbolizing the site where Jesus was crucified .  The nonprofit group applied for the plates in February under state law that allows private groups to create specialty plates, if they pay a $4,000 deposit or collect at least 400 prepaid orders before production. It officially changed its name to the website address, in hopes of meeting new DMV rules that require tags bear the sponsoring group’s name.”

The original “I Believe” plates were ruled unconstitutional due to the fact that they were sponsored by the South Carolina legislature, creating the impression of a state-sponsored religion. The DMV has yet to decide if these new plates are indeed legal.

This entire license plate case has been haunted by modern Paganism. McMaster released a campaign video referencing the famous Great Falls Darla Wynne case, in which a Wiccan won a court battle against sectarian government prayer. In the video McMaster vows to fight for prayers to Jesus, and he further proved his commitment to Christian sectarianism by attending pro-plate Christian rallies. Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie, who ruled that the plates were unconstitutional, was also one of the judges to find in Darla Wynne’s favor during her many court battles. In addition, State Sen. Yancey McGill made plain that “any” religion could get a license plate, so long as they weren’t Wiccans.

“In South Carolina, Baptists wanted the tag on cars here and pitched the idea to Republican South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer’s chief of staff. State Sen. Yancey McGill, a Kingstree Democrat, got the bill passed in a couple of days without even having a public hearing or debate. “It’s a great idea,” McGill said Tuesday, calling it an opportunity to express beliefs. “People don’t have to buy them. But it affords them that opportunity. I welcome any religion tags.” What about Wicca, commonly referred to as witchcraft? “Well, that’s not what I consider to be a religion,” McGill said.”

Leaving aside the biases of Christian politicians, the question now is if the DMV approves these new “I Believe” plates under the state’s non-profits program, will they then in turn approve other sectarian plates? Hindu plates? Wiccan plates? Any faith so long as they meet the requirements? Are religious plates secular if the sectarian iconography is in the logo?

“The specialty license program has a secular purpose – allowing all nonprofit organizations to identify themselves by a logo or symbol,” McMaster wrote in his Aug. 16 opinion. “It is our opinion that the Establishment Clause would not be violated by approval of the plate. Indeed, it is our opinion that denial would infringe upon the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”

We should be paying close attention to what the DMV rules in the instance, and we should be quick in testing the parameters of an approval to see if the law will be applied similarly to all religious non-profits. If Christ’s cross is OK as a logo, then a Wiccan, Druid, Asatru, Hindu, or Buddhist symbol should be as well. If they aren’t, then we may have another court battle on our hands.

Top Story: While not explicitly about Paganism, the Newspaper Death Watch blog pointed me to a fascinating new study entitled “New Entrepreneurs: New Perspectives on News” ( PDF version), that interviews fifty women news creators and consumers and transmits a reality that many of us involved in new-media already knew.

“New media creators seek to report on their communities by being actively involved in them. They engage in newsgathering and reporting that is informed by their own knowledge and sense of place. They seek to entice members of their community in robust conversations. They pay close attention to their readers and communities to figure out what is of interest …New media news creators deliberately employ more involved (participatory), less dispassionate points of view, while maintaining the distinction between news and opinion …The primary motivation of news creators in starting a community news site is to amplify a sense of community and connect its members in meaningful interactions … For news creators, the primary gap is a geographic one. They are seeking to fill a void that exists because traditional media never covered their communities or have abandoned coverage because of economic pressures.”

The above could read as a mission-statement for The Wild Hunt and hundreds of other blogs, podcasts, and new-media resources out there. I’m not “embedded” in the Pagan community, I’m a part of the Pagan community, and that intimacy and familiarity gives me a perspective and vitality that no mainstream journalist can hope to match. I do believe I can be passionate about a topic while distinguishing what is fact and what is merely my opinion.  Further, the study makes plain that media creators and consumers (an increasingly blurry distinction) are both frustrated by the current state of mainstream news reporting, pointing out how “old media” has been petty and hostile towards emerging new-media solutions and  outlets.

This new attitude/reality is certainly worrying for newspapers and other traditional news-outlets. As Newspaper Death Watch states: “reinvention doesn’t come without pain”, and that pain has yet to run its course. However, I believe in the long run this change in journalism and news-gathering will ultimately create more quality journalism, not less. Further, it will forever change the old paradigm of a select few deciding what is “newsworthy”. For many, what happens in the world of modern Paganism isn’t worth reporting, or only worth reporting during Halloween, but we are no longer limited by the page-count or the deadline. In the future, news will be initially generated by self-interested communities which will then “trickle-up” to larger journalism-creating entities as “big” stories emerge. News outlets that continue to ignore these changes will just become another statistic for the media “death-watchers”.

In Other News: Turning briefly to Catholicism, I’ve previously mentioned that American nuns are currently undergoing a “doctrinal assessment” to see if they are coloring inside the lines and not straying too far into feminism, practicing Reiki, or getting too cozy with Goddess-worshipers. Well it looks like many of the women religious aren’t going to go down quietly, by, well, being quiet.

“Most US women religious are failing to comply with a Vatican request to answer questions in a document from Apostolic Visitator, Mother Angela Millea. Leaders of congregations, instead, are leaving questions unanswered or sending in letters or copies of their communities’ constitutions, NCR Online reports. “There’s been almost universal resistance,” said one women religious familiar with the responses compiled by the congregation leaders. “We are saying ‘enough!’ In my 40 years in religious life I have never seen such unanimity.” The deadline for the questionnaires to be filled out and returned to the Vatican appointed apostolic visitator, Mother Mary Clare Millea, was November 20.”

So what happens when non-contemplative Catholic womens religious orders, the ones who are usually the most tied to and involved with their local communities (and hence, quite popular with the laity) put their foot down? Saying that they are through being “bullied”? We can’t be sure, but I doubt this is making Benedict XVI very happy. Something tells me this isn’t going to be the last instance of civil disobedience and non-compliance from American nuns.

The Religion Clause blog alerts me to an update on the South Carolina “I Believe” license plates story that I’ve covered here at The Wild Hunt in some depth. It seems the local Palmetto Family Council, instead of urging the state to issue unconstitutional endorsements of a single faith, is going to follow the law and sponsor the plates themselves.

“The plaintiffs who just won the lawsuit that killed the General Assembly-sanctioned “I Believe” license tag are saying they won’t protest Smith’s plan — as long as it’s a private group, and not state government, that is sponsoring the tag. “This would be a specialty license tag like all the other specialty tags,” said the Rev. Neal Jones, one of the four plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit over separation of church and state. “It would be an expression of freedom of speech by a private group, and we don’t have a problem with that.” Jones, pastor of the Universalist Unitarian Fellowship in Columbia, said he had discussed with the other three plaintiffs the possibility of a private group putting “I Believe” on a tag. “Everyone was fine with it,” he said.”

You know, if local Christian groups had just coughed up the $4000 dollars to sponsor the specialty plate in the first place we wouldn’t have had to have an expensive court battle. But I suppose that would rob local politicians of some quality Christian pandering for votes.

In another follow-up, the massive (and controversial) Nepalese ritual-animal-slaughter of the Gadhimai Mela is over and the AFP interviews some unrepentant participants in the killings.

“Munna Bahadur Khadgi, a professional butcher, said he had enjoyed the chance to give the goddess “something in return.” “Gadhimai has been kind enough for me to have a good life and I take this slaughter as a way of saying ‘thank you’,” said the 40-year-old, who said he had killed 200 buffalo this year. “I make money by killing animals normally but at the festival I do it for spiritual satisfaction. It is the least that I could do for the goddess and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.” For 31-year-old Abhimanyu Rana, the slaughtering was in keeping with the family’s religious belief and practice. “When I was young I had seen my dad and grandpa slaughtering animals. I am proud that I am continuing the family history,” said Rana, who owns a local restaurant.”

But while many local Nepalese participants seemed pleased with the festivities, Utpal Parashar of the Hindustan Times seemed to have had a terrible time, saying the slaughter was “nauseating” and that he was pick-pocketed twice. Inside Nepal, a commentator for the Kathmandu Post, invoking Peter Singer, said the event was “the legitimization of violence in Nepal writ large”. The coalition lobbying to stop the mass-sacrifice points out that few safety and humane regulations were witnessed during the festival, and I can’t help but wonder if a reformation movement would have met with better success than a movement for a complete ban.

In a final note, now that Thanksgiving is over, people are turning toward Yuletide gift-giving and reporters are anxious to turn in their “pagan origins of Christmas” story before heading out for Black Friday deal-hunting. In an article about a festival of trees, the pre-Christian origins of hauling a tree indoors was cited, while a variety of letter-writers are quick to point out the pagan-ness of Christmas while considering church-state concerns. Meanwhile, SF Gate columnist Jon Carroll quotes a reader on the issue of Jews adapting and adopting Christmas for themselves.

“So can’t the Jews attempt something that the Christians did so successfully 200 or so years ago with a pagan celebration?”

Yes Virginia, Winter festivals do predate Christianity, and that religion did steal borrow many popular pagan traditions in the process. However, I’m not sold on the theory that Santa was a shaman. I’m more a “he exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist” kind of guy. I’m also a let everyone celebrate their Winter festivals in whatever way they want kind of guy, but I still think that Gap ad is stupid.

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

Remember how I said a couple days ago that the entire process that led to South Carolina’s “I Believe” license plates being ruled unconstitutional was haunted by Pagans? It turns out that I’m not the only one who thinks so. South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, who is currently running to become the state’s next governor, released a video two days after the license plate ruling to decry the imagined assaults on “freedom of religion” in his state stemming from the Great Falls Darla Wynne case.

“In Great Falls, we had a Wiccan witch, a Wiccan high priestess, who brought a lawsuit…the ACLU brought a lawsuit for her because they were opening the meeting at Great Falls – the Town Council – with a prayer, which typically included Jesus, a prayer to Jesus. And they said that was unconstitutional,” McMaster says in the video. “So, we got involved in the case. And we told them that we would fight for them,” says McMaster. “As I have said, under the Constitution, you are allowed to pray the way you want to pray. If you want to pray to Jesus, which of course many people do, then that’s the way that you ought to be allowed to pray.”

McMaster then offers to defend anyone in the state who is “on the receiving end on an ACLU lawsuit”. That this invoking of uppity Wiccans to win votes is tied to the recent “I Believe” ruling is pretty apparent. McMaster was reportedly “utterly disappointed” at the ruling, and was well-known to be an ardent supporter of the license plates, attending pro-plate rallies that featured a greatest-hits reel from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. But for all his bleating on the subject, there is little, legally, he can do at the moment. His current role as Attorney General prevents him from appealing the case, so no doubt his message that he’ll “support” and “defend” anyone in a lawsuit most likely means that he’s looking for someone to get litigious regarding the plates, or public sectarian prayer, so he can get in their corner (and win votes).

What’s troubling is that we don’t know what this will do to Darla Wynne, or other Pagans living in South Carolina. If “Wiccan witches” are being lumped in with the ACLU (one of the great Satans of conservative Christianity), how long will it be before people start blaming us for the perceived slights against their “religious freedom”? Is McMaster invoking something he can’t ultimately control, something that may end up harming the lives of innocent Pagans, just to win an election? I’d hate to think that such a man may soon be governing the entire state, a state that includes many modern Pagans (and several other religious minorities) who are just as concerned about their own religious freedom and safety as any Christian.