Archives For Tennessee

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The Satanic Temple logoSALEM, Mass. — The Satanic Temple has opened up its international headquarters in Salem, or what is often referred to as “Witch City.” TST, known for its religious freedom actions across the country, recently opened a branch in the U.K., which adds to its many other branches located around the U.S. TST spokesperson Lucien Greaves said, “Salem emerged as an obvious choice to be established as the base for our operations. In addition to Salem’s history and proximity to the intellectual hub of Boston, the people we have spoken to have been incredible friendly and supportive.”

Salem is already home to many modern Witches, as well as being the home of historical sites and other venues that share the area’s long relationship Witchcraft. Greaves said,”The irony that a town which once executed people because of alleged ties to Satan will now be hosting the headquarters of the world’s largest satanic organization is not lost on us. The fact that we have a home in Salem is a testament to the progressive mentality of the people there, and the local government’s support for plurality.”

TST’s new headquarters is housed in a Victorian home built in 1882 and was once used as a funeral home. Along with offices, the building will also house the Salem Art Gallery, which will feature various artists and a standing exhibit on the Satanic Panic and other witch hunts. TST hopes to host lectures and other events, and it will also be temporarily showcasing its famous (or infamous) one-and-a-half ton statue of Baphomet, created by Marc Porter. The new Satanic Temple headquarters is located on Bishop Street and opened to the public Friday.

On Campus

  • As we move into October, an increasing number of news agencies will be looking to interview Witches or explore the practice. That includes student-run outlets. In a recent article for The Journal, the student newspaper for Queen University in Kingston, Ontario, two journalists wanted to learn more about Wicca. After meeting with local Pagans, the two realized that the practice wasn’t what they expected: “Wicca, as we came to realize, was not a mysterious fad, but a complicated and serious religion with an equally complicated and serious history.By about halfway through the night, we began to feel somewhat guilty about our misinformed ideas about what Wicca would be like.”
  • But it’s not only Wiccans and Witches that are garnering media attention from student journalists. In an article for Otter Realm, writer Alex Jensen spoke with Johnny Bays, a 5th year Communications student and practicing Heathen. Otter Realm is the student-run newspaper for The University of California, Monterey Bay. Jensen writes, “Bays believes in the gods as divine, but not infallible, entities who are concerned with the nature of humanity and the broader world rather than the individual struggles of everyday life.”
  • At the University of Arkansas, it was recently reported that Lux: Pagans United hosted their first meeting Aug. 29 at the Ferguson Chapel. The group not only became the first Pagan organization to convene at the chapel, but also the first non-Christian group to meet in that space. As quoted in the student paper, Lux vice president Alex Cannon said, “It represents the breaking of a barrier. There are a lot of barriers that are up towards Pagans in the Bible Belt, that’s just part of the culture. So it really represents the breaking of some social barriers that allow for discrimination against Pagans based on their religion.” The group is only two years old, which is relatively new compared to other student religious organizations, but they are hoping that in being more public, they can help dispel fears and misconceptions on campus.
  • On another university campus, a Wiccan student is not finding that same level of religious plurality and support for her beliefs. In an opinion column for the Univerisity of Oklahoma’s newspaper The Oklahoma Daily, Destiny Guerrero shares her encounters with harassment and religious bigotry. She wrote, “[Those experiences] have turned me away from talking about belief systems in general. They instilled the uncomfortable feeling that I, whose beliefs do not align with Christianity, do not even belong on this campus. Perhaps what we need is an open discussion about religion on campus. I don’t really know the answer, and there could be multiple. I do know that spiritual harassment is just as serious as any other form of harassment, and should be treated as such.”

In Other News:

  • In an article titled, “Meeting the UK’s Top Pagan Police Officer,” online media outlet Vice published an interview with U.K. Police Sergeant Andy Pardy. As noted in the report “When he’s not patrolling the streets of Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, Andy runs the Police Pagan Association, a body set up amid much predictable media piss-taking in 2009 to support the needs of Britain’s pagan coppers.” The report goes on to share Pardy’s own beliefs and the work of the PPA. Parody also spoke about Paganism and Heathenry in general.
  • In Florida, local news sources are reporting that dead animals and fruit were recently found near a highway in Tampa. Local officials are speculating whether this was part of a Santeria ritual or a prank. Local station KRON 4 spoke with a practitioner of Santeria for his view on the story. “Every ceremony that we actually do, we actually clean right after and we make that everything is, ya know, as neat as possible,” Gilbert Gonzalez said. He believes that if it was a Santeria ritual, it was performed by “people who don’t know what they are doing.” There has been no official word released yet on the case.
  • The Nashville Scene recently published an article about a group of people who are claiming religious discrimination in Tennessee. Referred to by the outlet as the “end of times cat cult,” the group is comprised of Rev. Sheryl Ruthven and her followers. Originally from Washington state, the group reportedly moved to Tennessee to “wait out the apocalypse” in peace and to save cats. However, their practices have come under fire recently with some ex-members calling the group “a cult of personality.” Others, including the leader’s daughter, have fought back, saying they “do nothing but good.” Currently, they run a cat shelter in the area called Eva’s Eden, and will continue to do so as long as they are permitted.
  • In another part of the world, a small community is thriving despite the socio-cultural discrepancies between itself and its homeland of Ethiopia. According to a report at Atlas Obsura, Awra Amba was founded 44 years ago as an egalitarian commune. In this setting, women and men are equally valued, and children and elders are protected and respected. As noted in the article, one of the commune’s sayings is: “Doing a ‘women’s job’ does not change my maleness—it changes my ignorance.” While Awra Amba’s history is not without conflict, strife or persecution, the group has been allowed to peacefully exists since its return to Ethiopia in 1993.
Atlantis Bookshop Photo Credit: The Good Author / Spitalfields Life

Atlantis Bookshop [Photo Credit: The Good Author / Spitalfields Life]

  • The Londonist published an article titled, “London’s Most Fabulous Literary Bookshops.” The first store listed is Atlantis Bookshop that was founded in 1922 by occultist Michael Houghton. This historical location saw visits from Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner and many other famous Pagans, Witches, and occultists over its nearly 100 years of existence. Other bookstores on the list include: John Sandoe Books, Persephone Books, Jarndyce, Housemans, Heywood Hill, Hatchards, Foyles, and The Big Green Bookshop.

Art & Culture

  • For Bowie fans, according to reports, his final recorded songs will be released Oct 21. The songs will be included on a 2 Disc CD along with the cast recording of the Bowie musical Lazarus. The album is reportedly already up for awards.
  • Speaking of Bowie, Labyrinth (1986) is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Jim Henson called the epic fantasy film “his most personal project.” And in an interview at DragonCon, Brian Henson reiterated the power and influence that this one film had on him. Brian was the voice of Hoggle and assisted with puppeteering. When asked about the mythological and spiritual elements in the film, Brian Henson said that stories with deep mythology naturally have a spiritual resonance, like Labyrinth. He said it makes these film feel worthwhile and important. A special 30th anniversary version has been released, and the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta is featuring a special anniversary Labyrinth exhibit.
  • Last but not least, a little music for your Sunday from Scotland’s own Clanadonia:

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Tenn. — Druid Christy Coleman didn’t win a seat on school board, but she says she’s learned valuable lessons that she’ll use in for the next election. Coleman ran for the District 3 seat in Williamson county, TN. The District 3 race featured candidates; Christy Coleman, Kimberly Little, and Eliot Mitchell. Mitchell was elected to the seat with 477 votes, Little received 332, and Coleman came in with 236 votes.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

In an interview, Coleman told The Wild Hunt that, although her religion was brought up during the race, she doesn’t attribute her loss to religious bigotry. She said that Eliot Mitchell had the advantage of established political ties, and this advantage was one she wasn’t able to overcome.

“There is such a thing as a good ole boy politicians club,” Colemand explained. “And it accommodates the luxury of not having to work as hard or being able to have people do your work for you. By hard work I mean personally knocking on 4000 doors like I did. Working 40-60 hours a week on your campaign on top of your day job.

“I was averaging 4-5 hours of sleep a night and I think my child forgot what my face looked like. And I guess one of my opponents, who also lost the election, probably knocked on as many doors because I would see her everywhere. I’m not judging the club. I hope one day to be in it. And most who are already club members got there by busting their tails at some point in the past. But running against someone in that club is a very big undertaking.”

In a blog post titled “My reflections on running for office,” Coleman wrote candidly about the challenges she faced as a Pagan running for office.

She said that running a campaign is more difficult than she thought. “Everyone said that running for office would be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. They were right about the physical exhaustion. I wasn’t sure I would make it to the election in August at times.”

Coleman also noted how expensive it is to run for office. She said that you should plan on spending five to seven thousand out of your own pocket for a local, non-partisan election.

“It did open my eyes as to why a lot of politicians gladly accept PAC money,” said Coleman.

In addition to dealing with the expected hate mail and political tricks faced by almost every candidate running for political office, Pagans and Heathen candidates also have the added challenge of how to disclose information about their religion. How much should they say? When should they say it? And, what to do once your opponent tries to use it against you?

“I was accused of not being transparent about that during the campaign but the fact is, if people asked if I was a Christian I said no, ” said Colemen. “It was even briefly mentioned in my bio on my website and Facebook page. I say briefly because my religion has zero to do with public education and the decisions I would make.”

Coleman added that she didn’t want her campaign to focus on religion, unlike Ms. Little, whom reportedly made bringing God back into school a cornerstone of her campaign. Instead, Coleman focused on upcoming budget shortfalls, standardized testing, and rezoning.

Yet religion played a role in her campaign in positive ways. Coleman believes in divine intervention, and said that it assisted her many times during the election.

“From the kindness I meet in the unlikeliest person my first day canvassing after receiving the most aggressive physical threat by man supporting another candidate. There are good people out there and they may be your opposite. I’m not saying he’s good for voting for me, I’m saying he’s good for showing kindness to someone he shouldn’t, by all things on the surface, get along with.

“To the random synchronicity throughout the campaign putting me in the right spot at the right time in front of the right people. These meetings may not have panned out for me in the short term, but it helped me build a solid reputation for the next time.”

Coleman said that there will be a next time, “Whatever you do, make up your mind if you will run again before Election Day. You are either all in or you are all out. I will see you in 2020.”

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans and Heathens out there, sometimes more than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up. 

georgia sealATLANTA, Ga. – On Monday, March 28, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed HB 757, a notorious state RFRA legislative bill. Deal said that it “contained language [that] could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination.” He added, “I did have problems with that and made my concerns known as did many other individuals and organizations, including some within the faith-based community.”

“Religious freedom” legislation in some form has been circulating within the Georgia legislature for several years. The subject attracted national attention in Spring 2015 after Aquarian Tabernacle priest Dusty Dionne spoke publicly about SB129, one of several RFRA incarnations. Dionne thanked the Georgia state legislature for its “forward thinking” on “religious freedom issues,” adding, “This new bill will create sweeping changes that will open the doors for the Wiccans within Georgian communities to worship, work, and LIVE their religion to its fullest.” While SB 129 stalled in the house, new legislation was eventually born. After HB 757 was adopted by both the house and senate, it was sent to the Governor, where it was promptly vetoed.

In his statement, Gov. Deal said, “If indeed our religious liberty is conferred by God and not by man-made government, we should heed the ‘hands-off’ admonition of the First Amendment to our Constitution. When legislative bodies attempt to do otherwise, the inclusions and omissions in their statutes can lead to discrimination, even though it may be unintentional. That is too great a risk to take.”

We asked Dionne for a reaction to the recent veto. He said, “Georgia’s veto of this dangerous bill shows that those that the people of GA elected to protect themselves and make them prosperous, have the hearts needed to serve the entirety of their constituents, not just a radical minority. They deserve all of the praise given to those that protect the free world.”

Other Religious Freedom News

    • Could the Christian Bible become the official state book of Tennessee? On Apr 6, the Tennessee state legislature approved the “Holy Bible” as its official state book. Within its various amendments, legislators further defined which texts were included in the term “Holy Bible.” The bill will now head to Governor Bill Haslam, where it is expected to meet some resistance. Gov. Haslam reportedly feels the legislation is “disrespectful” to what the Bible means and is. Additionally, the state attorney general has expressed concern over the unconstitutionality of the measure. Meanwhile, the ACLU of Tennessee has been watching closely and is reportedly “on ready” should the bill pass. The ACLU wrote, in part, “While the Bible is an important book to many state residents, Tennesseans come from a rich diversity of faiths. Privileging one religion over another not only tramples on the Constitution, it marginalizes the tens of thousands of Tennesseans who choose to practice other religions or not to practice religion at all.” If Gov. Haslam does not veto the bill within ten days of its approval, it will automatically become law.
    • In February, we reported on the Satanic Temple’s fight to offer an invocation before a city council meeting in Phoenix, Arizona. Shortly after adopting a moment of silence in an effort to prevent the TST invocation, the city council brought back religious invocations. However, the new policy only allows police and fire chaplains to give those prayers. TST is reportedly planning to sue the city. In the meantime, the organization has been preparing to deliver an invocation at the July 6 meeting of the Scottsdale, Arizona city council. In an interview with AZCentral, TST spokesperson Stu de Haan discussed exactly what TST plans to say in its prayer. According to the article, TST will “ask the audience to reason our solutions with agnosticism in all things while standing firm against any and all arbitrary authority that threatens personal sovereignty.” However, TST may never be granted this opportunity. Scottsdale is reportedly looking for a legal way out, just as Phoenix did. This story is not yet over.
    • Further north, in the state of Colorado, The Satanic Temple is taking on an entirely different religious freedom issue. Together with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the two organizations are challenging the distribution of the Gideons Bibles to middle and high school students in Delta County. According to reports, the school district ignored complaints from local atheist organizations, who finally turned to these national groups. After being informed about a similar situation in Orange County Florida, the Delta County school board relented and allowed all informational material. On Apr 1, children in the Delta County district were offered TST’s The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities, along with a number of atheist pamphlets from various organizations. While all of the pamphlets were permitted on campus, one particular one, entitled “The X-Rated Bible: Sex and Obscenity in the Bible,” was first censored with a sticker before it was allowed out for distribution. FRFF did say that it doesn’t believe schools should be a religious battle ground, but it will continue to challenge unconstitutional policies where they exist. The Delta County School District is reportedly rethinking their non-curricular information distribution policy.

[Courtesy Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers / Facebook]

[Courtesy Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers / Facebook]

In Other News

      • In a lengthy interview and full report, The Washington Post shares details about the infamous #Boneghazi story. The article is titled, “21st century ‘witch’ hunt: Tumblr sleuths lead authorities to person who took human bones from a La. cemetery.” In December, social media lit up with tales of human bones being stolen from a “poor man’s cemetery” in New Orleans. A dialog ensued, inciting rage and inviting controversy. In January, officials began a full investigation, while the discourse evolved into an serious and in-depth concern over local gentrification, race, class and religion.
      • In a recent feature, Broadly profiled “The White Witch of Los Angeles” As the article begins, Maja D’Aoust “uses her science background to examine the world through her lecture series, tarot readings, and insightful performances as the Oracle.”
      • In another article, Broadly featured a report on “The Real Witches of Salem Massachusetts.” While such a subject is not at all surprising for our readers, it may be surprising for a portion of the general mainstream population. Broadly interviewed a few local Witches from the famous “Witch City,” as well as discussing the economic aspects of the city’s unique tourist industry.
      • On the lighter side, Salem’s police ran into an all-too-common modern day problem; a digital fumble, if you will. That fumble, caused by autocorrect, was particular amusing considering Salem’s witchy reputation. The error made social media rounds and provided many people with a good laugh. In March, the city’s police tweeted the following:

Beyond the U.S.

    • According to The National, religious belief and affiliation is on the decline in Scotland. The article reads, “The Scottish Social Attitudes survey show 52 percent of people say they are not religious, compared with 40 percent of those who were asked in 1999 when the survey began.” Despite the overall decline, the article also notes that local Pagan organizations have reported an increase in those identifying as Pagan.
    • A similar article was recently published in The Reykjavik GrapevineAccording to this article, “Church membership has declined by about 10% since 2009” in Iceland. However, just as reported in Scotland, “registered Pagans [in Iceland] are on the rise.” The article reads, “Registered members of the Zuists have increased by over 3,000 over the past year. The faith professes worship of the ancient Sumerian gods, but also promises to refund government religious subsidies to its members. At the same time, members of the Ásatrú Society – which follows the rites and ethics of the Old Norse gods – have also increased, by over 500 members.”
    • According to the New York Times, the indigenous women of North Africa’s Amazigh, also called the “Berber” women, “have banded together to fight political Islamism, polygamy, child marriage, and impunity for perpetrators of domestic violence.” Their matriarchal traditions and language are currently being threatened. The article profiles their unique culture, as well as their fight against terrorism and other forms of oppression.
    • The Washington Post published an article titled, “Rare photos show the lives of Russia’s forgotten Mari Pagans.” The article reads, “The attempted suppression of the nature-worshiping Mari has a long and dark history.” The article details that history, as well as their struggle against oppression. In photos and words, the article also highlights the unique and vibrant, living culture of the Mari Pagans.
    • Lastly, Witches aren’t only for Halloween. According to The Daily Mail, “little Witches” come out to cast spells every Easter in Finland. “small colorful witches appear on Finnish doorsteps in a blend of eastern and western religious traditions related to spring. They hand over catkin branches, reciting healthy wishes in exchange for payment that is traditionally chocolate or other candies.”

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee — At about 10:45 am Thursday, a driver in a silver convertible drove up next to the Armed Forces Career Center and opened fire. Almost 55 rounds were fired into glass front windows of the military recruiting station. Then, the driver sped off toward the Naval Reserve Center, just 7 miles away.

Chattanooga [photo credit: Keegan via Wikimedia Commons]

Chattanooga [photo credit: Keegan via Wikimedia Commons]

Meanwhile, Jaden Craft was at work. He manages about 150 employees at a facility one mile from Chattanooga’s Naval Reserve Center. Married with two children, Craft is also a devoted Heathen.

Adam Skipper, who follows a Norse and Ancient Egyptian path, was at the Chattanooga 911 Call Center.across the street from the Naval Reserve Center. He was there for the first part of a job interview and was wearing headphones taking a test. He was on the last two questions when officers shut down the testing and turned the room into a command base. This was his first indication that something unusual was happening. It was at about 11 am, at the same time the gunman was entering the Naval Reserve Center.

The shooter drove the convertible through the Reserve’s chain link fence and then entered the Naval grounds on foot. Police were already in pursuit and exchanged gunfire with the shooter. One police officer was hit.

Across the street at the 911 call center, Adam Skipper was told there was an active shooter nearby and that they couldn’t leave the building, “They took our names and moved us to a training room to sit with one of the operators and we were able to hear one of the conversations that the police were having with the 911 Call Center.” He said that one of his fellow applicant’s father was an EMT and so they received updates as to what was happening from him, too.


Adam Skipper [Courtesy Photo]

Skipper said that everything and everyone was very calm and orderly in the call center. He heard when officers found out about the wounded police officer. “It was interesting while there we learned of the wounded and everyone was sad for them but learning of the wounded police officer, everyone was very interested to learn of his condition and if he would make it.”

Inside the Naval Reserve Center, four Marines were killed and a Sailor was wounded. He would later die.

By this time, Jaden Craft received a call from the police department that there was an active shooter down the street and businesses in the area needed to take precautions. The facility where Craft works has multiple buildings and it took a few minutes to shut down all forklift traffic between the buildings and lock the gates. “We kept all employees inside our locked facility and followed every news feed we could,” said Craft.

Over in the 911 Call Center, Skipper found out the four Marines were dead and and the wounded Sailor wasn’t expected to make it. Soon after, the gunman was killed reportedly by law enforcement officers. Skipper was no longer in lockdown and eventually made his way home to his wife, Lee.

Craft received notice that the shooter was no longer active at about 1:30 pm. The plant opened the gates allowing people to once again come and go.

Both Craft and Skipper said their faith helped them through this time and that it colors their view of the events.

Craft said that his religious training got him through, “My Gods are always there with me. I guide my actions. They are simply part of those actions, inseparable. When it was done and the dangers had passed, I grounded and reflected upon the actions of the day. I thought of the young fallen Marines dying, not in battle, but at the hands of a coward.”

Skipper had the same view of the shooter. He said,“I view the shooter as a coward, not even getting out of his car to shoot up one of the recruitment centers, the whole idea from the Norse, face your enemy on the field of battle.”

Skipper said overall he felt safe during the attack. But when he left, “I left I felt very angry and I did get sick to my stomach several hours later. I have not had time to sit and think about it yet, though I am close to the gods as I ever was.”

Jaden Craft [Courtesy Photo]

Jaden Craft [Courtesy Photo]

Both men also agreed that the violent attack, which is only tentatively labeled a terrorist attack, happened in the most unlikely of communities. And they both have had very Heathen reflections on interconnectedness and courage in the face of evil.

Craft said, “I’ve reflected on the thoughts of gun control, the connotations that the shooter’s name brought forth and the fact that this type of thing has come to the “biggest Mayberry” in the world. You get the feeling that we, here, are separated from many of the atrocities of the world. This brings it home.”

“Don’t think what happened in Chattanooga, TN can’t happen where you live, that was proven here last Thursday,” said Skipper. He went on to say, “We need not live in fear either, if we do, then the evil of men has won.”

*   *   *

Author’s Note: In some ancient polytheistic societies, the worst punishment that could be meted out was to erase a person’s existence by no longer speaking or writing their name and erasing any reference to them. It was thought this also negatively affected them in the afterlife. As a matter of personal policy, follow this concept and this is why I have not named the shooter in this article. However, The Honored Dead do deserve to be known:

U.S. Navy Petty Officer Randall Smith, age 24. Smith grew up in Paulding, Ohio and leaves behind a wife and three young daughters. Smith was a surface warfare specialist, and had received the Navy “E” Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal and Pistol Marksmanship Ribbon. He died Saturday, surrounded by family.

Sgt. Carson A. Holmquist, 25. Served in the Mike Battery, 3rd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment in Tennessee and had been on two tours during 2013 and 2014 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. David A. Wyatt, 35. Wyatt, who specialized in field artillery, had served three tours of duty, one in Afghanistan and two in Iraq. He is survived by his wife and two children.

Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells, 21. Wells served as a field artillery cannoneer and waiting to be deployed. He was the only child of a single mother and left college to enlist in the Marine Corps.

Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, 40. Served in the Marines for almost two decades. He was deployed twice to Iraq and was the recipient of two Purple Hearts, a Combat Action Ribbon, the Korean Defense Service Medal, a Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medal, and two Iraq Campaign Medals.

There are lots of articles and news of interest to modern Pagans out there – more than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

vice logoOn May 1, VICE Media published an article titled, “How a Thor Worshipping Religion Turned Racist.” Writer Rick Paulas writes, “Together, Odinism and Asatru constitute the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland, officially recognized by Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. It’s gaining steam in America, too, where Thor’s Hammer is now allowed to be carved onto military gravestones and prisoners are granted special accommodations to carry out rituals … But there’s a dark side, too.” He goes on to discuss “the way that [Odinism] became a religion entangled with racism, exclusion, and American prison culture.”

Within hours of publication, the article triggered responses from a number of Heathen individuals and organizations. For example, in the article’s comments, Steven T Abell, steersman of The Troth, called the piece “poorly-researched, poorly-written.” Josh Heath, co-director of the Open Halls Project, agreed, saying, “There is so much wrong in this article.” He also pointed out that interviewee Josh Rood was misquoted.

Rood himself confirmed Heath’s assertion. In a Facebook post, Rood said, “There are a few huge things that I want to publicly make as clear as possible….and this is the only venue I really have to do that. I do not ‘teach an Old Norse Religion MA program’ … I am a student…” Rood also added that he had tried to be as clear as possible in the interview, suggesting that some of his words were used out of context.

Heathens United Against Racism voiced its own objections through an open letter to VICE, which was published and shared over social media and sent directly to the news outlet. The letter asks the editors to retool the article because “the problem is much more complicated” than expressed. HUAR has not yet received a response.

In other news…

  • In 2011, the Queen of Norway unveiled The Steilneset Memorial located in the small town of Vardø. The monument was erected to honor the 91 witches who were killed “nearly 400 years ago” in the town’s notorious witch trials. Although built and opened four years ago, the town’s history and news of the monument have once again captured media interest and generated a few news stories.
  • The Indian Network reported last month that more than a dozen Native actors and actresses walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six. They felt that “the satirical western’s script repeatedly insulted native women and elders and grossly misrepresented Apache culture.” Over the past two weeks, the story gained momentum and hit many major news outlets. The Indian Network continued to follow story. On May 1, it published an interview with Apache Culture Consultant Bruce Klinekole, who “was one of the key dissenters.” Klinekole explains why he joined the walk-out. In another article, The Indian Network reports that Native actor Ricky Lee called the entire controversy “overblown.” Additionally, a Care2 petition was started by protestor Allie Young, asking Sandler to change the script. It’s goal is 56,000 signatures of which it has already earned has 55, 611. Sandler has not made any public comment on the issue.
  • On April 15, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled “that a small town in Quebec may not open its council meetings with prayer.” In direct contrast to last year’s ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, Canadian law now prohibits any prayer or invocation before a state body. According to the RNS report, the Canadian Supreme Court explained that “the country’s social mores have ‘given rise to a concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs. The state must instead remain neutral in this regard. This neutrality requires that the state neither favor nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non belief.'”
  • In other religious freedom news, Tennessee lawmakers have attempted to push through HB615, which would designate the Bible as the state’s official book. On April 15, the House approved the bill 55-38, advancing it to the Senate. Despite a strong show of support, the bill was then sent back to committee, putting it on-hold for at least another year. According to the local Knoxville News-Sentinel, Senator Majority Leader Mark Norris said to his fellow committee members during the debates, “For God’s sake, think about where you’re headed.”
  • Continuing on the religious freedom theme, a Missouri woman is attempting to use RFRA laws to be exempted from the state’s abortion regulations. “Mary,” as she is publicly known, is a member of the St. Louis branch of the The Satanic Temple, and reached out to the national organization for help. In a press release, the organization explained,”that [Mary’s] deeply held beliefs would be violated if she is forced to receive inaccurate information as required by the State, and if she is forced to endure a mandated 72 hour waiting period.” The Temple is also raising funds to help Mary through the process.
  • Choreographer and dancer Keith Hennessey has been travelling with a new exhibition called Bear/Skin, which confronts recent social and political problems in the United States. In this piece, Hennessey uses his own Pagan and feminist beliefs to construct the performance’s narrative. He also uses parts of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring,” to which he said that he had “to reconcile his relationship” through his spiritual beliefs. The next and final performance will be in Toronto as part of a trio of dance exhibitions titled, “Capitalism, Sex and Magic.”
  • During spring, many small towns engage in, what the media often label, “ancient Pagan rituals.” These are regional and traditional folk celebrations that typically mark the changing of the seasons. Two that were recently featured include Germany’s “Osterraederlauf” in Luegde and Poland’s ‘Smigus-Dyngus‘ festival. Both are annual festivals that have been, reportedly, celebrated for centuries. During Osterraederlauf, locals set fire to six large wooden wheels and roll them down a hill. The wheels and fire are said to bless the farmers with good luck. For Smigus-Dyngus, or Watery Monday, locals dress in festive clothing, while young boys throw water on young girls and spank them with willow branches in hopes of increasing their marriage chances.
  • In Florida, Rollins College Provost Carol Bresnahan  has developed a continuing education class on “the history of witchcraft and magic.” The course, taught for the Rollins College Center of Lifelong Learning at the Hamilton Holt School, has no grades or homework. As reported by the Orlando Sentinel, “During class, [for example] they talk about how people believed witches slept with the devil. They read through a 15th-century witch-hunting manual [Malleus Maleficarum] …” The class has been very popular, which initially surprised Bresnahan. One student is quoted as saying, “I’ve always been interested in witches, and I don’t know why.” On its site, the Sentinel published a short video interview with the provost.
  • And, the Beltane celebrations are well-underway. The Grove of Gaia Fest was held last weekend in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with record levels of attendance. In addition to its traditional May Pole dance, festival goers happily participated in a wild color toss to welcome the Merry Month of May.
Grove of Gaia Fest

Grove of Gaia Fest 2015 – Color Toss


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.]

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.

“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.

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.

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 /

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 /

“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.