Archives For Ten Commandments

It is all over the mainstream news from local papers to The Washington Post: “Wiccans Sue City over Ten Commandments.” Yes this story is true. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico filed a lawsuit in February on behalf of two Wiccan practitioners who were offended by the installation of a Ten Commandments monument on City Hall property in their hometown of Bloomfield, New Mexico. The lawsuit went before a U.S. District Court Monday drawing national media attention.

bloomfield nm

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

The narrative isn’t new but the players are. Wiccans fill the plaintiffs role instead the widely expected Atheists or Humanists. In this case, the two plaintiffs are Bloomfield residents Janie Felix and Buford Coone, both members of the Order of the Cauldron of the Sage. Janie is a certified clinical herbalist and High Priestess of the group. In 2000 she moved to Bloomfield New Mexico  where she began teaching Wicca 101 and herbalism at the local metaphysical shop. She says:

I quickly found there were many like-minded folks, some not knowing where to turn, some practicing solitaries and some merely dabbling. Over a period of time we formed a spiritual group, and eventually a formal coven.

Janie Felix

Janie Felix

Janie’s home now serves as the covenstead with a permanent ritual site in the backyard. That site and Buford’s home are both less than 2 miles from City Hall where the problems all began.

On April 3, 2007, Bloomfield’s Councilor Kevin Mauzy “made a presentation of a monument to display the Ten Commandments in front of Bloomfield City Hall serving as a historical and art display for the city.” As noted in the official meeting minutes, the proposal was approved and the funds were to come from “private donations from the community.” In testimony this past week, The Albuquerque Journal reports Mauzy saying, “[The monument] was not for religious purposes. It was for historical purposes and to beautify the city.”

After the approval, the Council adopted a resolution permitting private “citizens, groups and organizations” to sponsor displays on City Hall’s lawn. The official resolution outlined the scope and approval process for such an installation. For example one requirement states that all displays must reflect the “history and heritage of the City’s law and government.”

There was an almost immediate outcry from people of many religious backgrounds. At the 2007 meeting, the City Manager urged the Council to delay the monument’s approval until legal concerns were addressed. Opponents spoke at council meetings, sent letters-to-the-editor and signed petitions. One Bloomfield citizen even launched a blog called: “Bloomfield NM Ten Commandments Monument.” In one of the few entries, the writer includes a published letter to editor of The Farmington Daily Times. His words prophetically state:

Perhaps saddest of all, the City Council will no doubt cost the small town of Bloomfield large amounts of taxpayer dollars in legal fees in an attempt to defend this unconstitutional course.

Despite the myriad protests, the monument was erected in June 2011.

Present at the unveiling was Debra Dogget, volunteer coordinator of Ardantane Pagan Learning Center, former Bloomfield resident and former member of the Order of the Cauldron of the Sage. Debra says, “It was very much a religious ceremony … with a great deal of talk about the Ten Commandments being the foundation of law in the US.”

In the ACLU’s complaint , Buford Coone is recorded as saying the “display shows that the City favors the Christian religion and supports Christianity over other religions [and] … violates the U.S. Constitution and the New Mexico Constitution.” In the same document, Janie Felix says, “[the monument] sends a message of exclusion to those who do not adhere to that particular religion.”

Watching the situation from her own home in New Mexico is Amber K, a Wiccan Priestess and executive director of Ardantane.  She says:

New Mexico is home to hundreds of different religious faiths, traditions, denominations and sects, who should be able to expect that government agencies will perform its duties in an unbiased, even-handed, secular manner, respecting no creed above any other. New Mexicans can be proud that citizens of many cultures and beliefs live together in mutual respect; the Bloomfield monument threatens and disrespects that fine tradition.

Debra Doggett

Debra Doggett

Amber’s statement supports Janie’s own observations about the region. She notes that there are Muslims, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Atheists, Baptists, other Protestant denominations and, in nearby Farmington, a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. In addition, the region has at least two CUUPS chapters, Ardantane Pagan Learning Center and Covenant of the Goddess’ Albquerque-based local council Chamisa. Janie also adds that the area boasts “a strong presence of Native Americans following traditional paths.”

Despite this diversity, both Janie and Debra agree that the immediate Bloomfield area has become more religiously conservative. Debra says:

The climate in Bloomfield, at least for those who work for the city, is very much controlled by Christianity and those who don’t tow that line are very much in fear of losing their jobs. There [were] many more folks who were approached to be plaintiffs … but several of them work for the City of Bloomfield and they fear for their jobs … They knew they would lose them if they agreed to sue.

But why sue? Why not simply fund a monument per the city’s resolution?  Debra points out that news articles got that point wrong. She says that there “is no longer any room for more” monuments. “The group that funded the Ten Commandments has [used] up” all the allotted space.

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

“That group” is the Four Corners Historical Monument Project which was led by councilor Kevin Mauzy himself. Twenty-one days after the 2011 monument ceremony, the Council amended the 2007 resolution stressing the limits of usable lawn space. Later that year, the group installed two other monuments, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, within that limited space.

Was the original monument actually the city council’s endorsement of the private religious beliefs of its sitting councilors?  The ACLU believes so. The organization has been watching since 2007. After sending letters-of-concern and launching an investigation, the ACLU finally decided to file a lawsuit on Feb. 9, 2014. According to the filed complaint:

The City of Bloomfield accorded preferential treatment to the monument’s sponsors, disregarding many city ordinances and policy requirements that would regulate the monument’s installation. Public records requests also reveal that Mauzy sought and received legal advice on the monument from the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization that often advocates for the merging of government and religion.

On Monday, March 10, the case went to trial before U.S. District Judge James A. Parker in Albuquerque. Janie and Buford were both there to testify. The trial ended Thursday but the Judge is not expected to make a ruling for several weeks or even months.

On advisement from her attorneys, Janie was unable to comment further on the case. However she did say that she will be happy to share her experiences with The Wild Hunt at a future date. Until then we will have to wait to see how the next chapter in the story is written.

Top Story: In Marion, Illinois, the city council is weighing the decision of whether to allow a local group to erect a Ten Commandments monument on the city’s Town Square. Enter atheist activist Rob Sherman, who says he’ll bring a lawsuit against the city if they erect the Ten Commandments monument without also allowing a display by a local Wiccan.

“If a Ten Commandments monument is placed on Marion’s Tower Square, resident Robert Donelson wants equal access to share the views of his Wiccan religion … “If Christians are going to have their viewpoint up here, let them at least put up ours,” he said. Donelson, who said he has been a Wiccan for five or six years, was introduced at the news conference by Rob Sherman, the atheist from northern Illinois who has warned city leaders they could be in for a legal battle if the Ten Commandments go up on public property … “I am calling Mayor (Bob) Butler’s bluff,” Sherman said. If the city allows the Ten Commandments, it must also allow room for other religious viewpoints, Sherman said.”

According to Sherman, Mayor Bob Butler has vowed to get the Judeo-Christian monument erected, and that he would only allow the viewpoint of the majority to be represented on the Town Square. Mayor Butler goes further in local paper The Southern, and mocks the Wiccan faith.

“I do not believe Mr. Sherman’s comments are worthy of comment. Period,” he said of Sherman’s threat of a lawsuit. Butler did say that the chances of a Wiccan viewpoint making it onto Tower Square were slim. “I only recently heard of the Wiccans and I am not impressed. They probably come from a different planet, maybe the same one Mr. Sherman comes from,” Butler said.

So much for equal access! I guess to Mayor Butler, some faiths are more equal than others under the law. It looks like Sherman will get to file his lawsuit against Marion, though there’s still a chance the City Council will back down under the threat of encroaching Wiccans. This isn’t the first time the seemingly frightening prospect of Wiccan participation has been used to influence local politics, though in some cases they are used as a fig-leaf of diversity. I hope that Robert Donelson knows what he’s getting himself into.

The Divine Feminine in Judaism: Tablet Magazine profiles Kohenet, the Hebrew Priestess Insitute, and other groups on the fringes of modern Judaism that (re)embrace the Divine Feminine, earth-based spirituality, Jewitchery, Jewish Paganism, and related concepts. Tablet notes that Kohenet priestesses, unlike Jewish converts to Paganism, stays rooted in a Jewish identity.

Back when Jewish Renewal and Starhawk were struggling to get off the ground, the notion of Jewish paganism was unimaginable because it defied the monotheistic core of Judaism. In recent years, though, Kohenet and other earth-based Jewish groups are challenging that monotheistic essence; in their view, Judaism and paganism can coexist. As Hammer and Shere write in an unpublished manuscript about Hebrew priestesses, Kohenet holds “a soft position with regard to monotheism.” While their work “conceives of God/dess as a unity,” they “welcome women who experience the divine as a multiplicity.” But unlike Starhawk and other Jews who became pagans, today’s earth-based Jews ground their theology explicitly in Jewish traditions and texts. “What’s new here isn’t that Jews are doing paganism,” says Jay Michaelson, a columnist for The Forward and an expert on Jewish spirituality who confesses that he has become more “pagany” over the last few years. “It’s that they’re staying Jews.”

The article also notes that these movements, despite their growing popularity in some areas, haven’t found much traction within mainstream Judaism, and two quoted Rabbis are quite critical (one calls Pagan Jews “perverts”). However, The Forward’s Jay Michaelson, who’s written about Jewish Paganism, notes that “pagany” elements have been emerging in mainstream synagogues lately, so who knows what the future may hold for the Jewish Priestesses, Jewish Witches, and Jewish Pagans.

Cults or Pranksters? The Lancaster Intelligencer Journal explores whether a recent grave robbery (on Friday the 13th) was the work of a disturbed prankster, or a practitioner of Palo Mayombe. So far local authorities seem to be reserving judgement, and the expert the paper talks to doesn’t seem to be heading in sensationalist directions.

Tony Kail is a Tennessee author and educator who has studied what he calls “magico religious activity.” He spoke to Stamford police about their case and is consulted by other departments about similar cases. Kail cautioned against jumping to any conclusions about a grave robbery. “A disturbed grave alone,” he said, “is not an indication of a magico religious activity,” he said. “Historically, many of the incidents involving grave thefts are done by those who aren’t involved in actual magico religious cultures. Individuals who ‘roll their own’ take elements from established religions and create their own subcultures.” Bones used in African-based religious traditions are used to represent ancestors, he said. But most bones used in Palo Mayombe are obtained through legal means, said Kail, who wrote “A Cop’s Guide to Occult Investigations” and “Magico Religious Groups and Ritualistic Activities: A Guide for First Responders.” Though disturbing, not every grave robbery is linked to rituals or the occult.

Tony Kail of Worldview Consulting is given high marks by Pagan author Dorothy Morrison, so hopefully things won’t veer into racial or religious profiling for what may be the work of a single disturbed individual. Crates, candles, and even animal parts, do not a religious ritual make. Whoever was the culprit, let’s hope he or she is soon caught and brought to justice.

Queens Tribune Faces Scrutiny: Those of you who followed my coverage of New York City Councilman Dan Halloran’s political campaign may remember that it was the Queens Tribune who outed him in a sensationalist fashion, nearly derailing his campaign in the process. Many pointed out that the Queens Tribune had a sister company that did consulting for his opponent, and that this created a conflict of interest for the paper, something the paper strenuously denied. Now the Queens Tribune is facing scrutiny again, as it’s been revealed that Democratic State Sen. Shirley Huntley paid 30,000 dollars to Multi-Media, run by Queens Tribune Executive Vice President and Associate Publisher Michael Nussbaum, for political consulting.

“It’s uncomfortable and it crosses the line,” said [Richard] Parker, a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. “You should not have a newspaper executive simultaneously serving as a consultant to a candidate being covered by the paper.” Huntley said Nussbaum’s dual roles don’t pose any conflicts for her. ”I hired him as a political consultant,” she said. “Everyone knows he’s with the paper. I assume this is a separate business.” Huntley, facing a tough primary against Democrat Lynn Nunes, insisted she wasn’t looking to garner favorable coverage from the weekly newspaper by hiring Nussbaum.

The article notes that it’s an “open secret” that Nussbaum runs both businesses, and mentions the Halloran campaign as a previous instance where the interests of the consulting company and the paper seemed to merge in an uncomfortable fashion. Will this latest coverage finally “out” Queens Tribune as a partisan paper? How impartial can you be when your parent company is cutting checks from the people you’re supposed to cover? I wonder how many local journalists are now comparing Multi-Media’s client list against the Queens Tribune’s coverage?

Two Kinds of Witchcraft in India: Two separate articles published the same day in the Calcutta Telegraph spotlight two different kinds of Witchcraft in India. The first looks at the problem of witch persecutions and killings, around 2,500 in the last 14 years, and efforts to “rehabilitate” women who’ve been ostracized.

Three months ago, it was decided that Purangi Nag, a Munda woman who worked in the Soongachi tea estate in Jalpaiguri’s Matelli block, was a witch. Purangi’s husband had died seven years ago; her son and his wife were killed by a rogue elephant. The widow’s neighbour, Birbal, has a son who fell ill soon after these mishaps. Purangi, he declared, was a witch who had cast a spell on the neighbourhood. One night, Birbal and three of Purangi’s neighbours — all men — assaulted her, injuring her grievously and forcing her to flee with her seven-year-old grandson, Dhiren, to her brother in a neighbouring village. When she approached the local thana, she was handed over to a temporary shelter run by the North Bengal People’s Development Centre.

The second profiles popular Indian Wiccan Ipsita Roy-Chakraverti, the “beloved witch”.

“When I started in 1987 in Calcutta, ‘witch’ used to be a bad word, an abusive expression,” she said. She went on to recount how she has struggled lifelong to remove the stigma attached to the word. In the process she has had to face “brickbats”, often quite literally. But Ipsita’s success in this context is limited only to a section of the urban populace. In Indian villages, ‘witch’ is not only a “bad” but also a dangerous word. Even in the city, a witch is generally that evil woman who has stolen one’s husband. How did the word ‘witch’ acquire a sinister ring and the worshipper of Goddess Diana become the ‘daiyen’ or ‘daini’? Ipsita said it was because of the marginalization of pagan cultures by mainstream religions. “This battle was a gendered one as well,” she added. Witchcraft has feminist tendencies as witches were the “worshippers of the mother goddess”, while conventional religions promoted patriarchy.

Wicca, particularly among the young, and in urban areas, continues to grow. Roy-Chakraverti has worked, sometimes with the government, to prevent witchcraft slayings and female infanticide. Can the growth of Wicca, and the subsequent redefinition of the term “witchcraft” change the deadly superstitions in some rural areas? What tensions will we see as these phenomenons start to converge? India is a prime example of how witch-killings is quickly becoming a Pagan issue, even though those harassed, abused, and murdered, would never claim the term for themselves.

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

(guest post by Elysia Gallo)

I’m committed to becoming another brick in the wall – one that makes it stronger – rather than becoming another sucker who punches a hole in that wall. What wall am I talking about? The wall of separation between church and state.

The Establishment Clause provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” Jefferson later famously referred to this clause in a letter as having built “a wall of separation between church and state.” Like all walls (the Gaza wall, the US-Mexican border, the Great Firewall of China), this wall is not impermeable. It protects us from being forced by the government to join or financially support a church, but it does allow in streams of personal religious expression – the other right we hold so dear. The Constitution ensures that religious expression on a personal level is acceptable, as long as our government does not endorse one religion over another. However, there are many times when it does just that, whether purposely or simply because the majority thoughtlessly and naively sees itself as the default mode.

For example, when a crèche turns up in front of city hall, minority faiths who want equal representation in the public sphere often have to ask for inclusion after the fact. In many cases– in Wisconsin and Washington state, for example – the consequent opening of the door to all faiths is quickly followed by a swift slamming of it when too many requests flood in or the displays cause too much controversy. Baby Jesus and a menorah are one thing, but a Wiccan pentacle? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? The Festivus Pole? The mainstream can’t take it!

A poll last year found that “83% [of respondents] say a nativity scene on city property should be legal, but only 60% say a display honoring Islam during Ramadan should be legal. Overall, 58% of all Americans feel both should be legal, while 15% feel both should be illegal.” If the majority of Americans are for the nativity but only slightly more than half would open up that space to all faiths regardless of their personal religious views, you have the majority effectively suppressing the minority’s religious expression. We need to put a stop to this practice altogether, or else this stream could become a flood that washes away our Constitutional protection against such state-sanctioned oppression. The Constitution is supposed to protect the rights of minorities, not strengthen those of the majority – that’s what the Civil Rights movement was all about.

While not all Christians are trying to push their religion on us, not all non-mainstream religions are without ulterior motives of their own…

Should we support proselytizing by non-mainstream religious groups?

You may remember Jason blogging about the case of a fringe religious group called Summum trying to get its Seven Aphorisms erected in a city park in Pleasant Grove, UT, on equal standing with the Ten Commandments already displayed there.

However, Summum had challenged another city for the same reasons – the city of Duchesne, UT. While the Pleasant Grove case proceeded to the Supreme Court, Duchesne instead reluctantly moved its Ten Commandments piece to a cemetery to avoid further litigation. Surprisingly enough, this was not seen as a victory in Summum’s eyes; in an article published after the monument had been moved,

“We are saddened that the Ten Commandments monument has been removed from the city park in Duchesne,” Summum President Su Menu said.

“Summum has never requested that religious monuments be removed from government property. We have only asked that all religions be given equal access,” Menu said. “Just as the citizens of Duchesne have benefited from the display of the Decalogue, so, too, would they have benefited from the display of our Seven Aphorisms.”

So was Summum ultimately just trying to win converts, or did they believe that all beliefs could peacefully coexist if everyone had equal access to them? Would we ever want to erect a statue of the 42 Principles of Maat, or the Nine Noble Virtues, or the Wiccan Rede in a public park simply because others “may benefit” from its display? Proselytizing is not a central tenet of any Pagan faith I can think of, but does that mean we should bar others from doing so? If we are all for tolerance and acknowledging the validity of an infinite number of other paths, why would we be intolerant of a Ten Commandments statue in a park or courtroom?

And if we went to all the courthouses of the nation to dismantle any Christian-themed decorations, then what of Pagan decorations like Lady Liberty? Would you get rid of Moses yet keep Confucius? What of Mars in front of the US Capitol, or the Three Fates and the four elements in front of the Supreme Court building? Obviously we live in a society where religious expression is not easily extracted from the public sphere; indeed, in many cases it makes our lives richer.

Conversely, if tolerance is one of our core beliefs as Pagans, how can we tolerate intolerance and religious aggression? Wiccans say “An’ it harm none, do as ye will” – so the question then becomes whether Christians are actually doing harm by erecting the Ten Commandments in public places, placing nativities on City Halls, and so forth.

Pagans and Atheists – strange bedfellows?

Unfortunately what may have once been the simple, well-intentioned decorating of buildings and parks in the past is now being pushed as part of a malicious and divisive political agenda. That fits the definition of “harm” well enough for me. You can see this again and again as part of the “Culture Wars” that fundamentalist Christians believe they must wage to stop the secularization of America. In the words of Green Bay City Council President Chad Fradette, who placed the nativity on government property, “I’m trying to take this fight to the people who need to be fought. I’ll keep going on this until this group imposing Madison values crawls back into its hole and never crawls out.”

Because of people like Chad, I’m more inclined these days to crawl into bed with the atheists – to stop, or at least to impede, the progress of the Christian right juggernaut that is hell-bent on tying up taxpayer’s money in long, drawn-out court battles revolving around their supposed “persecution” by a secularized America. I realize that in not supporting religious displays on public land I’m in a small minority of Americans – but what else is new?

It’s not just Chad fighting to get us back in our hole – many Christians are organizing to be more proactive in thrusting their nativities into the public sphere, to deliberately inflame others. The response of setting up a Wiccan pentacle is just feeding into that – a retribution against having the nativity on government property. And then that pentacle gets trashed, which is just more revenge visited upon retribution. Does it make any sense? Can’t we just nip it in the bud by saying no to everyone before it gets ugly? Can’t religious displays be simply relegated to private homes, churches and temples? Why bring it to city property or schools in the first place?

A huge chorus of secularists saying “no” to these displays will probably be heard more loudly than one or two minority faiths’ disjointed efforts to fight these assaults or gain equal standing on their own.

One atheist organization, the Secular Coalition for America, has been lobbying Washington of late for initiatives that Pagans may also support, such as eliminating faith-based policies that impose mainstream religious tenets on the rest of us through discriminatory hiring, weakening science-based education and health services, and proselytizing through charity. They are also urging more atheists to come out of the closet; this article about their lobbying efforts reveals that of 23 privately self-proclaimed atheists in the House and Senate, only one was willing to go public with it! Ultimately they, too, fear PR damage on the basis of the mainstream American belief that only Christians can be moral or ethical and that atheists are necessarily evil, deluded, liberal or untrustworthy. (Sound familiar? Such labels are often applied to Pagans, too.)

As Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition, wrote to me in an email,

“Our mission is twofold: to promote non-theism and work for the separation of religion and government. We are on your side on just about all cases. […] I think it is a good idea for all of our groups to work together on the main issues and also to work for the visibility and respectability of our constituencies. The more Atheists and Pagans come out of their closets, the better off we will all be.”

Besides the Secular Coalition and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, there are more inclusive groups fighting for the same ideals (because believers of any faith can be secularists, too), such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State – the very same organization that helped Roberta Stewart and Circle Sanctuary with the pentacle quest.

What do you think? Do you want to join the atheists and other secularists to ensure that minority rights don’t get trampled by keeping faith out of the public sphere, where we still can? Or will it be more effective to fight for better minority faith inclusion in the long run? How should we respond when “culture warriors” provoke us to action?