Pagan Community Notes: Week of April 25, 2022

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United States Supreme Court Building – Image credit: Carol M. HighsmithLibrary of Congress Catalog –  Public Domain 

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning in the case Kennedy v. Bremerton School District which could have a major impact on what is allowed in schools in public functions. and potentially threaten the religious freedom of every public school student in the U.S.

There is much concern within the Pagan and other religious communities that a ruling in favor of Kennedy by the Supreme Court could result in those who follow minority religions or beliefs being subjected to, forced, or pressured into publicly engaging in prayers that do not reflect their beliefs.

Selena Fox is a member of the Faith Advisory Council of Americans United for Separation of Church and State which is representing the Bremerton School District. Fox said that members had provided input to Americans United via the Faith Advisory Council on this case and other similar cases.

According to attorney Andrew L. Seidel, reporting on the Americans United Twitter feed, “This case threatens the religious freedom of every public school student in the nation. Religious freedom itself, which depends on the separation of church and state, hangs in the balance.”

The case centers on whether the public Bremerton School District had the constitutional authority to prevent high school football coach, Joseph Kennedy from continuing his longstanding practice of leading student-athletes in mid-field prayer immediately after games.

According to filings in the case, coach Kennedy frequently led prayers with his players before and after games at Bremerton High School in Washington state. What started as Kennedy going alone to the 50-yard line after games to offer silent prayers in thanksgivings, grew with some of the players (from both teams) joining him and then expanded into him offering motivational speeches.

When the school board learned this was happening, they attempted to resolve the issue by offering Kennedy other options for expressing his faith that did not involve using a public space, and would not potentially violate the school board’s policy on “Religious-Related Activities and Practices.”

According to court records, a letter sent by the school board in September of 2015 informed Kennedy that he was “free to engage in religious activity, including prayer, so long as it does not interfere with job responsibilities. Such activity must be physically separate from any student activity, and students may not be allowed to join such activity. In order to avoid the perception of endorsement discussed above, such activity should either be non-demonstrative (i.e., not outwardly discernible as religious activity) if students are also engaged in religious conduct, or it should occur while students are not engaging in such conduct.”

While coach Kennedy initially complied with the school board’s request, he eventually retained attorneys to examine whether his 1st Amendment constitutional right was being violated.

A month later, Kennedy not only opted to continue his mid-field prayers after the game, but also had his attorneys send a letter to the Bremerton School District demanding they rescind the directives outlined in their September letter, but also announced his intent to pray at mid-field after the October 16 game.

His announcement to directly challenge the School District’s directives was highly publicized and ultimately resulted in a virtual stampede of those in support of Kennedy jumping the fence and knocking down other students and parents in attendance at the game. This happened despite the School District’s attempts to secure the field and notify the public and those in attendance that they were prohibited on the field after the game. The Bremerton School District sent Kennedy another letter stating his conduct violated policy and highlighted the other options available to him – undertaking his mid-field prayer after the stadium was empty, or holding his prayer elsewhere on the grounds in private.

Kennedy’s response was to reach out to the media and claim the only possible solution he would accept was for him to be allowed to conduct his mid-field prayers after the game.

He then repeated his mid-field prayer after games, on October 23 and 26, which resulted in the school district placing Kennedy on paid administrative leave, citing his alleged failure “to follow district policy regarding religious expression” and his failure “to supervise student-athletes after games.” Ultimately Kennedy did not reapply for his position once his contract expired, so the school had no cause to consider or renew his contract.

Instead of re-applying for his position, Kennedy brought suit against the school district in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington to regain his lost job, claiming the school’s policy violated his Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The district court ruled against his claim, and on appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that Kennedy “spoke as a public employee when he kneeled and prayed on the fifty-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents.”

The precedent set by the Supreme Court in the 2005 case, Garcetti v. Ceballos holds that “When public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, they are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”

Students involved in the case made statements that they felt coerced to participate in the prayers, and the case has since been dubbed “Pray to Play” in the media.

While the Supreme Court declined to hear Kennedy’s case in 2019, at the time Justice Alito joined by Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, wrote that the case was “troubling and may justify review in the future” in regard to free speech of teachers.

Since that decision, Kennedy has continued to seek to have the decision appealed, which the Ninth Circuit court again sided with the Bremerton School District, concluding that:

BSD would have violated the Establishment Clause by allowing Kennedy to pray at the conclusion of football games, in the center of the field, with students who felt pressured to join him.

Kennedy’s attempts to draw nationwide attention to his challenge to BSD compels the conclusion that he was not engaging in private prayer, but was instead engaging in public speech of an overtly religious nature while performing his job duties. BSD tried to reach an accommodation for Kennedy, but that was spurned by his insisting that he be allowed to pray immediately after the conclusion of each game, likely surrounded by students who felt pressured to join him

They also noted that Kennedy’s access to the field was a privilege of his position as coach, and was also something denied to those of any of other belief or faith.

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image credit: Pixabay

TWH – Saturday marked the 15th anniversary of the federal government fully recognizing the pentacle as a symbol of faith and adding it to the list of symbols allowed on the headstones of veterans.

In September of 2005, Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart, who was Wiccan, was killed in action in Afghanistan when his Chinook helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade while returning to base.

Sgt. Stewart’s widow, Roberta Stewart received an unpleasant shock when she was informed that a pentacle was not on the approved list of religious symbols by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Roberta Stewart reached out to Selena Fox and Circle Sanctuary, which had long been trying to get the pentacle recognized as a symbol of faith, and was part of the work being done by the Lady Liberty League. What followed was two years of back and forth with the federal government and Veteran’s Affairs over the inclusion of the pentacle. Fox frequently updated the efforts being undertaken, and they were often covered in Circle Magazine. There is a collation and timeline of the various events on Circle’s website.

While the federal government would not recognize the pentacle as an approved symbol of faith, Nevada state officials, including the governor, Kenny Guinn made the decision to recognize the pentacle in September of 2006, a year after Stewart’s death. A plaque with the pentacle was installed for Sgt. Stewart at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery two months later.

Americans United (AU) for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit on November 13, 2006, on the behalf of Roberta Stewart in federal court. AU alleged that by not allowing the pentacle as one of the approved symbols, the federal government was guilty of discrimination.

Eventually, the lawsuit got the attention of the Department of Justice and on April 23, 2007, AU held a press conference announcing that the pentacle was now on the list of approved symbols for the VA. The list of symbols approved by the VA now numbers close to eighty, with more symbols being added periodically.


Announcements:

    • Beltane in the Park is scheduled for this year at Savanna’s Recreational Park (1400 E. Midway Road) in Fort Pierce, Florida on Sunday, May 1, 10:00 am – 4:00 pm. The event will offer vendors, workshops, rituals, and a maypole. The whole family, including their pets, are welcome for a day of fun. The event is produced by non-profit, PSL Witches and Pagans and more details about their organization and the event can be found on their website.
    • Circle Sanctuary’s 2022 Beltane Festival will be in-person at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve this weekend, April 29 – May 1. The festival will include Morris Dancers, workshops, Maypole dancing, bonfire, rituals & more. Pre-registration is required, no registrations will be accepted at the gate. The event also has specific COVID-19 mitigation protocols in place, and vaccination and proof of vaccination are required and must be submitted online prior to the event.
    • Research Survey – Uppsala University in Sweden: a student working on their Master’s thesis in Theology in Sweden is requesting participants for their research on neo-Pagan and Witchcraft movements, and would very much appreciate the involvement and the wisdom of this community. The student wrote that “the survey has been created without judgment and prejudice and with high respect to this community.” The research is for those 18-years of age or older. It is anonymous and results will be used only for scientific research. The survey will take about 10-15 minutes to complete.  It will be open until 6 May, 23:00 Central European Time (UTC +1).

In other news:

  • For the first time in four years, the birth of six red wolf pups has been reported by Red Wolf Recovery Program in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge located along the coast of northeastern North Carolina. “This new litter is the first wild-born litter of red wolves since 2018. This red wolf pair was formed through the combination of several management actions and the two red wolves subsequently followed their natural instincts in pairing, establishing their territory, and mating,”  a post on the group’s Facebook said. “Every generation yields a new born hope for the red wolf…a cause for joy and celebration!” Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. Through the efforts of the Red Wolf Recovery Program, 63 healthy red wolves were released back into the wild. Their numbers grew to about 120 in 2012 until they were once again almost extinct due to being mistaken for coyotes and killed by humans. Their population reached a dangerous low of between 17 to 20 in the wild. Current numbers place their population between 14 and 17, so these newborn pups have conservationists very excited. There are an additional 241 red wolves alive in captivity.


Positively Noteworthy

ASHEVILLE, North Carolina – A bear caused quite a stir over the weekend when it strolled through downtown and then climbed a tree in Pritchard Park. Bears are a common feature of Western North Carolina, though seeing one downtown like this was a bit unusual since they generally avoid areas with lots of people and activity.

Police officers cleared the area around the bear and eventually, it came down from the tree and left the area.



Tarot of the week by Star Bustamonte

Deck: Tarot of Mermaids, by Pietro Alligo, artwork by Mauro de Luca, instructions by Bepi Vigna and Robert Roda published by Lo Scarabeo.

Card: Five (5) of Wands (Oars)

This week holds the potential for friendly rivalry, competition with an emphasis on athletics, and training that is focused on building a sustainable path forward.

Conversely, the inability to follow well-thought-out plans or lacking a plan altogether, as well as misinterpreting the intentions of others, is unlikely to yield any positive results.

Decks generously provided by Asheville Pagan Supply.


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