National Day of Money, Power, and Politics

Today’s proposed executive order is all about money. Don’t let anyone fool you that it’s about a broader principle of “religious liberty.” Money is a form of power, and the point of today’s exercise is to remove limitations on employing money in pursuit of political goals. The benefits, such as they may be, will accrue to those who already hold both money and power. If you’re a minority religion, that’s not you.

The Johnson Amendment is about the tax code. This executive order – although no one has seen the exact proposed text yet – is at least in part a directive to the IRS, which enforces the tax code. If you’re doing something that doesn’t involve money, then the IRS has nothing to do with you. In the end, this is about money, and about redistributing more money and power to those who already hold the majority of both.

I am not a lawyer and I don’t even play one on the internet. My layperson’s summary is as follows: Religious organizations can become tax exempt, based at least in part on an idea that they are doing socially beneficial endeavors that the government is not doing. But the limitation is that religious organizations cannot then turn around and use those tax-exempt dollars to fund and promote explicitly political speech. Taken at the organizational level, one can talk about whether such political action is substantial or incidental to the organization’s actions, but the upshot is that people cannot use a platform paid for with tax-exempt dollars – such as a pulpit in a church building – to make explicitly political speech. Those same people can make that same speech in another venue, as long as it is clear that they are not using the financial resources of the tax-exempt organization to support or promote that speech.

The religious right wants you to imagine that poor, well-meaning men of God (and yes, they are almost all very specifically men of their male deity) are being forbidden from teaching the dictates of their religion. This is a lie.

It’s a lie because those people are not prevented from teaching their religion using their religious resources, nor are they prevented from expressing themselves politically using their political resources. It’s just that they can’t mix the two. Your local evangelical preacher can’t take the dollars collected in the offering plate on Sunday and use those dollars to erect a sign that says “Jesus Loves Trump.” If he can raise the money in some way that doesn’t come through his church, sure, he can put that sign up. On private property. Using private money. That has paid taxes, just like everyone else, in order to support the common good. (Trust me, when your local preacher listens to Rush Limbaugh, no one has any doubts about that preacher’s political views.)

This isn’t about speech. It’s about dollars.

Second, this pitiable image is a lie not only in theory but in practice. Conservative Christians have been explicitly challenging this boundary for years with little to no resistance, governmental or otherwise. The IRS has been extremely lax in actually following up on even cases of religiously-funded speech deliberately designed to flout this law. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been following this problem, so check them out to discover more.

Neo-Pagan financial resources are vanishingly small compared to other groups. (Whether that is right, or good, or the way things have to be, is a discussion for another time.) Compared to even a small Christian denomination, we don’t just run on a shoestring, we run on a spider’s thread. How many Pagan organizations do you know that own real estate? (A Pagan shop that puts on events and hosts classes isn’t owned by a tax-exempt organization, so keep that in mind.) We are not the ones who have the money; it’s not our money that has been restricted, so it’s not our money that is being “freed,” so don’t even begin to hope that this move will “benefit” minority religions.

This grandstanding is yet another example of the great conservative tradition of punching down. That’s nothing to celebrate.

Ohio heartbeat bill: pro blastocyte mori…

If in some aching dreams you too could pace
sleepless with the choice we find ourselves in,
and hear the fear and loathing we will face
as people tell us aught we do is sin;
If you could feel, with every cramp, the blood
ready to gush forth from ectopic wound
to salve your conscience in its crimson flood
and leave behind my lifeless form marooned,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To women ardent for a martyr’s glory,
The new lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro blastocyte mori.

With acknowledgement to Wilfred Owens, I repost this as the only response capable of expressing my response to the news that Ohio’s statehouse passed the so-called “heartbeat bill” yesterday. This abortion ban without exceptions for rape or incest will lead to deaths if it is signed by the governor (famously anti-choice) and survives court challenges with judges appointed by the incoming administration. I am terrified.

To keep the peace in Cleveland

There has been so much violence lately. I have so many thoughts about the proximate and ultimate causes of those incidents, and I am glad that our society is having some of the heartbreaking and necessary discussions around those issues. I cannot contribute more to those discussions today. What I want to do right now is first aid, attempting to staunch the bleeding, in particular in the overheated environment of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

I believe that one thing that would make everything worse is an outbreak of violence at the Republican convention. Whoever starts it, however it ends, I believe that it would further divide our country and entrench fringe positions in power. If you disagree, then you can do whatever work you think best. If you agree, then here’s what I’m doing to try to keep the peace in Cleveland for this crucial stretch of time.

I am a Witch, and right now I am a Witch in touch with the land of Ohio. This is my job. Anyone who wants to help can help; you don’t need to do it exactly the way I do it, and you don’t need to use the same tools I use. Pray, dance naked in the forest, drum for the rivers, do whatever works for you. But if you want to help with this, I’d be grateful, and if you’re not sure how best to help, maybe my work will give you some ideas.

I used a map of Ohio. Just a plain old highway map. (Yes, I rode dinosaurs back before we invented GPS and we used these paper things called maps to point our brontosauruses in the right direction according to the sun. It’s old tech but it still works.) If you don’t have one, print one out. Or draw it. Just the state of Ohio with the city of Cleveland marked on it. Or the watershed. Whatever works for you.

In my sacred space, I oriented the map so that north on the map was facing north in the physical world. (I think this is one of the few crucial parts of using maps. If you’re holding the map upside down compared to the real world, any kind of magic I’m familiar with would be very, very confused.) I sank my awareness down into the soil of Ohio, this glacier-scraped plain shot through with slow and winding rivers, and laid my hands on the map and asked it to become one with the places it represents. (Think of this as just like when you ask the water in the bowl for the west point in the circle to become one with all the Water of the world and what it means metaphysically.)

Then I made offerings. You should make offerings that work for you; mine are shaped at this moment in time by the relationships I’m working with. I poured out honey for the Good Folk, the more tricksy of the spirits of the land, and whiskey for my deities, who mostly come from the Celtic pantheon, who came over with their people when enough of them settled here to make Dublin, Ohio, a reality. I offered tobacco for the spirits of the First Nations, who I do not forget, even though I do not know them very well. I offered tobacco for the wrongs done under slavery, and as a reminder of Ohio’s role in trying to change that sinful system. I offered olive oil for Columbia Athena, who I believe to be the matron spirit of our government and of our nation as it exists now.

I laid out physical objects to express my intentions. My intention for this working is simple: let violence go to ground. Let every human being in and around Cleveland be influenced, in whatever way is possible, to be physically peaceful. This is an earth spell, so I used stones to express it. I put a lead bullet on top of Cleveland on the map, and on top of it and around it I piled black tourmaline, for grounding, and jet, to absorb evil, and a metallic meteorite, to bring things down from heaven to earth.

Obviously the bullet represents gun violence, but lead is also the metal of Saturn, the planet of restrictions and limitations. I am trying to hold down violence of all kinds, but especially gun violence. The guns are already present in Cleveland, in the hands of police and non-police, in the hands of people of all races and genders and political identities. What I am trying to do is keep them from being used.

This is a binding of sorts, but I am thinking of it mostly in terms of gravity: making the weapons of violence too heavy to lift, too heavy to wield, too heavy to fight.

You could do the same thing with stones from your landbase. Or black stones, or whatever stones represent earth and grounding and heaviness for you. The tools are just tools – you are the one doing the work.

With all this in place, I began to shape my intention, to give it voice and form and power. It became something like this:

May all the weapons be too heavy to lift.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May every hand that is raised be lowered again in peace.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May batons and sticks remain heavy on the ground.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May knives be blunted and fall from the wielder’s hand.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May guns hang heavy in their holsters and remain there.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May bullets find only earth and not flesh.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May grenades fall to the ground as duds.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May only words be exchanged.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May only voices be raised.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May only emotions flow in rivers on the land.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May only hearts be lifted.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May people recognize each other’s humanity.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May people value the land they live in.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

May everyone survive.
Earth, mother of all, keep the peace.

While saying this, I put my hands over the stones on the map, and sent my energy into them. When I was done, I gave thanks, and ended my work.

Please note that this is NOT a time to light candles. The situation in Cleveland – and across the country, truth be told – is already volatile enough. It does not need any more undirected, ravening energy of change. If you want to join in this through visualization, great. Through praying to your land, crying to your rivers, speaking to your air, great. But don’t, for the love of all that’s holy, think you can extinguish gunpowder with a candle.

May it be so, for you, for all of us.

Prayers for Election Day

Today I pray that as many people as possible make it to the polls to vote. Even in an off year, because this is a key piece of political magic.

I pray that their votes are counted.

I pray that their will – our will – be done.

Tonight I will light a candle and watch the election results come in. Join me?

Oklahoma bill to discriminate

Marriage licenses, doing it wrong edition!

The Oklahoma House has passed a bill that would require all marriage licenses to be signed by clergy. This is a direct attack on separation of church and state: it effectively requires people who want legal benefits which are administered by the state to interact with religion. This is doing it backwards – we ought to be working on separating civil and religious marriage, not further conflating them.

Now it’s true that I fought for the right to sign marriage licenses in Virginia as a clergy person, and I would do so again. I did that as a stop gap, because it’s one of the ways “real” religions are recognized and because until we get to a better separation of civil and religious marriage people want their clergy to be able to do that. It’s unfortunate that the option of having a civil license signing is seen as a “lesser” option, but that’s part of the problem. However, even at the time I said that I didn’t think this was the way it should be, and that I advocated separating civil and religious marriage celebrations.

What’s really nasty about the bill in Oklahoma is that the originators say that they are concerned about protecting the delicate feelings of the public servants who have to do marriage licenses. Apparently the mere possibility of being confronted with two actual gay people is deeply disturbing to these public servants. In reality, this is a way to increase discrimination by pushing a public function off onto private individuals – clergy – who have a legal right to discriminate.

The spurious explanation makes this bill even more disgusting. As a clergywoman, as the wife of someone who served his country for many years, and as a regular citizen, I find that handwaving defense egregiously offensive to the very idea of civil society.

Public servants have to be prepared to put their personal scruples aside in a multitude of ways. That’s why it’s called public service – you have to serve the public, not just do what you want to do for the people you find acceptable.

I just went through the process of getting my Ohio driver’s license. The public servants who do that work have to deal with lots and lots of people from all walks of life. In the relatively short time I spent in those offices, I saw people who looked like me and people who didn’t. There was a man with an offensive (to me) t-shirt and a woman wearing hijab. There were people who didn’t speak English and people who didn’t share my standards of personal hygiene. And all of them, every single one, deserves the exact same standard of consideration and service from those public servants.

And the folks in the driver’s license offices have a relatively straightforward job. If you choose to work in the court system, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of people who are there especially because they’ve done something that society considers unacceptable – and I don’t just mean smoking pot or driving while black. You’re going to be dealing with felons and deadbeat parents and all kinds of people. Even if you only ever work in the marriage office you’re going to be dealing with people who are on their third or sixth marriage, you’re going to be dealing with some guy in his 70s marrying an 18 year old where you can’t tell who is taking advantage of whom, you’re going to be dealing with some guy who has been divorced by his previous two wives for violent abuse but has found another woman who is convinced that he’s changed, and so on and so forth, day in and day out.

If you go into public service, you get to serve the public. No exceptions. You don’t get to put your feelings or personal preferences into the judgment space. It’s your job to see that the paperwork is filled out correctly, that they’ve got supporting documentation, and that everything is above board and legal according to the laws as they are currently constituted. When those laws change, you change with them. If you want them changed, you go out there on your private time just like every other citizen and do what you can. But at work you take your feelings and you put them someplace else and you serve the public.

This bill is especially insidious because there is so much potential for collateral damage. How are atheists supposed to get married? How are Catholic divorcees supposed to get married? Yes, most people would be able to find a friendly UU minister or somebody similar, but why should they have to? In order to get the state-administered legal benefits of marriage, they should be able to go to the state, file paperwork, and get a signed license.

Deep down, I don’t think this bill is really about protecting public servants’ feelings. I think that is an excuse, and the lack of consideration for the collateral damage is one indication that the real motivation is simple bigotry. Whether or not this bill passes the Oklahoma Senate and is implemented, we will see many, many more attempts like it because this is the modern-day equivalent of the attempts to avoid desegregation by closing the public schools.

This bill is nothing less than an attack on the fundamentals of civil society. Our society is trying to evolve to afford more basic civility to all its members, and as that evolution takes hold, one of the only possible responses by the fundamentalists is to try to tear down civil society as a whole. We cannot allow that to happen; as more of these attempts occur, we need to recognize them for what they are, call them out, and stop them in their tracks.

Invocation for spouse’s retirement

This is the invocation that I delivered at my dear husband’s retirement ceremony last week.

As we work through the many Halfway Out of the Dark holidays at this time of year, I hope you and yours have wonderful celebrations and are able to respect the traditions of others.

Throughout his career, my husband has endeavored to uphold and defend the values enshrined in the Constitution to which he swore his oath as an officer. One of the most important of those values is the freedom of religion.

At this time it is traditional to have an invocation to hallow the conclusion of a military career, but we are acutely aware that no invocation can adequately include the diversity of spirituality represented here or in the broader fabric of American society which he has so faithfully served.

Instead we invite you to join in a moment of silent reflection and, if you wish, to invoke the blessings of divinity.

Together we acknowledge his service, we are grateful for all that it has encompassed, and we lift up our hopes for the future.

SCOTUS Endorses Government Prayer (updated)

The Supreme Court decision regarding the prayer practices of the town of Greece, New York is bad news for anyone who does not want to experience Christian prayers at government functions.

The real problem with this decision is that its overall philosophy moves further away from an endorsement test – the idea that the government should not endorse a specific religion – and towards a coercion test instead, verging on the idea that government can endorse religion without coercing citizens to follow that religion. Moreover, a couple justices took the opportunity to say they would like to see coercion defined even more narrowly, meaning that government would have an even wider scope to push religion. See more specific discussion at SCOTUSblog.

It is not an accident that justices who have experienced the least disadvantage in their lives tend to see coercion narrowly and don’t have a problem with endorsement, while those who have wider life experiences are more likely to think that endorsement slides into coercion and that both are a bad thing. People in the majority – in this case the religious majority – have not been subject to the myriad slings and arrows of everyday life that make one more thing, like your government expecting you to have the strength to withstand public, officially sanctioned disparagement, just too much to bear.

Specifically, this decision is a bad thing for Wiccans because to be realistic, in my lifetime we will not be on an equal footing with Christians, and this decision is all about accommodating the majority rather than protecting the minority. In the meantime, we run a serious risk of being used as cover – call it the “I Have a Wiccan Friend” defense. In other words, if a town council has to get a Wiccan one week out of the year (and a Jew once and a Buddhist once) so that they can have their exclusionary prayers to Jesus the other 49 weeks, they’ll do it, and those 49 weeks will do way more to reinforce the Christian sense of hegemony (we own this town – look at the meetings!) than that one week of pretend tolerance will.

Make no mistake, that one-week-a-year, or any similar plan, is tolerance, not inclusion. I have argued before and will argue again that there is no such thing as a fully inclusive prayer that covers all citizens, so the only truly inclusive option is no prayer at all.

Moreover, it looks to me at first glance like this decision’s details gave small governments a long list of ways to tailor their tolerance so that it’s not too burdensome on the Christian majority. It doesn’t seem like there’s any real burden for the government to be inclusive by any standard, for example. Saying that local governments may be run “informally” is a loophole big enough to drive the “Oh, it’s an accident that we forgot to invite any rabbis” truck right through.

EDITED: Originally, my last paragraph read:

Personally, I will continue to advocate for less appearance of government endorsing religion for any religion, mine included. I would not give an opening prayer at a government meeting even if I was specifically invited to do so. Others may make different decisions depending on circumstances, but please think carefully before participating in this misguided encroachment of government-sponsored religion.

EDITED TO ADD:

I am hearing some good arguments about why we should engage in exactly the kind of prayer that I firmly believe on fundamental principles should not be happening. I am not particularly swayed by the argument from equal misery: If they’re going to make us miserable, I am not convinced that we should make them miserable too. I am much more convinced by the argument that trying to participate in public prayer and being turned away could be – in the long term, on the order of decades – the foundation of a new case to get this crap overturned.

In the meantime and the near term, there is always the possibility that a sectarian Wiccan or Hellenistic or Druid prayer can be so repulsive to a Christian majority that the Christian majority decides not to hold the public prayers any longer. That would be similar to the attempt to install a Satanist monument in Oklahoma to “balance” the Ten Commandments monument.

I am not yet convinced that the potential harm done to others in the meantime is worth it, especially because of the risk of being used for “cover” in the way I describe above. I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

I don’t know how to balance the kind of activism for equal recognition of Wicca and Paganisms that I see going on in many places (military, prisons) with using Wicca as a weapon to get religion removed. How do I take action and try to communicate the subtext “Well, you could just not allow prayers here,” in one context, and in another context take an almost identical action with the subtext, “No, really, take me seriously, Wiccan prisoners have a real need for ministry?” How do we avoid having the kind of wiggle-arounds that are going to be used in prayer-giving contexts (oh, we’ll have everyone in on a rotation, that’ll work) applied to other contexts to marginalize us even further?

As I said, I’m willing to hear further arguments. I’m deeply torn about this matter and expect to spend some time contemplating while I’m away at Fertile Ground Gathering this weekend. That means I won’t be here to moderate comments or respond. We’ve got time. Let’s ground and center and think and talk together before we act.

Columbia and Justice for women’s choices

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in cases that have to do with the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for insurance plans to cover contraception. I renew my prayers to Justice and to Columbia:

Justice, be not blind, but look into our hearts with piercing gaze and discern the ill intent of those who would rule over others with theocratic mandates full of hate.

Let their will be weighed as naught when you lift your scales that judgment be not swayed but find the rightful balance to help us live together in pluralistic peace.

Columbia, matron goddess of your district and our government, stand firm atop the wall of separation between church and state, to ensure that women have control over our own bodies.

So mote it be!

Forbes taking the Maetreum seriously

One of my covenmates sent me a link to an item on the Forbes website about the recent victory of the Maetreum of Cybele in their court case to have their religious real estate ruled tax-exempt.

Especially given some of the recent discussions on coverage of Pagans and Paganism in mainstream media, it’s good to see us being covered in this, especially because the commenter is taking the Maetreum and its members pretty seriously. There’s one snide remark (which seems to imply that the commenter sees abstaining from sex as the defining characteristic of Catholic nuns, which seems odd to me), but otherwise a noticeable lack of “so-called” and “claim to be” kinds of language. At the end of the piece, the author does say that the closest analogy he can make in terms of tax rules is in fact a Catholic women’s order.

The commenter does say that he doesn’t think the behavior of the town in trying to charge the Maetreum taxes was motivated by bias. Bias and prejudice are remarkably difficult to prove, so I am actually less concerned about disagreeing with him on that point. What does concern me is that he argues there’s no prejudice against Pagans because tax-gathering authorities are trying to collect taxes from as many religious institutions as possible, including other “questionable” cases. If what he says is accurate, then even if there is absolutely no prejudice against Pagans or Goddess-worshippers, that means there’s still a concerning level of prejudice against non-traditional religions, namely, non-mainstream-Protestant organizations.

Now, whether the tax laws ought to have religious exemptions, including real estate exemptions, is a separate question. But as long as they do, the authorities in power have to be equal in enforcing those laws with respect to all religions. And that puts them in the sticky situation of determining what is and is not a “real” religion in some sense, for any given application. The gradual recognition of Pagan religions in these areas is a very real step forward. It’s certainly a victory for Pagans and Goddess-worshippers that this case came out the way it did. I hope it lays the groundwork for more such paths to acceptance in the future.

It’s also worth noting that this kind of coverage is also a step forward. Even though it may be annoying to see someone saying that there’s no bias – when so many of us experience bias and prejudice on many levels on a regular basis – the progress is noticeable on several levels. First, it’s being covered; second, it’s being covered seriously. And most interestingly, the coverage – while probably incorrect – overall suggests that Paganism is making progress towards being considered only a little bit weird. In America, with its rich and varied religious history of immigrants and home-grown variations (Mormonism and various kinds of charismatic Christianity being just the tip of the iceberg), it’s hopeful that once we’ve graduated to being only “acceptably weird,” we’re well on the way to fuller recognition.

On the whole, I think this article is actually a small follow-on success after the Maetreum’s court victory, and part of a trend of improvement in mainstream media coverage of Paganism. What do you think?

Voting is still a holy act

When I voted today, it was a holy action. That doesn’t mean it was a perfect one, or a sacred one, but it was still holy.

It can be tempting to say that politics is just too messy, too ugly, too banal, and that we don’t want to deal with it. Or to claim that if no politician or party accurately represents my position, I just won’t vote at all. I get that, I really do. I believe there are times that abstaining might be the better option. I just don’t think that today’s election in Virginia is one of those times.

I’m totally underwhelmed with who I voted for, but I could not in good conscience stand aside when a social conservative more interested in regulating private oral sex between consenting adults than instituting background checks on gun purchases is trying to gain control of my home. And don’t get me started on his positions in the war on women and his anti-QUILTBAG stances. His running mate is, doubtful though it might seem, even further out on the far right wing. And their slate’s candidate to replace Cuccinelli as AG is no prize, either.

Voting against them doesn’t make me happy about who I did vote for, but it did make me convinced that it was necessary to vote. This situation is a murky ethical choice. But we make these kinds of choices every day. When you deeply consider the ethical and environmental ramifications of your choices about what to eat, wear, and do, the intricacies quickly become overwhelming and the lack of “pure” options is starkly depressing. But we do make choices; we try to make better choices, weighing the kinds of harm and the situations involved, and most of us, most of the time, make a choice and try to do our best. I see voting – at least in this situation – as the same kind of closely considered imperfect act. But those imperfections don’t necessarily remove it from the realm of being holy.

For me, the work of voting is also an offering to Columbia, the American Athena. But that isn’t just “goddess-washing” the act of voting. It goes to the heart of what I’m talking about here. Athena is a goddess of practicality, and of humans and how they live together. She knows all about trade-offs and difficult legal situations. She stands over the current Capitol, and although the situation inside that building may be dysfunctional, I don’t believe that means we should scrap it all or lay blame equally and try to start from scratch. We’ll see more about that when next year’s elections roll around. But Columbia wants us, I believe, to work together, and to do better. That means starting from where we are, imperfections and all.

This idea of working together, even when that is difficult, is why, for me, voting is still holy. Voting is the core action of participating in the larger whole, in the democracy of our country that is supposed to include everyone. The business of how we manage our joint, civic lives is right down there in the connections between all of us. As such, it’s never going to be “pure” or “ideal.” It’s not sacred in the sense of being set-apart from the everyday. But it is essential. Voting is a piece of magic where I reinforce my participation in what makes us a whole, and that makes it holy.

I hope you have the chance to vote today.