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.
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.
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 specificdiscussion 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.
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.
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?
Ken Cuccinelli, candidate for governor, wants to outlaw it.
Why am I not the new face of the brave fight for religious liberty?
Seriously, though: Ken Cuccinelli, the current attorney general of Virginia and Republican candidate for governor has just launched a new website as part of his campaign that argues in favor of a law which criminalizes oral and anal sex between consenting adults in private.
This law is currently unconstitutional as a result of a Supreme Court ruling. But Cuccinelli is arguing that it’s a vital part of protecting children from sex offenders, which makes no sense. Moreover, it’s offensive to me as a woman, a Wiccan, and a feminist.
The actual case where the law was declared unconstitutional as a result of SCOTUS precedent involved at least one seventeen year old. I agree that there’s a metric crapton of potential problems with someone in hir teens having sex with someone in hir 40s or 50s. But if Cuccinelli has a problem with 17 year olds having sex, he could try to raise the age of consent, or prove that the situation was not consensual. That’s not what he’s doing. He’s specifically argued in favor of keeping the parts of the law (that are unconstitutional) that ban private consensual non-commercial adult (above the age of consent) behavior.
In fact, Cuccinelli is a major reason that the provisions of this particular law governing non-consensual sex were left vulnerable to court challenge. In 2004, a bipartisan group in the Virginia General Assembly backed a bill that would have brought the law in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling. They proposed to eliminate the Crimes Against Nature law’s provisions dealing with consenting adults in private and leaving in place provisions relating to prostitution, public sex, and those other than consenting adults. Cuccinelli opposed the bill in committee and helped kill it on the Senate floor.
In 2009, he told a newspaper why he supported restrictions on the sexual behavior of consenting adults: “My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They’re intrinsically wrong. And I think in a natural law based country it’s appropriate to have policies that reflect that. … They don’t comport with natural law.” As a result of Cuccinelli’s homophobia, the law’s text remains unchanged a decade after the Supreme Court’s ruling.
While Cuccinelli tries to spin his efforts as “Virginia’s appeal to preserve a child-protection statute,” this amounts to little more than his attempt to restore the state’s unconstitutional ban on oral sex.
This matters because it shows that Cuccinelli is willing to fight a dead letter over a culture war issue. It matters because he’s willing to mislead people with moral panic over child endangerment to do it. It matters because this anti-sex agenda is what Cuccinelli really thinks is worth working on, and it’s what he thinks will make him win. You’d better believe it’s what he’ll act on if he does win.
And quite frankly, my understanding of Wicca really does validate all kinds of consensual sex. It’s right there in the Charge of the Goddess:
All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.
The idea of “acts of love and pleasure” is a very potent way of expressing my feminist ethic of consent to sex. I’m not going to consent to something that’s not pleasurable to me. If I can’t consent – if I can’t engage in love and pleasure – then whatever’s happening isn’t sex; it’s sexual assault, abuse, battery, or rape.
Cuccinelli is actually making a version of the Two Boxes argument about what kinds of sex are permissible and not permissible. Nearly all “slippery slope” arguments about marriage equality are versions of this. (Cuccinelli gets double Conservative SexHater Points for pretending that outlawing consensual adult oral sex is a way of “protecting our children.” Score!)
The Two Boxes argument says that the Christian god has designated certain kinds of sex as “good” and other kinds as “bad,” and that there is no other possible way to differentiate between allowable and not-allowable actions in our secular civil law. Therefore, if you allow one “bad” thing, you’re allowing all “bad” things. Slippery slope: people will gay-marry their dogs! The Two Boxes argument is extremely simplistic. By contrast, my ethics – both my secular civil reasoning and my religious understanding – tell me that we can draw a different boundary based on enthusiastic consent.
In the rest of this post, I am going to talk about the connections between my civil feminist understanding and my Wiccan understanding. There’s already been a lot of great feminist explication of this ethic of consent. I think that we should determine our secular, civil law on the basis of secular, civil reasoning. I am not trying to substitute my Wiccan standards for Cuccinelli’s Christian standards. I am trying to explain why my Wiccan standards coincide with my secular feminist standards. With that in mind, Cuccinelli’s efforts really are offensive not just on a human rights and feminist level but to me as a person with a different religion with different standards.
I think that the idea “acts of love and pleasure” contains the seeds of the concept of affirmative, enthusiastic consent. This concept differentiates between acceptable and unacceptable sex on the basis that some people can’t engage in love and pleasure. That might be because they’re not people: lampposts, dogs, box turtles; it might be because they’re incapable of consent: under the age of consent, handicapped, intoxicated, etc. Either way, the standard concepts of “love” and “pleasure” don’t apply.
Ultimately, my understanding relies on the idea that sex is a cooperative activity that is done by partners together. Sex is not a thing that men do to women as objects. Sex is not a thing that women have that men try to get or take. Sex isn’t just about men and women. It’s about people, and their consent, to acts of love and pleasure.
Those ideas, deep down, are what scares Cuccinelli, and his fellow culture warriors, spitless, pun intended:
People – consent – love – and pleasure
If you care about those things, whether for civil or religious reasons, or especially both, then you ought to find Cuccinelli’s latest actions reprehensible.
PS: Regarding the first statement: There. Now you can start blaming me, right after the makers of Witch-sploitation movies, for causing people to claim that they’re Wiccan when they don’t have the first clue what Wicca really is.
And now we’re back to the theme of empathetic imagination. We’ve seen this before: conservatives, or at least Christians, are so darn’ tootin’ sure that everyone is just like them, or that they can cow those who aren’t, that when they push through “religious liberty” and “freedom of prayer” measures, they only ever think about how good they’ll feel when praying to Jesus, and they assume – wrongly – that everybody who wants to pray to Jesus can get along. They never think about what the Jewish kid feels like, or the atheist, or, Powers forfend, the Wiccan.
And they never, ever think about how they might feel if the Wiccan was doing the praying.
So when necessary, remind your legislators what will happen if the microphone is in the other hand. Help them out with their empathetic imagination, because it’s a way to advance civil liberties for all of us. And besides, it’s fun. Goddess knows we have to keep our sense of humor somehow while we’re doing this, and hearing the tone of voice of a legislative assistant who is imagining a prayer to Kali for the first time ever can be just that little bit to keep us going.
Virginians, contact your state legislators to ask them to oppose SJ 287, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that is yet another semi-stealthy attempt to justify government support for Christianity.
Hemant Mehta over at the Friendly Atheist has the rundown. In short, state senator Bill Stanley (R-Glade Hill) is convinced that not allowing people to pray in public is the root of “moral decay.” Never mind that people are allowed to pray in public – yes, including at schools – in exactly the way his proposed amendment purports to “clarify.” He’s convinced that taking God out of school and government meetings is why things are going to hell in a handbasket, so by golly, he’s going to clarify that right. And that’ll fix things.
At best, this language will be meaningless, because the rights “clarified” are already protected. At worst, this language will be interpreted, as he intends it to be, to support and defend sectarian government prayer and to encourage established prayer in schools, which people who are interested in real religious freedom (you know, the kind that applies to everyone, not just Christians intent on pushing their religion on others) will have to fight in court, which will cost Virginia money and be pointless.
The other potential land mine hidden in this text is a provision “that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his religious beliefs.” Three guesses what that is all about, and the first two don’t count: evolution. Allowing kids to opt out of lessons because they don’t believe in them is a terrible idea. Evolution is central to modern biology, and you can’t get a meaningful science education at the high school level without facing the science of evolution.
This is what I wrote to my legislators. If you’re not clergy, you might take that line out.
I urge you to oppose SJ 287 because this proposed amendment to Virginia’s constitution does not actually do more to protect religious freedom; on the contrary, it is an attempt to try to inappropriately insert Christianity into government and school business.
The amendment purports to protect the right to pray; this right is already protected by our national and state constitutions and established case law. The amendment also proposes “that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his religious beliefs,” a suggestion which could seriously undermine Virginia’s efforts to educate its population in science as necessary in order to succeed in today’s economy.
As a clergyperson, I take freedom of religion extremely seriously. This bill is not a genuine attempt to ensure freedom of religion to all in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s original statute; it is an attempt to justify government promotion of Christianity, and that is the opposite of freedom of religion. Please vote against this proposed amendment at every opportunity.
My reapplication today was successful! The Arlington County Court has officially granted me authorization to perform marriages.
The process was not entirely painless. Once again, the person who handles the paperwork – I’m not sure if she’s a secretary or what – asked for my congregation’s physical location. I told her that I had applied before, and that there was some confusion over this, because my group worships in multiple places. She then asked where they could contact me if they had any questions about a marriage license. (Note that she didn’t ask that the first time I applied – if all they had wanted then was my contact information, I would have gladly given it to them.) I indicated that my personal contact information on the letter I had included with my paperwork would be the way to contact me.
She had to go get approval from someone else; she said that the person who wrote the reply to Americans United for Separation of Church and State had to review my new application and paperwork. That took a little while, but she came back and said that it was approved, and then it was a matter of paying the fee, taking an oath to uphold the Constitution and the Constitution of Virginia and to do my duty fairly and impartially, and then I got the official authorization!
I sincerely hope that this means Wiccans and Pagans applying to the Arlington County Court will have less trouble having their authorizations granted in the future. I’m delighted to have my official recognition, of course, but this was never just about me. It’s small steps like this that break new ground along the path to full recognition, where Wicca and other Pagan religions are afforded the full benefit of equal treatment under the law.
For anyone who wants to apply in Arlington in the future, here’s what I took with me: Certificate of Ordination; Letter of good standing (to show that I am “in regular contact” with my religious organization); Certified copies of the articles of incorporation of the Order of the White Moon, the most recent business filing with California showing that the Order is still active; Copies of the letter from the IRS granting OWM its 501(c)3 tax exempt status and the most recent filing with the IRS showing that OWM is still active and exempt; Letters of support from Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, Ivo Dominguez Jr. of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, and Sacred Circle bookstore, attesting to my standing as a priestess and the ministry I do; and a letter of support from a coven sister who also lives in Arlington, because the court insisted that I show “a connection between [my] ministry and the Arlington community.”
My coven sister went with me to support her letter and act as a witness, and my husband also came to be a witness. I cannot thank them enough for taking time out of their busy schedules. Their presence helped tremendously, and I am sure that her letter showing a direct, personal connection to Arlington was a key piece of evidence to meet the court’s standards.
I am also deeply and sincerely grateful to everyone who supported me, especially Selena Fox, Ivo Dominguez, and my sisters in the Order of the White Moon; my thanks also go out to everyone who put energy into resolving this issue and making a positive difference for Pagan civil rights. The personal and magical support I got was amazing, and it made all the difference in the world. Thank you all.
I would like to particularly thank Americans United for Separation of Church and State, especially Ben Hazelwood, who worked with me directly. They sent the letters that showed the Arlington County Court in no uncertain terms that their actions were legally indefensible and got the court to clarify its requirements so that I could make this reapplication successful.
This is not the first time they have gone to bat for Pagan rights, either, as they were intimately involved with Selena Fox and the Lady Liberty League in bringing the Pentacle Quest to a successful conclusion. I strongly encourage all Pagans to support these organizations that are doing the hard work of defending our rights when we need it most.
Given the juxtaposition of this piece with the previous one, I want to point out a few things about my political speech, since I am often political.
First of all, what I’m doing is very different from the kind of pulpit politicking that is being pushed by the Religious Right which I so strongly disdain. Yes, I’m ordained as a priestess by a 501(c)3 tax-exempt religious organization. But none of my online speech is as a leader for that organization, nor is it funded with the support of those tax-exempt dollars. These are my personal views and my personal speech. I defend even the most conservative Christian pastor’s identical right to his views and his speech, when he’s not using his tax-exempt organization to push them.
Second, for all that I often discuss how my religion guides my life, my ideas, and my choices – including my political choices – I am also determinedly in support of secular government. Whatever ways of understanding I use to arrive at my conclusions, when I advocate a policy approach that will affect other people, I always, always, always have a purely secular justification for it.
Respecting women’s bodily autonomy and giving them the right to make their own health care decisions should be an obvious conclusion when considering the situation from a secular point of view, and it’s on that basis that I want to see policies enacted. The fact that I also have strong religious reasons for supporting this position is relevant to me, and is something that I discuss as part of exploring how to live out my values in the world, but it is not the defense I offer for putting something into law.
These are the kinds of distinctions that make the difference between religious people who are engaged in politics and would-be theocrats. Respecting them is part of keeping our pluralist democracy functioning.