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This year’s Antelope Valley Pagan Pride Day (AVPPD) had some unwelcome guests, a small group of loud protesters yelling Christian prayers and slogans. AVPPD organizers asked police to disperse the protesters, but the Lancaster Sheriff’s deputies refused to assist.
The AVPPD event took place September 27 at George Lane Park in Los Angeles County. The organization had rented a portion of the park, and was just getting ready for its first ritual of the day, a Heathen Blot scheduled at 10:30 am, when four protesters arrived. They carried signs with bible verses on them. The protesters did not attempt to enter the park, but stood on the sidewalk as one of them yelled prayers and admonishments about going to Hell.
Lisa Morgenstern, president of the First Pantheistic Center of the Antelope Valley which is the sponsoring organization for AVPPD, approached the group and asked them to not enter the park or disrupt the worship service with its yelling. Ms. Morgenstern captured the encounter on video.
Morgenstern says the protesters interfered with their religious service. “It delayed the beginning of our opening blot, because we were trying to get police response. And there were some children that he frightened because he was shouting.”Morgenstern called the Lancaster Sheriff’s Station to ask for assistance. In California, it is a misdemeanor to intentionally interfere with a public meeting or assembly, such as a public prayer vigil, and carries a possible 6 month jail sentence. There is a similar law, with a higher penalty, which makes it illegal to disturb a religious meeting, but this only covers worship services held in a tax-exempt place of worship. Morgenstern says:
I called the station directly instead of 911 since it was not an emergency per se. Unfortunately I do not remember the name of the Sheriff’s Deputy with whom I spoke. He did tell me, however, that despite the fact that we had a religious event going on, that he could not take action because the picketers were not on the park property but on the public sidewalk. I walked towards Wayne to notify him of this information and he pointed out the Deputy parked on the lawn, and I spoke further and walked over to him. As I walked the Deputy on the phone was apologetic but did say that they would make a point to slow down their drive-bys when they came by the park to make their presence known. Deputy Goldman told me the same thing after speaking with the Deputy at the station on my cell phone at the request of the station Deputy, that he could take no action without them stepping into the park. At this point I was in tears because I know that it is illegal to disturb a religious worship service in California intentionally, and this was definitely intentional. I asked Deputy Goldman, who was still sitting in his vehicle by the way, if he could walk over to where they were and maybe just observe them and cross his arms and let them know he was there, or look threatening? Please? He responded, ‘I’m not going to do that.’
Morgenstern says the group went ahead with the blot and tried to drown out the protesters, who continued to yell until they left, sometime in the afternoon. “The things that he was yelling bothered me enough that I actually turned on some music and tried to drown him out,” says Morgenstern.This is not the first time an Antelope Valley Pagan event has been disturbed by protesters, nor is it the first time the Lancaster Sheriff’s department has refused to help.
On March 16th, 2002, a Spring Equinox ritual was held in the parking lot of a Lancaster Pagan shop when a group of Christians arrived to protest. According to news site Unknown Country:
At first the Christian guests remained mostly seated along the edge of the Pagan ceremony, praying quietly. Among them was a volunteer chaplain from the Lancaster Sheriff’s Office who sat in an SUV with its motor running. But as the ceremony got rolling, the Rev. John Canavello [of Life Changers Christian Center ], who has since been suspended from the Sheriff’s office, allegedly pumped up the volume on his car stereo, drowning out the Pagan songs with a loud blast of Christian music, according to High Priestess Cyndia Riker, owner of the Witches Grove gift shop, which hosted the event. Rikker says the protesters then circled the Pagans and began praying loudly.
This time, too, the Lancaster Sheriff’s department, located 3 blocks from the store, was called but didn’t arrive until 4 ½ hours later, long after the Equinox service had ended and the protesters were gone. Lancaster Sheriff’s Capt. Tom Pigott said California law only places limits on protests taking place in tax-exempt buildings that disturb a group, not events held in parking lots.
The AVPPD doesn’t know to what organization or church the protesters from the September 2014 event belong. But organizers say they feel unsafe knowing local law enforcement won’t assist them if they have problems. “Our Pagan Pride event is considering whether or not we need to move back to Palmdale,” says Morgenstern. She added, “We had moved to a county park to save money, but I can say with great confidence that if I call the police in Palmdale, we get response there. The mayor of Palmdale, James Ledford, in grave contrast to the standing Mayor of Lancaster, is open minded, and attends almost every Antelope Valley Interfaith Council event.”