Archives For Texas

5980505.28As we reported in February, the trial had begun in the Phoenix Goddess Temple prostitution case. At the time, temple leader Tracy Elise told The Wild Hunt that she believed that she would be found innocent because she was “confident that the jurors recognize that the Phoenix Goddess Temple was never the brothel that prosecutors claimed.” However, on Mar 2, the jury disagreed and handed down a guilty verdict on all 22 counts.

Among those charges were the “conspiracy to commit illegal enterprise, illegal control of an enterprise, operating or maintaining a house of prostitution, multiple counts of money laundering and multiple counts of pandering.”

During the trial, Elise maintained that the temple was not a house of prostitution but a space offering spiritual services. In defense of that position, Elise’s son, Ben Wade, told local reporters, “We have the freedom of religion, […] The statute said, ‘No, you cannot touch genitals.’ To us, our religion and our belief, the body is the temple. The body is sacred. That may include the genitals. In fact, I’m pretty sure it does.”

However, the jury did not see it that way. After the verdict was read, Elise was handcuffed and escorted out of the courtroom. Elise’s sentencing date is set for Apr. 8.

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bucklandAuthor Raymond Buckland has been a public figure on the international Pagan scene for many decades. He is author of the popular book Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft and the founder of Seax-Wicca, among other things. However, over the past decade, Buckland has been dabbling in crafts that are external to his past work, including writing the fiction series The Bram Stoker’s Mysteries.

More recently, Buckland has been spotted doing standup comedy periodically at a local hotel in Millersburg, Ohio. At each recorded event, Buckland stands comfortably at the microphone with a brick wall behind him. He wears a black bowler hat and vest, which give him a distinguished and stylized appearance. The crowd can be heard laughing in the background as he delivers his jokes.

Buckland has uploaded several of his routines to YouTube, including the latest which he performed March 5.

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[Courtesy Doreen Valiente Foundation]

Coming this fall to Brighton will be a new play called Doreen: an English Witch. Written by Archie Caine and Roman Withers, and produced by Normal People Productions, the new play is scheduled to run around the same time as the two Brighton Witchcraft exhibitions sponsored by the Doreen Valiente Foundation (DVF) and the Centre for Pagan Studies (CPS).

As quoted in Pagan Dawn, Withers said, “The play will be a talking head style play, featuring a single set throughout, and will see Doreen tell stories of her life, ranging from meeting Gerald Gardner all the way to her last partner Ron, with the help of a training postulate.” The magazine also reports that “well-known local actress Peta Taylor” has accepted the title role of Doreen.

DVF has reportedly offered its full support in the writing and staging of the play, and will be receiving all production profits. Currently, Normal People Productions is advertising the play’s run dates as Nov 21-25 at the Emporium. However, Pagan Dawn has reported that this information is not accurate. The location and run time have apparently changed, and will be announced in the coming months.

In Other News:

  • The Sacred Space Conference begins Thursday in Hunt Valley, Maryland. Sacred Space is an “annual esoteric conference on the East Coast for intermediate to advanced practitioners.” As noted on the website, each year featured guests and a “host of highly qualified regional teachers offer a wide variety of workshops and rituals developed for a more advanced audience.” This year’s feature presenters include: Ian Corrigan, Ivo Dominguez Jr. and Ellen Lorenzi-Prince. The conference will run through Sunday and is held at the Hunt Valley Inn. For up to the minute information on changes and announcements, attendees can follow Sacred Space on Facebook.
  • Speaking of conferences, the Pagan Federation International is getting ready for its 16th annual conference held in the Netherlands April 16. The day-long event will be hosted at “Lunteren in the national park ‘de Hoge Veluwe.’ ” The guest speaker is Julian Vayne who will offer talks on both ‘Chaos Magic and Witchcraft’ and ‘The Medicine Path – psychedelics and spirituality.’ And, in the evening, the Irish & American folk band Tobermore will perform. Registration and tickets are available through the PFI-Netherlands website.
  • Members of Hearthstone Grove, ADF have launched a crowdfunding campaign to help purchase land for future use as a “shared meeting, camping, and ritual space.” The campaign reads, “Our vision is for our grove to own and steward a public space specifically for Austin paganism to be practiced and for groups to host their Things.” Organizers have already chosen a 10-acre, fully-wooded property that will reportedly meet all organizational needs. Their future plans are fully explained on the campaign site. Hearthstone Grove, ADF is an Austin-based congregation “devoted to practicing the religion of our Celtic Ancestors.”
  • Published today, the Temple of Witchcraft’s podcast, Voices of the Temple, featured an interview with Tim Titus. In this episode, host Adam Sartwell speaks with Titus about “his work with Virgo ministry’s healing case study group and beginning to teach for the Mystery School in California.” The podcast lasts for 20 minutes and can be downloaded or streamed directly from the Temple’s website.
  • The second issue of A Beautiful Resistance will be available May 1. It has been “edited by Lancashire poet and awenydd Lorna Smithers” with a foreword by “UK animist, mystic, and anarchist Emma Restall Orr.” Editors have posted information about pre-sales, and the full list of contributors will be shared Apr. 1.
  • As a reminder, for those attending Paganicon, please join The Wild Hunt writers and editors for an evening social on Friday, March 18 at 9 p.m. in Suite 217. Paganicon is an annual conference held at the Doubletree Park Place in Minneapolis Minnesota. It runs from Mar. 18-20.

[Courtesy J. Pourner]

[Courtesy J. Pourner]

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Tex.– On Feb 9, a grand jury indicted David Brown Jr., the man arrested for the murder of Wiccan Marc Pourner. As we reported in November, Pourner went missing for three days, after which police found his strangled body deep in the woods inside his burned-out truck. He was known as Axel within Pagan circles, and helped run the now-defunct Wiccan World Social Network. Pourner was also instrumental in creating and moderating the popular Facebook group, “The Cauldron – A Mixing Place for Witches, Druids, and Pagans.” When news broke of his death, that group lit up with stories and memorials coming from users who live all over the world.

As  was recently reported in the local news and by the Montgomery County Police reporter, court records have now revealed more about what actually happened to Pourner. Brown, a longtime friend of Pourner’s boyfriend Daniel Kirksey, called Pourner from Kirksey’s home to tell him that someone was “following him and wanted to kill him.” When Pourner arrived at the home, he and Brown had “a heated argument […] It was there that Brown punched Pourner several times and then bound and gagged [him].”  Using Pourner’s truck, Brown then took Pourner to a remote location, where he strangled him and torched the truck. The court records also indicate that Kirksey witnessed the entire act.

Brown remains in jail with a $1 million dollar bond for the murder. His indictment lists his charges as capital murder with a felony, which includes his alleged kidnapping of Pourner. Kirksey has not been charged with anything.

Pourner’s mother, Jolena Pourner, told The Wild Hunt, “My husband and I were simply elated when the grand jury indicted Brown, and that further indictments could be forthcoming.” She also expressed concern over the new information revealed concerning Pourner’s boyfriend: “We knew from the beginning that Daniel was possibly involved because his explanations didn’t add up. We’d been concerned because we felt Daniel was using Marc.” Despite this new information, the exact motivation behind the murder is not clear. However, it does appear that the motivation was not related to Pourner’s Pagan religious beliefs.

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ccs-twitter-logo_400x400CLEVELAND COUNTY, N.C. —  On Feb. 8, the Cleveland County School Board welcomed Wiccan Priest Tony Brown to give an invocation before its regularly scheduled meeting. The board recently adopted a prayer policy that adheres to the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in The Town of Greece v. Galloway case. As quoted in the local news, Cleveland County Schools director of communications Greg Shull said, “We’re just carrying out marching orders of the board. They responded to what the community asked for. People are aware that there could be folks from all walks of life, but that’s really the nature of public education.”

One of the components of the new policy is to remove any children under the age of 11 from the room until the invocation is over. Shull said, “The board decided to start this with the introduction of the prayer, no matter what religion. At that age, we could put out permission slips, but it’s hard to obtain permission when you don’t know [what’s going to be said.] We don’t know the religion of each child or what their background is at home.”

Rev. Tony Brown told The Wild Hunt that there were no problems during his invocation. He said, “At the meeting itself, I think it’s fair to say that I got a neutral reception. Which I believe is perfectly appropriate. It was quiet and uneventful, just like the reception the two Christian ministers got at the previous meetings since the policy was adopted.” Brown believes that his laying important groundwork prior to the Feb. 8 meeting helped ease any tensions.  He said that he built a “rapport with the board members” and has been an active voice in the community.  He added, “I think part of the reason this went better than the similar policy in a neighboring county is that I was active in the meetings leading up to the policy change. I was there, speaking out and making sure everyone knew that if they started having prayers from local clergy, that our Wiccan church would expect to be included.”

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POM-1528-0268-largeScholar and editor Chas Clifton announced the release of the newest edition of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. The Pomegranate is a peer-reviewed journal, providing “a forum for papers, essays and symposia on both ancient and contemporary Pagan religious practices.”

As Clifton noted on his own blog, “The new double issue of The Pomegranate is something different. It contains two long papers, but the rest is devoted to a special section on scholarly autobiography conceived and edited by Douglas Ezzy.”  Ezzy is a sociology professor at the University of Tasmania and editor of The Journal for the Academic Study of Religion and was president of The Australian Association for the Study of Religion.

The two long essays were written by Russian scholar Dmitry Galtsin and Indian professor Archana Barua. The featured autobiographical reflections were written by Wendy Griffin, Douglas Ezzy, Michael York, Fritz Muntean, Helen A. Berger, Graham Harvey, Kathryn Rountree, Susan Greenwood, Sarah Pike, Adrian Ivakhiv, and Melissa Jane Harrington.

Clifton also noted that, by special arrangement with the publisher Equinox, his own editorial, “A Double Issue of The Pomegranate: The First Decades of Contemporary Pagan Studies,” is available for free via download.

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pagan federation

The Pagan Federation (PF) has announced the launch of a media site: Pagan Dawn online. PF has been producing a print version of Pagan Dawn, in various forms, since 1968. The magazine is published “four times a year, at Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lammas.” Now the editorial team is taking a step forward into the digital world. PF’s announcement said that the new site will “feature news and reviews for the Pagan community, as well as showcasing some of the best feature content from the magazine.” 

Editors noted that the magazine will still remain the “main focus” of their work and is not being retired. However, the new site will be updated regularly to “reflect the current diversity and sheer fecundity of the Pagan movement.” Editor-in-Chief Kate Large said, “The 2011 census showed over 80,000 people identifying as Pagan in England and Wales, while in other major countries of the world, Paganism and Earth-centred spirituality is growing at a fantastic rate. Pagan Dawn seeks to inform, educate and entertain seekers of all paths, both in the magazine and now, online as well.”

In Other News:

  • Inspired by the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a local Indiana community has been successfully holding its own interfaith events. Last weekend marked the third such event sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus. The four-hour session included “representatives from 20 different beliefs highlighting how they interpret the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Rev. Dave Sassman of the Pagan Educational Network (PEN) was there and said, “What a multi-faceted experience.” Sassman, who also attended the Parliament, is founder of PEN and a member of Circle Sanctuary. When asked about the Golden Rule, Sassman said, “Harming anybody is harming the divine and yourself.”
  • The South African Pagan Council has announced the 10th annual Pagan Freedom Day. To be held on Apr. 27, the event’s theme is “Freedom and Unity through Diversity.”  The Council produced and uploaded a video advertisement, which can be seen on Penton Independent Alternative Media’s site or directly on YouTube.  The video contains photos from past events, and reads, “All Over South Africa, Pagan folk with gather again.”  It lists the cities where events will be held and the contact person for each one.
  • A new conference is arriving this summer in Nashville, Tennessee. ODDCon, as it is called, was born last spring when Tesea Dawson helped facilitate a smaller festival in the same region. Dawson believed that event could have been bigger and better. ODDCon was born. The conference site reads, “We believe that it doesn’t matter what color you are, how old you are, what religion you follow, what country your from or even who you love… we can all get along.  Let’s give it shot… we challenge all of you who read this to open your heart for one weekend and come be a part of the freakshow!” Special guests include many: Tuatha Dea, Alex Bledsoe, Selena Fox, Celia Farran, Byron Ballard, M.R. Sellars and more. ODDCon will take place at the Hotel Preston in Nashville from Aug. 5-7. Tickets are now on sale and more information is available on the website.
  • Dusty Dionne, High Priest of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church (ATC) has launched a new podcast called “Pagan Jack.” It is accessible from the ATC Pagan Information Network website and “comes out on Tuesdays at 6am EST.” Dionne describes the podcast as featuring “news and notes from the Internet and abroad that may be of interest to children of the Earth.” On its new Facebook page, Dionne reported that he was recording a show at PantheaCon.
  • Speaking of PantheaCon, the colossal Pagan event ends today. In the coming weeks, there will be many posts and articles from attending Pagans, Heathens and Polytheists. Look for them across the blogosphere and in social media. In the coming days, Heathen Chinese will be reviewing the event for The Wild Hunt.
  • And, lastly, for those in the upper midwest, ConVocation kicks off this Thursday in Detroit, Michigan with the theme “Rebirth in the Sea of Divine Knowledge.” The guests of honor include Dragon Ritual Drummers, Selena Fox, Richard Kaczynski, and Raven Kaldera. The conference is held at the Dearborn DoubleTree, and runs from Feb. 18 – 21.


[Courtesy J. Pourner]

[Courtesy J. Pourner]

On Sunday, Nov 15, it was announced that Marc Pourner, who had been missing since Nov 12, had been found in the woods the previous night. His body was laying not far from what remained of his burned-out GMC Sonoma truck. When news was reported, family and friends had to face their worst fears.

“No parent should have to experience the death of their child, but the way that he went was more a blow than his actual death. Who would want to hurt the man who had never intentionally hurt someone in his life?” questioned Jasmine Tempest Moon, a longtime close friend.

Marc was born in North Carolina on Aug. 2 1987 to parents Mark and Jolena Pourner. During a memorial tribute, his father described Marc as a “wonderful kid,” “a force of nature,” and “unrestrainable.” Marc had ADHD, which was partly responsible for his vivacious and lively spirit. Another close friend, Patrick, said, “All he did was laugh. Since day one, all he did was laugh.”

Jasmine first met Marc in high school where they became quick friends. And, it was through her that Marc was first introduced to Wicca. She herself was exploring her spirituality and said, “Marc was enthralled.” Jasmine remembered, “We did a lot together learning about the different paths, dabbling as one shouldn’t at times, getting into trouble with those who did not approve of our alternative beliefs.”

At the same time, Marc was also discovering himself in other ways. Shortly after high school, he came out as gay to his several close friends. Jasmine said that, at first, he faced some rejection, but eventually received the needed support from those that loved him. As time progressed, Marc came into his own, seemingly unafraid to be who he was and to express himself to the fullest.

In 2011, Marc began actively engaging with the internet-based Pagan community. He became involved with the now defunct Wicca World Social Network, a forum exclusively for people following Pagan paths. After the original owners left in 2012, Marc took over as site President with the help of good friends Steve Pugh and Bryn. He paid for the site’s operation out of his own pocket, helped seekers find their way around, and created a number of corresponding online videos. In this world, he became known as Axel the Pagan.

3021a8cd-ddf8-42f0-ab3e-f20c58cdd13dAfter about a year, Wicca World’s membership began to decline and the site ran into some problems with unruly visitors. The three moderators shut it down, and moved the forum to Facebook, opening “The Cauldron – A Mixing Place for Witches, Druids, and Pagans.” Pugh said that, originally, they had imagined this space as a new home for their 2.5k members. But it didn’t take long for that number to “swell to a massive 36.5k members.” Marc remained an active participant for quite sometime before moving on to other ventures. But that was enough time for him to develop friendships and become known to many people in the worldwide, online Pagan community.

As his father noted in the memorial tribute, Marc was a “creature of social media.” He posted as Axel the Pagan on many other sites, which included You Tube, Vine, MySpace, Instagram and more.

But Marc also had life off the internet. He was solitary Wiccan practitioner and a Trekkie. He loved to sing and described himself as a outgoing, hopeless romantic. Jasmine also added that Marc loved to dress in drag. She said, “We all attended the local Pride festivities and he often went to drag shows, even showing up in drag himself.” Marc was proud of who he was and, as noted by friends over and over again, he inspired that strength in others.

So what exactly happened to Marc? According to his roommates, he received a phone call late Thurs night. After a tense conversation, he abruptly left his apartment and never came back. On Friday, Marc’s family contacted Randall’s, his place of work, and found that he had never reported for his shift. This was highly out of character. Marc’s father also noticed that his son was not posting to social media, which was also out of character.

Over the next day, through local outreach, the Pourners received a tip on where Marc’s truck might be and called the Sheriff’s department. The tip proved accurate. And, deep in some thick woods, officers found not only the vehicle, but also Marc’s body.

Within 24 hours, the sheriff’s department had a suspect and, in coordination with Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Office in Indiana, the suspect was arrested. According to Lieutenant Brady Fitzgerald of Montgomery County, their investigators are still in Indiana working with that local office to complete the extradition. He did not know how long that would take.

What is missing from this story is a motive? Why would anyone kill such a dynamic and well-liked person? Currently, there is much public speculation, but the sheriff’s department has not released any details to date. Although the suspect was arrested with the charge of capital murder, it has not yet been ruled a hate crime.

When asked to specifically speak to some of the rumors, Lt. Fitzgerald said that he had no further information. He wasn’t aware of a second person of interest and could not confirm the relationship between Marc and the suspect. He also said that, as far as he knows, Marc’s religion has not been discussed. Lt. Fitzgerald added that, in time, details will be released.

Similarly, Jasmine, who is in touch with Marc’s parents, said that she was also unable to talk specifically about the case. So, as for Marc’s full story, most of us will have to wait.

1_thumbAs that official investigation continues, the focus has turned on Marc’s life lived, rather than on his deeply tragic death. Due to his own love of social media, many people, hailing from around the world, are now getting a better look at Axel the Pagan, a man they only knew and loved through The Cauldron and other online networks.

Steve Pugh wrote:

Marc was a truly great guy, always a word to cheer you up if sad, even if his own life wasn’t too great at times he would always be there … He was a great supporter of Paganism, and proud both of that and of his sexuality.

Jasmine, who is now the keeper of her dear friend’s pentacle pendant, wrote:

Words can not fully do the man justice. He was a wonderful person, a light in this world snuffed out too soon. He wanted to help people and he did. He saved more people than I think he knew. I know he saved us a few times, saved a few friends from dark roads, some from deaths door. He loved people with a capacity that most people can’t fathom. Thats who he was. He was love. I’ll miss my dorky soul brother, and will carry his memory always.

Marc, Axel, it was a blast, my friend. May your soul find peace and when we meet again, it’ll be one hell of a party. Goodnight and goodbye for now, my friend.

A memorial vigil was held on Wed, Nov. 18 and recorded for others to watch. Near the end of the video, Marc’s mother leads the group in singing the song, You Are My sunshine. Alone her voice rings out through her tears, “The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms, When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken, So I hung my head, and I cried…”

A public Facebook group has been set up to honor his memory and share stories. Many tributes and photos have been posted. Family and friends gathered for memorial services on Sat, Nov. 21, in Spring, Texas. A GoFundMe campaign was created to help Marc’s parents with all funeral costs. However, as his mother noted, those expenses are fully covered so all money raised will be used “to establish an annual memorial scholarship in Marc’s name for LGBT teens.”

Marc Pourner’s life was cut short. But that brief life was energized and filled with laughter. He was cherished for his boldness, his caring and his generosity. He helped friends through hard times and fully embraced the good times. Marc was proud to be Pagan, to be gay, and to be himself. He clearly lived a life out loud. And, in his death, he left that seed of inspiration in everyone he touched – from his home state of Texas and beyond.

What is remembered, lives.

Missing Texas Man Found Dead

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Texas — On Nov 14, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s office discovered a burned GMC Sonoma in a wooded area near Firetower Road. The partial plates revealed that the truck belonged to 28 year old Marc Pourner, who had been reported missing since Nov. 12. During a search of the area, Pourner’s body was eventually discovered only a short distance away from the vehicle.


[Online Profile Photo]

Pourner, also known as Axel in Wiccan circles, was a resident of Spring, Texas. He was a very active member in several online Wiccan groups and had helped administer the popular Facebook group The Cauldron – A Mixing Place for Witches, Druids and Pagans. He was very open and proud about his religious beliefs, and about being gay. Pourner did not hide who he was and what he believed.

On Wed, the Montgomery Sheriff’s office told The Wild Hunt that they had not yet determined a motive and could not comment on possible suspects. However, since that conversation, the department did issue a warrant for the arrest of David James Brown, a reported acquaintance and Facebook friend of Pourner.

The accused was eventually found in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, where his girlfriend lives, and was booked at 10:30 pm Wed. night. The arrest warrant charges Brown with capital murder. Brown is currently being held without bond and waiting extradition to Montgomery County, Texas.

For Pourner’s family and friends, the news has been overwhelming. A Prayer Vigil was held Wed, Nov 18 at Caney Creek Apostolic Tabernacle on FM 1485, Montgomery County, Texas.  And, there is also a GoFundMe campaign to help his father pay for some funeral expenses.

We will bring you the full story on Pourner’s life and all updates on Sunday.

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Isis Bookstore Vandalized

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Over the past weekend, Isis Books and Gifts was vandalized for the fourth time in the past year. In this recent incident, a brick was thrown through the lower portion of the sign.

[Facebook Photo / Isis Books & Gifts]

[Facebook Photo / Isis Books & Gifts]

The book store owner, Karen Charboneau-Harrison, doesn’t know who did this. However, the reason itself is not a mystery. The vandalism happened one day after the Beirut and Paris terrorist attacks. She told a local reporter for CNN, “I don’t know if somebody walking down the street just saw our name on the sign and kind of lost it for a moment and threw a rock through it … or if it was an ignorant person who actually thought this was a bookstore for terrorists, I don’t know.”

Although confusion between the store’s name and the terrorist group is causing problems, Charboneau-Harrison has no intention of changing the name. On Facebook, Isis Books posted, “The name Isis is that of the Egyptian Goddess of women, marriage, magick, healing and more. However, with our media and politicians constantly using the word to name those in the Middle East who are the source of such horror, some people seem to get confused. Please help us to educate the media and your family and friends to call the terrorists by a more correct name – Daesh – not Islamic State, not ISIS, not ISIL.”

We will have the full story next week, including more on the ongoing controversy over the terrorist group’s name.

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.]

For the second time in five years, Ft Hood, Texas is the site of a mass shooting by a lone gunman. For the second time in five years, military members, dependents, and area residents must deal with the emotional aftermath. Among them are members of the military’s first officially recognized Pagan congregation, the Ft. Hood Open Circle.

“We still have to go to work here every day. How do I help my congregation do that?” asks Ft. Hood Open Circle Designated Faith Group Leader, Michele Morris.

The Ft. Hood Open Circle is comprised of up to 100 active duty soldiers, dependents, and military retirees. They, like other military communities, have endured repeated overseas deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. For them, coming back to Ft Hood isn’t just coming back to a job. It’s coming home.

sidebar ft hood historyDesignated Faith Group Leader (DFGL) Michele Morris understands how challenging recovering from this incident will be. “The most difficult aspect of this is that many soldiers have deployed, some several times. This is supposed to be home, where they’re safe, and can recover from the emotional stress of deployment. When something like this happens, you lose that feeling of being safe at home.”

Emotional, spiritual, and mental assistance for area Pagans dealing with the effects of April 2nd’s shooting, in which 4 soldiers were killed and 16 were injured, comes from several quarters. The military, DFGL Morris, Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, and a team of volunteer Pagan counselors are working to provide assistance for Ft. Hood Pagan community members.

DFGL Morris, ‘boots on the ground’ assistance
DFGL Morris, a civilian, describes herself as a “full time minister, a full time student, and a full time mother.” She’s been leading the Open Circle since February of 2009, just months before the earlier mass shooting where 13 people were killed and 30 injured. Her background is in mental health and she’s currently in college working toward a degree in social work. Normally her role at Ft. Hood primarily uses her skills as a High Priestess and ordained minister, but with last week’s shooting she’s using every tool she has to help her Circle.

DFGL Michele Morris

DFGL Michele Morris

Upon hearing the news last Wednesday that there was an active shooter, Morris got word out to those in the Open Circle to not come onto the post as Ft. Hood was in lock down. Then, using her phone and social media, she tracked down her congregation to make sure they were accounted for and safe. She quickly assessed her community’s immediate needs and offered her support. Thankfully no one in Ft. Hood’s Open Circle was physically injured. Her next move was to ensure that the planned Pagan retreat, scheduled to start on Friday, and last through the weekend, was still a go. It was.

DFGL Morris said the retreat allowed Open Circle members the chance to come together in privacy and begin to heal. The retreat was held in tents adjoining the grassy, outdoor worship area set aside for the Open Circle at Ft. Hood. They physically and spiritually rebuilt the stone circle surrounding their worship area. They purged themselves of grief and strengthened community bonds. “Through ritual, Ft Hood Pagans have a way to process grief that otherwise wouldn’t be available,” says Morris.

ft hood open circle

Morris was able to make something else available, a way to connect to Pagan counselors, organized by Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary. While the military offers extensive and caring counseling services, “The military resources are soldier specific. What Circle Sanctuary offers is Pagan specific,” says Morris.

Circle Sanctuary offers assistance

Rev. Selena Fox

Rev. Selena Fox

Just as she had five years ago, Rev. Selena Fox, immediately reached out to DFGL Morris and offered Circle Sanctuary’s help. Rev.Fox assembled a team of seven Circle Sanctuary ministers and ministers-in-training to be available to Ft. Hood Pagans through phone consultations. Confidentiality and anonymity is of paramount concern and Rev. Fox says all the counselors understand this.

Due to Rev. Fox and Circle Sanctuary’s long association with Ft. Hood Pagans in particular and military Pagans in general, Fox knows the complex dynamic specific to counseling military members, “Most people don’t understand the constant stress military deployments cause, then you add a trauma like this, and they still have to do their jobs. They do it without complaint and they don’t normally ask for help.”

Rev. Fox says providing support early is crucial, as it creates a solid framework for healing. Feeling alone and not connected complicates trauma.

In addition to standing ready to counsel Ft. Hood’s Pagan community, Rev. Fox has been offering support to Pagans who have family members stationed at FT. Hood or who formerly were stationed there.

How other Pagans can help
Rev. Fox says it’s important for Pagans to pray for the soldiers and their families. Another thing she stressed was the need for Pagan groups to discuss how they honor military Pagans, “Warriors in Native American cultures are both honored and visible. Pagans can look at their religious ancestors and find out how warriors were honored and bring those traditions and practices back.”  She says too often Pagan warriors are invisible or feel they need to keep that part of their life private. Having community support, when honored or acknowledged, is what sticks in their minds and helps them heal from any trauma they may have experienced while serving their country.

A long road to recovery
Although the counselors haven’t yet received a call from Ft. Hood’s Pagan community, DFGL Morris says this isn’t unusual, “Some experience the stress right away, for others it takes a while for the shock to subside.”

Rev. Fox agrees, “Sometimes people need to talk in the first 24 to 48 hours, sometimes they don’t feel the need to talk for weeks after the event. Whenever they are ready to talk, we will be here for them.”

[Cara Schulz has joined The Wild Hunt team as a weekly staff writer.]
Note: An earlier version of the article said the retreat was held in cabins. This was incorrect. The retreat was held in tents.

Two years ago a North Carolina newspaper published a Letter to the Editor that read:

My problem with the Pagan or Wiccan groups is in whether they qualify as a religion.  Most religions in the world espouse doing good.  We see food pantries, homeless shelters, free clinics and hospitals started and manned by religious entities….I’ve never seen a Pagan hospital or food pantry or homeless shelter.  I would call Pagans evil, but maybe I could more easily support that they have no socially redeeming value. – J. Bromley

At that time I created a solid list of “good works” that served to demonstrate Pagan involvement in tremendous acts of service. Some of these projects were Pagan community specific (i.e. Operation Circle Care) and some served the larger population (i.e. Doctors Without Borders).

I’d like to resurrect this topic and share the stories of two Pagans who engage in dynamic acts of service that benefit far more than just themselves. Here are two different men on two different continents who have both made a passionate commitment to protecting the Earth and its vital resources.

Adam Burling

Adam Burling

Paganism, Deep Ecology and Environmental Activism

For over twenty years, Adam Burling, a Pantheist Pagan, has been an advocate for the environment in his home country of Australia. He began his career working in one of Sydney’s merchant banks. But he quickly became disillusioned with the financial industry. Looking around he felt “empty” seeing no “real community or passion.”

Finally Adam quit and fell in with a crowd of surfers, skaters and musicians. Some of them were also environmental activists who volunteered for The Australian Wildnerness Society, a group that works to protect native forests. He signed up.

Adam remembers his first mass protest:

[There was] a real sense of community…music, songs, laughter even in the face of so much horror and destruction of nature. Not long after that I decided to dedicate my life to working for the Earth and its creatures (including us humans).

Adam continued to volunteer for The Wildnerness Society living mostly off his inner desire to act. He recalls, “In the face of the destruction of what [was] occurring I felt compelled to do nothing else.” Then after years on the front-lines, he finally got an office job in the campaign headquarters of the Tasmanian Green Party working for Bob Brown.  His passion “to act” turned into a career. Now Adam is the media coordinator for Sea Shepherd, an international organization that “takes a stand against poachers, whalers and [ocean] polluters.”

While the fight to save Earth’s eco-systems may seem insurmountable at times, Adam remains undaunted. He wrote:

Starhawk on her visit to Tasmania said to me that all wild places are facing some threat.  They call to us for help…I feel honoured that I have heard that call and have chosen to act accordingly.

Adam Burling

Adam Burling

In his own home town, Adam with a group of 17 others were successful in stopping the clear cutting of 1000 acres of native forest and fending off a corporate lawsuit. This is a small local victory but one that Adam holds close.

Since the beginning Adam has grounded his work within his strongly held Pagan beliefs and the philosophy of Deep Ecology. He has studied both the Reclaiming Tradition and the works of T. Thorn Coyle.  He adds:

Paganism has provided me with a specific world view that supports my work. It puts everything more into perspective. Like John Seed says we are the rain forest defending itself. When you start to view activism as such it shifts something inside of you, it is no longer just reactionary. It is pro-active and it a movement for all life including humanity.

Air, Water, Earth: Stopping Injection Drilling

On the other side of the world, a retired engineer has been aggressively working to curb air and water pollution in the small towns of East Texas near the Sabine National Forest. Lord Sez, a long-time Wiccan practitioner, explains,

I do not like anyone who sends poison into the air.  With good technology the emissions can be eliminated and the air kept clean.  But that would cost more money. Most of the [emission] permits are granted with no public hearing. It is permit by rule. The plant owners do not live close to [the plants] and, [as for] the families that do live close….too bad.

Several years ago, Lord Sez identified a growing problem caused by a local chemical plant built only 900 feet from his home. Over time, he and his neighbors noticed an increasing incidence of illness, strange “smells, loss of taste … and floating gas clouds around the plant.”  They also observed an increasing amount of dead grass and fewer and fewer birds.

With his engineering background Lord Sez was able to take his own air and water quality test samples to validate his suspicions. He also dug up documents proving that the company falsified several sworn records. After rallying local landowners, he presented his case to the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality.  As a result, the chemical plant is being fined with further investigations to come.

Lord Sez remarks, “I am not a good neighbor for a plant or well that produces pollution”  Over the same period of time, the Texas Railroad commission approved the drilling of a Injection well in the Sabine National Forest, near Pendleton Harbor and Toledo Bend lake. The injection well was to be used to store oil and gas waste and was to be dug only 400 feet from a fresh water drinking source.

Injection Well Courtesy of Flickr's kqedquest

Injection Well
Courtesy of Flickr’s kqedquest

The project wasn’t made public until after ETX solutions LLC, the drilling company, began clearing the forest for construction. Upon learning of the project, Lord Sez immediately began an extensive investigation. With the help of others, he was able to halt construction by creating enough noise to scare away investors. The drill project has since been abandoned.

Lord Sez will continue his work and already has another project lined up. He gave me permission to share the details of his story in the hopes that it will inspire others to act. But he emphatically states that, although he is Wiccan, his environmental work is not at all about religion.  For him, it is about the safety, health and the quality of life within in his community for all living things. He says:

I get angry [knowing] that a family [could] gather for a holiday meal with the windows open and everyone [could] sick from the stink in the air. 

He doesn’t care what holiday that might be. Some acts of service transcend theology.

These stories are certainly not the only ones. Many Pagans are dedicating their time, money, and careers to protecting the Earth and its eco-systems. In addition, there are Pagans performing many, many other “good works” that contribute positively to our greater societies. I look forward to hearing more of these stories. Maybe one day I’ll even be able to report on the opening of a Pagan-run hospital.

An Aside:  Remember little Duncan Lawrence, the North Georgia March of Dimes ambassador.  He and 50 other team members managed to raise over $18,000 dollars to date and the pledging is still open. Tom, his father and Druid Elder, estimate that they will raise another 2-3,000 before the donation period ends. Now that is socially relevant.


Druid Elder, Tom Lawrence and son Duncan at March of Dimes Walk 2013.


Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

A Fundraiser for Kyrja Withers: Since Florida Pagan and children’s author Kyrja Withers had her home shot at this past March, followed by a chemical bottle-bomb attack, which required Withers’ daughter to seek medical care after inhaling fumes, the Lady Liberty League, Everglades Moon Local Council of COG, and other local Pagan community members have been mobilizing to assist Withers. At the behest of Lady Liberty League, their household is now raising funds to install security measures to protect against future attacks.

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

“Lady Liberty League […] has provided a variety of resources to my husband, Randy, and I during this time.  They also provided a comprehensive on-site Threat Assessment Report of our home in an effort to de-escalate the situation and provide long-term safety for our family. We are seeking assistance to comply with the security measures recommended by Lady Liberty League.  The bulk of the funding received will be to purchase the security cameras necessary to provide surveillence of our unique, colorful home.  The cameras would provide visible deterents to those who would seek to further harass and intimidate us, as well as a means to secure evidence should additional incidents occur.”

They are seeking to raise $1,100 dollars, and have already raised nearly half of their goal. For those seeking to concretely help in this situation this seems to be a pragmatic and sensible way to do so. The Lady Liberty League asks that those who are interested in contributing suggestions of resources, ideas for strategies, and volunteering security consulting and other help” to send them an e-mail, or comment at the organization’s Facebook page.  A focus image has also been provided for those who want to do magical/prayer work for Kyrja and her family. We will update you here with further developments.

Emergency Pagan Conclave Called in California: The Wild Hunt has received a notice that an emergency conclave is being called for Sunday, May 5th in Oakland, California to discuss proposed regulations by the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) relating to religious items allowed by incarcerated Pagans. The call is being put forth by The Pagan Alliance and House of Danu.

Central California Women's Facility (CCWF)

Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)

“The California Department of Corrections (CDCR) has issued proposed regulations that threaten the ability of Pagans who are incarcerated to possess many of the religious items customary for the religious practices of our people. The proposed list excludes items out of ignorance, or for convenience, without regard to the required legal standard permitting personal religious items. Public comment on the proposed regulations ends May 7, 2013 at 5:00p.m.

The last great struggle for religious freedom in this country may very well be in the California prisons. At this historic Conclave. Dr. Barbara McGraw will give a presentation on the history of abuse endured by Pagan inmates, and there will be a panel of Pagan chaplain volunteers to share their experiences. Each of you will be given a guide showing how you can help the people of your tradition within the scope of any budget or time availability. We ask that each tradition send one or more representatives to the Conclave.”

Details on location, time, and how to participate can be found at this Facebook event listing. The proposed changes to what inmate religious property will be allowed can be found, here. The rights of Pagan prisoners has been an ongoing area of coverage at The Wild Hunt, and we’ll have more on this as the story develops.

Houston Pagan Conference: The first Pagan conference in the Houston, Texas area in over 30 years is being held May 18th  at the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands. I reporter earlier on the fundraiser to get this event started.

“There has not been a conference for Pagans in the Houston area for over 30 years. Now is the time to change that. The Houston metropolitan area has a wonderful, rich, and vast Pagan community which should be celebrated. The Houston Pagan Conference was started to not only bring this community together but to also bring forth ideas and discussions on various aspects of faith and practice.”

Guest of honor will be author Raven Grimassi. In addition, OBOD Druid, CUUPs Vice President, and Patheos blogger, John Beckett will be in attendance, so I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about how the event went. Congratulations to the Houston-area Pagan community on getting organized!

In Other Community News:


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

A bright and ongoing success story in the Pagan community has been the utilization of crowd-funding sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter to collectively raise funds for important projects. Starhawk raised over $75,000 dollars to help fund a pitch-reel in order get a feature film based on her book “The Fifth Sacred Thing” made. Peter Dybing helped raise $30,000 dollars for Doctors Without Borders in the wake of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami. Pagan singer-songwriter SJ Tucker was amazed when a Kickstarter campaign for Tricky Pixie’s European tour more than doubled their initial goal in a matter of hours (and kept on growing). In addition, several smaller initiatives have managed to collectively raise thousands for Pagan projects: The readers of The Wild Hunt funded the proposed budget of this site for a year, Chicago-based Pagan/magical performance troupe Terra Mysterium raised funds for their new show “The Alembic,”and the Goddess community funded a documentary film in honor of Merlin Stone.

Crowdfunding sites allow an easy mechanism for fundraising in communities that may have social networks and organizations, but not the robust money-raising infrastructure of already-established mainstream institutions. This is a place modern Paganism is in today, and more and more of us are turning to these sites as a solution to our “money problem.” There are hundreds of thousands of Pagans out there, millions around the world, and they desire to see our projects and initiatives advance just as much as any other faith community. So here are some Pagan Fundraising Initiatives that you might want to contribute to.

Days Left in Parliament Fundraiser: There are only four days left in an urgent campaign to save the Parliament of the World’s Religions as it faces an unexpected one-time sudden financial crisis. I’ve written about this campaign before, and why Pagans should be invested in it, but now the deadline is looming and Pagan supporters are rallying to make sure this interfaith resource survives.

“We have 4 days left. Over the last two weeks, thanks to the generosity of many of you, the global Pagan community has raised $13,500 to help carry the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR) into the future and save it from immediate closure! For more than 20 years, the Parliament has welcomed and supported the global Pagan movement. If you want to see our work with the Parliament continue, we need your support NOW […] Here’s the good news: with the help of Pagans, $230,000 has been raised. The Parliament needs to raise $45,000 more — but we have only 4 days to do it.”

If you want to donate as part of the Pagan community, you can do so here. As I’ve said before, ensuring that the Parliament of the World’s Religions survives ultimately serves our needs, and we should strive to see that it does. I have no doubt that the global interfaith community will rally in time to save the Parliament, and I would like to make sure that Pagan involvement in this organization’s survival is a dominant theme.

Hexenfest 2013: In 2012 Sharon Knight and Winter of the band Pandemonaeon, along with fashion designer Anaar, held the very first Hexenfest, an attempt to build an arts festival in the Bay Area of California that appeals to fans of mythic music and dance. This year, the event will be held in Alameda, California, featuring performances from Arcane Dimension and Pandemonaeon, dance performances from Morpheus Ravenna and Anaar, a fashion show, and DJing by DJ Skellington.  However, since this is a new event still establishing itself, they need community support to make it happen. So they are throwing a quick IndieGoGo campaign to cover expenses beforehand.

“We are Sharon Knight, Winter, and Anaar. Two musicians and a fashion designer/ belly dancer inspired by myth, magick, and the realms of faerie. All three of us tour the country as performing artists. We found it strange that, although the Bay Area has a thriving Pagan community, it has produced relatively few music or art festivals. So we decided to create one, right here in our home town. Hexenfest is an annual festival of music, art and dance with roots in the Pagan community. At Hexenfest, you’ll find talented artists whose work reflects themes based in myth, legend, folkloric tradition, earth spirituality, fairytale and the like.  We’re drawn to the darkly exotic—the Forbidden Forest as opposed to the Enchanted Wood. “

Their goals are relatively modest, and you can get tickets and VIP treatment for donating. While there are many Pagan events that feature musical acts, and cultural events that are certainly Pagan-friendly, there are relatively few Pagan events that solely concentrate on music and art that originates from within our interconnected communities. This is an excellent opportunity for folks in the Bay Area to build something of lasting value. You can find out more at the event’s official Facebook page, or simply head to their IndieGoGo campaign site.

Houston Pagan Conference: Another regional-focused fundraiser comes from Texas where the Houston-based group Blackberry Circle are hoping to throw a Pagan conference “to not only bring this community together but to also bring forth ideas and discussions on various aspects of faith and practice.”

“This 2013 Pagan Conference is for those interested in the pagan approach to magic as an integral path to the divine. This will be the first pagan conference in the Gulf Coast area in over 30 years and is sponsored by Blackberry Circle, an eclectic Wiccan teaching coven located in Southeast Texas. Please donate to help ensure this conference is not only a success this year, but for years to come.”

For those who’ve wanted a Pagan conference experience like PantheaCon, ConVocation, or PaganiCon but have trouble leaving their geographic region, this seems like a good development for the Gulf Coast region. The planned event is to be held in May, further details are pending, though the organizers encourage people with questions to contact them. You can find the campaign at GoFundMe, where they hope to raise $3,500.

In Other Pagan Fundraising Initiatives News:

Those are the highlighted campaigns for this edition. Please send me word of your crowdfunding campaigns, and I may spotlight them on a future edition of this ongoing feature. Let’s all work together to promote important projects within our community, and destroy the notion that we can’t or won’t fund projects that are important to us. If you can’t donate, the best way to help is to share these campaigns to your social networks, exposing them to as many people as possible. Thanks for reading, and thank you for supporting Pagan community!

This past Friday I linked to a story, and subsequent follow-ups, concerning a Santa Muerte statue placed in a cemetery in San Benito, Texas. The San Benito News went to Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta, whom they called a “renowned expert on the occult,” for context and he said that the statue was “probably a spell to harm or kill someone.”  This prompted a response from Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” who said that there was no evidence that this statue was placed there to harm or kill anyone. Ultimately, someone went and destroyed the statue before authorities could remove it, and I dinged the reporters for going with the “death spell” angle without seeking alternate perspectives. 

Seen on Wednesday is all that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

All that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

“I think there’s a lesson here, primarily for the journalists who went with the “death spell” angle without finding a second opinion.”

Since then, San Benito News Managing Editor Michael Rodriguez has publicly and privately defended his paper’s coverage, sending The Wild Hunt (and I assume others) an explanation for why they only got one source, and why he trusted Dr. Zavaleta’s input. Quote: “If there are those who would discredit Dr. Zavaleta’s conclusions based on his religious practice, then by the same token I should dismiss their remarks as biased […] the original article was not an attempt to spark an argument about religious freedoms but merely to present the concerns of a community, the actions of a city administration in response to such concerns, and the opinion of a doctor/professor/published author with expertise in this field.”

The paper then went on to do the right thing (in my opinion) and interview both Dr. Zavaleta and Dr. Chesnut about the statue, its purpose, and how it should have been dealt with.

Dr. Chestnut: The destruction of the statue was most likely perpetrated by an individual or group who had seen the media coverage featuring a local anthropologist who asserted that the effigy had been placed in the cemetery as part of a black magic hex intended to kill someone. I seriously doubt that it was the owner of the statue who destroyed it, but without the presence of cameras in the cemetery we can’t be certain. I imagine the perpetrator(s) smashed the effigy instead of burning it because they were in a hurry. You would need to ask the anthropologist why he specifically recommended burning the image, but I would imagine he did because of the historical use of fire in Christianity as an agent of destructive purification. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, had “heretics” and “witches” burned at the stake on a regular basis.

Dr. Zavaleta: There are no accidents or haphazard events in this world of U.S.-Mexico witchcraft (brujeria). Therefore the statue was placed in the cemetery deliberately and for a specific act of witchcraft. I doubt that its destruction could ever be a random act. First of all it was not committed by the person who put it there in the first place. That is out of the question. Secondly, no passerby destroyed it either. The most probable explanation for its destruction is by a person of religious faith who felt it so offensive that they had to take action. Within the context of the believer, the fact that the statue was not burned but broken up does not in any way negate the effect, in other words it’s still active. Just as it was created ritually it would have to be destroyed by fire ritually in order to nullify its intended effect.”

At this point I’d like to add a few things, first, I’d like to commend Michael Rodriguez for actually being responsive and communicating with me privately, and for posting an explanation/defense of his paper’s reporting. I don’t necessarily agree with his reasoning, or his conclusions, but I admire the fact that he took our concerns seriously enough to respond. Most papers don’t bother, and being accountable to your audience is good journalism. Secondly, I’d like to talk briefly about Dr. Zavaleta and “renowned” occult experts.

I don’t doubt that Dr. Zavaleta is well-educated, nor do I doubt that he’s made a study of Brujeria. Let’s accept that right off that bat. However, when I read that someone is a “renowned expert on the occult” and that he has, quote, “aided authorities from all over the country in identifying and understanding ritualistic crimes,” alarm bells go off. First off, most “occult experts” aren’t actually experts in all forms of the occult (a broad term indeed), and many of them have a religio-political agenda. Our community (and many of our allies) have had years of trouble from “occult experts” who misrepresent occult beliefs, and Pagan faiths, viewing everything through a single lens of interpretation. Often, this lens will be informed by a conservative Christian worldview, and driven by a sensationalist idea of what “magic” and “ritual” are. One “occult expert” helped put three innocent teenagers in prison for nearly twenty years.

Finally, Dr. Zavaleta wasn’t simply acting as a scholar, offering conjecture based on his research. He made assertions that came from his role as an “occult expert” and that should have set off red flags for any journalist covering minority religions in America, especially minority religions that utilize magic.

“Someone, a man or woman, is doing witchcraft for pay,” Zavaleta said. “Somebody has paid the witch; they don’t do it for free and it (witchcraft) could easily go for a couple thousand dollars. So it definitely needs to be removed. The city should remove it, and that should be the end of it.” Actually, Zavaleta said the best course of action may even be to burn the sculpture.

Scholars don’t tell you to burn a sculpture, they don’t make definitive statements about the origin of the statue without verifying it. “Occult experts” with agendas do that. This is why I think the initial story needed more than one perspective, and why I’m glad they went and published a follow-up.

The Wild Hunt is partially an exercise in advocacy journalism. I make no bones about the fact that I have a pro-Pagan point of view, but papers that want to service an entire town, or city, can’t afford such a bias. This time, the assertions about “death spells” led someone to smash the Santa Muerte statue instead of letting the authorities deal with it, but next time it could lead to something worse. It could lead to accusations towards a community member, it could lead to mistrust and fear, and it could lead to the wrong people getting accused of a crime. So I hope the next time something ritualistic, something outside the ordinary happens, local journalists reach further afield for everyone’s sake.

ADDENDUM: Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut weighs in on this story at The Huffington Post. Quote: “Given the depiction of the folk saint by the media, at times reinforced by my fellow academics, it is not surprising that the presence of her Grim Reapress image in the cemetery quickly ignited a firestorm of controversy. For those in San Benito who already viewed the Bony Lady (one of her common monikers) as malevolent the unsubstantiated allegation of murderous sorcery made by a well-known anthropologist in the region simply reinforced their opinion and apparently emboldened at least one to deliver a mortal blow to Saint Death in the graveyard.”