Archives For Wicca

LINCOLNTON, North Carolina — Prayer at public meetings is often a battleground with members of minority faiths seeking to have their viewpoints represented, while others argue that such religious ceremony doesn’t belong in a governmental setting. Since the Supreme Court’s 2014 Town of Greece v Galloway decision that allowed such prayers provided minority faiths are included, Pagans and others have sought to test those boundaries. For example, the pantheist David Suhor sang an invocation of the quarters at a county commission meeting in Florida.  More recently, when the issue of inclusiveness sprang up in the foothills region of North Carolina, it led to a new level of interfaith dialog in the form of the Foothills Interfaith Assembly.

Lincolnton Historic Main Street [Photo Credit: Roxyloveshistory / Wikimedia]

Lincolnton Historic Main Street [Photo Credit: Roxyloveshistory / Wikimedia]

The commissioners of Lincoln County in North Carolina open their meetings with a prayer, and it’s always been a Christian one. When another county in the state was forced by a federal judge to cease pre-meeting prayers altogether, a reporter asked Caroll Mitchem, chairman of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, if any changes would be made to their meetings. Mitchem’s response was to the point. She said that prayers — and only Christian ones — would continue. He was quoted in The Lincoln Times-News.

“A Muslim? He comes in here to say a prayer, I’m going to tell him to leave,” Mitchem said. “I have no use for (those) people. They don’t need to be here praying to Allah or whoever the hell they pray to. I’m not going to listen to (a) Muslim pray.”

Mitchem’s comments caught the attention of local Muslim community as well as others practicing minority faiths in the county, and two of them showed up at the next meeting to speak to the issue. They were Reverend Tony Brown of the North Carolina Piedmont Church of Wicca, and Duston Barto, a Muslim who doesn’t yet belong to a specific spiritual community. During that meeting, commissioners softened Mitchem’s comments into a policy that said that “the religious leaders or chosen leaders of any assembly that periodically and regularly meets in Lincoln County for the purpose of worshiping or discussing their religious perspectives are invited to offer an invocation before a meeting of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners.”

In those words, the two men saw an opportunity to have their faiths included, but the idea quickly grew well beyond a mechanism to promote religious freedom. “The policy said any faith could give a prayer, if it was sponsored by something that met in county,” Brown said. “I don’t know if it was designed to be restrictive, but the thought might have been to put up barriers that ensure only established faiths qualify.”

foothills logoBarto and Brown created the Foothills Interfaith Assembly —  named not for the county, but the more inclusive region of the state — as a way to allow people of different religions to engage with one another around their beliefs. Qualifying to offer prayers was the impetus, but Brown said that from the get-go the deeper idea was to “take advantage of everything else that interfaith can do.”

The first meeting had much better attendance than Brown had expected, and was spent hashing out some of the formative of the assembly. “A dozen people were there, and we went around introducing ourselves and explaining what brought us here, and our personal goals for the group. We hashed those around into group goals, and from that we came up with a list of five guiding principles.”

Those principles were given to a subcommittee which was tasked with writing a mission statement, which Brown expected to be voted upon at the June 30 meeting. That sort of administrivia is expected to become less prominent as the group finds its rhythm.

Based on who attended that first meeting, Brown expects the future get-togethers to offer robust opportunities to learn about different traditions. Besides himself and Barto, the group includes members of the Baha’i faith, a Baptist minister from an intentional Christian community, a Celtic Pagan, and a non-denominational Christian. “The diversity of people was a surprise, especially in Lincoln County, North Carolina,” he said. Interfaith work “always will appeal more to minority faiths, but we can band together, lift each other up, [and have a] better chance of being heard than whispering alone.”

The group’s structure will likely settle into a pattern of education, discussion, and socialization. “Ultimately I hope that people will come together, and in the first part of the meeting a person presents or there is a panel,” Brown explained, for example, “the basics of Baha’i, followed by questions and answers, or a panel on reciprocity with members of different faiths to explain its role in their tradition. It will be dialogue, and meeting as equals.”

sexuality and NRMReview: Sexuality and New Religious Movements. (Part of the Palgrave Studies in New Religions and Alternative Spiritualities series) Edited by Henrik Bogdan and James R. Lewis. (Palgrave Macmillan, 252 Pages)

Few topics can stir us as quickly as sex or sexuality, particularly when it is different from what is assumed to be “right.” Perhaps this is one reason that Sexuality and New Religious Movements is such an engaging read. According to the editors, Henrik Bogdan and James R. Lewis:

Sexuality is intimately connected to questions of identity: who we are as individuals and also our role in society. Human sexuality is thus inextricably linked to cultural, political, and philosophical aspects of life, which are regulated through legal systems based on morality and ethics. Morality and ethics, even in our secularized and late-modern society, are to a large extent based on traditional religious doctrines and teachings (which of course differ in time and place), and it is thus perhaps only natural that new forms of religion often challenge the moral codes and deeply rooted views on sexuality prevalent in the dominant forms of religion and, by extension, in society at large.

Anyone familiar with the marriage equality movement understands the strong role that religion plays in the arguments against gay marriage. In fact, it is difficult to make a case against gay marriage that does not involve religious beliefs that condemn same-sex intimacy. One such slippery slope argument is often framed as a “non-religious” position for “traditional marriage,” though it still takes us back to taboos rooted in religious beliefs. When it comes to our thoughts, our customs, and our laws regarding sexuality and sexual practice, religious beliefs often takes center stage. Not that they have to, but they often do.

Bogdan and Lewis take on the topics of sex and gender in this anthology to give us a peek into beliefs and practices that are less common than the standard-issue Abrahamic ideals. Specifically, they introduce us to sex and gender within western New Religious Movements (NRMs), some of which have received more attention than others.

The editors point out that, often, NRMs are considered nothing more than cults that provide leaders the opportunity to sexually abuse members. They write:

What these critics often fail to take into account, however, is the way that sexuality is actually understood and used by the groups themselves, and to place these teachings and practices within the broader context of the history of religions. As this anthology aims to show, sexual practices that, at face value, seem bizarre or even dangerous might be understood differently when placed in their proper context.

The book continues on with the goal to provide a better understanding of NRMs and to challenge the misconceptions that exist regarding their beliefs and practices where sexuality is concerned.

The anthology presents a series of chapters that each cover one NRM, including one on contemporary Wicca written by writer and historian Chas Clifton. The Branch Davidians, Communes of Osho, and Satanists are all represented in the volume in addition to the views and teachings of Gurdjieff, Adi Da, and Raël. As with any anthology, each chapter varies in depth and breadth since they have different authors. However, the quality of writing is consistently good and, as an academic book, the information goes beyond the simple rehashing of facts, delving into conversation and analysis.

Of all the chapters, the one that I had the strongest reaction to was “Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Empowerment in Mormon Fundamentalist Communities.” After reading the entire book, I was surprised that this was the chapter that generated the most notes, considering all I learned about the fiancées of super-sensitive extraterrestrials within the International Raelian Movement, the ultimate receptivity of the Satanic female altar, and the denunciation of masturbation and same-sex coupling within the writings of Gurdjieff. No, it was the polygamy talk that caught my full attention.

Written by Jennifer Lara Fagen and Stuart A. Wright, this chapter addresses some of the criticisms that have been made against plural marriage and the often-assumed powerlessness of women within Mormon polygamous communities. The writers assert that critics see these women as victims of a patriarchal system, and that this view is “based on the contemporary devaluation of motherhood and conflation of domesticity with oppression that resulted from the deinstitutionalization of marriage and destabilization of gender roles.” They introduce the work of cultural anthropologist Janet Bennion, who argues that Mormon fundamentalist women have alternate ways to achieve power in their communities and that their solidarity is stronger because of the alienating patriarchal control.

They also offer an examination of ideas such as “subservience,” gender roles, and the feminist critique of the “cult of domesticity.” The primary argument presented is that, although these women “do not have the same access to religious or political power as their male counterparts,” it should not be assumed that  they “as a group, are without agency and without voice…”  There are many other problems associated with polygamy within these communities that were not addressed in the chapter, such as the victimization of “lower status males,” the increase in crime due to male competition, and the increase in child abuse and neglect.

The chapter that I was most interested in reading was Clifton’s “Sex Magic or Sacred Marriage: Sexuality in Contemporary Wicca.” His chapter starts with a description of a Beltane ritual then moves into a discussion of the historical roots of Wicca, an exploration of The Great Rite, then the influence of the southern Californian subculture on Paganism. It was all a very interesting read, but what stood out to me the most was the description of the Beltane ritual, where “both lesbian and gay onlookers cheered as the maypole entered the earth.” Clifton touches on the idea of LGBT individuals within Wicca, but I wish this was considered further.

Being a lesbian from the Deep South, I do not harbor any naïve beliefs about Wicca and views on same-sex coupling. Not that I have ever been told that being gay was wrong, but, at times, it has been made clear that I had no place at a Maypole or that I had no right to jump a fire because I did not have a male partner. In my experience, Wiccan metaphors easily lend themselves to heterosexism and this is something I find gets glossed over far too easily.

One of the most difficult tasks when reviewing books about religion is to separate my own religious beliefs from writing about it. There were times when, in reading this book, my jaw dropped in horror, and other times when my MacBook was in danger of becoming airborne. Some of the beliefs and practices described within the pages of this book are off-putting. That being said, editors Bogdan and Lewis set out to put into context views on sex and gender within various new religious movements. They, together with the other authors, succeed in doing just that.

As an academic publication, it is well-written and edited with plenty of footnotes to offer the reader more background material. Sexuality and New Religious Movements is part of Palgrave’s Studies in New Religious and Alternative Spiritualities series. Released in November 2014, it is available for purchase on Amazon and other online retailers.

NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS –Climbing trees. Gregorian chants. Black velvet clothes. These are elements of author and priestess Vivianne Crowley’s personal spiritual journey, as told to a room packed with attendees at A Feast of Lights on Jan. 31. Weaving her own experiences and those she has observed together with cards from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, she posited a pattern of spiritual development that many modern Pagans and polytheists might find familiar.

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Carmel Sastre, CC/Flickr]

“I was the only child of older parents,” she explained. “We had no electricity at first, no radio or television, so I played for hours on my own each day.” Much of that play was out in the woods, and early her conception of “people” included trees and animals as well as her parents. It was through the trees, she said, that she found Paganism, although it would be many years before she connected her beliefs with that word.

One tree in particular got the young Crowley’s attention in quite a literal way. “I like climbing trees,” she said, in particular, “one that was split by lightning, but still growing.” Her foot could fit in the cleft created by that lightning bolt, but a shift in the wind would close the opening and hold her fast. Rather than panicking, it was an opportunity for her to learn patience and trust. She “let the tree decide” when to free her foot, leaving her to spend considerable time with it. Eventually, she recalled, “I let my consciousness merge with the tree, so that I felt my blood was green, and we communed without shared language.”

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

Those, together with many other experiences had before she was old enough for school, were formative in creating her own path toward Wicca, and she believes that is not unusual. “Childhood experiences are often the beginning of learning to connect the self and other,” she said. Her own experiences, which included spontaneous lucid dreaming and psychic images from her mother asking her what she wanted for lunch, molded her worldview before she had language to articulate it. That caused a bit of conflict when school began. At that time in England, the curriculum included “religious studies which were really Christian studies, and included frightening stories about a god who killed people.”

“Our reality and what we’re told don’t quite match,” she said of herself and other people who started on a Pagan-like path in their youth. “Animals don’t have souls? I didn’t believe that. Animal as deity made more sense to me. I saw The Ten Commandments, and cheered for the golden calf.” In addition to an awareness of nature spirits and a then-radical alternative concept of deity, Crowley said that by the time she was eight years old, she could get out of playing sports by making it rain. This is something she attributes to the altered state of consciousness that she learned communing with that tree. Her classmates were already calling her a “witch.”

Around that time, Crowley was baptized a Roman Catholic, which excused her from “religious studies” because they were considered a violation of the tenets of Catholic doctrine. Instead, Crowley was exposed to Latin mass at a local monastery, complete with Gregorian chants. As a result, “for the first time I got a sense of that other state [of consciousness] while in a building.” She continued to identify as a witch as well as a Catholic, and by the time she was eleven she had formed a coven, which lasted only “until the headmistress found out.”

It wasn’t until she was 14 years old, and the 1960s were unfolding, that Crowley learned a name for what she was feeling. “I saw witches on TV, and they called themselves Wiccans — it was a revelation to me!” Soon thereafter her family moved to London and, after a number of false starts, she was able to discover and be initiated by a coven.

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

“I wore a lot of black velvet clothes, and was attracted to stepping out of the ordinary,” she said. This entire portion of her journey she likened to the Fool card, which usually depicts the titular character setting off alone. “Something protects us at this point. I couldn’t find Wiccans at first, so I tried Buddhists, and mediums, and avoided some pitfalls” before finally meeting “kind witches.” She was clear that she wasn’t claiming that the young are always safe from harm on this quest, only that mistakes borne of that ignorance seem to be softened or minimized to some extent.

While the seeker is under the mantle of the Fool, Crowley likened the spiritual awakening to the Star. Talent in esoteric disciplines blossoms. Interests in incense, tarot, astrology, healing, herbalism, crystals, and a variety of such activities and paraphernalia are sparked by the emerging sensitivity a newcomer to the Pagan path experience.

“The first spells we try often succeed,” she said. As mastery of these ideas and powers grows, an initiate enters into the spiritual adolescence. Crowley compares this to the Sun and Magician cards, something she jokingly called “second-degree-itis” in her own Wiccan path. It’s a period characterized by “youthful arrogance and enthusiasm,” she said. And, it is often a time when one begins to attract students. “The first time you are asked for initiation, it is humbling,” she said, “and ego-inflating.”

Power is illusion, however, and in time the Sun card is replaced by the Moon, the Magician with the Devil. This is a stage many might find familiar, with relationships going wrong and a desire to “own” one’s group often gaining strength. “We realize that there’s no perfect people,” she said, and “we can be angry that our leaders are not perfect.” For small-group traditions, such as Wicca and other practices that fall under the shadow of the Pagan umbrella, she frames the problem in alchemical terms, saying that the challenge is to “accept the lead as well as the gold. People fall out because of relationships, not the path.”

From Rider-Waite Deck [Photo Credit: Julia Mariani / CC lic. Flickr]

From Rider-Waite Deck [Photo Credit: Julia Mariani / CC lic. Flickr]

In the following stage, Crowley said the Devil and Death come to the forefront as best representatives of the experience. “Which tradition is best?” she asked. Some people decide that their own traditions are the one true way, even looking down on other choices or dismissing them “rather than realizing that the path is for the person, just one part of the jigsaw puzzle, not the be-all.” She continued, saying “Some people just drop out” when faced with these obstacles. And if interpersonal challenges aren’t enough, “Sometimes there comes a time when the gods do not speak.”

That is the time of the Hanged Man and the Wheel of Fortune, which Crowley said is characterized by uncertainty and often when “change falls out of one’s pockets.” New ideas don’t fit preconceived notions, leading one’s world to be turned upside-down. “It forces difficult questions,” she said. It is a critical juncture when those, who have long been on a particular path, decide it’s the wrong one.

However, it may be too soon to make that judgment call. Eventually one may “reach a point of understanding,” a point represented by the Hermit and High Priestess, strength and mystery. “You can have your own gods,” Crowley explained, and they are not threatened nor blocked by the gods of others.

When looking back, Crowley said, a person should be able to recognize that they are not the same person who began journey. It is important, she said, to “send our younger selves love and care, and messages of encouragement,” in order to complete the more difficult parts of that journey as “our future selves guide us.”

She explained that such guidance can help one negotiate what to do if one’s student surpass the teacher. This can happen if one’s role is that of a point of strength, rather than a leading light. Such points are more replenishing than ritual in some cases.

“The point of the journey is to bring things back,” she said in closing. “We must give to move things forward, and we all have something to teach.” In that way, the partial knowledge still held about Paganisms of old can, like a phoenix, rise from the ashes in a new form, one that is relevant and vital for the spiritual, environmental, and political challenges of today.

As we reported Friday, October is a popular time for interview Witches. The season also brings a flurry of Halloween-inspired television programming. From the holiday specials to the classic horror films, the entertainment industry capitalizes on our cultural love for all things related to the secular holiday.

[Credit: MANSOUR DE TOTH via CC lic. Wikimedia]

[Credit: MANSOUR DE TOTH via CC lic. Wikimedia]

This phenomenon is nothing new. In the 1930s, Betty Boop appeared in a short called Hall’ween Party (1933). In 1948, Mighty Mouse saved the world in The Witch’s Cat. Many readers will remember looking forward to the yearly October airing of The Wizard of Oz (1939) or, more recently, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). One of the newest Halloween-inspired offerings,Book of Life (2014), capitalizes on the growing popularity of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos aesthetic and tradition.

As we get closer to the actual Oct. 31 date, producers begin offering Halloween-themed episodes of TV series. In its lineup this year, CBS aired a Witch-themed episode of its popular, long-running show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. While the secular Halloween holiday was never mentioned, the show’s title “Book of Shadows” and its subject matter were not arbitrarily chosen to appear in a late October episode.

Sunday’s CSI episode has set off some intense discussion within the Wiccan community. While many believe the show demonstrates a step forward in the depiction of Witches and Wiccans within mainstream entertainment, others were not easily convinced. Massachusetts Priestess Laura Wildman-Hanlon remarked:

I’m annoyed my religion was again dragged out and used as a means to scare people on Halloween. I’m angry at the disrespect paid to my beliefs and my God & Goddess. I’m furious at the writers who could have used the opportunity to debunk these untruths instead of playing to them. 

Was the show a simply a means to “scare people” as Wildman-Hanlon suggests? Was it yet another serving of insulting television fare perpetuating the historically-ingrained, sensationalistic construction of Witchcraft? Or was it positive? Did the writers demonstrate any cultural sensitivity?

Before looking at the specifics of the episode, it is important to be aware the CSI program is very formulaic like most TV dramas. “The Book of Shadows” episode was no exception.The aesthetics and narrative structure fell well-within the CSI storytelling boundaries, including the sensationalism, campy humor and graphic displays of internal anatomy.They didn’t stretch the show’s artistic reach to tell this story.

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“Book of Shadows” opens with a teenager filming a video while walking through school hallways. This scene is important because it establishes the main characters of the “who done it?” plot. After we are introduced to the players, a burning body comes running down the hall and then falls dead. Interestingly, this dead teacher is labeled “the Burning Man” and, although not known at the time, is a practicing Witch. While just a minor point, this detail, death by burning, becomes the second reference to Witchcraft. The first, of course, is the title.

Although the show is filled with subtle phrases and imagery maintaining its connection to the theme, it isn’t until the second segment that the narrative really delves into subject of Witchcraft. The coroner discovers a “Life Rune” symbol, which he links to Nazism, gangs and crime and which eventually leads investigators to the coven’s temple space.

The temple scene, itself, was filmed in the classic CSI aesthetic while also recalling elements of the horror film. As CSI Nick Stokes enters the dark room, everything is visually obscured by shadow and a tight camera angle. The limited lighting is blood red and, as the slow-moving camera pans across the space, the only recognizable images are a skull and a pentacle.

In typical CSI fashion, the horror-style scene is followed by scientific explanation and visual clarity. In this case, there is a brief dramatic reenactment that parallels the horror-scene.  Then the director abruptly cuts to a non-engaging, medium shot of the temple room in nearly full light. Everything is visible. CSI D.B. Russell has joined Stokes in exploring the space.

As they investigate, Russell educates Stokes and the audience on what they are seeing in the room. When referring to the pentacle, Stokes says, “I always thought it was the sign of the devil.” Russell replied, “Well you were wrong.”

Along with other similar type comments, Russell says, “[Wicca] is a Pagan religion.” Putting these two temple scenes together, the show plays first with what the viewer expects and then says, “well you were wrong.” This juxtaposition demonstrates a clear step forward in the representation of Witchcraft and Wicca within a modern context of its own making.

Moreover, the writers also note the important distinction that Wicca is a “Pagan religion.” This statement is critical because it moves popular discourse away from the simple point that “Witchcraft is real” or “Wicca is Witchcraft” to “Wicca is one of many religions.” Although encapsulated in a bucket of typical CSI sensationalism, the show’s narrative does demonstrate that the writers did some real homework.

CSI:  The Book of Shadows  [Courtesy: CBS Television]

CSI: The Book of Shadows [Courtesy: CBS Television]

The next important detail to examine is the lab scenes, in which tech David Hodges is dressed in a “relic Druid robe.” To Wildman-Hanlon, these scenes were extremely off-putting. She said, “I was furious to see one of the main characters wearing a silly robe, waving a wand over a cauldron bubbling with fake smoke and obviously making fun of my beliefs.”

David Hodges is largely present for comic relief within the more serious CSI drama schematic. He always takes a campy and comical attitude toward any subject. However, in this case, he was mocking a religious practice, which proves problematic. Along with his robe, Hodges called his lab a “Wiccan Altar” and mentioned a past Wiccan girlfriend who was “a little too earthy” and didn’t have a “bathing spell.” In addition, Pagan viewers may have been offended by the God and Goddess statuettes on his table. Although meant as harmless comedy, the writers went too far for many Pagan viewers as demonstrated by Wildman-Hanlon’s comment.

While the show’s middle portion largely diverts its attention from Witchcraft and Wicca, the narrative returns to the theme by the end. It is at this point the writers’ attempts at sensitivity fall completely apart. We find out that the killer is a Wiccan mother and teacher; the dead coven member was a teacher and drug dealer; the Wiccan principal was sleeping with a student and the High Priest and school janitor had once been a criminal. While the show doesn’t posit any of these characters as purely evil, they are all framed as damaged goods.

However, more problematic than any of that is the “who done it?”conclusion and various subtle details used to intensify and color the story. First, both murders were done by a Wiccan woman, who had been attempting a healing spell. She apparently needed the blood of a “sacrificed youth.” In once scene, the coroner notes that the dead boy’s blood was removed after his murder, which “suggests a Wiccan ritual.” Considering this line alone, it appears as if the writers fell face first into a vat of cultural stereotyping.

All the earlier positive elements and demonstrations of sensitivity become buried by the failings of the conclusion and other narrative details, such as the janitor brandishing his athame in a threatening manor. Through lines such as “Druid spell” to gain “more power” or “May the blackest of darkness smite you down,” a viewer’s preconceived notion of Witchcraft and Wicca are confirmed.

Why pay attention to shows like this one? CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a fictional drama that posits its universe as real. For viewers, the CSI environment could be their world. There is no fantasy or mythology here. That is the nature of the genre. As such, it presents Witchcraft and Wicca as something real; something the viewers might witness in their daily lives.

This attempt to bring Witchcraft and Wicca out of a fantasy world and into reality is exemplified by the following exchange. Stokes says, “What happened next? No, let me guess, lightening bolts.” Russell replies, “No. a coven meeting.” This is notable change for the construction of Witches and Wiccans within American entertainment. Where most shows, even live-action, posit Witches and magic as elements of fantasy, this shows says “No they are real. They are parents, principals, janitors and science teachers.”

At the same time, CSI‘s realistic nature makes the mistakes all the more difficult to digest. Wildman-Hanlon remarks:

A couple of sentences muttered by a character that ‘Wiccans are peaceful people who work with the energies of nature,’ is lovely but not when the plot heads immediately back into the fiction line saying beneath our practices of harmony actually lies a darker stance where murder/human sacrifice is, according to our beliefs…our Book of Shadows…an acceptable practice if we deem it warranted. 

“The Book of Shadows” was a notable effort with some very positive forward steps in the representation of Witches and Wicca. Unfortunately the writers didn’t go far enough and wound up relying too heavily on good old fashion Halloween entertainment lore for the sake of a scream.

In recent months there have been many discussions and debates about infrastructure in the wider Pagan movement and our collective ability to see Pagan values manifested in the wider culture. In my many years covering our family of faiths I’ve seen many ambitious plans hatched regarding new institutions which have met with varying degrees of success and sustainability. It is easy, especially within a religious movement that often values decentralized grass-roots initiatives, to become skeptical about impressive-sounding plans and announcements. 

However, there’s one campaign I’m not skeptical about, that I think is a good idea. That project is the The New Alexandrian Library. It’s headed by a solid, stable, group of folks who know what they are doing, and are focused on a clear, definable, goal. I believe that initiatives like the New Alexandrian Library will be vital for preserving our past, as university and private collections won’t be sufficient to fully preserve or document our movement’s legacy. Wanting to explore what’s driving this project in a deeper fashion, I was lucky to conduct this interview with Ivo Dominguez Jr., an Elder in the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, and one of the driving forces behind this library project.

Ivo Dominguez Jr.

Ivo Dominguez Jr.

For those who haven’t heard about this project, what is the New Alexandrian Library project, and why should Pagans care about its construction?

The New Alexandrian Library, located in southern Delaware, is in its final stages of construction. The physical structure itself is a highly durable concrete dome. It will serve as a research library, a lending library, a museum, an archive, and as a hub for the preservation and the evolution of pagan culture. Books, periodicals, newsletters, music, media, art works, artifacts, photographs, digital media, etc., will all be carefully cataloged and cross-referenced to ease the work of research and study. The Library will work to restore and to preserve rare and damaged documents. The history of our many interrelated spiritual communities will also be collected for the future.

The content of the library will also be made available via internet to the greatest extent possible (respecting copyrights, etc.) to be a resource for the entire esoteric community. The NAL will also serve as the library of record for formal esoteric religion studies at a variety of institutes of higher education including The Cherry Hill Seminary to assist them in meeting accreditation criteria. The New Alexandrian Library will be open to all, and will engage in inter-library loan with similar projects elsewhere. Some extremely rare materials will not leave the library, but will be scanned.

It is being built in a location that has the benefit of a beautiful woodland site while being a reasonable distance to many metropolitan population centers. It is about 2 1/2 hours away from Washington DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. It is about 3 1/2 hours to New York City, 4 hours to Richmond, and 7 hours to Boston. There are also plans for on-site housing in the future.

Plans for the New Alexandrian Library

Why should Pagans care about the New Alexandrian Library? If you’re a student, a teacher, or researcher, then the NAL will be an amazing resource to further your efforts. If you want to be in the presence of art, ritual objects and books that belonged to notable figures in our history, then you will want to make a pilgrimage to the museum component of the NAL. If you care about trying to capture the memories of how our various emerging religions came into being over the last century, then you’ll be happy about all the ephemeral material that we are collecting and preserving. If you want some good news about the power of long-term commitment in our community, then the NAL could inspire you.

Can you talk a bit about the progress you’ve made so far, and how the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel is managing to cover the costs of construction?

This project was announced at the Between The Worlds Conference of 2000. The 30 acres that the library sits upon was bought and paid for by members of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel. There is no mortgage on the property. So far about 85% of the funds to date have been either donated by ASW members or raised through fundraising events such as workshops, conferences, the sale of chant CDs and books, etc. the rest has been through donations from individuals, organizations, and crowd-funding. We’re in phase one which is the building of the first part of the library which is a two-story concrete dome with about 3000 square feet of floor space. This is the first in a series of several buildings as it was more financially realistic to plan for adding buildings in the future rather than trying to collect enough money to build one huge structure from the outset.

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At the time of this interview the interior walls are being painted, and shortly the floors and the fixtures will be installed. Progress has been slower than we would have liked, but we have been paying as we go. Since there will be no debt to pay off, it will be easier for the project to continue in the future.

The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel is a Wiccan organization. Will NAL focus primarily on Wicca, or will it have a broader focus? Will it include material from other Pagan, Polytheist, Heathen, or Magickal groups?

We are building a library focused on the mystical and esoteric teachings of all religions with an emphasis on Pagan, Polytheist, Heathen, or Magickal paths in all their forms, but our mission is broader than that. We are also collecting the esoteric teachings of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Once the NAL is open and running we will also be creating an Advisory Board of people from a broad range of backgrounds and interests.

I know NAL recently received books and papers from Judy Harrow’s estate. What are some other notable elements in NAL’s collection at this stage? How can individuals reach out to NAL if they feel they have important papers or publications to share with your institution?

In addition to Judy Harrow’s legacy, we have received donations from Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, Macha Nightmare, Katherine Kurtz, Shakmah Winddrum, and many other notables in the broader esoteric community. We also received the entire library of the Theosophical Society of Washington DC when they closed down their library. Not all of the donations are books. We have received original artwork, ritual robes, magical tools, old photographs, correspondence, newsletters, ancient Egyptian artifacts with proven provenance, jewelry, and much more.

Dolores Ashcroft Nowicki with donated Dion Fortune paintings.

Dolores Ashcroft Nowicki with donated Dion Fortune paintings.

I am particularly delighted by Dolores & Michael Ashcroft-Nowicki’s donation of four paintings of the Archangels that were created by Dion Fortune, and that once hung in her temple space. We also have many other collections promised to us in people’s wills. In the case of a death, we will always take donations now, but we have so many things in storage right now that if you can hold off a bit longer we would be grateful. As soon as we are up and running we will be very interested in receiving further donations of books and materials. Please consider naming the new Alexandrian library in your will so that your collection can serve the community when you no longer need it. Also it is often hard to predict what will be important in the future, so the ephemera, newsletters, flyers, posters, photographs, and recordings from smaller groups or lesser known individuals also need to be preserved as all these things make up the culture of our many communities.

Many Pagans are skeptical about movement towards institutions and infrastructure, could you talk a little about why they shouldn’t be skeptical of NAL? What is it that makes NAL essential?

If you have no personal need for institutions and/or infrastructure, then don’t participate in their creation. If over time you find that you are deriving benefit from the resources provided by Pagan institutions and/or infrastructure, then consider giving to them to balance the exchange. If they have no appeal for you, live and let live.

You’ve probably seen some variation of the internet meme:

Don’t like gay marriage? Don’t get one. Don’t like abortions? Don’t get one. Don’t like drugs? Don’t do them. Don’t like sex? Don’t have it. Don’t like your rights taken away? Don’t take away anyone else’s.

I would add: Don’t want Pagan institutions and/or infrastructure? Don’t block the way of those that do.

The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, the sponsor of this project, celebrated its 30th year as an organization in February 2014. This is a good long run for any kind of organization, and is quite exceptional for a Pagan organization. Community service is an important part of our group’s culture, and we fully expect and intend to be continuing our work 100 years from now. Many similar projects have failed, not for a lack of vision or need, but from a lack of organization and practicality. We were in existence as a group for 15 years before we decided to take on this project. If the skepticism about the NAL project is about continuing the funding once it’s open, then I’ll point out that we intend to continue fundraising in perpetuity, and that several individuals have already named the NAL as the beneficiary of their life insurance or their entire estates in some cases.

10156015_10152359299887410_458860695135604823_nWhat is your long term vision for this project?

Like the original Great Library of Alexandria, the schools of Qabala in medieval Spain, and the flourishing of esotericism that occurred in renaissance Italy, the diverse confluence of minds and resources would result in great leaps forward in theory and practice. There will be many conversations between people of different traditions that will result in greater intellectual vitality and new awarenesses for all. No doubt people will gather in the meditation garden, go out to lunch together, etc. The benefits of these face to face encounters are incredible. In a way, it is like an esoteric conference that never ends. The NAL will be one of the cornerstones of a new magickal renaissance. We hope that many other similar sorts of Pagan infrastructure will be created by various groups across the globe. The benefits of this growing network of resources for future generations is incalculable.

One of the great triumphs of the original Alexandrian Library was the creation of the first card catalog (actually clay and wood tablets). I hope that one of the New Alexandrian Library’s great triumphs will be a systematization of esoteric knowledge in a comparable manner. It is now a clichéd complaint that most of the esoteric books available are basic and aimed at the mass-market. That is the nature of the publishing industry, and we should expect little more. More advanced materials are usually published by university presses and by publishing houses owned by charitable or religious institutions where profit is not the primary motive. I hope that The New Alexandrian Library will in time either directly publish such works or facilitate the bringing together of the people and groups to engage in such activities.

Finally, in a broader sense, what is your vision for Pagan institutions and infrastructure? Obviously you’d like to see NAL thrive, but in what kind of Pagan community? What are your hopes?

Self-determination and self-reliance require having your own resources. I would like to see more ritual space, workshop space, performance space, schools, gardens, and woodlands, etc. that are owned by us. There many times when it is convenient and appropriate to rent or to borrow space from friends such as the Unitarians, but it is always on their terms and within their comfort zones. I’ve also seen Pagan businesses and organizations that are doing well suddenly find themselves homeless because the owner of a facility raises the rent or simply tells them to leave. There have also been pagan library projects that have closed because they were unable to keep up with the rent, and in some cases valuable materials were pitched into the dumpster by landlord.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary with Assembly Elders at NAL's foundation.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary with Assembly Elders at NAL’s foundation.

I also think we have to get over the connotations that words like institution and infrastructure have developed in the Pagan community. A food co-op is an institution. A community garden is an institution. A campground for festivals and gatherings is infrastructure. Institutions and infrastructure need not call forth images of huge battleship gray buildings with people scurrying about like drones in a hive.

An institution is a resource designed to survive past the life or the commitment of a handful of people. When we speak of infrastructure, what we’re really talking about is solid, tangible, resources that enable and facilitate our dreams and endeavors. If fear of what something might become is reason enough to prevent its coming into being, then we might as well settle our affairs and exit planet. From my perspective, the challenge we have right now is to decide that we will take the challenge of becoming truly present in the world. Will there be corruption, abuses, errors, and failures? Yes, there will be, and that is part of the cost of the work of mending and evolving. Will there be reforms, progress, and new horizons? Yes, and we will get those by also cleaning out the inevitable muck that arises by doing the work.

Recently there were a flurry of blog posts and discussions about how successful or unsuccessful Pagans have been in having an impact on environmentalism. What I’d like to add to those discussions, is that our impact on the matters of the world are reduced if we do not have power that is grounded in tangible resources. Ideas, will, and passion can fuel individual activism, and this is a good thing. However if we do not have the resources to buy land to preserve it, to pay lobbyists, to have staffed organizations that monitor legislation, public opinion, etc., then we are missing part of what is needed to have power and presence in the world.

Let me give you another example. I was extremely involved with AIDS/HIV work in the 80s and 90s. I started as an activist, helped found an organization, and served for several years as the executive director of Delaware’s primary AIDS organization. Institutions and infrastructure were necessary to make progress, and to push back against circumstances that would take away the steps forward that had been made. There are probably a hundred and one worthy tasks and goals that can never progress past a certain point without our own institutions and infrastructure.

I hope the New Alexandrian Library will be one of the many solid institutions that encourage others to dream big and to work hard.

Contact and donation information for the New Alexandrian Library project can be found here. 

Last month, Wild Hunt Managing Editor Heather Greene reported on the new Stylebook put out by the Associated Press, pointing out that despite a large number of new definitions and entries regarding religion, the influential guide for working journalists neglected to include any entries relating to the modern Pagan movement.

ap_stylebook_cover_2010

“The 2014 AP Stylebook does indeed have an expansive in-depth chapter on religion which includes definitions and details on a variety of minority religion terminology such as Brahmin (Hindu) or gurdwara (Sikh). The guide includes short informational entries on Baha’i, Buddhism and other non-Abrahamic faiths as well as minority sects of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It says that Christmastime is one word and suggests using Hanukkah as the standard spelling for the Jewish holiday. However, it says nothing about “Paganism.”

In fact the updated religion chapter makes no mention at all of modern Pagan or Heathen religions. It does not include Druidry or Druidism, Wicca or Asatru. With the exception of Yule, it does not recognize the names of Pagan sabbats or other important festivals and holy days. The word “pagan” only appears once in a recommendation to capitalize the names of mythological gods and goddesses such as Zeus, Athena and Poseidon.

When asked if the inclusion of modern Paganism had been considered for the chapter, the editors responded immediately saying that the Stylebook uses the dictionary for such groups. So what does Webster say? The online version includes a definition for Neo-Pagan and Neo-Paganism both of which use a capital letter. The same dictionary, however, does not include an individual entry for the term “Pagan” with capitalization. The two “pagan” entries define the term as those people who are anti-religious or polytheists from ancient Greek or Rome. Webster does include an entry for Wicca but no other practice.”

Well, it now looks like things might be changing. Maewyn, a copy editor and Witch who uses the AP Stylebook online, alerted me that an entry for Wicca was added on July 14th. Here’s the full text:

Altar from the Edwards Air Force Base Wiccan service.

Altar from the Edwards Air Force Base Wiccan service.

“Wicca: Religion shaped by pagan beliefs and practices. The term encompasses a wide range of traditions generally organized around seasonal festivals, and can include ritual magic, a belief in both female and male deities, and the formation of covens led by priestesses and priests. Wiccan is both an adjective and a noun. Uppercase in all uses.

Stylebook Editor’s Note
2014-07-14: Added to stylebook”

This new addition was then tweeted out on the AP Stylebook’s official Twitter account on July 16th.

 So that’s a start! So far, according to sources, that’s the only modern Pagan term to make it into the online AP Stylebook proper. Other terms, like Druid, Asatru, or Pagan and Neopagan, are absent, with an official policy of using the dictionary standards for terms not in the Stylebook. Whether the recent campaign by a coalition of Pagan Studies scholars for the capitalization of “Pagan” in major journalism stylebooks when referring to our religious movement will eventually bear fruit remains to be seen.

Why is this issue important? Because as Heather Greene said in her initial article, the AP Stylebook’s decisions change journalistic conventions.

“If you are not a writer, you may ask, “Why should I care?” The AP Stylebook does not affect you directly. However, it does affect you indirectly. The guide is used by journalists and editors all over the country as a writer’s “bible,” if you will. While the AP Stylebook is not the only guide of its kind, it is one of the front-runners that establishes a style standard for journalism that is dependable and regular.

The guide, for example, solves those ever-frustrating grammatical debates over commas and semi-colons. It recommends date and time abbreviations, fixes transition words, and clarifies what should be or should not be capitalized. All of its suggested rules and information are absorbed into the articles published in American newspapers and magazines since the 1950s.”

Guides like the Religion Stylebook, produced by the Religion Newswriters Association, are more comprehensive regarding Pagan faiths, but they are also less influential. I take this new addition as a sign that the AP Stylebook editors are listening, and hope this is a good omen for further entires to come. We’ll keep you posted as this story develops.

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!

Seekers TempleThis past week we reported extensively on the case of the Seekers Temple in Beebe, Arkansas, where allegations of a religiously biased local government exercising its power against a Pagan family have reverberated through our interconnected community. Now, it seems that a City Council meeting scheduled today in Beebe might mark the next flashpoint in this increasingly tense situation. Quote: We have been notified by a brave young Pagan girl that her mom is involved with a group of Christians who feel they must save Beebe, AR. from the Devil.  This group is planning to be at City Hall on Monday, June 23 at 6:30pm to combat us with our attempt to be recognized by the City Counsel. We would like to invite everyone to attend this meeting in the hopes that such a presents will keep things from getting out of hand.  We pray that the Christians AND Pagans will be Civil and polite and that our numbers alone will encourage the Mayor to rethink his position against Pagans.” We will keep you updated on this story as it continues to develop. 

Covenant of the Goddess

Covenant of the Goddess

Wiccan/Witchcraft credentialing and advocacy organization Covenant of the Goddess (COG) has launched a national survey to get feedback for a revisitation of their mission. Quote: “We are including a link to our national survey addressing our current Covenant of the Goddess Mission.  The Covenant of the Goddess(CoG) was founded in 1975.  Almost 40 years later, we would like to revisit our mission. To that end, we are surveying our membership and the Pagan/Wiccan community at large to determine whether these goals have been achieved, or should remain and/or whether others should be added. The survey is completely anonymous and should only take a few moments of your time.  Your input is really needed!  We will provide a report of the outcome (summary) data at the next CoG annual meeting in August 2014. Deadline for submission of this survey is July 20thPlease feel free to share the link to this survey to others in the Pagan/Wiccan community at large. We need feedback from all of you!!” The link for the survey is right here.

[Photo Credit: Damh the Bard]

[Photo: Damh the Bard]

On June 14th we reported on the installation of a commemorative Blue Plaque for “father of modern Witchcraft” Gerald Gardner. That article ended with a questions, which English figure would next receive that honor? Well Asheley Mortimer, trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation, does have some ideas on that front. Quote: “A Blue Plaque is a marker for an historic moment, at the Centre For Pagan Studies we see it as a duty to ensure that as individuals like Doreen Valiente and Gerald Gardner pass, inevitably, from persons of living memory to figures of history the place they take in history is their rightful one, the blue plaques add to the positive wider public perception of Pagans and demonstrate that their achievements are every bit as life-changing and important to the world as historic figures from the mainstream […] As for who is next . . . it doesn’t have to be a witch at all, we are thinking about other figures from the Pagan community such as the druid Ross Nichols, and the like . . . , Alex Sanders and Aliester Crowley have also been mentioned as has Stewart Farrar . . . . basically we’re very open to suggestions . . . “ Do you have a suggestion? You can contact the Centre For Pagan Studies here.

In Other Pagan Community News:

Sabina Magliocco at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies. (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Sabina Magliocco at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies. (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

  • I hope everyone had a good Summer Solstice (or Winter Solstice if you live ’round Australia), here’s how the Patheos Pagan Channel marked the holiday.
  • Hungarian Pagan band The Moon and The Nightspirit have a new album coming out! Quote: “We are happy to announce that our new album, “Holdrejtek” will be released on August 15th on Auerbach Tontraeger/Prophecy Productions. In tandem with “Holdrejtek”, our early albums, “Of Dreams Forgotten and Fables Untold” (2005), “Regő Rejtem” (2007), and “Mohalepte” (2011) will be re-issued in digipack format with revised layouts.” Here’s the label website.
  • The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions have announced the open bidding process for the next parliament. Quote: “We are pleased to announce the opening of the bid process for a city to host the 2017 Parliament of the World’s Religions. A Parliament event showcases ways in which religions shape positive action to address the challenges of our times, and seeks to develop new tools for implementing those actions in the years to come.” As The Wild Hunt has noted on several occasions, modern Pagans are deeply involved with the council and the parliament, and we will be keeping an eye on this process as it moves forward.
  • So, after your crowdfunding project gets everything it has asked for, what do you do next (aside from fulfill the funded project itself)? Morpheus Ravenna ponders the question. Quote: “I’m contemplating other ways to give back to the community out of the funds that are continuing to come in. I would love to hear from you. What else would you like to see as a next stretch project?”
  • Struggles between the Town of Catskill in New York and the Maetreum of Cybele continue. Quote: “This time the Town of Catskill is bringing suit against us for refusing a fire and safety inspection. (To clarify: this is actually a separate – though related – issue from the ongoing property tax case). Cathryn represented us and she did an excellent job. There was a different attorney representing the town this time (NOT Daniel Vincelette), this one was just as much of an obnoxious bully, though. He was accusing us of running an illegal Inn, pointing his finger at Cathryn and making aggressive gestures.” You can read our full coverage of the Maetreum’s tax battles with the town, here.

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

The Arkansas Times, at their blog, notice that there’s something going on in the town of Beebe.

“Heard of the Seekers Temple? If not, I expect you will before long. It’s a pagan temple and store that says it has run into a slew of headaches in attempting to pursue its business and religion in Beebe, Ark. Bertram and Felicia Dahl, the high priest and priestess of Seekers Temple, have this extensive account, “Problems in Beebe.” They say Beebe officials had welcomed their move from El Paso until they found out they were pagans.”

As the Arkansas Times noted, the Dahl’s narrative is eye-opening, and a reminder of how local officials can work against you if they don’t like who you are, or what you believe.

Seekers Temple“Mayor Robertson said that we were not zoned for a church or business, so we pointed out two churches across the street.  He said that our side of the street is not zoned for it, so we pointed out commercial property for sale next to us and a business out of a barn next to that and a business out of a house next to that (run by our alderman).  He said that the business zone ends at our property and was not allowed from there on down, so we pointed out a business next to us on the other side, run out of a home.  He said that in Beebe, they zone individual property and ours was not zoned for it, so we ask what we had to do to get it re-zoned.  He said we do not have enough parking, so we pointed out that we have more parking than some of the restaurants in town and much more than the other businesses run out of homes.  He said there was no way we were having our church there, so we ask about just opening the store and keeping our group as a small in-house meeting of friends.  He admitted that he can not stop us from having friends over, but that he would be watching and he would break it up if we had too many people over (true to his word, police sit and watch our house often).  He said we would have to speak with the city attorney about opening a store and what we could have in it and he would have that person call us (this never happened) and that was the end of our meeting.  We have ask many times since then, but he has not granted us another meeting.”

It gets worse, as there have been accusations of continual harassment by a local Christian church, and the arrest of Bertram Dahl when he tried to appeal to the church on their own property.

“On 2014 May 21, as the members of the church were gathering, I walked into the church and ask for there attention.  I told them what was going on and how the Pastor (which is who we thought the Bishop was at the time) and the Elders were ignoring our pleas.  I asserted that we did not believe they would all approve of what was going on and ask for their help in talking to their church leaders about not harassing us.  I left the church and went home in the hopes of having a meeting with some of the members and finding a solution.  Instead of having members show up, I was ask to come out of my home by three police officers and told we were no longer welcome at the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church.  The officers told me I would have to take the matter to the courts and they left.  I have not been over there since.   

    The next week, to the day, 2014 May 28, two officers came and arrested me for Disorderly Conduct and Harassing Communications.  This had been filled by Jason E. Scheel (who had in fact harassed us) and John Scheel (whom we have never met nor talked to).  The City must have informed Mr. Scheel that they were coming to arrest me as is evident by his sitting in a car across the street watching me be arrested (may I also point out at this time that they did NOT read me my rights).  We had to pay $320 to get me out of jail with a plea date of July 9.”

On the Seeker’s Temple’s official Facebook page, they further clarify their current status.

Seekers Temple house (Google maps).

Seekers Temple house (Google maps).

“Thank you to all the people who are giving us suggestions. We need to be clear on a few things that seem to be confusing.  We are not a new temple trying to open. We have in fact been open, and legal, for over five years. The reason Beebe is an issue is because we moved here.  We do not have the money for a legal battle and that is why we are asking for your help. We need letters saying you want us open in Beebe and we need people to stand with us at city hall to show that the public wants us to exist. All of this is spelled out at www.seekerstemple.com/problems-in-beebe . Please, before you comment, go read the story.  And truly, thank you all for taking your time to get involved at whatever level you are able. Blessed Be you All.”

Unlike other cases, I don’t think this is one where the local mayor will be easily pressured into grudging tolerance. As the Arkansas Times points outMayor Mike Robertson has some firm ideas of who should be in control (ie Christians). 

“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.”

So what happens next? The temple is asking for fiscal, legal, and local support to help them navigate this seeming attempt to run them out of town through the exercise of “soft” power.

“We are asking that people show up at City Hall at 6:30pm on the fourth Monday of each month until we are heard and/or donate to Seekers Temple by mail or at PayPal account SeekersTemple@yahoo.com and/or write your letter of support in opening our temple and store in Beebe, AR. and send it to our address or by email to Priest@SeekersTemple.com”

The Wild Hunt is currently seeking an interview with Bertram and Felicia Dahl, and we should hopefully have that up later this week. In the meantime, it sounds like Arkansas Pagans have problems in Beebe, and it may be time for national Pagan organizations to step in and offer help.

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.

On Monday, police in Bluefield, West Virginia arrested James Irvin on multiple charges of sexual abuse and sexual assault against children. Local West Virginia media say that according to the police report, Irvin allegedly promised magical feats of healing and even resurrection of the dead so long as the children complied with his requests.

James Irvin. Screenshot taken from WVVA coverage.

James Irvin. Screenshot taken from WVVA coverage.

“According to the criminal complaint, two of the victims lived with their mother and stepfather in Irvin’s home on Giles Street when the alleged offenses occurred in 2007. The complaint states the alleged sex acts were performed under the guise of Pagan/Wiccan rituals, of which Irvin was a follower. One victim testified that Irvin forced her to perform the sexual acts, described as ‘magic’ to ‘make mommy well,’ the complaint states. […] A third victim — a friend of the family — has also come forward to report that she was sexually abused by Irvin on four occasions at his home. She told police, according to the criminal complaint, that Irvin told her the ‘magic’ acts could ‘make her recently deceased father come back.'”

As news of this arrest spread through the Pagan community, anger at Irvin’s alleged crimes were evident, with some asking how anyone could distort Wicca, which places an emphasis on not harming others, into something that could encompass the sexual abuse of children. Cat Chapin-Bishop, former Chair of Cherry Hill Seminary’s Pastoral Counseling Department, with over 20 years of experience as a counselor specializing in work with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, says that in some cases religion or claims to supernatural powers are merely a means to an end for perpetrators of abuse.

“For some perpetrators the lies and deceptions they use to manipulate children are something they enjoy, in and of themselves. For others, they’re just a means to an end: controlling child victims. Whatever is the case here, as terrible as it is that our religious beliefs have been distorted in such an ugly way as part of this abuse, the real horror is the crime itself: children betrayed by adults they should have been able to trust. This is the real tragedy here.”

Covenant of the Goddess, a national organization that works to network and empower Wiccan and religious Witchcraft traditions in the United States, issued a statement on this arrest from its Hills & Rivers Local Council, which serves the Pennslyvania, western New York State, and West Virginia area.

“Our faith depends on strict ethics that ask us to harm no one. The Wiccan religion does not tolerate acts that abuse children in any way. It is against our code of ethics to do anything of this nature. We are disheartened to learn that anyone would use our religion to harm children.” – Lady Annabelle, First Officer of Hills & Rivers Local Council, Covenant of the Goddess and High Priestess of Grove of Gaia.

Lady Annabelle went on to add that Hills & Rivers Local Council has reached out to local media in Bluefield to, quote, “offer any information or assistance in the reporting of this story and future stories that involve Wicca and Paganism.” 

Chapin-Bishop, who recently wrote a guest post for The Wild Hunt on how to best respond to abuse within the Pagan community, adds that whatever Irvin’s beliefs may or may not have been, “it’s a good reminder to our community of the wisdom of doing background checks on anyone who is working directly with children. We may not detect every offender this way, but it will be worth it to detect those we can.” As for Irvin, he is currently being held on $100,000 bond, and may face additional charges according to WVVA’s Lindsay Oliver. We will keep you posted as this story develops.