Archives For Virginia

11892119_10153539515579120_7165674815583408908_nOver the last week, University of Missouri-Columbia (Mizzou) graduate students and the school’s administration have clashed over a number of issues including student insurance benefits and overall treatment. The more than 1200 students, calling themselves the Forum for Graduate Rights, have threatened to walk-out of their jobs if the school does not meet their demands. These demands touch on everything from equitable pay, health benefits, tuition wavers, housing, childcare and fees.

The protest was sparked when the University announced that it would be cutting subsides used to pay for health insurance. Our own Wild Hunt columnist Eric O. Scott is one of the seven organizers of the movement. He is currently a graduate student at Mizzou working toward a PhD in English. Scott has been involved since the beginning and has been interviewed by local media.

After the demands were sent, the University did agree to restore the insurance subsidies. However, the students are still unimpressed. As Scott explains, “They have restored our health insurance for one year, but next year we could be right back in this position, and we still have a host of other grievances that haven’t been addressed. We are still rallying on Wednesday, both to celebrate our initial victory and to keep the pressure on the University of Missouri’s administration to recognize the importance of graduate student labor.” The student rally, which is now garnering faculty support, is planned for noon Aug. 26.

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Priestess Maya White Sparks [Photo Credit: M.W. Sparks]In Virginia, Priestess Maya White Sparks has been also been involved in organizing and attending protests and rallies. But for an entirely different cause. Known for her vocal support of tarot reading in Front Royal, Sparks lives in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountain community nested in the Shenandoah Valley. This region is slated to become home to Dominion’s new Atlantic Pipeline. The main gas line cuts through several of the area’s prized forests, just south of the Shenandoah National Forest.

Through the Women’s Alliance of Environmental Justice and Renewal, Sparks first helped to coordinate a local march in the town of Front Royal. But that march was part of a much larger grass-roots movement to protect the region from the planned pipeline. Sparks told The Wild Hunt, “…The deadline for transitioning to renewable energy is upon us. Be vigilant in your local community and say no to any new fossil fuel infrastructure! … Scientists report we are in the 6th Great Extinction, losing species at an unnaturally accelerated rate due to human impacts. Even the Pope sees the critical dangers facing humanity from climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and an exploitative world economy.”

The Front Royal rally was staged in conjunction with a seven state protest coordinated by Hands Across our Land. Sparks added that she is also working with a local core organizing group called Free Nelson, named after the town that will have the main gas pipeline running directly through its center. Sparks added, “When the Pope sounds like a Pagan, you know the writing is on the wall! The Fates have spoken. Please do what you can. Blessed Be!

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This August a new Pagan charity, called PagainAid, formed in the U.K. In the simplest terms, its mission is to “fight poverty and defend the environment.” Founded by Ian Chandler, PaganAid “seeks to break this vicious cycle by supporting communities to improve their lives by living in greater harmony with nature.

Along with Chandler, the new organization’s board includes Pagan Federation President Mike Stygal and Chief of the British Druid Order Philip Shallcrass (Greywolf). PaganAid has no paid staff and will be run only by volunteers. All donated money will be used directly to support projects that are inline with its mission. Specifically, PaganAid will partner with other international organizations to improve the lives of those people living in the poorest regions of the world, with the aim of curbing poverty and, at the same time, reducing carbon footprints.

Chandler explained, “Often people living in extreme poverty have little choice but to over-exploit their natural environment just to survive. We will use our supporters’ donations to help people generate an income that preserves the natural world, lifting them and their children out of poverty.” Chandler also said, “Sometimes, communities already living in harmony with nature are being pushed off their lands by outsiders who want to exploit their natural resources. We will support their campaigning and legal actions so that they can defend their lifestyles and roles as guardians of nature.” For more information on its projects and on donating, go to the PaganAid website.

In Other News:

  • Writer Kenya Coviak has launched a new book project that will showcase “images of Pagan Women of Color” and is looking for submissions. She explained, “[The Projectis about collecting, and preserving, images of real women of Pagan faiths so that other women who find themselves on these paths can look and say, ‘Hey, there is someone like me’.” Along with the images, the book will include interviews that will also be cross-posted in the Detroit Paganism Examiner. The specific requirements to be part of this new book are detailed on the media project’s Facebook page. All submissions are due Nov. 7. Once the book is published, a portion of the proceeds will go to Pagans In Need in Michigan.
  • Singer and songwriter Celia Farran will be performing her first ever live broadcast concert from home. To be aired on Aug. 26, the concert will stream through the site concertwindow.com. Farran said, “The show will be at least an hour and we shall see if it spills over. I have at least THREE hours of songs I want to share!”  The concert begins at 5 p.m. PDT. More information is available on the site.
  • Rev. Kirk S. Thomas has released his new book Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods. Rev. Thomas is a Senior Priest and the Archdruid of Ár nDríaocht Féin, A Druid Fellowship (ADF). As noted in the book’s description, Sacred Gifts “explores the development of personal relationships with Gods and Spirits. [Rev. Thomas] describes the subtle and complex integration of personal commitment, devotion and reciprocal offerings that begin and sustain with the Gods and Spirits.” Published by ADF, the book is now available on Amazon.
  • In Sept, actor, singer and tarot creator Mark Ryan will be in the U.K. where he will be visiting the Atlantis Bookshop in London. While there, Ryan will be talking about his personal journey and signing copies of his new book, Hold Fast. Publisher John Matthews will also be on hand with only 40 copies of the new book. The signing and talk will be held on Sept 18 at 6.pm.
  • And finally, a photograph of Margot Adler’s memorial bench in New York City’s Central Park located near the west 93rd street entrance.

[Photo Credit: C. Weber]

[Photo Credit: C. Weber]

That’s all for now.  Have a nice day!

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA – For decades and maybe centuries, the metaphysical bookshop has provided far more than reading material, statuettes and candles. The independently-owned store becomes a veritable community center for a local population of people, many of whom must hide their interests in occult practice and other minority religious beliefs. Whether the store is labeled New Age, Occult or Metaphysical, such shops become treasured institutions within their environment. The attachment can be so strong that when one must close down, the community mourns its loss.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

This is exactly what has happened in the town of Charlottestville, Virginia. The Quest Bookshop, owned and operated by Kay Allison since 1978, is slowly preparing to shut its doors. In August, Allison, who will be 84 next month, has decided that it is time to retire. With no interested buyers on the horizon, the store must be closed. An era is coming to an end.

Lonnie Murray, a local Pagan (animist) and naturalist, said, “Since 1978 Kay Allison has provided the community so much more than just a Metaphysical Bookstore. She has been a model small business owner that gives back to the community in many ways, including her program that provides books to inmates, and by providing a place where people … could come to seek answers to life’s big questions and find acceptance and welcome.”

In 1984, Allison opened The Quest Institute, a non-profit organization aimed at facilitating interreligious dialog, education, spiritual exploration and much more. The Institute is responsible for a popular program called “Books Behind Bars,” which collects and sends books to inmates across the state of Virginia. Not all the material is religious or spiritual in nature, as the goal is primarily to facilitate education. On its website, the Institute has shared a number of response letters from inmates, prison chaplains, and administrators. One such letter reads:

Thank you for not forgetting about us. Thank you for volunteering your time. Thank you for your love. Because of you all I am able to share what I learn with others.You don’t even know me yet I’ve learned so much from all of you. You all selflessly give of yourselves and your example has allowed me to “pass it forward.” . . .  We are what we think! Because of people like you I am changing I want to share that for the first time in my life I know SELFLESSNESS. Thank you!  – JWP

books behind barsOver the years, Allison has also provided her local community with spiritually-focused educational opportunities. She has invited a diversity of speakers, which have included renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Buddhist monk Nawang Khechog and spiritual teacher Ram Dass. Along with such workshops, lectures and book signings, the shop has offered regular readings by various local practitioners.

In an interview with The Wild Hunt, Allison said that visitors have come to her shop from all over the world looking for unique items and sometimes just to meet a friendly face. Murray agreed, saying “For people outside the religious mainstream, her store is a place where people have traditionally gone to find others like themselves.”

That is the unique nature of the local metaphysical store. Often Pagans and Heathens can recall the very first time they ever stepped foot into one of these places, or the first time they bought a book on magic, a tarot deck, runes or other similar products. In many ways, these moments in the metaphysical store become a type of initiation rite, a ritual and even a religiously spiritual experience, in their own right. Losing that store can be a profound loss.

Interestingly, Charlottesville itself has been home to several notable figures in Pagan history. Gelb Botkin, founder of the Church of Aphrodite, left his Long Island home to live the later part of his life in Charlottesville. Once there, he re-established his Church, which is considered “the first Pagan religious group officially recognized as a religion by a modern state,” as noted by Dmitry Galtsin in Pomegranate Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 14, No 1 (2012). The Church of Aphrodite was incorporated in 1939 but did not survive after Botkin’s death in 1969.

Additionally, Raymond Buckland spent a few years in the 1980s living in Charlottesville, before moving to San Diego. While in Virgnia, Buckland set up and ran his popular Seax Wicca correspondence course, which eventually had upwards of 1000 students. Allison said that Buckland and his wife “were lovely people and good friends of hers.” Buckland hosted several popular lectures and workshops at the Quest Bookshop.

But as Murray aptly pointed out, “While Charlottesville has had such memorable residents as Gleb Botkin and Raymond Buckland, it has always been the people like Kay who hold together the fabric of community.”

Although Allison herself is not Pagan, she is considered to be part of the local Pagan community experience. As noted in The Daily Progress, she named the bookshop “Quest” because that is what she has always been on: a spiritual quest. Allison explained that as a child she had an awareness of spirit, saying “I was trying to find people who had more wisdom than I did. There was an absolutely fabulous couple living in Afton who were so wise and had an extensive library … He had the scientific books, and she had the metaphysical books. I would go out and visit with them and come home with a stack of books to read. I’d read them, take them back and get another stack. That was very good for me.”

Kay Allison announcing a guest presenter. [From a Video Still]

Kay Allison announcing a guest presenter. [From a Video Still]

Now at the age of 84, Allison has provided the same educational and spiritual resources to many local residents, visitors, inmates, and prison ministries. A sign above her shop’s door reads, “magic happens here,” and she said “That is true.” One regular customer noted on the shop’s Facebook page

[Quest] was a sanctuary for me, like a few place in C’ville. Sweet smells of incense and oils, and pages, sparkle of crystals in the sun, candles and cloths, and lots of good books, plenty of places to sit undisturbed and read for as long as you like. Kind people behind the counter to chat with if you felt like it — and who would leave you alone if you didn’t.

In August 2014, Allison announced her retirement and the sale of the store. She said that she has “a lot of things that [she’d] like to do.” Outside of taking some vacation time, she wants to continue helping people. That work will include managing the Quest Institute’s Books Behind Bars program.

Daughter Janet Holmes, a spiritual healer in her own work, has been helping her mother with the transition. As of now, the two women are “cleaning house” and selling off some of the shop’s inventory with significant mark downs.

Unfortunately, no buyer has been found yet. Friends of the shop have attempted to raise money through an IndieGoGo campaign called “Save the Quest Bookshop.” However, with only 4 days left in that campaign, they are still very far away from reaching the goal needed to keep the store open.

The Quest Bookshop will remain open until the end of February. Both Allison and Holmes remain hopeful that a buyer will turn up in the next few weeks. Allison said that “there absolutely is still a place for [the metaphysical store] and even for its expansion.” However, if a purchase doesn’t happen within the next month, an era will come to an end in Charlottesville.

 

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!

150318_285637801541688_2098495770_nJust as we were going to press, the passing of Jeff Rosenbaum was announced. The cause of death was a brain tumor. Rosenbaum is perhaps best known as the conceiver and a founder of the Association for Consciousness Exploration (ACE), the Chameleon Club, the Starwood Festival, and the WinterStar Symposium. Through the 1990s and early 2000s the Starwood Festival was arguably one of the most popular (and populous) outdoor festivals of its type, thanks to organizers cross-pollinating Pagan communities with other religious and visionary movements, featuring guests like Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson. Rosenbaum talked a bit about this organizing vision when he was interviewed in the book “Modern Pagans.”

“Starwood is a big college of alternative thinking and alternative spirituality that suddenly appears like a carnival or circus. The tents go up, it stays there for a week, and then BOOM it’s gone, til next year. We have 140 or more classes from 9:30 in the morning till 6:15 in the evening–sometimes as many as 12 at a time. You can learn about Druidism, Ceremonial Magic, Wicca, Tibetan Buddhism, and Native American Practices. We have classes on psychedelia and psychology, and different “movement systems” like tai chi, yoga and aikido. Past speakers have included Timothy Leary, quantum physicist Fred Allen Wolf, Paul Krassner, and Steven Gaskin, who created the Farm, the biggest hippie commune in America. It’s all included in the cost of admission.”

As Rosenbaum puts it, he was “a student of an eclectic array of spiritual paths, philosophies, and illuminating pursuits,” and it was that wide-ranging desire to experience and know that drove his life. In addition to his work with ACE and Starwood, he was Robert Anton Wilson’s lecture agent for six years during the 1980s, played guitar & percussion with Ian Corrigan and Victoria Ganger in the bands Chameleon and Starwood Sizzlers, and was published (and interviewed) in a number of Pagan-themed publications. Tributes to Rosenbaum are already flooding his Facebook profile, but I think the most apt was a posthumous status update from Jeff Rosenbaum himself, which I think does a good job of capturing his spirit. Quote: “At 6:23 pm EST tonight I crossed over and left my body behind. My friends were by my side, the Firesign Clones were playing on the TV. It was calm and peaceful. Thank you all for your good wishes and support. Don’t worry about me, I’m fine.” What is remembered, lives. ADDENDUM: Here’s an obituary written by close friend Ian Corrigan.

dwsLWG1w_400x400The Pagan Environmental Coalition of NYC has sent out a call for help. The People’s Climate March is less than a month away and the number of Pagans pledging to march as part of the Interfaith contingent is “exploding,” according to organizers. PEC-NYC has started an Indigogo campaign with the goal of $3,000 by Sept. 18th. The monies will cover supplies for the weekend and hopefully, fund the transportation for Pagans from far-away to get to NYC for the weekend.  “$10 is breakfast for ten people. $100 is a bus ticket for a marcher from the midwest, $250 is a train ticket for a west coast based Marcher.” said Courtney Weber, an organizer with PEC-NYC. “We are at a pivotal point in history, and history has shown that boots in the streets truly can change the world. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show world leaders that the people want serious action to address climate change, now. Marching alongside other faiths is the perfect opportunity to increase our knowledge and understanding of one another, and cross belief-barriers to fight for a common cause.” The link to the campaign can be found, here. If you are interested in attending the march with a Pagan contingent, please see their blog

pic01Pagan organizations and individuals have endorsed a campaign to urge California Governor Jerry Brown to sign California Senate Bill (SB) 1057 into law. The measure, which overwhelmingly passed in both the Assembly and the Senate, would mandate the reform of history and social science materials used in California schools. Supporters of 1057 claim it will “prevent bullying and promote a positive self-image for children” of different religions, backgrounds, and ethnicities. This will be done by requiring “an expert advisory group to create new History-Social Science Content Standards in a fair, open, and transparent manner. The advisory groups will be composed of scholars and educators, and must make a good faith effort to seek the input of representatives from diverse communities.” Pagan organizations that have signed on to this effort include the American Vinland Association/Freya’s Folk, Our Lady of the Wells Church, and The Patrick McCollum Foundation. In addition, Sabina Magliocco, author of “Witching Culture,” has signed on as a supporting academic. SB 1057 has also garnered the support of several religious minorities in California, including Hindu, Jain, and Jewish organizations.

10513320_1519749801581160_4666587913269014328_nThe new resource/website Polytheist.com will be launching this week! In an update to the forthcoming site’s Facebook page, posted last night, the official launch’s imminent arrival was heralded. Quote: “Coming this week, the official launch of Polytheist.com! Please stay tuned for this exciting set of columns, from a talented team of writers, voices, and visionaries from our Polytheist communities!” Polytheist.com, once launched, will be a “an online hub of columnists, contributors and content creators who are dedicated to many gods across many traditions.” The site is spearheaded by Anomalous Thracian (aka Theanos Thrax), who recently explained why this site is important. Quote: “For some time, many Polytheists have been seeking a place for discussing their religions, their divine relations, and their living lineages in such a way that effectively maximizes the vastness of the all-connecting technologies of the internet age to reach out to and commune with other like-minded and like-religioned groups and individuals, without inviting the targeting and resistance often experienced in spaces not dedicated to this specific aim.” Stay tuned, as we will be talking more about this project very soon. In the meantime, be sure to bookmark that link!

Margot Adler

Margot Adler

Earlier last month I reported on an initiative to raise money for a memorial bench in Central Park honoring Margot Adler, author of the landmark book “Drawing Down the Moon,” who passed away recently after a long battle with cancer. Quote: “Many of you have asked about ways to honor Margot’s memory. After discussions with a few of her closest friends, it’s been decided that collecting donations toward buying a memorial bench in her name in Central Park is the best plan. It’s something she spoke of in her final days. As you know, she lived on the edge of the park nearly her entire life and walked through it daily.” I’m happy to report that the month-long fundraiser has managed to raise over $11,000 dollars, enough to pay for the memorial bench, and to also endow a tree in the park. A large number of Pagans and Pagan organizations donated money towards this initiative, including The Sisterhood of Avalon, the Michigan Council of Covens and Solitaries, and The Witches’ Voice. This is a fitting tribute, one that will no doubt become a place of pilgrimage for all who honored her and her work.

In Other Pagan Community News: 

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

There have been, generally speaking, two primary reasons why fortune telling and other divinatory services are banned in a town or city. The first reason is to address concerns about fraud, about individuals running cons to bilk the gullible out of their money. The second reason is about religion, specifically in America, the Christian prohibition against (some forms of) divination. Often these two threads will conjoin, sometimes inflamed by prejudices against minorities who have engaged in divination to make money (the Roma, for example). In our modern era, these laws have been increasingly challenged by those who believe it limits free speech, or the free exercise of religious beliefs.

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Tarot cards.

Because many Pagans, Polytheists, occultists, practitioners of Afro-Caribean or indigenous faiths, and other fellow travelers, study, use, and sometimes sell divinatory arts, this site has taken a keen interest in how challenges to these ordinances (not to mention the creation of new ordinances)  might affect our own lives. The current trend has been towards regulating fortune-telling shops to “red light” districts, along with the strip clubs and pawn shops, since the courts have been largely favoring divination as a form of protected speech, making total bans hard to defend. Back in 2010 I interviewed Rachel Pollack, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the modern interpretation of the Tarot, who categorically rejected the need for regulating divination.

rachel_pollack“I do not see any need for such regulation. If people are using the guise of divination to defraud or steal from people I would think current laws cover that. It’s not divination that is a problem it’s con artists. If con artists pretend to be doctors in order to trick people out of large sums of money, should we be fingerprinting doctors? Con artists who pretend to be diviners are just the same.”

Pollack’s view isn’t shared by everyone who offers professional divination services, but I think her stance gets to the heart of something regarding the regulation of divination. That while fraud can be carried out in a myriad of ways, there’s a focus on tarot cards, crystal balls, and psychic services that seems to expose a cultural bias, despite the occasional high-profile fraud trial. This cultural bias was center stage recently in the town of Front Royal, Virginia, where the local town council have been moving forward to remove an old law against fortune telling.

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“For decades, the town of Front Royal has had a code listed among its ordinances that bans  fortunetelling and the practice of magic arts. Understandably, the ban’s legality and use of offensive terms like “gypsies” has come under fire. More than 50 supporters and opponents showed up at a hearing last week to voice their concerns, after a local tarot card reader was allegedly asked to stop practicing her craft because it violates city code. The town council voted to remove the section of the code that prohibits fortunetelling and the use of offensive terms, but a second reading of the motion will be heard at their next meeting.”

However, opposition to removing the fortune telling ordinance took an ugly turn at a recent Town Council meeting, exposing a toxic nexus of both homophobia and fear of the religious other.

“Foes of repealing a ban on fortunetellers in Front Royal recently attacked a nonprofit group and claimed it supported pagans. The executive director of the Center for Workforce Development ended her silence this week by responding to the accusations, including one claiming the organization recruits youths into the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community through witchcraft. Arlene Ballou called the actions by a few people who recently spoke at a Town Council meeting in favor of keeping the ban on fortunetellers “disgraceful” and accused them and others of spreading misinformation about her organization. Ballou said she hopes to get a chance to speak to Town Council soon about the issue.”

The issue began when a Pagan, Maya White Sparks of The Spiral Grove, was asked to stop giving readings at a local shop due to complaints. In the aftermath of that incident, White then discovered there was an old anti-fortune telling ordinance on the books and started working to get it repealed.

Priestess Maya White Sparks [Photo Credit: M.W. Sparks]“This law had no influence or bearing on the Marketplace incident. However she decided to use the code, or the removal of the code, as a rallying point to begin the conversation. She wants this effort ‘to be a catalyst that gets [the local community] talking about religious discrimination.’ When she informed friends about her discovery and mission, Maya received immediate support both in person and on Social Media. She says ‘Within seconds of posting on Facebook I had a tremendous’ response from people across the country.”

That initiative, which was initially thought to be a quick and simple matter, soon became increasingly complex as it brought out a strong current of hostility towards the local Pagans who spoke out on the issue, with the predominantly Catholic opponents of the repeal heckling them at Town Council (it should be noted that Front Royal has a thriving Pagan community, and supports a metaphysical store).

“Addressing council as the last of 18 public hearing speakers, ordained Pagan Reverend Kelyla Spicer found herself being shouted down after giving her Middletown home address. Before she could continue someone in the crowd rose and yelled ‘Is this necessary?!?’ challenging Spicer’s right to speak […] Spicer disputed allegations by some that allowing [P]agan practitioners to operate legally in Front Royal would lead to general social descent into criminality and otherwise ‘un-Godly’ behavior, including the recruitment of children into a life of homosexuality.”

It was quite clear that opposition to repeal was seen through a starkly religious lens, with local Christian groups holding prayer sessions outside the government center, and anti-Pagan rhetoric being spewed inside by self-proclaimed Christians. 

“Do you want it to be your legacy that you are the ones who opened the door in this community to make Front Royal a haven for witchcraft, fortunetelling and other pagan practices? […] I guarantee you that no American family, religious or not, will want to raise their children next to a shop that sells fortunetelling, tarot cards, witchcraft and so forth.”

At the most recent council meeting the councilors seemed to be moving towards regulation and licensing, rather than just removing ordinance and being done with it. Legal council for the town referenced a recent 4th Circuit Court ruling that was covered here at The Wild Hunt, which says that local governments do have the right to regulate divination services in a reasonable manner. That said, officials of Front Royal should be careful, because that ruling also leaves a door open for divination performed within the scope of a religious service.

Cognizant that defining the borders between the personal and philosophical on one side, and the religious on the other “present[s] a most delicate question,” id. at 215, we conclude that Moore-King’s beliefs more closely resemble personal and philosophical choices consistent with a way of life, not deep religious convictions shared by an organized group deserving of constitutional solicitude. Yoder teaches that Moore-King must offer some organizing principle or authority other than herself that prescribes her religious convictions, as to allow otherwise would threaten “the very concept of ordered liberty.” Yet Moore-King forswears such a view when she declares that instead of following any particular religion or organized recognized faith, she “pretty much goes with [her] inner flow, and that seems to work best.”

For the foreseeable future (no pun intended), barring intervention from the Supreme Court in the United States, we’re most likely going to continue on the course we’ve been on. A mixture of unenforceable bans, a web of different (and sometimes arbitrary) regulations depending on where you live, and an undercurrent of fear of beliefs and practices considered outside of a certain norm. The ban of fortune telling in Front Royal will be removed, and no doubt some licensing procedure enacted, as it has been in other towns, but what’s important here is what we’ve learned about why some of these laws persist. That in places like Front Royal it isn’t about fraud, or con-artists, it’s about control. Control not only over what kind of businesses can exist, but control over what kind of belief systems can exist.

Be sure to check out the previous installments in our coverage of this repeal effort:

Over the past few months we have been reporting on several stories involving religious freedom challenges. Here are updates on those stories:

Beebe, Arkanasas makes national news

On June 17, we reported that Arkansas resident Bertram Dahl had been denied the necessary permits to open a Pagan temple on his property. In addition, he was harassed by a neighboring Pentecostal church and, eventually, arrested on charges of disorderly conduct.

Bert and Felicia Dahl, along with their two children. Photo credit - seekerstemple.com

Bert and Felicia Dahl, along with their children. [Courtesy of the seekerstemple.com]

This past week, the national news picked up Dahl’s story. On July 28, The New York Times published the article, “Pagan High Priest Finds Few Believers Inside City Hall.” The writer recounts Dahl’s situation, including the standing-room only June 23 Beebe City Council meeting, in which the issue was publicly debated. As reported by The New York Times, Mayor Mike Robertson told the crowd that this was a zoning issue only and had nothing to do with Dahl’s religion.

However, Dahl remains unconvinced and has pledged to continue his fight for the right to openly practice his faith. As proof, he cites a 2010 government newsletter in which the Mayor Robertson says:

It is my opinion and the Beebe City Council’s that government leaders must pray to God as the true leader of the nation and that a nation cannot exist if they are not one nation under God trusting in God as the leader. It is my opinion government has allowed non-believers far too many liberties taking God out of our daily lives … Please remember in the coming November election for leaders of this nation to elect only those who will stand firm doing the will of God and not their will. If placing God or the simple mentioning of his holy name in this newsletter is offensive to some; so be it. I do not and will not apologize, ever, for giving him the praise he is due for all that he has done for our blessed country. Not now, not ever in the future, should we turn our backs to our creator.

Due to continued conflicts with the city and the church’s harassment, Dahl has recently been denied entrance into a local prison to offer clergy services to inmates. On the Seeker’s Temple website, he writes::

This has left the inmates in this prison without teachings and without religious representation. We are reviewing other avenues to help them during their incarceration, but until this is resolved, we are unable to carry on with our normal responsibilities to these inmates. We are very saddened by this news and by the ripple effect the actions of the city and the church are having.

Despite the hostile atmosphere, Dahl has not backed-down. He currently is “selling Pagan items out of his garage and holding the Seeker’s Temple meetings in his own home.” He wrote:

The crowd of people who showed to support us [at the meeting] was impressive and we are grateful and humbled by it … We want to also say think [sic] you to all of you who have called and written and donated to show your support.  We are not giving up!

On Aug. 3, the Seeker’s Temple will be hosting a First Harvest Celebration (Pagan Family Reunion) in Beebe City Park. The invitation to this family-friendly event says, “All Pagans and groups are invited to show our Pagan pride and unity to this town.”

Huntsville, Time magazine and making a stand

On July 22, Time online magazine picked up Carol Kirk’s Wild Garden post on religious freedom in Huntsville, Alabama. Carol is the wife of Blake Kirk, the Wiccan priest who was excused from reading a prayer before a town council meeting.

 

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

Huntsville Alabama [Photo Credit: City of Huntsville]

As we reported in June, the city of Huntsville recently adopted an inclusive legislative prayer policy in order to keep within the legal limits of constitutional law. It had been operating under this policy for at least a year. However, when “concerned citizens” discovered that a Wiccan Priest would be speaking, they pressured the council into removing Blake from the agenda.

On July 18, Carol, who writes for Patheos’ Wild Garden, published an article called, “Here I Stand.”  Near the end of that post, she says:

At some point one needs to decide whether or not something is worth fighting for and whether you can afford the consequences of that fight. As Martin Luther said in his famous speech; “I cannot and will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other…”  My husband and I decided that this was a battle worth waging and that, like Luther, we could not back down and go against our own conscience in this case.

Time magazine Online republished this article within its Patheos news feed.

Carol Kirk [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]

Carol Kirk [Photo Credit: C. Kirk]

In the shadow of this very public city council story, Carol was also making her own headlines. On July 12, she received her Masters of Divinity in Pastoral Counseling from Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS). Carol is now the second student, after Sandra Harris M.Div, to be conferred this degree. Dr. David Oringderff, department chair and her adviser, said, “Having worked with Carol as a professor and academic adviser for much of her academic career, I can attest to her diligence, dedication and academic excellence.”

As stated in the CHS announcement, Carol is no stranger to hard work and taking a stand. During the Vietnam War, she served as a nurse in a MASH unit. In 2013, she spoke at a “storytellers” ceremony at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington D.C.  Her dedication to community service, local interfaith work and pastoral counseling were partially the inspiration that led to Blake’s decision to offer his own services to the city council.

On July 10, Huntsville held its first city council meeting after the controversy began. At that time, the council opted to continue with the inclusive legislative prayer program despite continued debates. At the July 24 meeting, a local Hindu man read the opening invocation. Whether or not Blake will be invited back in the future remains to be seen.

A Virginia city council speaks out in favor of diversity

Back in May, we reported that Priestess Maya White Sparks had been excused from reading tarot at a local Front Royal, Virginia store. Several “concerned citizens” felt that the readings were inappropriate for the town’s main street and put pressure on the store’s owner. In contemplating the situation, Sparks found an outdated town code that prohibited fortune-telling and other magical practices.

When she challenged this code, a new conversation began in Front Royal. Should that antiquated code be removed or rewritten?

Main Street, Front Royal VA [Photo Credit: milknosugar/Flickr]

Main Street, Front Royal VA [Photo Credit: milknosugar/Flickr]

Over the past few months, a variety of residents, as well as councilmen, have spoken for and against removal of the code. As we reported on June 11, opponents were most vocal during the May 27 town council meeting. Then on June 23 town attorney Douglas Napier recommended the “removing” of the ordinance. Councilman Hrbek said that he had issues with it due to its derogatory language. He added, “It was written in a different time; a time that thankfully has past.” These speeches and comments can all be seen on Front Royal City Council’s Vimeo channel. 

During those first few meetings, the council pointed out another city ordinance, which actually permits fortunetelling with the proper licensing. This ignited a secondary debate. Can the city tax and regulate spiritual counseling?

At the July 14 meeting, Kelyla Spicer, a local Druid, addressed that very question. She points out that priests and ministers are not required to pay licensing fees in order to provide spiritual counseling. Why should Pagan spiritual counselors have to pay that fee?

At this point, the council has agreed that the original offending code, which bans fortune telling, should be removed immediately. The second issue is still being addressed. However, town attorney Douglas Napier told a local paper, “There are other court decisions around the country that says [sic] it cannot regulate [fortunetelling] as a professional occupation because there’s no commonly accepted standards that fortunetelling is any sort of profession.” Councilman Eugene Tewalt was quoted as saying, “I’m tired of listening to these people talk about it.”

On Aug. 11, the City Council will hold a public hearing to discuss the issues at hand.  The announcement reads: “All interested citizens are invited to attend these hearings to express their views.”

 

 

 

On May 11 we reported on a story in which Priestess Maya Sparks White was excused from reading Tarot in a store on Main Street in Front Royal, Virginia. During the process of researching her legal rights, Maya unearthed an antiquated town ordinance banning “strolling persons from pretending to tell fortunes or practice any so-called ‘magic art.'” She and several other local Pagans, then, made it their mission to have this antiquated ordinance removed.

Priestess Maya White Sparks [Photo Credit: M.W. Sparks]

Priestess Maya White Sparks [Photo Credit: M.W. Sparks]

In the following weeks Maya was assured by town officials that this particular code would be formally discussed. Town Attorney Douglas Napier told The Wild Hunt that Code 110-17 was “one of those century old laws that has long been forgotten” and that the Council was currently revising the entire Code in order to remove any “invalid, old and superficial provisions.” Town Manager Steven Burke sent a letter directly to Maya stating:

Thank you for bringing this section of our Town Code to my attention. Code Section 110-17 appears to be a section that would prove difficult for the Town to enforce.

Prior to Maya’s discovery, local residents and town officials, were unaware the Code existed. It played absolutely no role in her removal from the Main Street store. However, after learning of its existence and Maya’s intent, several citizens from Town Royal’s small but vocal conservative Catholic community began expressing their support for the Code.

The issue has now evolved into a larger public community dialog that no longer centers solely on Maya’s presence on Main Street. It has become a larger debate over the general practice of “magic arts” or Witchcraft within the town’s boundaries. As a result, there now rests an opportunity for conversation about modern cultural diversity and religious freedom.

May 27th, 2014 Front Royal Town Council Meeting from The Town of Front Royal on Vimeo.

On May 27 twelve pro-Code citizens attended a town meeting to voice their opinions. Three of these people spoke at the podium. The first speaker on topic is Jane Elliott (8:30) who compared tarot readers to bank robbers, prostitutes and drug dealers. She said, “What a calamitous door that is threatening to be opened.” She questioned the legitimacy of Maya’s claims to being a spiritual counselor and concluded that tarot reading is “one step from Vodou which is one step from Satanism.”

The second speaker, Manuel Vicennes, introduced the word “Witchcraft” calling their ancestors “smart” and the Code “well-thought out.” He asked the Council, “Do you stand for what is just and right?”

The third speaker, Elizabeth Poel, agreed calling the law “just and reasonable.” Like Elliott, she questioned Maya’s legitimacy wondering how someone offering spiritual counseling could ethically charge money for those services. She then suggested that Maya “get a real job.”

All three speakers were concerned that the town would once again live up to its 18th century nick name “Hell Town.” Elliott asked if the Council wanted Front Royal to become an “up and coming center for the black arts” living in a “bygone error of superstition.” Poel wondered what next: “Drug dens” and “bath houses?” She asked, “Which street would become the town’s “red light district?” Poel concluded that Code 110-17 was a “good law for this good town” adding that Shenandoah Valley is “host to many covens of witches.” Maya should go somewhere else to “ply her craft.”

After the speakers were finished, Mayor Timothy W. Darr addressed the attendees saying that Code 110-17 was not currently on the meeting agenda because they had just received these citizen complaints. He also noted that this particular Code conflicts with another one. The specifics and legalities of both need to be addressed before the Council could rule.

Main Street, Front Royal VA [Photo Credit: milknosugar/Flickr]

Main Street, Front Royal VA [Photo Credit: milknosugar/Flickr]

What is the other Code? As noted in the Town Manager’s letter to Maya, it is Code section 98-42 that “does in fact provide for the Town issuing a business license to fortuneteller[s] and other similar businesses provided that they are undertaken at a fixed location.”

In a recent Warren County Report article entitled Playing the Fool: the Tarot Debate, senior writer Roger Bianchini makes this very distinction:

What these citizens, fearful of an outbreak of Black Magic and Satanism in a community once known as Hell Town, are failing to understand is that the statute is essentially a ban on street peddling, with that peddling specified in this section as fortunetelling and other “magical” endeavors once associated with … [an] ethnic minority of central Europeans called Gypsies.

The article goes on to explain just what the Town Manager told Maya. Code 98-42 actually permits the practice of “magic arts” as long as it is in a stationary location with a proper business license. The code states:

For every license for a person engaged in business as a fortuneteller, clairvoyant, phrenologist, spirit medium, astrologist, hypnotist or palmist, there shall be paid a license tax of $400 a year.

The concerned pro-Code citizens appear to be aiming their arrows at the wrong town law. At the same time, these citizens have directed their discontent at the town’s beloved annual Wine & Craft festival which they deem inappropriate due to “lewd behavior,” public drunkenness and tarot readers. In her speech, Elliott said, “Is this what they meant by ‘Craft’?”

At the May 27 meeting the Mayor was clear that the Council would not consider these two particular Codes for a few more months. However at the very next meeting on June 9, a brief exchange between two town officials indicates that the Council has not entirely tabled the issue and is taking the debate seriously. Conservative Councilman Thomas H. Sayre asked if Town Attorney Napier had heard from anyone regarding the “t-reading issue.” Napier confirmed that he had indeed spoken directly with members of the Pagan and Heathen communities.

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

The antiquated town code 110-17 was not originally meant to derail anyone’s religious practice. As noted in the Warren County Report article, the Code was simply a protection from what was deemed fraudulent practice by roving charlatans – Gypsies or others. Considering both ordinances together, the town, historically speaking, has never been against Tarot and “the magical arts” but rather against the practice of fraud.

However times change and laws can show their age  As Maya had hoped, her work has become a catalyst to force the local “community into talking and thinking about religious discrimination” within a modern 21st Century context.

 

This story begins in 2002. Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan and member of a local Unitarian Universalist congregation in Virginia, approached the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to be included in a rotating lineup of local clergy who gave opening prayers/invocations at board meetings. Simpson was rebuffed by the County’s lawyer, saying that due to the “polytheistic, pre-Christian” nature of her faith they could not honor the request. So, starting in 2003, a lawsuit was filed.

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Cynthia Simpson

“The Chesterfield County Board opens its meetings with an invocation given by invited local clergy whose names are drawn from an official list that the County maintains. Virtually all the clergy who have delivered invocations represent Christian denominations. The County denied our Wiccan plaintiff’s request to be added to the invocation list on the ground that Wicca is “neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities,” and therefore it does not fall within “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” At the time of the denial, several of the county-board members made statements mocking the Wiccan faith. AU and the ACLU filed suit in federal court on December 4, 2002, alleging that disallowing non-Christian clergy from presenting invocations violates the Constitution. In November 2003, the district court held that the exclusion was unconstitutional. The defendants appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and in 2004 AU and its cooperating attorneys briefed the appeal. Oral argument was held on February 3, 2005. Unfortunately, we drew a very conservative panel (Judges Niemeyer, Wilkinson, and Williams) that, on April 14, 2005, issued a unanimous decision on the defendants’ behalf. The court reasoned that Marsh v. Chambers permits municipalities to limit prayer-givers to the Judeo-Christian tradition. We filed a petition for rehearing on April 26, 2005, but it was denied shortly thereafter. We filed a petition for certiorari on August 8, 2005, but it was denied on October 10, 2005, thereby concluding the case.”

Simpson’s case, and the Darla Wynne case (also a Wiccan), would go on to help advocates of public government prayer craft policies that ensured things stayed in comfortable Judeo-Christian territory so long as the prayers were not sectarian in nature. This “Christian only, so long as you don’t say ‘Jesus'” status quo (or the “Wiccan-proof policy” as I liked to call it) endured until the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“In essence the Court ruled that Greece’s prayer program was non-coercive and fully reflective of American historical tradition and the town’s own cultural heritage. If a legislative body employs sectarian prayer to “lend gravity” to its proceedings and does so in a way that is non-threatening, then religious prayer before a governmental meeting does not violate the Establishment Clause.”

While the SCOTUS ruling opens the door for sectarian prayers, it also notes that having a policy of full inclusion is constitutionally vital in such circumstances.

“Justice Kennedy writes the majority opinion for five Justices.  He concludes that the prayers are constitutional, because they aren’t overly sectarian or overly coercive.  It’s enough that the Town of Greece opened the prayer opportunity up to everyone, and allowed anyone to say anything.  It doesn’t matter that the prayers ended up being overwhelmingly Christian in tone and in number — that wasn’t the Town’s fault.  And it doesn’t matter that citizens attending these meetings may have felt pressure to pray — they had no solid reason to feel any such pressure.”

So the SCOTUS case that involved a sectarian Wiccan prayer, built on lower court decisions that involved Wiccan prayers, now comes full circle and returns to Chesterfield County.

ACLUVA_logo1“The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent county leaders a letter Thursday stating that the county’s policy must be changed to allow any person from any faith to pray before public meetings for the county to comply with the First Amendment. The county will consult with its attorney on that particular point, but County Administrator James J.L. “Jay” Stegmaier acknowledged that another portion of the policy prohibiting prayers specifically praising or opposing one religion appears at odds with the Supreme Court’s new guidance. In a shift from its previous guidance that prayers be generic, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Supreme Court’s decision that local governments ‘cannot require chaplains to redact the religious content from their message to make it acceptable for the public sphere.'”

You can read the full letter from the ACLU and AU here.

So here is where the rubber hits the road on the Supreme Court’s prayer idealism. The notion that sectarianism within a government context is OK so long as it’s an open sectarianism. Can the court enforce a truly inclusive model, or will it fail on the local level as politicians and Christian activists scramble to find some way of enforcing a Christians-only policy? Will we finally see Cynthia Simpson give a Wiccan prayer in Chesterfield County, and if we do, does that mean that we’ve won a victory? Will inclusion bring acceptance and understanding, or will its symbolism only reverberate within our interconnected communities? Whatever happens, it looks like we might find out.

In April Priestess Maya White Sparks was asked to read Tarot at a local store on Main Street in Front Royal, Virginia. Maya has been a practicing witch for 39 years and reading Tarot for 28 of those years. She is the founding Priestess of the well-established Spiral Grove, a local “interpath community of nature spirituality.”

Priestess Maya White Sparks [Photo Credit: M.W. Sparks]

Priestess Maya White Sparks [Photo Credit: M.W. Sparks]

On April 12 she spent the day reading cards and offering spiritual counseling within the popular store, Brooklyn’s Marketplace. As far as she could tell, the day went very smoothly. Unfortunately she was blissfully unaware of the trouble brewing.

Several days later Maya received a voice mail from store owner Brooklyn Ballou informing her that she was no longer welcome to read in the store. According to Maya, the message said, “People in the shop and people from Main Street didn’t think she was appropriate for Main Street.”

Front Royal is a small Virginia town 70 miles west of Washington DC nestled in the Shenandoah Valley. This Blue Ridge Mountain community has a population of 14,666 most of whom are either Protestant or completely unaffiliated with any church or religion. There is also a strong conservative Catholic presence which is not surprising for a town that is home to Christendom College. The region also has a sizable Pagan and Heathen population who support Front Royal’s metaphysical store Mountain Mystic Trading Company.

However Mountain Mystic is not located on Main Street which seems to be the crux of Maya’s problem. Brooklyn’s Marketplace is at the town’s center surrounded by antique shops, restaurants, a theater, a Methodist church, and the Catholic bookstore “Faithful and True.” On the day Maya was reading, several regular Marketplace customers and Main Street business owners voiced their concerns with her presence on Main Street. Many of the offended customers threatened to never return.

Brooklyn called the situation “ridiculous” but had to do what was best for the store. Brooklyn’s Marketplace is not a typical shop. It is a project of the nonprofit organization Center for Workforce Development which aims at:

…[improving] the lives and well-being of our participants and their families by providing a livable wage and opportunities for life-long learning while always being of service to our community.

The Marketplace supports 15 separate small business owners who depend on the store for their livelihood. In making any decision Brooklyn has to consider the welfare of all 15 people not just herself.

Main Street, Front Royal VA [Photo Credit: milknosugar/Flickr]

Main Street, Front Royal VA [Photo Credit: milknosugar/Flickr]

Brooklyn explains that this was not the first time Maya’s presence raised eyebrows. Last year she invited Maya to read at the town’s spring Wine & Art Festival. During that day several people voiced complaints saying that “they couldn’t believe she’d allow witches in her store.” Brooklyn didn’t take any of it seriously until this year when the off-handed remarks turned to direct threats. She says, “I just can’t “afford to lose customers.”

Brooklyn would not reveal the identities of those making the threats or offending comments. Regardless Maya doesn’t blame Brooklyn or anyone for that matter. In fact she sees this as an opportunity to teach and hopefully change the local climate of misinformation and fear. As such she has taken it upon herself to use the incident as way to “shine a light on discrimination against Pagans.”

During her initial research to formulate a plan, Maya was surprised to find a town ordinance outlawing the practice of divination and magic.

110-17 FORTUNETELLING OR PRACTICING MAGIC ART

A. It shall be unlawful for any company of gypsies or other strolling company or person to receive compensation or reward for pretending to tell fortunes or to practice any so-called “magic art.”

 B. Every person violating this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not less than five hundred dollars ($500.) or confined in jail not less than one (1) nor more than six (6) months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

This law had no influence or bearing on the Marketplace incident. However she decided to use the code, or the removal of the code, as a rallying point to begin the conversation. She wants this effort “to be a catalyst that gets [the local community] talking about religious discrimination.”

When she informed friends about her discovery and mission, Maya received immediate support both in person and on Social Media. She says “Within seconds of posting on Facebook I had a tremendous” response from people across the country.

One of these supporters was Elizabeth Tucker, a 17 year-old Pagan high school student and daughter of a friend who took it upon herself to immediately call Town attorney Douglas W Napier. Elizabeth says:

I was really mad and felt it needed to be taken care of immediately. I asked [Mr. Napier] if he was aware of the ordinance and he said he wasn’t. So I told him the number of it and he looked it up then said he would bring it up at the next council meeting.

Attorney Douglas Napier was indeed surprised by the ordinance and told The Wild Hunt that it is one of those century old laws that has long been forgotten. He added that the town’s council was currently in the process of fully revising the code in order to remove “invalid, old or superficial provisions.” Looking at the town’s municipal code, it is easy to see that it contains many outdated laws and regulations. The code uses terms like “dancehall” and “pinball arcade.”

When asked about the situation at the store, Mr. Napier had no knowledge of what had occurred until Elizabeth’s call. Neither the town nor Code 110-17 was involved. Mr. Napier commented that this law is “certainly not something that could be used against anyone in its current form.”

Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park near Front Royal [Photo Credit: Ken Lund/Flickr]

Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park near Front Royal [Photo Credit: Ken Lund/Flickr]

Maya is still researching the proper procedures and protocols needed to remove Code 110-17. When asked if she was planning on calling Lady Liberty League or other similar national organizations, she said, “No. That doesn’t really fit my goal.” She wants to keep the focus on the community and the effort very local. She also added, “I don’t want to force my way into the shop … I just want to get people thinking.”

In the past few days Maya has made significant headway. Her story was published on the front page of the local North Virginia Daily. Town Manager Steve Burke sent her the following letter:

Thank you for bringing this section of our Town Code to my attention.

Code Section 110-17 appears to be a section that would prove difficult for the Town to enforce.

Section 98-42 does in fact provide for the Town issuing a business license to fortuneteller and other similar businesses provided that they are undertaken at a fixed location. We could therefore not pursue conviction of a crime for a business that is specifically approved by Town Code.

If you are interested in conducting this business in the Town, please visit our Planning & Zoning Department at 102 East Main Street to complete the business license application.

Maya has also spoken directly to Mr. Napier and now feels confident that Code 110-17 will be removed without a fight. Meanwhile Maya will continue to read in other venues such as the Mountain Mystic Trading Company and over the phone. She has not received any personal backlash nor have any of her Pagan supporters such as Elizabeth Tucker and family. Maya only hopes that this situation has raised enough awareness “to get the local community talking and thinking” about religious discrimination.

[The following is a guest post from Lonnie Murray. Lonnie Murray is a naturalist, local environmental activist and part-time politician. For many years, he was a leader of the NatureSpirit group at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church (Unitarian Universalist), and currently lives with his two daughters and wife in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.]

Lonnie Murray

Lonnie Murray

Beneath the concrete, steel and asphalt of our cities there are ghosts gurgling whispering and moving nameless beneath us. An anthropologist, Loren Eiseley once wrote that “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water”. Many people never stop to think what happens to the streams when a shopping center or housing complex is built, but the secret is beneath our feet in large pipes. This water flowing through man-made engineered stormwater systems is all that is left of places once rich with life like salamanders, crayfish, dragon flies and minnows.

At one time, the thinking was that the best way to deal with water and pollution was to get it out of cities as fast as possible. Under that thinking, streams were straightened or put in pipes. Other policies made by local governments and engineers paved most urban areas reducing them to a sea of concrete. We now know that each time it rains all the oil, fertilizer, trash and other pollution goes into the stormwater system, which then eventually makes its way to rivers.

I think a lot about water because I serve in Virginia as an elected official on the local Soil and Water Conservation District, and as an appointed member of several different boards and commissions related to the environment. For as long as I can remember, my environmental activism has been tangled up in my spirituality (but which one caused the other is impossible to say.) Like many modern pagans, I often find it hard to classify my spirituality with labels, but I am a member of a Unitarian Universalist church who follows animistic beliefs that see all living and natural things as having a spirit worthy of reverence. I led a UU-Pagan group for well over a decade and was active for a while in my local Reclaiming community. While I’m highly influenced by the Romantic and Transcendentalist thinkers of the 19th Century, I confess that I also take great inspiration from my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy.

A still from "Spirited Away."

A still from “Spirited Away.”

In one of my favorite animated films “Spirited Away”, by Hayao Miyazaki’, there is a scene where the main character, Chihiro, is forced to work in a Bath House for the Spirits. One day a “stink spirit” oozes its way to the bath house. While everyone else runs away in terror and disgust, she kindly bathes it and removes a bicycle lodged in its side. Upon being cleansed, the spirit’s true nature, a river spirit, is revealed. In interviews, Miyazaki has mentioned that this was inspired by a river cleanup in which he participated. During another scene Chihiro finds the true name of a river spirit that had been buried under a housing complex. This notion that a river has a spirit is impaired by our treatment of it, is consistent with Shinto and other animistic ways to view the universe. To anyone that has done a river cleanup, or seen a stream restored, there is indeed a presence you can feel beyond mere water flowing over rock.

Within modern Paganism, it is common to hear praise for trees, mountains or Nature, without any specific reference to a real place or specific living being. This is a stark contrast to many indigenous cultures that usually have specific sacred trees, rocks, streams or mountains that are essential to their faith. Indeed we hear the same sentiment in Judaism in the reverence accorded specific sites in the Holy Land. My ancestors in Scotland and Germany certainly had sacred places, streams and trees. I know the Monacan nation, who still live in my corner of the world, had sacred places, some of which we’ve now buried under concrete. Like many of us, being separated from the lands of my ancestors I have lost that direct connection to the spirits of place my ancestors certainly knew.

While restoring streams is good public policy, and I advocate for it on that basis, as an Animist, I feel too the spirit of place that is healed as we heal our streams. I also feel it as a spiritual wound when we fail to do the right thing by our sacred waters. In recent years, I’ve watched as two “nameless” tributaries of the Meadowcreek were buried under a new shopping center. Even though the public asked repeatedly what the large pipes were about, the only thing the public heard was that it had something to do with “stormwater”. I could not save these streams, but I was able to bear witness to what really happened there, by confronting local media organizations with the truth.

a typical bioswale at the University of Virginia using native grasses to filter stormwater.

A typical bioswale at the University of Virginia using native grasses to filter stormwater.

As localities have increasingly had to deal with the implications of the Clean Water Act, passing pollution downstream has ceased to be an option. Much of the cleanup of streams and rivers is wrapped in arcane acronyms and technical jargon like TMDL (or Total Maximum Daily Load). In my work, it is part of my responsibility to help localities deal with the challenges of meeting federal mandates to clean up streams. In particular, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL will require a complete reversal of the kinds of behaviors that paved the landscape and buried streams. Changing those attitudes, policies and ultimately the landscape itself is not easy.

In practice, improving the quality of stormwater can only be done by living systems, like special gardens made of native plants called biofilters that remove toxins from the water. I’ve had the exceptional opportunity to witness several stream daylighting projects, where streams are resurrected from the deep and returned to life on the surface of an urban landscape. I dare say it is hard not to feel the spiritual implications as you see butterflies, wildflowers and a splashing stream where there was once nothing but pavement. Also, once these streams are daylighted, they cease to be unnamed and start becoming places again like the Dell, a stream daylighting project in my area.

The Dell at the University of Virginia.

The Dell at the University of Virginia.

The importance of naming has a long history within the concept of magic, including the idea that a measure of power can be gained over anything if you learn its secret name. Indeed as Tolkien once said in On Fairy Stories, “Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.” Part of spell work in many traditions involves setting an intention and visualizing a change in the word. Like the Reclaiming tradition, I tend to follow Dion Fortune’s definition of magic, “the art of changing consciousness at will.” Public policy is a whole lot like that; you come up with an idea and then you advocate it by participating in public advisory groups. Over time, if you are lucky, you change consciousness (and policy) and it has a real lasting impact in the world.

Like those once nameless streams, I begin with no human names for the spirits of the landscape of my community; their true names were lost long ago, if ever they were known. While my work in the community of helping improve stream buffers, daylight streams, or promoting best management practices is inherently based on sound conservation science, it is also part of my spiritual work in the world. As a public official I serve the public, not my faith, but when I look out over a paved city or a construction site, it is faith that helps bring me to the table and inspires me to seek solutions. It is my way of giving a name to that which was lost. By speaking for those places that cannot speak for themselves, by caring for them as Chihiro did, I come closer to naming those spirits of place so they need not wander as ghosts in concrete beneath our feet anymore.

Here are some updates on previously reported stories here at The Wild Hunt.

James Arthur Ray

James Arthur Ray

“Secret”-peddler and New Age guru James Arthur Ray, currently in prison after being convicted of negligent homicide in three 2009 sweat-lodge ceremony deaths, won’t be in jail for much longer. While he could conceivably stay in prison until October, an email to supporters from Ray’s brother reveals that he’ll be released on parole on July 12th. Claiming destitution, Ray is seeking a home in Arizona to avoid living in a halfway house, as he cannot leave the state until his parole ends. Suffice to say, Ray’s critics are not happy about his early release. As Gaelic Polytheist Kathryn Price NicDhàna puts it: “He wants your money; he’ll take your life. Don’t let him ever again have a career at this stuff. Don’t let him sell his deadly fake rituals. Don’t let him lead any kind of ceremony, ever. Don’t buy it, don’t excuse it, don’t look the other way.” It should be noted that despite Ray’s claims of destitution, he’s still somehow paying his lawyers, who are still fighting to overturn his convictions.

PF_13.07.02_ViewsofNones_275x200The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life has released data from a new survey analyzing how people feel about the growing of people claiming “no religion” (aka “nones”) in the United States. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we collectively seem to be evenly split on whether these ramifications are good or bad (or indifferent). Quote: “The new, nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life asked Americans whether having ‘more people who are not religious’ is a good thing, a bad thing, or doesn’t matter for American society. Many more say it is bad than good (48% versus 11%). But about four-in-ten (39%) say it does not make much difference. Even among adults who do not identify with any religion, only about a quarter (24%) say the trend is good, while nearly as many say it is bad (19%); a majority (55%) of the unaffiliated say it does not make much difference for society.” I’ve written quite a bit about the “nones” and what the ramifications of their growth are for religious minorities. I think it’s important to reiterate that “no religion” doesn’t mean “not religious,” many nones have spiritual beliefs and practices, they just don’t label themselves. I think that religious surveys need to start thinking about what kind of questions they ask, because the way we talk about and experience religion is changing. We should certainly escape the “good/bad” dualism about a classification of people that is endlessly diverse.

Egyptian protests.

Egyptian protests.

The world has been rightly focused on the incredible events unfolding in Egypt, with the military removing President Morsi from power after massive protests involving tens of millions of demonstrators. In the wake of those actions, whether Egypt will remain largely stable as these shifts take place remains to be seen. One aspect of the Egyptian economy that is being impacted by this upheaval is Egypt’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry, some elements of which have been eager to see Morsi go“We need somebody to do something for the people, but now the poor are very poor, and the rich are very rich, there is no middle class. And business is horrible.” Back in 2011 I wrote about reports of growing religiously-motivated hostility towards Egypt’s tourism industry, though the Muslim Brotherhood seemed eager to not disturb a significant part of the country’s GDP (mostly). Tourism had recovered somewhat during Morsi’s tenure, but has taken a “body blow” as Western countries advise against any non-essential travel to Egypt.  There currently isn’t a tourism minister, as he has stepped down, and it remains to be seen how events will unfold. The Wild Hunt is currently exploring several Egypt stories, including this one, and we’ll keep you posted as things develop.

E.W. Jackson

E.W. Jackson

Virginia Lt. Governor candidate E.W. Jackson, who I profiled recently here at The Wild Hunt, continues to clarify himself after coming under fire for saying and writing a number of stock conservative Christian positions on various social and religious issues. He recently walked back past statements he made that implied yoga can lead to Satanism, and now he wants you to know that he doesn’t hate gay people, well, most gay people. Quote: “I don’t treat anybody any differently because of their sexual orientation, but I do think that the rabid radical homosexual activist movement is really trying to fundamentally change our culture and redefine marriage and do a number of things that I just think are not good at all.” So there you go! He just doesn’t like gay activists, or anyone who wants to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. Jackson claims his critics are applying a “religious test” on him for his views, but I think it’s important for Pagans living in Virginia to know he feels Witchcraft is “wrong and dangerous.” Any candidate, no matter what their party, or their personal faith, has to be able to serve all of their constituents. That includes the Pagans. Can you (would you want to) really serve the interests of someone you think is dangerous?

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