Archives For Utah

Is the Christian Cross a “secular symbol of death”? That was the assertion of U.S. District Judge David Sam back in 2007 regarding a series of metal crosses along the Utah highway to honor state highway patrol officers who died in the line of duty. This ruling was appealed in 2008, with support from Americans United, the Hindu American Foundation, The Interfaith Alliance, the Union for Reform Judaism, and others. Officials contended that since the cross is secular, not religious, it would being used regardless of the personal religious persuasion of the fallen officer. So atheist, Mormon, Pagan, Jewish or Hindu cops would all get the giant “non-religious” cross as a memorial. However, yesterday, a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that these crosses were not “secular” and were in fact, as they have always been, symbols of the Christian faith.

“We hold that these memorials have the impermissible effect of conveying to the reasonable observer the message that the state prefers or otherwise endorses a certain religion,” concluded the Denver, Colorado-based court. The state of Utah and a private trooper association have the option of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Not a secular symbol of death.

Not a secular symbol of death.

This ruling is the latest salvo in the ongoing battles over whether a Christian cross on public lands can ever be secular in orientation. The Supreme Court of the United States recently decided that in certain instances, specifically a eight-foot Christian cross WWI memorial situated on public lands in California’s Mojave National Preserve, it could.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, spoke in broad terms. Although the cross is “a Christian symbol,” said Kennedy, it was not placed on sunrise rock in the Mojave Desert to send “a Christian message.” Nor was it placed there to put a government “imprimatur on a particular creed.”

I’ve long argued that neither tradition, popularity, or ubiquity fully erases a religious symbol’s sectarian nature.

“The idea that the cross is “secular” ties into the larger notion that Christian religious expression and tradition, due to its size and ubiquity, is “normal” and ultimately beneficial. The corollary is that non-Christian religious expressions or traditions are “abnormal” and considered suspect. But popularity and tradition doesn’t remove religious context from a religious symbol, instead it subtly reinforces that faith’s dominance and “right” to utter ubiquity. If the cross was truly secular, we wouldn’t have over 40 different emblems of belief for military markers and headstones, nor would minority religions fight to have their own symbols added to that list.

There is no “secular symbol of death”, any more than there is a “secular symbol of life”, because a truly secular culture allows groups and individuals to choose and adapt their own symbols and instill them with meaning. When governments and judges start telling us which religious symbols are “secular”, we enter into a hierarchy of signs, where the faith(s) with the strongest cultural hold gains official sanction in all but name. Undermining the idea that government should make no law“respecting an establishment of religion”.”

More simply, you do not honor a Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, or Pagan by erecting a Christian cross in their name, any more than erecting a giant pentacle would honor a fallen Christian.

“The mere fact that the cross is a common symbol used in roadside memorials does not mean it is a secular symbol,” said the panel. “The massive size of the crosses displayed on Utah’s rights-of-way and public property unmistakably conveys a message of endorsement, proselytization, and aggrandizement of religion that is far different from the more humble spirit of small roadside crosses.”

The state of Utah and the Utah Highway Patrol Association are expected to appeal, so we may see how far SCOTUS is willing to go regarding the issue of “secular” crosses on public lands. Considering the fact that Justice Scalia thinks it’s “outrageous” to think that a Christian cross only honors Christian dead, we may see further advancements in efforts to secularize this religious symbol (no matter what the long-term ramifications of that may be).

The Utah Standard-Examiner talks to author Sharman Apt Russell on the event of her visit for the Weber Pathways’ Seventh Annual Author Dinner Event. Russell, well known for her science and nature books, branched out in 2008 with “Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist”, which explored the history of pantheism, and her own devotion to that religious philosophy.

“Tell someone you are a pantheist, and she is likely to wrinkle her brow in confusion,” said Russell. “Tell her you believe that the universe is a miracle worthy of awe and reverence — and she may well nod her head in agreement.”

Which is all fine and good, some of my best friends are pantheists after all, nothing to write home about within the scope of this blog. What is particularly interesting is when Russell, a Quaker, discusses the distinctions between her pantheism and outright Paganism.

“I’m not a pagan dancing around a tree, I anchor myself to the Quaker community,” she said. “I belong to an organized religion, Quakerism, which is eclectic and diverse in its beliefs, but does have a sense of the sacred and … a sense of reverence. It has a lot of history to it, and so I’m am not unanchored.”

Which immediately made me wonder about all the Pagans dancing around trees who also anchor themselves to Quakerism. Some of whom I count as friends. Now, given that newspaper articles often paraphrase or quote out of context, we make not know the fullness of Russell’s feelings on the divisions between pantheism and Paganism. That said, there are an awful lot of implications to unpack from her statement. Is Paganism, in her opinion, unanchored? Does Paganism not have a sense of reverence or the sacred? What is she even speaking of when she speaks about “paganism”? I can’t imagine that a self-professed pantheist is completely ignorant of the advent of modern Paganism. Or indeed, that a Quaker pantheist would not know of the growing movement of Quaker Pagans, a phenomenon large enough to gain the attention of large Christian publications.

In the end, her statement sounds like a disclaimer. I may be a pantheist, it says, but I’m not too different. I shouldn’t scare or unnerve you. I’m not like those margin-walkers trying to co-exist in two different traditions, or taking my reverence for the universe into the realm of actually celebrating its existence by “dancing around a tree”. I’m safe, I’m one of you.

I don’t say that to mock or belittle Ms. Russell, only to acknowledge how those statements sound to actual Pagans who have been known to dance around the odd tree, or find a sense of true reverence outside a Christian-founded institution. Indeed, Russell, and her message, are important. She is making pantheism safe for those made nervous by the Pagans, in a very real sense she is preparing her community for a post-Christian society.

(Pagan) News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 18, 2008 — 1 Comment

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens.

We start off with an update on an ongoing “Satanic Panic” case in North Carolina. A judge has lowered the bail of Joseph Craig, who is accused, along with his wife Joy Johnson, of raping and “kidnapping” another couple (during supposed “Satanic” rites) that lived with them.

“Judge Orlando Hudson lowered bail to $50,000 for Joseph Craig, who has been in the Durham County Jail since late June … Craig, 25, has been charged with second-degree rape, second-degree forcible sexual offense, three counts of second-degree kidnapping and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon. His wife, Joy Johnson, 30, faces aiding and abetting charges in a case that has created financial hardships for the couple, defense lawyers say. The accusers in the bizarre case are a 44-year-old woman and 19-year-old man who moved in with the couple more than 10 months ago to study the occult.”

The defense team has argued that both couples were engaging in consensual sadomasochism, and that their accusers are mentally unstable. While any examination of the facts proves they aren’t Satanists, both accusers raised the specter of Satanism and “demons” in their testimony (the female accuser claims she was raped while channeling spirits). Both accusers continued to live with the accused months after the alleged incidents, despite having access to money, cell-phones, and transportation. Of course, as the article points out, even if Joseph Craig and Joy Johnson are cleared of the charges leveled against them, their lives have been ruined by this experience.

While one couple struggles against what may be false accusations, another man is being released from prison after recent DNA testing failed to link him to the scene of the crime. Joseph White, who spent 19 years in prison for the alleged rape-slaying of a 68 year old woman, claims that his Wiccan faith and shamanistic practice helped him persevere in prison.

“As White sipped on hot Darjeeling tea Thursday at a north Lincoln coffee shop, he calmly explained that faith helped him endure nearly two decades behind bars for a crime that he and the evidence say he didn’t commit. He said he was the leader of a Wiccan group at the penitentiary. His beliefs also include a mixture of Buddhism and shamanism.”

White, who is now 45, is trying to rebuild his life, and is saddened that he missed out on raising his son, now 20. According to state law, if a new case isn’t brought against White in six months (prosecutors now admit they have no evidence linking him to the crime), he’ll be exonerated of the charges.

A note to the East Valley Tribune, it always helps to be a specific as possible when applying religious labels. For instance, in what way is Dan “Dr. Dan” Bartlett a “pagan movement clergyman”?

“Organizational rules most define religion, says a pagan movement clergyman from Scottsdale, Dan “Dr. Dan” Bartlett, a certified holistic life path adviser. “Spirituality, on the other hand, comes from an individual belief and approach to a connection with what that person might see as God, or see as a connection with the super-consciousness of the universe,” he said.”

Dr. Dan’s site in no way mentions any form of modern Paganism. It does mention him being a “holistic life path advisor” and a “metaphysician”, but neither of those professions necessarily mean he’s a Pagan. However, I do give you kudos for referring to modern Paganism as a “movement” instead of a singular religion with “denominations”.

If you enjoyed the religiously non-specific and occult-avoiding Hallmark channel movie “The Good Witch” you’re in luck! They are rolling out a sequel to their “second-highest-rated original movie”.

“Witch’s Catherine Bell and Chris Potter will start shooting (thank goodness it’s a working title) The Good Witch 2 later this month in Toronto for a 2009 premiere. The sequel will revolve around Cassie Nightingale’s (Bell) relationship with Police Chief Jake Russell (Potter), which will be threatened when a new man enters her life, says The Hollywood Reporter.”

Marvel at a “witch” who runs a metaphysical store, and yet seems to have no religious or philosophical interest in the stuff she sells! Makes you wonder, did they tame down the occult elements because lead actress Catherine Bell is a Scientologist, or is it just a Hallmark thing?

Over at the On Faith site, Starhawk wants us to reject the politics of hate.

“Those of us who lay claim to some form of spiritual leadership should absolutely condemn the tactics of personal attack. We should call our politicians and our communities to think, speak and act from our best selves, not our worst, from respect and compassion, not from stoked-up rage and hate.”

One would hope that our “spiritual leadership” gets moving soon, because things are getting progressively meaner as we head into the final stretch of our presidential election.

According to Utah journalist Kelly Ashkettle, today the Utah Black Hat Society is holding their third annual Witches High Tea, sporting their conical caps with pride.

“On Oct. 18, the group will host its third annual Witches High Tea. According to their press release, “over 50 men and women will be wearing their finest robes, gowns, capes, jewels, staffs, wands, pentacles and, of course, tall, pointy hats. Warts, toads and pointed noses are optional.” So if you want to meet some real, yet light-hearted witches this Halloween season, get thee to the Lobby Lounge of the Grand America Hotel at 555 S. Main Street at 2 p.m. this Saturday.”

Since this is in Utah, I wonder how many Morwics will be in attendance? No matter what persuasion of Witch they may be, here’s hoping they all have a great time.

That is all I have for now, have a great day!

Is the Christian cross a secular symbol? That is the current opinion of Utah state officials and U.S. District Judge David Sam. This peculiar notion was reached in 2007, after local atheists challenged the placement of metal crosses along the highway to honor state highway patrol officers who died in the line of duty. Now American’s United, along with the Anti-Defamation League, the Hindu American Foundation, The Interfaith Alliance, and the Union for Reform Judaism, are challenging this ruling.

Not a secular symbol of death.

Not a secular symbol of death.

“U.S. District Judge David Sam ruled in November of 2007 that the cross is a “secular symbol of death” and held that Utah officials and the Utah Highway Patrol Association can continue to erect the 12-foot crosses. Americans United is asking the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the lower court ruling. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said he is offended by the claim that the cross is merely a secular symbol. “The cross is the preeminent symbol of Christianity,” said Lynn … In its brief, AU points out that the cross has been tied to Christianity for many centuries. “In upholding the display of roadside crosses on public land throughout the State of Utah, the district court embraced the State’s characterization of the cross the clearest and most universally recognized marker of Christianity as nothing more than a ‘secular symbol of death,’” asserts the brief. ‘This conclusion is historically inaccurate, blind to contemporary realities, and offensive to believers and nonbelievers alike.’”

Officials contend that the cross is secular, not religious, and it is being used regardless of the personal religious persuasion of the fallen officer. So atheist, Mormon, Pagan, Jewish or Hindu cops would all get the giant “non-religious” cross as a memorial.

The idea that the cross is “secular” ties into the larger notion that Christian religious expression and tradition, due to its size and ubiquity, is “normal” and ultimately beneficial. The corollary is that non-Christian religious expressions or traditions are “abnormal” and considered suspect. But popularity and tradition doesn’t remove religious context from a religious symbol, instead it subtly reinforces that faith’s dominance and “right” to utter ubiquity. If the cross was truly secular, we wouldn’t have 39 different emblems of belief for military markers and headstones, nor would minority religions fight to have their own symbols added to that list.

There is no “secular symbol of death”, any more than there is a “secular symbol of life”, because a truly secular culture allows groups and individuals to choose and adapt their own symbols and instill them with meaning. When governments and judges start telling us which religious symbols are “secular”, we enter into a hierarchy of signs, where the faith(s) with the strongest cultural hold gains official sanction in all but name. Undermining the idea that government should make no law “respecting an establishment of religion”.