Archives For Texas

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.

  • NPR does a Samhain-inspired spotlight on New York City’s Lady Rhea, owner of Magickal Realms in the Bronx, and a spiritual mother to many influential Pagans, including Phyllis Curott. Quote: “I am a Wiccan high priestess and Witch queen. My age, I’ve been in the craft since ’73. I have a lot of coven people and people who are attached to me over the last years, so one of them coined me Pagan Mother. Call them up and I’ll say hello, are you listening? This is Pagan Mother, call me.” For more in this series, check out Faith in the Five Boroughs.
  • God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but did you know that by simply hoarding rose quartz or buying a lucky cat statue you can instantly block him? It’s true according to Fr. Jose Francisco Syquia: “When paganism and the occult contaminate the faith, the relationship with God is blocked and we can end up saying to ourselves that God is not interested in us, personally and as a nation [not knowing that] His blessings and protection… would not be able to fully enter into our lives.” So remember, God’s blessing, kinda easy to block (darn free will).
  • The Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom has made it illegal to accuse a child of witchcraft,though activists point out that Christian churches will also have to be reigned in if real changes are to be made in this problem. Quote:  “But some say churches in the impoverished state where unemployment is rampant, must also be reigned in. Some activists cite the churches as the source of the belief that children are sorcerers or witches.” For more on this problem, visit  Stepping Stones Nigeria, an organization that is fighting against the branding of children as witches.
  • Meanwhile, four women were arrested for practicing witchcraft in the United Arab Emirates. According to a news report they were caught in the midst of practicing sorcery, and that “a large number of substances and herbs including detergents and bodily fluids” were confiscated. Quote: “Colonel Salem Sultan Al Darmaki, Director of the Criminal Investigation Department at Ras Al Khaimah police, said that the case details date back to when they received information from an Arab lady reporting that four women were practicing sorcery from their flat.” Lucky for them the UAE doesn’t kill women for sorcery like Saudi Arabia does, but it still presents a chilling portrait of what fundamentalism run amuck looks like.

INDIA TREES PAINTING

  • Artists in the Indian state of Bihar are painting trees and bushes with images of Hindu deities in hopes it will stop locals from cutting them down. Forest cover for the state is under 7%, which worsens effects of floods and extreme weather.  Quote: “The unusual campaign, using coats of paint and brushes, has been launched in Madhubani, a northern Bihar district known for its religious and cultural awareness, resulting in hundreds of otherwise untended roadside trees covered in elaborate artwork. Artists are depicting the moods of deities, scenes from Hindu classics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, or an imaginary scene showing an elderly woman restraining a man coming with an axe to cut trees.” 
  • Amy Wilentz, author of the forthcoming “Farewell, Fred Voodoo,” gives some perspective on zombies in the New York Times. Quote: “There are many reasons the zombie, sprung from the colonial slave economy, is returning now to haunt us. Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.” This is a seriously great read – don’t miss it.
  • Salem Witch Richard Ravish, who passed away earlier this year, is remembered by his friends, loved ones, and co-religionists, during the annual walk to Gallows Hill in Salem. Quote: “I am doing a widow’s walk,” Ravish’s wife of 31 years said before the ceremony. “I’ve never done it before. This is the first year that the high priest … my partner, is not here to walk the circle with me. So I want to walk the circle round in a special walk.”
  • Science thinks we all might be a little bit psychic, albeit not in the bending spoons, having visions, sense. Quote: “What the studies measured was physiological activity—e.g., heart rate or skin conductance—in participants who, for instance, might have been shown a series of images, some harmless and others frightening. Using computer programs and statistical techniques, experimenters have found that, even before being shown a troubling image, participants sometimes display physiological changes —a faster heart rate, for example—of the kind that would be expected only after seeing the image, and not just because the subjects know a scary snake picture is coming sooner or later.” 
  • Reasons why I’m glad to be a Pagan: Christian alternatives to Halloween. Plus, here’s some bonus Halloween season “exwitch” stuff, if you’re into that.
  • Samhain at the joint Lackland military base: “Cammen is among a curious multiplication of Wiccans at Lackland. Hundreds of basic military trainees have chosen to study witchcraft at the base. “When we come over here on a Sunday, often times, there are 300 to 400 (trainees),” Tony Gatlin said.”
  •  Texas schools love Jesus, and litigation. Imagine how the handful of non-Christian students feel when Christian prayers are blasted throughout the school on their speaker system. Do you think they feel empowered to share their own faith, or are they instead pushed deeper into the “broom closet”? This is why a strong separation of church and state is necessary.

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.

On April 30th a very rare, non-albino, white buffalo calf was found dead, slaughtered by unknown individuals. The calf’s mother was also killed, poisoned by whoever killed the calf. The calf, Lightning Medicine Cloud, born at the Lakota Ranch in Greenville Texas, was considered sacred, and a reward has been offered for information leading to the capture of the perpetrators.

Lightning Medicine Cloud

Lightning Medicine Cloud

“There’s now a $45,000 reward for information leading to those responsible for the death of a white buffalo, “considered sacred by its Lakota Sioux owner,” and its mother near Greenville, Texas, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Crime Time blog. The size of the reward has gone up ninefold in recent days and is likely headed higher, the blog adds. Donations have been coming in from around the nation.”

White buffalo are sacred in several Native American religions, and their killing can trigger outrage in Indian Country, even though breeding programs and knowledge of genetics makes them easier to create. Lightning Medicine Cloud was especially rare because the calf was naturally occurring, a one-in-ten-million event. At the Lakota Ranch’s website, an information page tries to convey the spiritual importance of a buffalo calf like Lightning Medicine Cloud.

The Native Americans see the birth of a white buffalo calf as the most significant of prophetic signs, equivalent to the weeping statues, bleeding icons, and crosses of light that are becoming prevalent within the Christian churches today. Where the Christian faithful who visit these signs see them as a renewal of God’s ongoing relationship with humanity, so do the Native Americans see the white buffalo calf as the sign to begin life’s sacred hoop.

“The arrival of the white buffalo is like the second coming of Christ,” says Floyd Hand Looks For Buffalo, an Oglala Medicine Man from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. “It will bring about purity of mind, body, and spirit and ;unify all nations—black, red, yellow, and white.” He sees the birth of a white calf as an omen because they happen in the most unexpected places and often among the poorest people in the nation. The birth of the sacred white buffalo provides those within the Native American community with a sense of hope and an indication that good times are to come.

What happens when an omen of unity and prosperity is slaughtered?  Lakota Buffalo Ranch owner Arby Little Soldier, a descendant of Sitting Bull, says that his death would strengthen, not weaken, the calf’s purpose.

“He was the hope of all nations,” he said. “You have taken the inner spirituality. You tried to stop what we’re bringing back to ya’ll, but you just opened the doors to release the message to all people.”

We as a people crave stories that seem mythic, constantly searching for sign, omens, and portents in our daily lives. So it isn’t too unexpected that the killing of Lightning Medicine Cloud would spark a response in the mainstream media. The question now is what do we do now that attention is focused on this incident? I would argue that if you are horrified by this action, if you felt some kinship and understanding as to the importance of this animal, then you should funnel that outrage and sadness into paying more ongoing attention to Native American and indigenous issues here in America, and worldwide. Too often, the concerns and struggles in Indian Country are ignored, a specialty news item covered only on specialty news sites. If we are to help bring about the unity promised by Lightning Medicine Cloud, then the practice of solidarity might be a good start.

For example, we could examine the “gutting” of environmental review in Canada, a move opposed by Canadian aboriginals and environmentalists. We could ask why the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives opposes Native American protections in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization bill (even though 1 in 3 Native women will be raped during their lives and 2 in 5 women in Native communities will suffer domestic violence), or why the simple question of restoration of lands is regularly blown out of proportion every time it’s mentioned. Yet, for many of us, the connection isn’t there between our concern for the slaughter of a white buffalo calf, and the struggles of the peoples, the tribal nations, from where the context to understand that creature’s sacredness originates.

I would ask that anyone who wants to “do something,” who searched for some action to take, start with educating themselves on Native issues. Read sites like Indianz.com, News From Indian Country, and  the Indian Country Today Media Network. Listen to shows like Native America Calling, or  read blogs like Turtle Talk and First Peoples. If we Pagans would like to form alliances with practitioners of Native religions on issues of common concern, we should start by understanding what issues concern them. The death of Lightning Medicine Cloud, tragic as it is, presents an opportunity, a door we can open, towards deepening our understanding, and becoming the allies we imagine ourselves to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fox affiliate in Houston, Texas reports on the case of Sylvia Ruiz, a mother of three who’s currently in divorce proceedings, and is having custody of her children challenged on religious grounds.

Sylvia Ruiz

Sylvia Ruiz

“Silvia accuses family court of scrutinizing her more because of her religious choice. That’s why, without notice, she fired her attorney on the spot, asked Judge Robert Newey to recuse himself, and tried to fire her children’s attorney. “I’ve been a good mother and they have nothing to put on me, some spot on my name as a mother,” she said. […]  Sylvia has a Wiccan shop and make-shift temple in the back of their Spring Branch home. Martin took us inside and there were pentagrams, oils, powders, bones and an assortment of items I couldn’t describe. “Crazy people come here to see her and my kids are here and that’s what I don’t like,” he said.”

Martin Ruiz says that Sylvia conducts nude rituals, and that he doesn’t want his children exposed to that. Sylvia, in turn, accuses Martin of being an absentee parent who has barely spent any time with his family. You can watch the entire video report, embedded below.

I’ve written in depth about the tendency for one’s Pagan religion being used against a parent in custody cases, painting Wicca and other faiths as exotic and dangerous belief systems that might corrupt young children. The mere accusation of adherence to Wicca or modern Paganism is sometimes enough to affect a custody case. In my interview last year with Texas resident Jen Lepp, founder of the Pagan-owned Internet hosting company DrakNet (now owned by A Small Orange), she made it clear that the company’s move to “de-Pagan” itself came because of pressures resulting from a custody case.

“The fourth year I owned DrakNet, my husband and I got a divorce, and the following year (for a variety of reasons I won’t go into), we entered into a highly acrimonious custody battle. The suit stated outright in it’s initial filing that the basis was the fact that I was Pagan. I hired an attorney who dismissed it as a concern, stating my religion could not be used against me. While I have no doubt the attorney believed that when he told me, he was wrong and his objection was overruled. The county this lawsuit was in was extremely right-leaning, and the Judge in the case relieved me of custody temporarily while my beliefs and their affect on my ability to parent was investigated. Those I knew in the community did offer to rush to my defense, have protests on the courthouse lawn, call the press, and make the case into a circus, but I strongly felt then, as I do now, that a child cannot choose to be at the center of a public controversy. Though I was very, very careful in my answers not to establish any precedent or disclaim or lie about anything I was in the final trial, once I fought back and defended myself and won, I chose not to tempt fate a second time and I left Paganism so that it could not be used against me again.”

Lepp’s experience is in no way unique, and Pagan parents heading back into the closet for the benefit of their children has become a widely acknowledged phenomenon in our interlocking communities. While there have been some promising rulings recently on the issue of religion in custody cases, Pagan parents still often face an uphill struggle when one parent decides to make an issue of their beliefs, resulting in damaging fights that can last years. It’s a tactic that’s even been tried on the rich and famous, though not with the desired results.

The standard for awarding custody due to religion has to rely on obvious religiously-motivated abuse and harm that can be proven, not ominous intimations of ritual “nudity” or strange altars. The courts should not be in the business of deciding what religion is better for a child in custody cases if no abuse or mistreatment can be proven. In addition to fighting for stronger legal precedents to prevent judicial value judgments, other responses to the problem of parents using religion against each other in custody battles is increased mandatory mediation sessions, and giving greater agency to the children in these cases. A cocktail of all three could provide a good inoculation against religious discrimination in the courtroom. In the meantime, many Pagans, and other adherents to minority religions, still worry about revealing too much about their faith, lest it be used against them should a marriage fall apart. If you are a Pagan parent worried about custody, I suggest contacting the Lady Liberty League for help and advice. For those who can speak out, becoming more visible and understood is key in demolishing stereotypes about our faiths.

Finally, sunlight in these cases can be a good disinfectant. The more public scrutiny given to custody cases where Pagan religion is being used as a factor, the less likely it is a judge might decide to insert his personal prejudices. I’ll keep you appraised on any updates on this case, as will PNC-Texas, who are now following this story.

The United States has a strong ethic of not interfering with the internal affairs of religious organizations. The recent unanimous Supreme Court decision affirming the right of “ministerial exception” sent a clear signal that our government is limited in what in can demand or regulate. In America, religious institutions aren’t taxed, and our constitution enshrines a secular ethic that prevents one faith being raised up above any other. However, freedom of religion does not place clergy and religious leaders above the law, individuals have been imprisoned when their teachings have led to the abuse or deaths of others. Now, the question is if the United States should act to keep a religious leader accused of encouraging the abuse, and in some cases death, of children from entering our country. In March, Nigerian Christian leader Helen Ukpabio is planning a trip to the United States to engage in a “Marathon Deliverance” session in Texas. The International Humanist and Ethical Union claims that Ukpabio “uses her sermons, teachings and prophetic declarations to incite hatred, intolerance and persecution of alleged witches and wizards.”

“Ukpabio claims to be an ex-witch, initiated while she was a member of another local church, the Brotherhood of Cross and Star. She later founded the Liberty Gospel Church to fulfill her ‘anointed mission’ of delivering people from witchcraft attack. Ukpabio organizes deliverance sessions where she identifies and exorcizes people, mainly children, of witchcraft. Headquartered in Calabar in Southern Nigeria, the Liberty Gospel Church has grown to be a witch hunting church with branches in Nigeria and overseas.”

Ukpabio’s teachings were profiled in the documentary “Saving Africa’s Witch Children,” a ministry that includes a propaganda film, “End of the Wicked,” and a book entitled “Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft,” materials that are taken very seriously by many Nigerians, and is claimed to have directly led to the torture and abuse of “witch” children. When confronted with these allegations by the New York Times during her last visit to America, Ukpabio claimed the film was mere fantasy, and that the accusations against her were fueled by racism.

“Do you thinkHarry Potteris real?” Ms. Ukpabio asked me angrily, in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express where she was staying. “It is only because I am African,” she said, that people who understand that J. K. Rowling writes fiction would take literally Ms. Ukpabio’s filmic depictions of possessed children, gathering by moonlight to devour human flesh. […]  Ms. Ukpabio argued that “Saving Africa’s Witch Children” exaggerates or invents the problem of child abandonment. Asked how she could be so sure, she said, “because I am an African!” In Africa, she said, “family ties are too strong to have a child on the street.”

Despite these claims of “exaggeration”, Nigeria has since outlawed accusing a child of witchcraft. A law challenged by Ukpabio, who tried to sue the Akwa Ibom state government, local police, and relief charities for damages and an exemption from the law. Failing in that initiative, her followers have used the press to attack the organizations that seek to help children accused of witchcraft. As the New York Times so aptly puts it: “In the name of religious freedom, Ms. Ukpabio seeks a gag order on anyone who disagrees with her.” Now she seeks to return to America again, to no doubt rake in donations from her American followers and admirers.

I’ve written about Ukpabio several times at this blog, a prominent figure in a gruesome business of churches naming and “curing” witchcraft in children. A phenomenon that Western churches have much to answer for. This time, Ukpabio’s visit is seeming to inspire some coordinated opposition. Humanitarian activist Michael Mungai at HuffPo says there should be protests, which are now being organized by Staise Gonzalez in Houston against Ukpabio’s visit.

Her critics, such as Staise Gonzalez, say that once children are identified as witches, especially in areas where people believe in sorcery, they are tortured and sometimes killed. “These suspected witches have been treated in brutal and inhumane ways,” says Gonzalez, who is organizing 12 days of protest to correspond with Ukpabio’s appearance, scheduled from March 14 to March 25. “Abandoned, isolated and otherwise ostracized from the community, taken to the forest and slaughtered, disgraced publicly, bathed in acid, poisoned, buried alive, chained and tortured in churches in order to extract confession, and murdered,” she says.

A Facebook page, Stand Against Helen Ukpabio, has also been created. Meanwhile, back in Nigeria, children are still being branded as witches, and a judicial commission on witchcraft accusations in Nigeria is demanding that she appear and testify before it. A warrant for her arrest may be issued if she ignores those summons. Considering the circumstances, and the mountain of evidence that Ukpabio is engaged the naming of child witches, and her defiant stance to any and all accusations of wrongdoing, is it in the best interests of our State Department to allow her a visa? A petition on Change.org argues that Ukpabio should be denied entry.

“US Department of State needs to be urged to do the right thing and deny Helen Ukpabio’s entry into the United States on grounds of her human rights violations.”

PZ Myers adds that “this evil, criminal woman ought to be met at the airport and turned right around, if not sent off to trial for crimes against humanity.” Will the State Department acknowledge Ukpabio’s witch-hunting as a crime against humanity and deny her entry? I can only imagine that a concerted effort to bring the matter to their attention may have some effect. I will try to contact them to see if they have an official stance or response to the charges against Ukpabio.

Those who would accuse children of witchcraft have no place in our society, and should not be feted or encouraged by welcoming them to our shores. The cures and blessings peddled by Ukpabio, and those like her, should face intense scrutiny, and not allowed the status of an United States victory lap.  For those who want to help the witch-children of Nigeria, Stepping Stones Nigeria is a good place to start.

For those who have attended a military funeral in the United States, or even watched one on television, you know there’s certain traditional ceremonial actions taken. The folding and presentation of the flag, the firing of a 3-volley salute, and the playing of Taps are all standard. In addition to these standard elements, there are several volunteer support and advocacy groups who often provide additional services to the family of the bereaved. Three of those organizations, The National Memorial Ladies, The American Legion, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars are all now embroiled in a controversy raging in Texas over what kinds of religious speech are allowed, without permission, at military funerals. Local branches of those organizations, along with a local pastor, are currently litigating against Department of Veteran’s Affairs officials at the Houston National Cemetery for allegedly “banning” mention of God and Jesus at military services.

Pagan headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.

The lawsuit filed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4, the American Legion Post 586 and the National Memorial Ladies says VA officials barred prayer and religious speech in burials at the Houston cemetery unless families submit a specific prayer or message in writing to the cemetery’s director. The lawsuit also accuses VA officials of not allowing them to use religious words such as “God” or “Jesus.” […]  Fred Hinrichs, one of the attorneys for the VA, denied there was religious discrimination or limits on people saying “God” or “Jesus” at soldiers’ funerals in Houston or anywhere around the country. “The VA wants to do what the family wants,” he said. “If the family wants a (religious) recitation read, they provide it for somebody to read it.”

The case is being represented by the conservative Christian Liberty Institute, who have set up a special advocacy website called “Don’t Tear Us Down” that accuses “Obama administration-backed officials” of making it so that “Jesus is not welcome at gravesides.” These accusations are being repeated by Texas politicians, who are demanding a probe into the allegations.

“The Obama administration continues to try to prevent the word ‘God’ from being used at the funerals of our heroes,” said. Rep. John Culberson […] “It’s unacceptable and I’m going to put a stop to it as fast as humanly possible,” Culberson told Fox News Radio.

However, this case of government trampling the rights of Christians takes on a different hue once you ask veterans and soldiers who aren’t Christian about the situation. Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, says that what’s really happening is that these groups are “promoting special Christian privilege in government activities.”

“Imagine you are at a funeral for a fallen veteran, possibly your husband or wife or uncle, and cemetery volunteers begin publicly praying to their god despite the fact that your family doesn’t share their beliefs. […] The nation remembers Richard Tillman, who jumped on stage to stand up for his brother Pat Tillman’s wishes.  The Veterans Affairs Cemetery Administration protects the family when it restricts the religious speech of volunteers, and volunteers can opt out of funerals where the family has not requested a religious service consistent with the religious interests of the volunteer.  Volunteers are given access to funerals to support the family, not to promote personal religious beliefs.”

In another editorial atheist and soldier Kathleen Johnson notes that “success” by these politicians and advocacy organizations could mean “that several Christian groups would have a central part in the funerals of potentially every military veteran. Atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim veterans being buried in Texas: this means you!”

My funeral will not be religious. Do I not deserve respect? Does the Constitution I fought for not deserve respect? Nothing is anti-religious about this policy. You are actually anti-consent and anti-permission slip. But that wont sell, will it?

Alex DiBranco at Alternet draws parallels between tactics in this curent fight and the “War on Christmas” that’s resurrected every Winter by the usual collection of culture warriors. These activists, in DiBranco’s view, are “selling it as discrimination against them and infringement on their religious rights, without any consideration for non-Christian beliefs.”

“Christian groups that want to push a religious agenda have figured out that an effective way to do so is by pretending to be the victim and heading off non-Christians’ complaints of discrimination by capturing that narrative first. And as American Atheist VP Kathleen Johnson indicated — this works. Once people buy into the narrative and feel the knee-jerk reaction that Christians are being wronged, it makes it more difficult to bring them around to recognizing the true victims. It’s a topsy-turvy situation — and a testament to the Religious Rights’ prowess at narrative manipulation — when the strangers imposing unwanted religious ceremonies succeed in presenting themselves as the wronged party.”

It all comes down, as Jason Torpy noted, to Christian privilege. When Christianity, or even ceremonial Deism, isn’t the default, it is seen as an infringement of rights, or oppression and discrimination against Christians. This situation all but forces non-Christians of all stripes to make sure they opt-out of this default, and even then they may not get what they want. Where are these bold defenders of religious liberty when military Pagans, who have served and died for this country, want to have their sacrifices properly honored? Instead of fighting to see that all religious and philosophical views held by military personnel and their families are protected and acknowledged, they mock and demean the needs of non-Christians who serve. By fighting to preserve a Christian “default” these groups are inflicting the very hurt they claim is to too much for any Christian family to bear, to make their religious preferences known. Our thanks should go out to the VA for working to protect “veterans’ families’ rights to pray however they choose at our national cemeteries,” and this campaign should be seen for what it is, a move to enshrine a certain kind of religiosity at military services whether asked for or not.

This weekend Covenant of The Goddess, one of the largest and oldest Witch and Wiccan associations, held their 2011 Grand Council. This year the council, part of the larger yearly event known as MerryMeet, took place in Irving Texas and was hosted by the Texas Local Council (click here to download an audio interview with Chuck Peart of COG’s Texas Local Council). In a historic first for this national Witchcraft organization, their traditional opening invocation featured an interfaith blessing with Tatiana Androsov, Russian Orthodox, of the Thanks-Giving Foundation, Bill Matthews, Methodist, of the Dallas Peace Center, and Revathi Srinath, Hindu, of the Sanatana Dharma Foundation. Speaking with Greg Harder of the Pagan Newswire Collective COG First Officer Peter Dybing called the invocation “a beautiful testament to the work our interfaith representatives have been doing over the years” (Click here to download the audio interview with First Officer Peter Dybing).

“Today we saw an example of other faiths blessing the work of Witches on a national level and that is a beautiful thing […] I found it a very touching moment and I think it’s historic.” – COG First Officer Peter Dybing

MerryMeet is a mini-convention complete with vendors and presentations, but one built around a business meeting. The Grand Council, which is run on a consensus basis, is where the organization perpetuates itself and makes all major decisions for the coming year. This year, in an initiative spearheaded by Rachael Watcher, COG’s National Public Information Officer, Internet conferencing technologies were used so members outside of Texas could observe, listen, and ask questions during deliberations.

A view of the Grand Council meeting space.

“What was new this year was the inclusion of Adobe Connect, an on line meeting room which allowed the members of the Covenant who were unable to attend physically to join the meeting through this virtual space. As this year was the first time for such an experiment, the members who joined us on line were not able to participate in a total give and take but were, in fact allowed to listen and chat among themselves asking questions of myself and Daryl Fuller who were manning the two meeting computers that were hosting the meeting space within the physical space of the meeting.  We had between 10 and 16 folks who were logged on for the entire time of the meeting  from opening to closing and the enthusiasm was “over  the moon” as one participant, who had not been able to participate for some years due to physical disabilities, stated.”

The initiative was so successful that Chamisa Local Council, who is hosting the 2012 Grand Council, is looking into expanding the experience so members can participate more fully during the meeting.

Finally, a new slate of officers for COG’s national governing board was elected, and the new First Officer/President, who will guide the organization for at least the next year starting on Samhain 2011, is COG member Ginger Wages (aka Hawk). Wages is part of Dogwood Local Council, which serves Witches and Wiccans in Georgia and Alabama, and has acted as an outspoken voice for Pagan rights for many years. Wages will replace Peter Dybing, who has been a dynamic force for COG, and the wider Pagan community, bringing much-needed energy and passion to the position. In a short interview, Wages talks about her vision as First Officer for the coming year (click here to download the audio interview with First Officer-elect Ginger Wages).

The COG board-elect. F.O.-elect Ginger Wages is second-row third from left.

“[Peter Dybing] set a precedent for getting out into the community and seeing COG people face-to-face, I plan to continue that. […] Interfaith is probably the thing that I really put at the top of the list for COG, and I really want to keep that supported, and hopefully give it even more support. […] I plan to work with the wonderful people in this organization to help us keep moving forward. We’ve been around a long, long time and its the job of everyone in this organization to make sure we’re still here thirty years from now.”

Peter Dybing will remain as Emeritus First Officer through 2012. When asked about a possible leadership shift, Dybing said that “change is good” and that if there’s a new First Officer “that would be great for this year.” Dybing also shared his plans to travel more extensively in 2012, visiting many Pagan festivals and doing more outreach on behalf of COG. Also of note is that longtime COG member and Interfaith Representative Don Frew will be joining Rachael Watcher as co-National Public Information Officer in 2012. Both Frew and Watcher are heavily involved in COG’s interfaith activities, and will no doubt compliment Wages in her desire to place more emphasis on interfaith work.

I wish Ginger Wages good luck in her new leadership role, and look forward to what the COG Board will achieve during her tenure. I’d also like to thank COG NPIO Rachael Watcher and Pagan Newswire Collective correspondent Greg Harder for gathering the interviews, quotes, and pictures for this article.

Today’s the day! Texas Governor Rick Perry’s massive prayer rally “The Response” is now underway, and you can watch the multi-hour conservative Christian extravaganza via streaming video (if you’re into that sort of thing). They are even live-tweeting the event.

"His agenda is not a political agenda, His agenda is a salvation agenda." Governor Rick Perry speaking at #TheResponse
@theresponseusa
The Response

I have weighed in on this event before, and on the troubling inclusion of leaders from the anti-Pagan New Apostolic Reformation (among others). Despite criticisms that this a (conservative) Christians-only affair that some feel transgresses church-state boundariesEric Bearse, former speechwriter and Director of Communications for Rick Perry, now official spokesman for “The Response,” says that the event is inclusive and that non-Christians are “excluding themselves” if they don’t attend (of course he also said that a main goal of the event is to bring people to Christianity, so you can forgive us non-Christians for excluding ourselves).

As the event approached, several news outlets, pundits, and advocacy organizations rushed to have their say before things got underway. Paul Burka shared eight things you ought to know about Rick Perry (“Perry is a hard man. He is the kind of politician who would rather be feared than loved—or respected.”), Bill Leonard at the Associated Baptist Press wondered if Christianity is “so needy, so limited in vision that it requires political privilege to undergird its message,” Paul Harvey at the Religion in American History blog called the event “egregiously sectarian and transparently partisan, “ and Paul Horwitz at the New York Times noted that by “emphasizing creeds, not deeds, Mr. Perry encourages the very divisions that [Abraham] Lincoln believed lay at the root of America’s ills.” You can also find news reports from the New York Times and the Associated Press regarding Rick Perry and “The Response.”

If watching hours of streaming Christian-oriented video isn’t your thing, you can check in on Houston Chronicle religion reporter Kate Shellnutt’s live-blog of the event for key details, or swing by Right Wing Watch now and then, as they are already excerpting politically-charged bits from the live stream. I’ll be checking in with the aftermath, to see what this event may (or may not) signal for religious minorities in the United States.

I don’t know how Right Wing Watch digs this stuff up, but gods bless ’em for it. Below is a video of controversial pastor John Hagee, an endorser of  upcoming prayer event The Response, and a man potential presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry has “worked to cultivate” a relationship with.

Here’s the entire uncut sermon.

As scrutiny of The Response grows, organizers seem to be getting a little nervous. Is that why the link to the endorsers page has disappeared from the website? Back in 2008 John Hagee was too extreme for John McCain, but Dallas Morning News religion reporter Wayne Slater says that you shouldn’t “expect Rick Perry to do the same if he runs.” If so, we’ll have a Republican candidate who proudly accepts the endorsement of pastor who rejects pluralism and blames “paganism” for society’s ills.

I’ll be writing a special opinion piece about this for The Washington Post this week. I’ll let you know when it’s up.

My latest response at the Washington Post’s On Faith site is now up.

Here’s this week’s panel question:

Texas Governor, and possible GOP presidential candidate, Rick Perry has endorsed ‘The Response’ a prayer event scheduled for August 6 in Texas. “As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy,” Perry wrote on the event’s official Web site. Perry’s critics are concerned about his distinctly Christian approach to public prayer as well as his association, through ‘The Response,’ with several problematic pastors, among them John Hagee, controversial for his comments on Israel, the Roman Catholic Church and Islam, and C. Peter Wagner, who has suggested that the Catholic veneration of saints is an evil practice.Should politicians be judged by the religious company they keep?

Here’s an excerpt from my response:

We would be foolish to ignore how a politician’s religious beliefs, and which religious figures they rely on for support, shapes their policy decisions. It is especially dangerous for religious minorities who have been rhetorical and practical targets of politically active conservative Christian leaders to pretend that people like Rick Perry won’t be beholding to them should he run for, and subsequently become, president. Due to the unique “bully pulpit” power possessed by our Commander in Chief even comments made before a politician becomes president can later be interpreted into policy by his administration. There is a strong indication this happened during the presidency of George W. Bush, who famously remarked in 1999 that “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion, and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it.” In this case “it” was allowing Pagan soldiers to freely practice their religion at Fort Hood in Texas, but nearly a decade later the Washington Post reported on a case involving grave markers for fallen Pagan soldiers where Barry Lynn of Americans United said that discovery documents showed “references to Bush’s remarks … in memos and e-mails within the VA.” In Lynn’s opinion “the president’s wishes were interpreted at a pretty high level.” In short, rhetoric, especially when you go on to lead the world’s most powerful nation, does matter, as does the rhetoric of those who have played king-maker during the election.

I hope you’ll head over to the site and read my full response, and the other panelist responses, and share your thoughts.