Pagan Religious Discrimination in the US Today
In this day and age, when discrimination is mentioned, the first thing that pops to mind here in America, is discrimination based on race. Sometimes one may also think of gender, but almost never does one think of religion. Discrimination, prejudice, and persecution on the basis of religion are often relegated to history, to the Holocaust or the time several centuries ago when the Puritans came to America or to the Inquisition. Yet, religious prejudice is alive and well in our modern society, especially against practitioners of the “Old Religions,” those who practice Paganism. Paganism is not a religion itself; it is a category of religions. These include Wicca, or Witchcraft, as it is also known, Druidism, Odinism, and the Native American Shamanistic traditions, as well as many others. These religions often have a belief in some type of magic, they are often polytheistic, meaning they believe in multiple Gods and/or Goddesses, they often believe in some type of reincarnation rather than a “heaven,” and they are usually “nature-based” meaning they have a strong reverence for the Earth and all forms of life. None of these is however a universal belief, and there are many others that are more or less collectively held. Ever since the repeal of the anti-witchcraft laws in Great Britain in 1951 (US Army 231), and the recognition of Wicca as a legitimate religion by the US government in 1985 (“Witches’ Federal” 1), the number of practitioners of these religions has grown rapidly. Today, estimates range anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 Pagans in the United States alone (Drobac 3). The number of solitary practitioners, the many different beliefs among different religions that fall into the Pagan category, and the lack of a hierarchy within each pagan religion, such as the individual Christian religions have, make a more precise estimation difficult if not impossible. More and more people are “coming out of the broom closet,” as it is jokingly called among Pagans, and letting their faith be known. However, the age-old prejudices, fears, and problems are cropping up more and more often as well. Discrimination of Pagans is not perpetrated and perpetuated solely by the closed-minded individuals in our society, but also by corporations, public school systems, and even by members of our state governments.
In October of 1998, Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci ran a political ad targeting his opponent, then Massachusetts Attorney General, Scott Harshbarger. In 1992 the Attorney General had stepped in and threatened to prosecute radical-right televangelists for assaulting and threatening Wiccans in Salem (Walker, “Unconstitutional” 4). This according to Cellucci was an example of “misplaced priorities” (Walker, “Unconstitutional” 1), instead of the response to a violation of civil rights and near violation of the state’s hate crime laws that it really was. The only explanation given by his campaign spokesperson was that they are “outside the mainstream,” implying that because of that they had no rights (Walker, “Unconstitutional” 1). The political ad featured a police lineup consisting of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and a pointy hatted, wart-nosed witch. The announcer first mocks Harshbarger for banning Christmas decorations in the public areas of his offices, and then says that the Attorney General “threatened prosecution on behalf of the witches of Salem. Scary, huh?” The witch then throws back her head and cackles (“Witches Take”). It is not only the lack of respect for civil rights, but also the perpetuation of a negative stereotype that angered local Massachusetts Pagans. Another instance involving a state governor occurred last May in Nebraska. Governor Mike Johanns declared May 22 “March for Jesus Day,” stating that it “was established as time for us to join together as people of many faiths so that we may pay homage to our divine authority” (“Nebraska” 1). Obviously he was ignoring the fact that no faith but Christianity claims Jesus as its divine authority. He did claim to offer the same courtesy to other faiths, though. He indicated he would sign similar proclamations for other religions, “I would nothesitate to sign a proclamation for the Jewish faith, Hinduism, whatever,” but qualified that statement by adding, “so long as it doesn’t require me to sign something I don’t personally agree with,” and in response to a hypothetical question he said he would not sign a proclamation for Wicca (“Wicca” 1). These statements not only defy the first amendment, but also directly go against the 1971 U.S Supreme Court decision, Lemon vs. Kurtszman, that, to be constitutional, a government action must “(1) have a secular purpose (2) neither promote or inhibit religion and (3) not entangle the government with religion” (Walker, “WitchVox” 1). Governor Johanns obviously violated all three of these with his March for Jesus Day proclamation and violated the First Amendment by refusing to sign a similar Wiccan proclamation.
Corporations are also trying to define which religions are okay for their purposes. The most recent case of this involves the Bi-Lo Supermarket chain, owned by the parent company Royal Ahold, which also owns Giant Food Stores, Stop & Shop and many other companies around the world. Bi-Lo runs a program called the Booster Program. In it, nonprofit organizations sign up and when people shop at Bi-Lo they can designate a portion of what they spend to go to up to three of the organizations. During the summer of 1999, Witches Against Religious Discrimination, Inc. (WARD) acquired the proper paperwork and signed up. Later, they received a phone call informing them that they did not meet the program guidelines. They were told the guidelines, and WARD did, in fact, meet them. When confronted with that fact, the woman on the phone admitted that “basically it boiled down to that Bi-Lo does not want to associate with [the] organization because [they] are witches” (Wynne 1). She also stated that she and the Board of Directors of Bi-Lo felt that allowing WARD to participate would cause controversy and bring ill will toward their organization. WARD told her that other companies including Alamo Rental Cars had previously included WARD in such promotions with no ill effects, but the answer was still no. Darla Wynne, the Assistant National Director of WARD stated that “When I asked her if she would decline a black organization because they were black or a Jewish organization because they were Jewish, her response was ‘Oh, Lord, no!’ And I pointed out that if she would notdecline them because they were black or Jewish, then how could she decline us for being Witches and Wiccans, and got no response” (1). WARD is now considering having the ACLU look into the matter.
Organizations are not the only ones having trouble with businesses in the religious area. Some individuals have been fired and others have come dangerously close in Pagan related incidents. Andy McGuire, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, maintains his company’s website as a part of his job. The idea came up to include links to employee’s personal sites as a way for customers to get to know them better. Mr. McGuire’s boss liked the idea, so he began with three sites. One of these was his own, and contained information on his and his wife’s practice of Paganism and Wicca. Later, he was called into the vice president’s office and almost fired, because, as the written discipline report stated, he had “linked the company’s site to another site that mentioned Paganism” (Campbell 2). The vice president of the company had not even bothered to look at the site himself; the fact that someone told him it referred to paganism was enough for the write-up. While Mr. McGuire did not lose his job, he came close. Jean Webb, a Wiccan resident of Republic, Missouri, was not as lucky. She worked for the Republic Monitor, the local newspaper, until last summer, when she wrote an editorial supporting the removal of the Christian fish from the town seal. Soon after, she was fired and she can only assume it was because of the editorial and the ensuing controversy. Four months later, she still had not been able to find another job locally and has received harassing phone calls accusing her of being a devil worshiper (Rogers 2).
Schools across the nation have caused trouble for pagan teachers as well. Already this year, two teachers were disciplined in just less than a month in Wiccan related incidents. The first occurred in North Carolina, where 11th grade English teacher Sheri Eicher was suspended and ultimately forced to leave her position. On January 10, 2000, Mrs. Eicher was suspended indefinitely with pay because of the website of the coven she and her husband lead (Eicher, “A Letter” 1). The site, which bore a notice stating, “if you are under 18 or offended by nudity, do not enter” contained pictures of rituals, in one of which appeared several “skyclad” people. Skyclad is the term for ritual nudity in pagan ceremonies. It represents the stripping away of all disguises before the Deity. Mrs. Eicher does not practice this idea, was not one of the people in the picture, and her religion was no surprise to the school. She had told them of her religion approximately fourteen months before (Leclerq, “Wiccan Teacher Sent” 1-2). Some people in the community tried to claim that her religion had nothing to do with her suspension. They claimed that, “The crux of the issue is whether it’s appropriate for a schoolteacher to stand in front of students while sponsoring a web site with full frontal nudity” (Leclerq, “Wiccan Teacher’s Removal” 2). However, ritual nudity is a part of the religion and the lifestyle of many pagans. It is no more pornographic or sexual in nature than the nudity in National Geographic Magazine. On January 27th, it was decided that because “Ms. Eicher’s effectiveness in the classroom has been undermined at the present time by media and community attention” (Eicher, “Statement” 1), she would not be returning to her position with Scotland County Schools. Of course, if they had not started the controversy, Mrs. Eicher would not have been undermined in her position at all. The second incident involving a teacher occurred in Niles, Illinois. Eighth grade science teacher, Cheryl Malinowski served a three-day suspension in early February for giving a student a copy of Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. The girl was given the book because she was doing a report on herbal healing, and the book contains info on herbs (Haight, “Book Raises” 1). The father of the girl who received the book compared it to pornography, stating “what we’re upset about is having this available in the school. School officials would not give them a Playboy to look at. There has to be better sources of material on herbs than this” (Haight, “Book on Witchcraft” 2). Many members of the community consider her action proselytizing as if, by giving the child a source for her report, she was trying to convert her to Wicca. Wiccans, however, do not proselytize. They believe that you should only share the religion with those who seek it out, an idea that comes partially from growing tired of Christians who try to convert them and partially from the Burning Times, the pagan name for the Inquisition and the American and European witch-trials of the 17th century, during which discussion led to being burned at the stake. The papers that covered the story also received many letters to the editor expressing the sentiment, as Peg Aloi did, that “if Ms. Malinowski had offered a student a book on interpreting the Bible or the Koran or on Orthodox Jewish festivals, she would not have been subjected to such sensationalism and scrutiny” (1) and often others also suggested she would not even have been suspended.
The students of America’s schools are also having problems with freedom of religion. Three school districts in the last year and a half have tried to ban pentacles, a symbol of the Wiccan faith from the school dress code, listing it among such thinks as gang signs and the KKK. In all three cases, local pagans offered to allow the ban, as long as all other religious symbols such as the Christian cross and WWJD clothing and jewelry and the Jewish Star of David were also banned. Each time the school refused this measure of fairness. In October of 1999, Mark Lannoye, a sophomore student at Mesquite High School in Mesquite, Texas was told that he could no longer wear his pentacle or dress all in black. “They had been trying to keep me from wearing all black since eighth grade,” said Lannoye, “but this year, Mr. Nicks, the school principal called me into the office and told me that the school was going to stick to its policy, and that I was not going to be able to wear my pentacle” (Barbassa 1). The school alleged that such things could be considered gang paraphernalia. Mark repeatedly missed class because he had been called into the office for the way he dressed and refused to change clothes or remove the pentacle. The school records show that he had missed twenty-three class periods since school began that year, other than when he was sick. These records also show no reason for his missing them, even though for most of those class periods, the time was missed because the school officials made him come to the office (Barbassa 3). In November, after being threatened with a lawsuit, the school began to backpedal, claiming that they had never detained Mark and saying in writing that they had always permitted religious expression through dress, thereby giving the Lannoyes a long standing precedent to base their rights on and ending any problems they had had (Lannoye 1). In March of 1999 in Lincoln Park, Michigan, Crystal Seifferly went through a similar experience; however, she ended up going to court, supported by the ACLU, to defend her right to wear a pentacle. Her school had banned pentacles in an amendment to a longstanding ban on gang-related clothes and symbols (“Witch Wins” 3). She won the lawsuit, but the school still refused to remove the word pentacle from the dress code, only conceding its loss by saying that students will be allowed to wear a pentacle only if it is a symbol of their religion (Ortiz 1). The third recent occurrence of this happened in September of 1999 in Roswell, New Mexico. The Roswell ISD school board banned pentacles, even as a religious symbol. When word got out that the board was considering reversing the ban, more than 200 people came to the September 7th meeting, most of them Christians calling for the pentacle, which they saw as a Satanic symbol, to remain banned. Fifty-six people spoke for three and a half hours before a vote was taken. Kathryn King, a pagan minister in Roswell, spoke for a time, telling the crowd that Pagans are not devil-worshipers and was quoted as saying “I’m asking my Christian brothers and sisters to please allow us the same courtesy you’re getting” (Stephens 1). Even a couple of students spoke. “One kid, I think he had green hair, he was preaching tolerance – what was good for one religion was good for another. He did not get much applause though,” stated administrative assistant to the superintendent, Emma Burt (Stephens 1). One of the five board members was absent from the meeting, recovering from emergency surgery, and when the vote was taken, it was a tie, 2-2, so the ban remained in effect. After the meeting the pastor of the Church on the Move, Steve Smotherman, suggested that King, and Wiccans in general, should change their symbol if they want to wear one. “But she shouldn’t be allowed to promote anything which promotes violence” (Fuqua, “Pastor” 1). Evidently, he has not thought about how he would feel if someone told him to just pick another symbol, because they did not like the cross. There is no difference. He also said, “King may have claimed that the pentagram is actually a symbol of peace, but her beliefs don’t change centuries of symbolism. How can one person can one person change what a symbol means? You can’t take one symbol and say it doesn’t mean what you think it means because we don’t believe that” (Fuqua, “Pastor” 1). A member of his congregation supported these ideas saying that the pentagram had been seen as a satanic symbol for many centuries, and asked “Why would she pick a violent symbol to promote their love? It’s been known as a violent symbol from the Medieval Age on” (Fuqua, “Pastor” 1). Of course, both of them are ignoring what the pentacle has always meant to Pagans and what it meant to the indigenous peoples of Europe before the conversion to Christianity. They also ignore the fact that Christianity, and true Satanists did in fact change the symbolism. The pentacle, or pentagram, as it is sometimes called, is a five-pointed star inside a circle. To Wiccans and various other pagans, the lower four points each represent one of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The upper point represents Spirit. Spirit is the life force that connects us all. It is the soul and the inner self. The highest point represents Spirit because it is seen as above and more powerful than the four elements. The circle surrounding the star also represents many things- the unbroken circle of life, death and rebirth and the unending love of the Wiccan Goddess among others. Stating that the pentacle has been known as violent, etc, from the Medieval Age on, is actually a logical statement, but proves nothing, because the Medieval Age was the height of the Inquisition, one of the largest persecutions of non-Christians in history. On September 27th,after being made aware of the possibility of lawsuits and their probable outcome, the Roswell School Board voted again on the dress code, this time removing a list of symbols, including the pentacle, and any goth or occult references in favor of a sentence prohibiting items which show membership in any gang (Fuqua, “We Win” 1).
While these official cases of discrimination are happening, they are relatively rare. The trouble is that they are becoming more and more common. Even more common though, and harder to fight, are the “unofficial” happenings. Almost every Pagan in America has been called a demon-lover, devil-worshipper, or Satanist at least once in their life and usually much more than once. An email was sent to a Pagan mailing list called The Goddess 2000 Project on February 21, 2000 from a woman whose 16 year-old sister had a very comprehensive website. It contained almost sixty sections, some of them on Wicca and Paganism, had over 10,000 hits to the site and had taken her a very long time to make. Someone had hacked into her site and deleted everything (Hugh 1). They replaced all that they had deleted with a single page that contained nothing but the following text and picture.
| "Jesus saves all...don't worry sweet sweet Emily...you will be within
the Lord's heart for all times...He will forgive you of all your sins. He
will save you from the evil you call wicca...it hurts to type it....evil...pure
evil.....remeber...the Lord loves you."
(“Emma’s Page” 1). Granted, it was not a particularly hateful message, but it was anti-Wiccan, and hacking is against the law. Not only did they hack her site, they also hacked into her email and erased all of her saved emails and email addresses. At last notice, the woman was looking to see what kind of legal action they could take against those who did it (Hugh 1). This sort of personal action is not only happening online, but in the real world as well. Jean Webb, the woman who was fired from her job at the local newspaper, has answered the phone to a stream of obscenities many times. Also, when she leaves the house, or arrives home, a neighbor often stands outside shouting that she is “a witch who will face eternal damnation for what she’s done” (Rogers 1). The large stones in a field down the street from her house, where her daughter, Jessica, used to play, have become the canvas for graffiti accusing them of worshiping Satan. In fact Jessica received so much abuse at school that she is now being taught at home (Rogers 2). Andy McGuire’s 13-year-old daughter, Melinda, wore to school the pair of pentacle earrings she had received as a birthday present. Melinda said later, “One girl would only pass me in the hall by walking clear over to the other side of the hallway. She said I was a Satan-worshipper” (Campbell 6).
College Club is a website where college students can join clubs, post to message boards and, in general, interact with other college students around the world. Members of several Pagan clubs there were asked what kind of problems they had had from non-pagans. As with most websites, College Club members go by self-chosen nicknames, so their real names are unknown. Many of the responses included something along the lines of being them being told straight out “you’re going to hell” (Skylla), or being called Satanists, devil-worshippers and other similar names (Rowanstone 1, CobaltKat 1, Wind Dancing 1). Such responses were not from any one area of the country either. Wind Dancing, who is from Iowa, says that her entire family thinks she is a Satanist and that “My father still thinks that I sacrificed a guinea pig and buried it in the garden and refused to believe that I had given her to a friend.” She no longer goes to the local mall because many Christians go there to hang out. “At times [they] try to save me and when that doesn’t work they tell me I’m going to hell and threaten to send me there personally” (Wind Dancing 1). During Ladybugsum99’s senior year of high school in Blackwell, Oklahoma, a boy brought a deck of tarot cards to school and everyone was saying that the cards were a tool of the Devil. When she said she used them often and they were in no way associated with the Devil, the other students there asked her religion. “For the rest of the year I was called a Devil Worshiper and had water poured on me more than once to ‘baptize me.’” When she tried to get the harassment stopped by going to the teachers and principal, she was told to “stay out of their way and they would leave [her] alone” (Ladybugsum99 1). A girl called Cobaltkat, said that she had been cornered and actually spat upon (Cobaltkat 1). When NemetFox started wearing a pentacle to school, he noticed that everyone avoided him, staying as far away as possible in the halls (NemetFox 1). It is not just at high school that such harassment is occurring. When Rowanstone moved into her dorm her freshman year of college, she expected no problems. She was open about her religion in high school and no one had bothered her about it. When she moved into her dorm, she told her roommate what religion she followed and thought everything was okay. About four days later, though, she came into the room to find her roommate’s stuff was completely gone. Rowanstone saw her ex-roommate in the hall a few minutes later and was told she moved out “because her parents would not allow her to live with a devil worshipper” (Rowanstone 1). Rowanstone moved in with another girl who thought it was okay that Rowanstone was a witch. However, when she came back after the break between fall and spring semesters, Rowanstone again found she had no roommate. “She thought she could deal with the idea, but when it came down to my spells- like a healing one for a friend, or the fact that I used incense –thinking I used drugs, I believe, she could not deal with it and complained” (Rowanstone 1). That complaint about incense got Rowanstone in trouble, even though at her school incense is acceptable in dorms if it is for religious purposes. Rowanstone stated, “I still deal with the whispers. Yes, my entire dorm, all 1000 kids, know I am a witch. I am now the witch on the first floor. I never hear the end of ‘can you turn so-and-so into a frog’” (1).
Every instance of religious discrimination, prejudice, or persecution has an effect. Such instances make Pagans who have remained in the broom closet continue to stay there. In Carolyn Campbell’s article about Pagans in Utah, a woman identified only as Jane said, “Coming out of the broom closet publicly is something I feel very reluctant about. I might be discriminated against and experience subtle prejudice or misunderstanding” (1). In spite of the First Amendment and numerous other protective laws, religious prejudice against Pagan religions is rampant enough to force people into practicing their beliefs underground. The more Pagans stay in hiding, the fewer there will be to speak out against the negative stereotypes and claims that Pagans are Satanists who put curses on people they don’t like and turn people into frogs. Cases such as these indicate that the fewer who speak out, the more likely it is for those stereotypes to prevail, and the more instances of persecution, discrimination and prejudice against Pagans will occur. It is a vicious circle, and one that is hard to break. Some pagans who had previously been open about their beliefs had enough trouble and became disillusioned enough with people that they have moved to other towns and gone back into the broom closet. Even such actions do not always work. For example, Jean Webb, who was fired from her job in Republic, Missouri, was not open about her beliefs there. She and her family had moved to Republic three years earlier from Aurora, fifteen miles down the road. In Aurora, she had been openly Wiccan, but when they moved she decided not to mention her beliefs to anyone in Republic (Rogers 2). Obviously, this course of action did not work for her. Consequently, many Pagans try to keep their beliefs secret and worry about what would happen if they were found out. The reason they hide their beliefs, is not, as some Christians would say, a shame about what they believe. It is instead a fear instilled by history and what has happened to their fellow believers: a fear of what will happen to them, their families, and the lives they have built. Alex, a Druid from Logan, Utah, put it like this, “There actually is no freedom of religion in this country; it only exists if you practice what is considered the norm. You can’t be arrested for practicing what you believe, but you can certainly be ostracized, which is just as bad” (Campbell 5). While this is currently the case, Pagans can hope that it will not continue to be this way. Difficult as it is to do, the circle of prejudice, discrimination, and persecution modern Pagans find themselves in can be broken. The Webmaster of A Mistickal Grove said “Maybe it is time for us to claim our religion. Maybe we need to state our beliefs….We shouldn’t cower in the corner, but rather free ourselves of any binding lies. We should do this not only for ourselves and those closest to us, but for every Earth Spiritualist. For when “WE” exist, they can exist also. No one should feel alone when all of us know they are not. Not when they have obviously been guided on this path by someone. They say that there is strength in numbers…but not only that…there is also reaffirmation and acceptance” (A Mystickal Grove 2).
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