The ACLU, South Carolina, and Religious Minorities

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 8, 2008 — 3 Comments

As I have reported previously on this blog, South Carolina is quickly becoming one of the “hot zones” in battles over church and state. You had Wiccan Darla Wynne’s victory over sectarian prayer in Great Falls, the ongoing plan by conservative Christians to legislate around that judgment, and a controversial “I Believe” specialty license plate created solely for Christians about to be approved. So it is troubling to hear that the local chapter of the ACLU has become so dysfunctional that the national organization has swooped in to take over.

“If there is one state that can ill afford an ineffective chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union it arguably is South Carolina … in recent years [the SC ACLU chapter] been hampered by ideological squabbling among its board members, staff leadership turnover, lackluster membership and fundraising numbers and a virtually nonexistent media presence. Aware of the problems for some time, the national ACLU board has decided to step in and try to right the ship. The decision made national news.”

The only comfort here is that with the national ACLU board “driving”, we may see a revitalized ACLU chapter in South Carolina, and greater resources being poured into the looming legal battles developing in the state. Over the years the ACLU has been an important resource for modern Pagans seeking redress against discriminatory or unconstitutional policies and practices. Without the ACLU, and similar organizations like Americans United and the FFRF, many of the seminal legal cases that have helped establish precedents and decisions favoring the growth and free exercise of modern Paganism in America may not have happened.

Of course modern Pagans and church-state separation organizations don’t always see eye to eye. In New York, the town board of Greece is defending its sectarian prayer policy by making the opening prayers inclusive of all faiths. This has allowed a local Wiccan to deliver a sectarian Pagan prayer before a recent board meeting.

“In just a few seconds’ time during the April Town Board meeting, Jennifer Zarpentine made Greece history. Zarpentine, a Wiccan, delivered the first-ever pagan prayer to open a meeting of the Greece Town Board. Her hands raised to the sky, she called upon Greek deities Athena and Apollo to ‘help the board make the right informed decisions for the benefit and greater good of the community.’ A small cadre of her friends and coven members in the audience chimed in ‘so mote it be.'”

Americans United, who recently helped win the veteran Pentacle case, is suing the town board in order to force it to switch to nonsectarian prayer (or no prayer at all). A move Wiccan Jennifer Zarpentine disapproves of.

“Zarpentine said she was pleased by the opportunity to pray at the meeting. ‘I thought the invocation went well,’ she said. ‘The board was respectful;, they all bowed their heads.’ As far as the lawsuit goes, Zarpentine said the town isn’t being discriminatory. ‘They are including everybody,’ she said. ‘They asked me.'”

Which illustrates a point where there is some divergence between groups like the ACLU and modern Pagans. Most modern Pagans are fine with religious expression so long as there is full and consistent inclusion. While the AU, and similar organizations, take a harder line of enforcing nonsectarian or nothing.

“We’re glad to see that the (Town Board) is now cognizant of the diversity of the community, and it’s too bad it took a lawsuit to get them to see the light … While the Wiccan prayer will likely be more inclusive than prayers offered in the past, that doesn’t change that what we want is for the town to adopt a policy that prayer-givers offer nonsectarian prayers.”

Despite these differences, our faith groups have generally experienced a net gain in allying ourselves with church-state separation advocacy organizations. This will most likely continue until modern Pagan organizations gather sufficient fiscal and political power to form their own legal advocacy groups. Even then, I don’t foresee a day where Pagans will be unhappy with the ACLU or AU fighting to keep religion out of politics in America. A truly democratic and secular country is one where the religious minority doesn’t have to fear outright discrimination or persecution.

Jason Pitzl-Waters