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Wiccans Seek Justice: AU Wins Lawsuit for Wiccans

Author: Aradia Beatnik Betty
Posted: September 2nd. 2007
Times Viewed: 4,613

Many people have found refuge from religious persecution within our nation's borders. History tells us of the many persecuted who fled from Europe to America where they were promised refuge, no matter what their religion. Religious freedom is a blessing, but many of the estimated 400, 000 Wiccans and Pagans who call this country home still fear being publicly recognized as such because of prejudices and misunderstandings. Even in recent years, government officials have made disparaging remarks about Wiccans and Pagans, including comments made by James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, in November 2003 when he suggested that "fringe" religious groups such as Pagans won't get funding through the Bush administration's "faith-based" initiative.

Just a year earlier in December 2002, Cynthia Simpson was discriminated against by the Chesterfield County, Virginia Board of Supervisors when they refused to add her to the list of volunteer clergy to offer prayer invocations, and was told that because her beliefs are not consistent with Judeo-Christian traditions, she would not be added to the list of clergy.

The discrimination that exists toward Pagans is rooted in unfortunate ignorance and bias, and it is an issue that will continue to be addressed for the sake of religious liberty for all.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State's lawsuit against the VA for refusing to approve the Pentacle on the list of symbols for deceased soldiers responded to the bias which threatened the religious freedoms of Wiccan and Pagan soldiers.

The Pentacle, a five-pointed encircled star, is a sacred symbol to many Wiccans and Pagans because of its representation of the five elements; earth, air, fire, water, and spirit, joined in the circle of life. Although many other symbols hold sacred meaning for Pagans, (e.g., a triple-crescent moon, a spiral, etc) the Pentacle has become a controversial one because of its false association with Satan, or the Devil. It is also reversed in some of these cases to create the shape of a “horned goat-head” from the legs of the star. This is another distortion of the reality of the Pentacle, and an unfair portrayal of those who know it as a positive symbol of the Wiccan faith.

In the darkness of 15th, 16th, and 17th century medieval Europe, those who did not profess Christianity were labeled “Pagan, ” a derogatory term meant to exclude and insult. Today, some have reclaimed this word and proudly call themselves “Pagan” or “Neo-Pagan.” Still, others refuse the term because of its negative historical stigma. The same is true about the word “Witch.” To some it is an ancient word meaning “wise one, ” but to others is insulting. We can blame this false stigma perhaps on the media and Hollywood, who some think have turned the shaman-like “witch” or healer, into an evil, warty old woman, cackling and flying on a broomstick.

When you remove the misconceptions and falsehoods, all of these words, -- Witch, Wicca, Pagan, Druid, etc, -- indicate an indigenous and nature-oriented spirituality with varying pantheons, traditions, folklore and teachings. The traditions hail from many parts of the world, though all sharing common core practices and teachings. Numerous labels are used and are highly debated within those communities and networks. Although Wiccans, Pagans, Druids, and others on similar paths will not often adopt a single label, the fundamental right for them to worship freely and have equal recognition is not diminished.

As mentioned in part 1 of this Wiccans Seek Justice series, Wiccans or Pagans really have no central religious leader to represent us. This truth was used as an excuse by the VA for 10 years to deny Wiccan veterans their proper headstones. We are a collection of voices, each our own individuals. And if we choose to practice our faith with others, we choose circles, sanctuaries, covens and study groups that are right for us. Just as there are different denominations of Christianity, such as Baptist, Pentecostal, and Catholic, it is generally understood that “Pagan” is an umbrella term much like “Christianity” is, carrying a loose description that allows a multitude of teachings and traditions to be connected. Druid, Witch, Wiccan, Neo-Pagan, Shaman, Healer, and Priestess are just a few of the terms or “labels” individuals use now to describe their spiritual paths.

In contrast to the bogus ideas about the practice of Witchcraft, much in the Wiccan faith shares common rituals and symbols with those found in Christian holidays. In general, the Solstices, Equinoxes, and harvesting times are revered in Pagan traditions.

Spring Equinox is often called Ostara or Eostre, which sounds very much like the Christian observance of the holiday Easter. With further investigation, one will find that these holidays originated from the “common” agricultural people of the fields and farms who were connected to the earth. Traditionally, as the seasons changed and the crops were tended to, the times of the year marked celebrations to honor the earth.

There are times to plant seeds, and times to harvest. Nature spirits are called upon, and bonfires are lit to sing, dance and worship by. The cycles of the moon also hold great importance, further integrating cycles of nature into daily life.

No, we don’t fly on broomsticks, but some of us do use them as ritual tools to “sweep out” negativity in our space. We don’t brew evil potions, nor summon evil spirits, nor cast harmful spells. Our roles as healers and priestesses have been replaced by distorted images. Our true ways have been disregarded. Because of this terrible truth, Wiccans have faced a multitude of challenges throughout the years to be understood, respected, and treated equally by the mainstream of society.

It is this same bias against Wiccans that compelled the VA to hold out on granting this very basic freedom to the Wiccan soldiers who put their lives on the line for this country.

Roberta Stewart, Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, and others have spoken up about this, and have not been quieted by the excuses and delays. Americans United’s legal team was able to litigate on behalf of Pagans and Wiccans everywhere, and on Monday, April 23, announced that the VA has settled and agreed to recognize the Pentacle on the list of symbols.

More than 200 Wiccans and Pagans gathered in front of the White House in Lafayette Square Park on July 4, 2007, to celebrate the Pentacle Quest victory, and to look ahead at the challenges that are still yet to be faced, such as the need for a Wiccan or Pagan chaplain in the military. Rev. Barry Lynn, Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is the organization that helped to litigate the Pentacle victory, began the event with a powerful speech recounting the importance of religious liberty and church-state separation.

Many Pagan leaders such as Rev. Selena Fox, Caroline Kenner, and Diana Paxson shared words and prayers to the crowd, honored Wiccan and Pagan military veterans, as well as active duty soldiers. The crowd also held a public ritual in the park in which Lady Liberty and America's Founding Fathers were invoked to help protect religious freedom for people of all faiths. Caroline Kenner published an article on Witches’ Voice detailing the outcome and energy of the day.

See: 4th of July Pagan Religious Rights Rally

Thomas Jefferson would be proudly amazed at the Pagan community’s endurance in this struggle to preserve and demand religious freedom in America, for people of all faiths, including Wiccans, Pagans, and other minority faiths.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Copyright: Bethany Moore


Aradia Beatnik Betty

Location: Baltimore, Maryland


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