Archives For Tennessee

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 - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hamilton-burr-duel.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hamilton-burr-duel.jpg

“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.]

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.

- T. Thorn Coyle has issued an appeal to help raise money for the American Magic Umbanda House of Oakland, to help rebuild their sacred Lubisha, destroyed last year in a devastating fire. Thanks to generous donations, including one from Thorn’s Solar Cross Temple, they’ve already reached their modest goal of $450. However, I think they could use a cushion, don’t you? Any money above the goal will be used towards House related expenses, including their famous Pomba Gira ritual at PantheaCon, so let’s help out. “May the sound of drumming rise.”


- In other fundraising news, Datura Press, a small esoteric publisher that publishes the work of Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, Gareth Knight,  Alan Richardson, and W.E. Butler, is in the midst of a campaign to buy advertising and discounted copies of their own titles so they can expand and make a better profit. Owner-editor Debbie Chapnick says that, quote, “the company is at a crossroads. People want these books. I have been contacted by distributors and bookshops from all over the world. All I need to really get this going is to have enough books in stock to fill the need.” The goal is $10,000, with 12 days left to go.  Any money raised over the goal will be donated to the New Alexandrian Library Project.

- Humanist-officiated weddings are on-track to receive full legal status in Ireland, a classification that only Health Service Executive registrars and members of religious bodies previously received. While Pagan Federation Ireland has permission to legally marry couples in Ireland under the Civil Registration Act of 2004, the new changes could allow any “philosophical and nonconfessional body” to also perform legally binding ceremonies. Starting in 2007, Ireland allowed State-recognized weddings in the venue of the couple’s choice, instead of having to hold two ceremonies.

- A teenager in Britain was convicted of religiously harassing a McDonald’s employee who is Pagan. The youth repeatedly returned over a period of two months to engage in verbal abuse, despite being told to stop by the employee and management. Barrister Laura Austin, who mitigated on behalf of the teen, said he “did not realise paganism was a recognised religion,” and that this was “this is the first case of its kind,” so far as she knew. The teen was sentenced to community service, and a restraining order was issued.

- The 2010 U.S. Religion Census, released this week by the Association of Religion Data Archives, has some interesting data for those who are following the shape of (non-Christian) religion in America. While the data is skewed towards congregational models, it did show that “Buddhist congregations were reported in all 50 states, and Hindu houses of worship in 49 states.” All together, “the number of non-Christian congregations – synagogues, mosques, temples and other religious centers – increased by nearly a third, from 8,795 in the 2000 study to 11,572 in the 2010 census.” Meanwhile, Mainline Protestants “cratered,” Catholic numbers decreased overall (with a growing disconnect between “active” and non-active adherents), and non-denominational Christian houses of worship exploded.

- Oh, did I miss the National Day of Prayer this year? Maybe because it’s almost exclusively focused on “Judeo-Christian” modes of worship and conceptions of deity. As CNN Belief Blog contributor Stephen Prothero put it, “how to pray as a nation when some believers affirm more than one God and some affirm fewer?”

- Out & About Newspaper in Tennessee profiles author Christopher Penczak in advance of his visit to the fifteenth annual Pagan Unity Festival. Quote: “I think of witchcraft, rather than just Wicca, as a vocation and tradition that springs up all around the world, not in any one culture, there is a mystical, healing, cunning tradition in most cultures. The inner experience of the mysteries is the same, and I like the hunt for all wisdom around those mysteries.”

- SF Weekly looks at David Talbot’s upcoming book “Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love,” which charts the shifts in San Francisco’s culture and politics between 1967 – 1982. Author, actor activist, and former Digger Peter Coyote is quoted as saying “I blame Mick Jagger for f***ing with black magic,” when asked about the disaster that was Altamont. Sounds like an interesting read.

- It looks like the recent attention paid to infamous Nigerian Christian leader Helen Ukpabio may have had an effect. It seems the witch-hunter canceled her March trip to Texas, and a scheduled May visit as well. Ukpabio claims the the cancellations were due to death threats from Stepping Stones Nigeria, a charity that aids children accused of witchcraft, and is highly critical of her. Blogger Richard Bartholomew is highly skeptical of these claims, pointing out that Ukpabio’s church has been slandering that organization for some time now.

- In a final note, I’d like to recognize Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch of the Beastie Boys, who passed away yesterday after a years-long battle with cancer. Yauch was an adherent of Tibetan Buddhism, famously commemorated in the song “Bodhisattva Vow,” and worked for the Tibetan independence movement. However, for most members of Generation X, the Beastie Boys were a game-changing Hip Hop group that shook off their earlier party-boy lunk-headed image to release amazing albums like “Paul’s Boutique,” “Check Your Head,” and “Ill Communication.” Praised as “revolutionary MCs” by Chuck D, the Beasties helped define what Hip Hop would become, and oversaw its entrance into the mainstream. My consolation in this tragedy is that MCA has left behind a lot of awesome music, and that he’s now a Hip Hop Bodhisattva watching over all those who suffer.

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.

Top Story: On Saturday, I wrote about the impending enaction of a bill in Tennessee that could require schools to “teach the controversy” of evolution and global warming. Opposed by the ACLU, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, it nonetheless was allowed to become law without the governor’s signature on Tuesday.

http://controversy.wearscience.com/

http://controversy.wearscience.com/

“Republican Gov. Bill Haslam allowed the controversial measure to become law without his signature and, in a statement, expressed misgivings about it. Nevertheless, he ignored pleas from educators, parents and civil libertarians to veto the bill. The law does not require the teaching of alternatives to scientific theories of evolution, climate change and “the chemical origins of life.” Instead, it aims to prevent school administrators from reining in teachers who expound on alternative hypotheses to those topics. The measure’s primary sponsor, Republican state Sen. Bo Watson, said it was meant to give teachers the clarity and security to discuss alternative ideas to evolution and climate change that students may have picked up at home and want to explore in class.”

Doesn’t require teaching alternatives? Lets go to the actual language.

“The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.” [...] The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies.  Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

I guess a lot hinges on the scope of “shall endeavor to,” and what qualifies as a “scientific controversy.” David Fowler, President of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, believes it will allow the teaching of Intelligent Design in science classes. Wesley H. Roberts, a high school biology teacher in Tennessee, says it will harm students going to college and taking Advanced Placement exams. How this “teach the controversy” law will actually affect curriculum decisions in Tennessee schools is a very open question, and will no doubt depend on how each school district interprets the language of the law. At best, it provides cover to rogue science teachers who want to insert non-scientific ideas into science classes, at worst, it will force teachers to add “controversial” theories to their curriculum.

As I said when I initially wrote about this proposed law, it’s doubly bad for followers of Pagan, indigenous, and earth-centered religions. It could very well insert explicitly Christian notions of creation and the origins of life into science classes, exposing non-Christian children to misinformation on the government’s dime, in addition to undermining basic knowledge of increasingly dire issues like global warming. I can only imagine that legal challenges are being prepared as we speak, I’ll keep you updated on this story as it progresses.

In Other News:

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

For decades there has been a quiet war against the teaching of evolution in American science classes, fueled largely by conservative Christians who think the theory is heretical and flawed. Ever since the 1987 Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard, teaching creationism alongside evolution in a federally-funded science class has been outlawed. The justices ruled that  “creation science” is an inherently Christian religious construct and would violate the Establishment Clause.  Since then, Christian activists have sought to find a loophole, most notoriously with the theory of “Intelligent Design,” which was also exposed as an inherently religious invention. The past twenty years has been littered with lawmakers, school boards, advocacy groups, and concerned parents fighting this still-contentious issue out. Now, the latest flashpoint in this battle is in Tennessee, where a bill requiring schools to “teach the controversy” of evolution and global warming has passed the Republican-controlled state House and Senate, and awaits the signature of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

http://controversy.wearscience.com/

http://controversy.wearscience.com/

The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy . . . The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies.”

The idea of “teaching the controversy” originates with a campaign by the Discovery Institute, and was seen as a way to undermine support for evolution by recasting it as merely a popular idea among a set of scientists, emphasizing and misapplying the word “theory” so as to place other creationist-backed theories on equal ground. This was the seeming “loophole” of Edwards v. Aguillard, that “scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories” could be taught. But as the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial showed, these alternate theories don’t stand up to rigorous peer review, and often ignores mountains of published evidence undermining their claims. The simple fact is that “Intelligent Design” is a pseudo-scientific cloak over the old (Christian) creation science.

http://controversy.wearscience.com/

http://controversy.wearscience.com/

This bill, poised to be a law, is doubly bad for followers of Pagan, indigenous, and earth-centered religions. It not only seeks to insert explicitly Christian notions of creation and the origins of life into science classes, exposing non-Christian children to misinformation on the government’s dime, but it also seeks to undermine basic knowledge of increasingly dire issues like global warming. If signed, the law would open the door to hucksters who believe environmentalism is a “green dragon” that promotes Pagan religion (though a lot of opposition to climate change science is far more cynical). This is just another aspect of us being caught in another faith’s crisis, watching largely powerless as Christianity wars with itself over how to approach the origins of life or climate science.

Once, years ago, I  joked about the ramifications of “teaching the controversy.”

I think that since Bush has taken this brave step, all reasonable theories should be heard in public schools! Having said that, I demand that the TRUE answer to the beginning of all things be taught in schools. Because everyone knows that Danu the divine waters of heaven fell to the lifeless rock we now call earth and from her all life sprang including the first sacred oak who when conjoined with the sacred waters dropped two acorns that grew to become Dagda “The Good God” and Brigid “The Exalted One” who brought order to the land and built the first cities.

Oh and in fairness to our Asatru brothers and sisters we will also teach that the great cow Audumla licked away the ice to reveal the first gods who slayed the giant Ymir and created the earth, mountains, oceans, sky and trees from his dead body.

Finally, we should also teach the Faery creation story as recounted in Starhawk’s “The Spiral Dance” in which The Goddess apon seeing her own reflection created a companion from this reflection and made love to her which created a song from which all things sprung. This reflection then seperated from The Goddess eventually becomes masculine and the first God.

This of course is just the beginning! I have a more “scientific” version called “Polytheistic Design” that posits multiple intelligent designers, and “Matrifocal Design” which will settle the question of exactly what the gender of this intelligent designer was. Thanks again President Bush!

But as the poet Morrissey said, “the joke isn’t funny anymore.” While scoring a rhetorical point or two once might have been a fun idea, we now stare down inaction at rapid climate and weather changes, and are forced to re-fight battles waged at the beginning of the 20th century (also in Tennessee). For those of us who see the planet itself as sacred, we commit a blasphemy every day we waste re-litigating the Enlightenment. If Christians want religion in schools, it should be in a comparative religion class, a place I would happily endorse “teaching the controversy” by demanding the inclusion of Pagan faiths. It seems clear that once given  enough power, conservative Christians work tirelessly to roll back our secular, pluralistic, advances, endangering all that minority faiths have worked for. Teaching the controversy is all about teaching Christianity, all you have to do is ask for the name of the Intelligent Designer to be sure.

 

The idea of the United States as a pluralistic, secular, society where no single religious expression is enshrined has always gotten push-back, and experienced robust dissent over the years. To many, America is a “Christian” nation (sometimes a “Judeo-Christian” nation), and all others live here under their sufferance. The Rev. Dennis Terry’s recent comments at a Rick Santorum presidential rally typify the more vituperative side of this particular sentiment.

“I don’t care what the naysayers say. This nation was founded as a Christian nation. The god of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. There is only one God. There is only one God, and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words. I’m tired of people telling us as Christians that we can’t voice our beliefs or we can’t no longer pray in public. Listen to me. If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, get out! [...] We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Terry clearly articulates a popular view among conservative Christians concerning religious freedom. To these Christians, government-enforced secularism isn’t a neutral ethos, but a method of attacking their faith and limiting their free expression. In the minds of these Christians “religious freedom” means, in this time of demographic dominance, the right to let the majority dictate the religious norms of a society. Any deviance from that, in limiting prayer in schools, or sectarian prayer at government meetings, is a persecution of their church. To combat this “war on religion” (ie religion = Christianity) a variety of laws have been passed at the state level in order to “protect” the religious freedom of the overwhelming majority. A recent example is the new Florida law enabling students to give “inspirational messages” at school events.

“SB 98 states that its purpose “is to provide students with the opportunity for formal or ceremonious observance of an occasion or event.” Although “prayer” is never used in the bill, opponents claim it allows religious messages to be delivered in public schools. They also question allowing students to have an unrestrained venue to air their opinions at a school event.”

Such measures are almost always worded carefully to avoid legal challenge, though the wink-wink, nudge-nudge subtext is that it will allow majority Christian schools to have de facto sectarian Christian prayer so long as it’s a student willing to say it. As Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, put it: “legislators are clearly inviting Florida school boards to plunge into a legal swamp.” It’s a swamp that Tennessee seems ready to plunge into as well.

“The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden was approved by the House Education Committee on a voice vote. The companion bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. Holt said he proposed the legislation after talking with a concerned school board member in his district. He said the proposal would allow school districts to develop a so-called “student speaker policy” for school officials to follow.”

Here’s the thing though, while such laws almost always privilege the majority religion, it also opens the door to expressions of non-Christian religion within public schools (at least if the law if applied fairly).  Prayers to Jesus are all well and good, but what happens when a Wiccan gives an “inspirational” message?

Rep. Richard Montgomery, a Sevierville Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said he likes the idea of the bill, but believes it’s going to cause an uproar when a student decides to discuss a not-so-popular religion, such as Wicca. “You might have 1 percent that actually believe that way, and 99 percent don’t believe that way,” he said. “You’re going to have an uproar out of this world in a lot of communities.”

This sentiment was echoed by David Barkey, Religious Freedom Counsel for The Anti-Defamation League, when asked for comment on the new Florida law.

Protesters in Pensacola support highschool educators on September 17, 2009. The educators are on federal trial following the ACLU charge that they prayed in school. (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com)

Protesters in Pensacola support highschool educators on September 17, 2009. The educators are on federal trial following the ACLU charge that they prayed in school. (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com)

“Our public schools are for all children regardless of their religion. But this law could require children as young as five to observe prayers to Allah, Buddha, Jesus or other faiths contrary to their religious upbringing at mandatory student assemblies. It is completely contrary to our public schools’ inclusive nature, and the law will only serve to divide students, schools and communities along religious or other lines. In America, the question of one’s religion or faith is extremely personal and private. It is not a question that is put to the discretion of government or other people. To ensure all children’s religious freedom, we urge school districts not to implement this imprudent law.”

Despite these warnings, student “religious liberties” laws have already been passed in Arizona and Texas, places where the majority feels confident that these laws will act as proselytization tools of the majority faith. Think I’m overstating this? Don’t listen to me, listen to the Texas House Research Organization’s own analysis of the then-pending bill.

“The bill could serve as a tool to proselytize the majority religious view, Christianity, in Texas schools. The United States is a nation made up of people of many faiths. Children are required to attend school and should be permitted to do so without someone else’s religion being imposed on them … A school should be a religion-free zone – leaving religion for homes, places of worship, and individual hearts.”

In truth, the “a Wiccan might be allowed to invoke the Goddess publicly” scenario is more a gambit than a true threat. It can occasionally work to stymie Christian overreach into the public sphere, but in many other cases, those lone non-Christian students who speak out face incredible intimidation and threats. In most cases the tyranny of the majority, once unconstrained by the law, proceeds to do its level best to silence all dissenting voices through threats, intimidation, violence, or simply peer pressure. That said, this new wave of “student expression” laws aren’t, legally speaking, bullet-proof. There’s a new legal precedent being built that looks not just at the openness and neutrality of a law’s language, but how well it maintains a balance of religious and philosophical viewpoints.

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist, who was bullied and threatened out of her school after successfully challenging a Christian mural.

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist, who was bullied and threatened out of her school after successfully challenging a Christian mural.

“…legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible — itshould send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. Itshould not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one.Infrequent references to specific deities, standing alone, donot suffice to make out a constitutional case. But legislativeprayers that go further — prayers in a particular venue that repeatedly suggest the government has put its weight behinda particular faith — transgress the boundaries of the Establishment Clause. Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal, and the government should not appear to suggestthat some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

While that decision looked at legislative prayer, it isn’t so far a stretch to see that precedent being applied to government-funded public schools as well. If a school enacts a policy under a student free expression law, and the vast majority of “inspirational messages” are endorsing one single sectarian message, it could be seen a an official endorsement of religion, even if the teachers and administrators never utter a word. That gives adherents to minority faiths some hope, but as challenges work their way through the courts, we still face the very real situation of schools in several states where Christian expressions of faith are going to receive pride of place, marginalizing Pagan students.

The problem with these attempts to codify “religious freedom” into law is that almost always benefits the majority at the expense of the minority. I have seen time and time again, in a number of different circumstances, when laws and policies that are supposed to be viewpoint neutral end up empowering one expression of faith in the public square. That’s bad when it involves adults struggling over the issue, but it becomes pernicious when we use our children as proxies in a fight over the nature of religious freedom and secularism within our country. It shows just how desperate and anxious sections of our  Christian majority have become.

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee has added four Pagan holidays to its calendar, meaning an excused absence can be obtained by students for religious observances. A local-interest story on the adoption of these holidays in the Tennessean has since been picked up by USA Today and the Associated Press.

The Vanderbilt policy says students must be excused from classes and other academic activities on days when their religious traditions put restrictions on labor or forbid it outright, like Eid al Fitr for Muslims and Yom Kippur for Jews. It says professors, department chairs or deans can decide if absences will be excused for religious days that are not “work-restricted,” including the Wiccan and pagan days. “This is a mechanism to let faculty be aware of these holidays, that there may be students approaching them, for example, to reschedule an exam, to make up a day of coursework or something like that because they are choosing to observe their religion on that day,” Vanderbilt spokeswoman Princine Lewis said Tuesday. “And that’s an agreement that would have to be worked out with the faculty member.”

Local conservative commentator Roy Exum has decided this is just another example of liberal decadence at Vanderbilt.

“Now I’m all for Freedom of Religion, but when pagans and witches are accorded center stage at a school where tuition is now nearly $50,000 a year, the crazies are clearly running the insane asylum. [...] Before there were holidays like Yom Kippur for those of the Jewish faith and now the Muslim holidays of Eid al Fitr are included, but don’t you think a bunch of pagans dancing around a maypole “to symbolize the mystery of the Sacred Marriage of Goddess and God” is a little over the top?”

I love it when people profess to love freedom of religion, and then talk about how the principle is being taken too far. Meanwhile, response from modern Pagans has generally been very positive at this forward step towards acceptance and accommodation. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, a longtime advocate for the equal treatment of modern Pagans, struck a hopeful note on receiving the news.

“I am thankful that Vanderbilt University has expanded its diversity accommodation calendar to include some Wiccan and Pagan holidays.  It is my hope that universities, colleges, and other institutions will be inclusive of Wiccan and other Pagan traditions of those in their campus communities as well – and that accommodation of holidays extends not only to students, but to faculty and staff.”

Fox was also interviewed by the Associated Press on this story, along with Marijean Rue, a graduate of Vanderbilt’s Divinity School, who is a Witch in the Tangled Woods Tradition.

Rue, who also worked as a Vanderbilt employee after graduating, she felt comfortable telling other people her religious beliefs and felt Vanderbilt was a progressive campus that was welcoming to all religions. The addition of the holidays is a supportive sign to pagan students and faculty by the university, she said. “You feel like people aren’t going to say, ‘You’re just making this up,'” Rue said. She said young college students who are exploring religious beliefs like paganism could feel more secure in expressing themselves on campus. “When an authoritative body comes out and says, ‘We accept this,’ it really makes people feel safer,” she said.

The adoption of Pagan holidays to the list of holidays for which a student can take an excused absence has been a quietly growing phenomenon in the United States. In 2007 Marshall University in West Virginia added Pagan holidays to  its list, sparking national coverage in the process. Last year, the New Jersey State Board of Education added the eight Wiccan/Pagan “Wheel of the Year” holidays to its “official” list, while North Carolina passed a law requiring all school systems and public universities in the state to allow two excused absences per year for religious observances.

While some may feel this is political correctness run amok, it is simply a long-overdue acknowledgement that modern Pagan religions are, in fact, valid religions. Religions that have holidays and observances, and are legally recognized by the United States government. Universities like Vanderbilt and Marshall are simply codifying a reality that already exists at institutions all across the United States, that Pagan students are receiving excused absences for their holidays. Listing them simply streamlines the process of having to achieve permissions. As Pagan religiosity is further mainstreamed, no doubt Pagan faiths who don’t follow some version of the “Wheel of the Year” will also seek, and be granted, recognition as well. For those who criticize or oppose such measures, it’s simply another instance of their Christian privilege coming into play.

Today at The Wild Hunt I’m featuring a guest-post from Amanda Armstrong.

Amanda Armstrong is a pagan celebrant with Celtic leanings who performs professional clergy services in the Nashville area. She lives with her husband and four cats.

Higher Ground

We were warned of heavy rains for days before it began, but no one thought this could happen. Spring is the rainy season in Middle Tennessee, the season of sudden downpours my father calls “toad chokers” followed by intense afternoon sunshine. Nothing could have prepared us for the nearly 14 inches of rain that fell in the next 48 hours. Nashville has a lock and dam flood control system that was built in the 1960’s and has suffered only a few major flood events since that time. Our biggest worry during these seasonal downpours is flash flooding from the many creeks that crisscross the wide basin that defines the Greater Nashville Area. The storms began early Saturday and inched across the state. Warnings were issued and those that live in flood prone areas kept watch.

My husband and I were visiting the eastern part of the state Friday night and decided to drive back to Nashville early on Saturday morning. I had gotten a call from my father before we left, warning us of torrential rain on the way, but nothing unusual for this time of year. Most people went ahead and rescheduled weekend Beltane plans for the following weekend. Unusually, the annual Tennessee Renaissance Faire was shut down due to the heavy downpours. Saturday evening we headed west of town on I-40 to have dinner with family and saw the Harpeth River rising dangerously high near the interstate, but it was along the normal floodplain and  I had seen this happen many times before. Traffic then stopped about 45 minutes west of Nashville. The interstate was closed completely, in both directions. I thought perhaps there was a terrible accident. We  later found that the interstate was completely flooded the next county over. When we arrived at my aunt’s house, we watched a local newscast showing live footage of a portable classroom floating down the I-24 in Nashville, hitting semis and cars before breaking apart. 70 vehicles were stranded in rapidly rising water with desperate drivers standing on the concrete median and the roofs of cars. It was as if we were watching one of the ever popular apocalyptic big-budget films, except this was my home.

Sunday morning, Nashville awoke to a nightmare. All of the major creeks and rivers were at or near flood stage and rising with 7 more inches of rain expected through the evening. Parts of Nashville that have never flooded in living memory were underwater or at risk. Thousands were without power, internet or cell phone service. My husband and I decided to try and get some groceries and cat food before the interstates became impassable. We live right below a flood control dam and never worried about our own home being flooded. Our house sits just 40 feet below the top height of the dam on a fairly large hill. By the time we got home, we were very worried. Whole neighborhoods were submerged, roads destroyed. Train tracks were washed out or buckled. Bridges were swept away. The normally quiet Stones River, which runs 200 yards from my back patio, was perhaps 20 feet away. The river rose an astonishing 45 feet in less than two days, below a dam meant to control just that.

We spent the next 24 hours watching the water rise to within a couple of yards of the house and then recede a few feet, only to rise again. The neighbors all made hourly walks down to the path leading to the Greenway park that runs along the river to check water levels which we tracked using makeshift gauges of sticks and stones. I sat at the computer for hours refreshing the water level data page from the Army Corps of Engineers website praying that the numbers would fall instead of the incessant rising. We spent 24 hours in constant fear of hearing the floodgate sirens go off if the dam started to fail and had to be completely opened. I am so grateful that we made it through with no damage to house and home. So many have losts homes, cars and jobs. Most of our family and friends have checked in but no one has been spared some kind of loss.

I called my Community Supported Agriculture contact to let her know there was no way we could possibly get to our drop off site for our weekly food pick up. She sounded heartbroken as she told me they had lost their entire flock of pastured laying hens. I later found out that they have no idea if any of the Spring crops survived and they cannot reach many of the other farmers who work with them. We have hundreds of small farms in the Middle Tennessee area experiencing much of the same.

Local news stations were out and reporting immediately but could only access most of Nashville by air. The images were astonishing.

Very few times in my life have I seen what I would call awesome in the old fashioned use of the word, but this was it. We watched the Cumberland River in downtown creep inch by inch up to the old historic district downtown, cresting Monday night at a near record 51 feet flooding the historic buildings all along the waterfront. We watched hundreds and hundreds of rescues by boat of people trapped in second stories or the small islands they now live on. We watched horses, cows and mules coaxed into flat bottomed boats or standing on tiny pieces of land waiting for the water to recede. And yet, we heard almost nothing from the national news. As Keith Olbermann says in the clip, there is nothing worse than to have a disaster at home when another, bigger disaster is ongoing. I understand why all eyes are on the Gulf, it’s heartbreaking and horrifying.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

So many major buildings have been heavily damaged or nearly destroyed. Titans Stadium is full of water, as is the hockey arena. The Country Music Hall of Fame is flooded. The Opryland Hotel has 10 feet of standing water and the Grand Ole Opry House is much the same. The Parthenon with it’s 50 foot statue of Athena is closed due to Mayor Dean’s request for citizens to stay home. I have not been able to verify whether there was damage to the structure, but I’m sure it would have been mentioned by the local news if there had been anything significant. Sri Ganesha Temple in Bellevue is on a large hill, but no one is answering calls. Power and phone service is still out in many areas so getting information is still difficult. Our excellent Greenway Park system will be devastated as all of these parks run along the waterways.

The death toll is currently at 22 from this storm system. One of those lives was a member of the pagan community, Joshua Landtroop. He leaves behind two children and many friends. Joshua left work on foot Saturday to check on his two children at home when flood waters started to rise. His body was found Sunday morning. The waters rose so quickly in some areas that no one could have survived being swept away. There will be a memorial service on Saturday night for Joshua at the annual Pagan Unity Festival held May 13th the 16th in Burns, TN at Montgomery Bell State Park. Memorials are encouraged for the Joshua Landtroop Trust Fund for his two sons Heath and Tristan at Family Advantage Federal Credit Union, P. O. Box 39, Spring Hill, TN 37174. For more information on PUF, please visit  http://paganunityfestival.org/ .

Hands on Nashville is our main clearinghouse for volunteer work, you can donate at http://hon.org/HomePage/index.php/home.html .

The Red Cross is accepting donations for flood relief. Donations can be made at www.nashvilleredcross.org or by calling (615) 250-4300.

The Community Foundation of Nashville is accepting donations to support flood relief, restoration and clean up online at www.cfmt.org/floodrelief or by calling (615) 321-4939.

The Bellevue Chamber of Commerce has established an account to help flood victims. Donations can be sent to 177-A Belle Forest Circle, Nashville, TN 37221, payable to Bellevue Flood Aide. For further information, call (615) 662-2737.

Regardless of which side of the climate debate you are on, it is hard to deny that both the climate and weather pattens are changing. We have dammed our rivers and we build housing developments on our farmland, fooling ourselves into a false sense of security because we think we can predict or even control what Nature will do. These last couple of months have been filled with news stories of earthquakes, volcanoes and now floods. As a pagan I cannot help but wonder what lies ahead as Nature continues to show her true strength. But now, as both a pagan and a Tennessean, I ask that you remember us here in the Athens of the South. The waters will recede, and I pray the healing will be swift.

Chris Walton at Philocrites has news concerning Jim David Adkisson, who attacked a Knoxville Unitarian Universalist congregation with a shotgun last July, killing two and injuring six. Adkisson, who defined himself to neighbors as a “Confederate” and a “believer in the old South”, plead guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. The Knoxville News Sentinel also got to read Adkisson’s four-page manifesto, where he calls the UU church his ex-wife once attended “a den of un-American vipers” and bemoans the fact that he couldn’t kill every Democrat in Congress.

“This was a symbolic killing,” Adkisson wrote. “Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate and House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg’s book. I’d like to kill everyone in the mainstream media. But I knew these people were inaccessible to me. “I couldn’t get to the generals and high-ranking officers of the Marxist movement so I went after the foot soldiers, the chicken (expletive) liberals that vote in these traitorous people.”

By all accounts Adkisson was remorseless during the trial, and while his defense attorney claimed he could have argued an insanity plea, prosecutors say they had clear evidence of extensive planning and premeditation before the murders. For extensive coverage of the shootings, check out the Knoxville News Sentinel’s special page devoted to the incident. With this murderer behind bars forever, here’s hoping that healing and closure can come to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and the friends and family of those affected by this tragedy.

Did restaurateur Bob Wolf, co-founder of the eco-awareness organization The Green Train, fire a volunteer for being a Pagan? That is the accusation being made over at The Nashville Scene’s blog.

“Nashville’s Green Train, an eco-educational non-profit run by Merle Haggard and restaurateur Bob Wolf, had a witch in its ranks until recently. Or, to be more precise, a pagan. Not the kind historically drawn and quartered or burned at the stake, but rather the contemporary tree-hugging, Birkenstock-wearing, vegan variety. That was until Wolf charged this Wiccan ordained minister, Susan Hunter, with creating Green Train’s MySpace page. The personal networking catastrophe that followed– replete with online earthy salutations and pentagrams–saw Hunter canned in spectacular fashion back in mid-September. She’s crying discriminatory foul.”

Apparently Hunter, after creating the organization’s MySpace page, did what almost all MySpacers do, invite people she knew to “friend” the organization. Anyone familiar with the ways of MySpace can guess what happened next.

“Hunter sent out “friend invitations” to 40 of her friends who also happened to be earth-loving hippies and pagans of various stripes. When the messages started flowing in—“Blessed be” or “Faerie blessings,” usually accompanied by a pentagram and pictures of ivory-skinned ladies identifying themselves exotically as Asterope Morgaine and Feryia—Hunter says Wolf blew a gasket, ordering that all pentagrams be deleted. She says she deleted the Christian symbols too, out of spite before being summarily dismissed.”

So is telling a Pagan volunteer to delete only Pagan symbols, and then firing her when she deletes all the religious symbols, discriminatory behavior? Susan Hunter seems to think so.

“‘It’s my opinion that I was fired for religious reasons,’ she said. Wolf claims Hunter was just a volunteer. But perhaps the most stinging accusation hurled by Hunter was this: ‘The guy doesn’t even recycle.'”

Wolf insists this is much ado over nothing, and that Hunter “got her feelings hurt” and is now “witch-hunting” him in retaliation. Wolf says he has nothing against Pagans, and even attended a Pagan Pride Day festival and bought Hunter a book.

“This is a witch hunt by somebody who got her feelings hurt,” Wolf said, though the old cliché would seem to be reversed here. “I don’t have a problem with people’s opinions. I even went to a pagan day festival; we bought her a pagan bible.”

So, discrimination or misunderstanding? Something tells me that lawyers will soon be hired to figure it out.

“When I first heard the news, even before anything about the gunman’s motives were known, I couldn’t help but guess that it was because the UU *is* the sort of church it is – welcoming, and accepting of pagans, of religious diversity, of glbt, and human diversity.”Sangrail

As we continue to learn more about the tragic shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, the Unitarian-Universalist blogosphere, and its allies, react.

Over at Religion Dispatches, Laurie Patton remarks on growing up in a UU congregation, and how the shooting reminded her of her place in the “culture wars”.

“Sunday’s horrifying episode reminded me that as a liberal I was, and am, part of the culture wars—and that those culture wars are sometimes far more than just “culture.” They are, by now, a deeply rooted part of the split in American life, whereby those who legitimately seek inclusion and change are pitted against those who legitimately wish to conserve the best of our culture. The divide is so deep that those who are already unstable and prone to violence can draw upon those culture wars to justify violence—the same way that anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim sentiments have surfaced in violent acts perpetrated by unstable (and some alarmingly stable) people in recent memory, such as the shooting at the Jewish Community Center in Seattle and attacks on the mosques in the wake of 9-11.”

David Neiwert at the Orcinus blog notes that threatening to kill liberals is no longer ‘just a joke’.

“In Tennessee this weekend, the chickens came home to roost when a gunman named James David Adkisson walked into a Unitarian Universalist Church and began shooting. So far, two people are dead, and seven more were wounded. He was saying “hateful things,” according to all the news reports … Right-wingers love to “joke” about mowing down, rounding up, and otherwise “wiping out” all things liberal. It’s become a standard feature of conservative-movement rhetoric. And whenever anyone calls them on it, they have a standard response: “Aw, c’mon — it’s just a joke!” In reality, of course, rhetoric like this has historically played a critical role in some of the ugliest episodes in American history, as well as thousands of little acts of xenophobic brutality: functionally speaking, it gives violent — and frequently unstable — actors permission to act on these impulses.”

Transient and Permanent looks at the history of violence against UUs.

“Domestic terrorism has been an ongoing threat to Unitarian-Universalists because they tend to embody cutting edge trends that society is slowly, painfully moving toward. The issues change through the decades–integration, civil rights, women’s rights, pacificism, gay rights, environmental conservation, universal healthcare, religious pluralism, and so on–but the Unitarian-Universalists remain ahead of the pack year after year. Even though society generally catches up with them in time (by which point the UUs have typically already moved ahead once again), being on the fringe of the mainstream is a dangerous place, in America and in most any country. At various times and in their homes, churches, and out in public, UUs have been beaten, stabbed, shot, or blown up simply for their beliefs, and there is no reason to assume this will ever come to a complete end.”

Finally, Sara Robinson, also at the Orcinus blog, puts lie to the myth that UUs are “weak” or “soft”.

“Conventional wisdom says that we’re soft in all the places our society values toughness. Our refusal to adhere to any dogma must mean that we’re soft in our convictions. Our reflexive open-mindedness is often derided as evidence that we’re soft in the head. Our persistent and gentle insistence on liberal values is evidence of hearts too soft to set boundaries. And all of this together leads to a public image of a mushy gathering of feckless intellectuals that somehow lacks cohesion, backbone, focus, or purpose. You can only believe this if you don’t know either the history or the modern reality of Unitarian Universalism.”

For more reactions from the Unitarian-Universalist blogosphere, head over to the definitive UUpdates. The UUA has set up a special blog entitled Supporting Our Friends in Knoxville where you are invited to leave comments of love and support.