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.

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.

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.

Back after interregnum

I’ve been terribly sick this summer, which is why I’ve been so quiet, even with all of the important things going on in our society. I hope to get back to more regular posting soon, although now that I’m better, my dissertation is going to have to be the focus of my attention again, so I’m still figuring things out.

For the time being, here’s a bit from my latest at Pagan Square, on how I don’t want Orson Scott Card’s idea of “redemption,” as displayed in his lesser-known novel Pastwatch, nor do I want his religion to control the civil liberties of QUILTBAG people:

This for me is a demonstration of how all civil rights are bound up together. I have no idea if Card thinks the actions of his protagonists in Pastwatch would be moral and ethical. I do not know if he has been active against Pagan civil rights directly. But I do know that here in the real world, he has used his religion as justification to try to control the way others live and love, in direct contravention of the tenets of my religion. I think that his actions and his writing together demonstrate the deep connections between a willingness to disregard or ride roughshod over others’ religion and attempts to control others’ actions and bodies in pursuit of their definition of “redemption” – something we as Pagans should be especially sensitive to.

Read the whole thing.

Balancing, moving to the light

This week the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about striking down DOMA and Prop 8 in favor of marriage equality. I concentrated some of my Ostara work on this subject, and I will be taking part in an interfaith event to show support for marriage equality. There will be another event the night before. If you can come out and show support, that’s wonderful. If not, please consider directing some energy to this important event. Here are three ways you might join in this work:

Include support for marriage equality in your intention for either Ostara or the full moon:

The world is poised at the turning of the year towards increasing light, with warmth that will nurture many new lives. Let our symbols of new life in seeds and eggs remind us not just of physical fertility, but the possibility of new life brought about by love. In our own lives, let our love make space for new arrivals and open the way for new possibilities.

Pray to Columbia:

Hail Columbia, matron goddess of your district and of our government! You represent our highest ideals of freedom and liberty, calling us to fuller expression of equality. Columbia, help us change our laws to honor all forms of partnership, giving all acts of love and pleasure equal status under law.

Pray to Justice:

Justice, be not blind, but look into our hearts with piercing gaze to discern the ill intent of those who would rule over us with theocratic mandates full of hate. Redress the wrongs and balance the scales to provide equal recognition for all partnerships formed in love.

Bonus: as Hecate suggested, if you’re in the area, you might also consider visiting the Cyrus Cylinder, one of the first human rights documents in history, and empowering it as a symbol of the progress we’ve made and hope to continue making.

QUILTBAG chilled

We’ve all heard that the Old Testament calls homosexuality an “abomination,” right? It’s the homophobes’ favorite clobber verse. One of the best responses to this is to point out that this comes in the midst of a long list of other things which were also forbidden under the laws established in Leviticus, notably the dietary restrictions of Judaism. If you actually study the material, it emerges that there are two kinds of restrictions against “forbidden” things being distinguished: one is sort of like civil law, while the other is a religious objection. Things that are religiously disallowed are described with the word translated by King James’ merry band of religious demagogues as “abomination.”

One of the strongest arguments that liberal Christians use is that since the dietary laws of ancient Judaism are no longer observed by contemporary Christians, perhaps some of those other religio-cultural restrictions ought to be reconsidered, too. Conservative Christians have been arguing against this in various ways for a long time. But now there’s a new argument I’ve never heard before:

Refrigeration.

Yup, somebody actually went there, wrote articles of incorporation, and elected himself Mayor of There.

Via Right Wing Watch, you can hear a conservative Christian arguing that refrigeration is what makes it not a sin to eat shellfish et al. anymore.

You see, conservative Christians like to argue that 1. their God is way cool because he gave his followers religious laws that were actually secretly hygiene regulations to protect them against food poisoning and 2. their certainty about why these things were demanded by their God is what allows them to split those two categories of civil and religious law into three categories: civil law, religious law that we don’t have to follow, and religious law that it is our God-given duty to impose on all our fellow citizens by any means necessary.

This is the first time I’ve heard that argument flipped around in this particular way, though. It’s probably part of the continuing struggle of these folks to find secular justifications for their religious positions. (See also: so-called intelligent design, etc.) Just for giggles, let’s follow it to its (pseudo) logical conclusion: if you could invent something that would make being queer no longer a health risk, would these Christians then say being queer was a-okay?

Never in a million years. (Until, of course, the next time that their position changes and they decide that they’ve always been at war with Eastasia, I mean, supporting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s ideals and against contraception.)

I’m writing about this not just because it’s laugh-out-loud ridiculous, but because it highlights a really evil form of hypocrisy that homophobes engage in. Homophobes and hate-peddlers create social conditions that make it hazardous to be queer and then use that as evidence that they were right all along. They do this all the time and in some really despicable ways.

Aside from all the other things that caused social scientists to shred it into conveniently toilet-paper-sized pieces, that’s something else that’s wrong with the Regnerus study. Even if it had been a well-designed study, if it found that kids raised in QUILTBAG households had adverse outcomes, that wouldn’t be some kind of truth handed down from a mountain. It would be a reflection of our current social and cultural milieu. If we denigrate certain people, maybe that makes their lives – and their kids’ lives – harder, don’t you think? And maybe if we start treating these folks like full human beings with equal civil rights, things will get better…

So actually, there is a way to “refrigerate” being queer, to turn it from something potentially hazardous to your health into just another part of daily life: stop the lying homophobes from continuing to denigrate their fellow human beings.

It’s not QUILTBAG folks who need to chill out. It’s the haters.

The twisted history of guns and race

Hat tip to Chas Clifton for pointing out that in the last post I was remarkably unclear about the historical issues around guns and race. I neither summarized the linked pieces adequately nor presented my own thoughts with sufficient clarity. This is an attempt to rectify that.

Let me add a further caveat that I am acutely aware of my own ignorance surrounding this issue’s historical roots. I am only beginning to educate myself about it and apologize in advance for errors that I make. I invite further responses and constructive criticism.

As far as my limited understanding goes, in the Reconstruction period, free African-Americans armed themselves, particularly to defend themselves from whites who wanted to kill, terrorize, and control them. Thus ex-Confederates and parts of society that sympathized with them were interested in limiting access to guns as part of keeping African-Americans disempowered. At the time, the Democratic party was generally the party of southern whites and was more against African-American rights, while the Republicans were the party of the north and were more pro African-American rights.

Today, the typical political alignments are different. The parts of the country that see themselves as the inheritors of the Confederacy are the most vocally pro-gun-rights. The Republicans have southern whites as their core constituency, and are the party that opposes social programs to benefit minorities and hosts those who use racist dog-whistles. The Democrats are the party of urbanites, women, minorities, and socially progressive programs.

I linked to three separate things in the previous post and didn’t clarify which part of this each thing related to.

Most importantly, Winkler’s piece in the Atlantic begins to address some of this complicated history of guns, legislation, and attitudes.

Horowitz’s piece compares the ideologies of pro-slavery politicians before the Civil War and pro-gun politicians today, arguing that there are similarities in the uncompromising expansionism of their positions. He was not arguing that the Confederates were all about gun rights.

Today’s conservatives who see themselves as the inheritors of the Confederacy do tend to be the loudest proponents of gun rights. I get very, very sick of these and similar arguments that people are amassing guns in order to defend themselves against “tyranny” from the federal government. I linked to Goblinbooks’ sarcasm in order to reinforce the point that since the South couldn’t defeat the North way back in the 1800s, it is extremely unlikely that anybody today (black or white) could “defend themselves” against the federal government.

Then I tried to make a separate point in entirely too little space, and I think that’s where things got tangled up.

Given that in the Reconstruction period it was the ex-Confederate Democrats who were pro gun control, while today it is the Republicans (possibly neo-Confederates, or at least seeing themselves as the inheritors of that worldview) who are anti gun control, I wondered whether the transformation from Democratic allegiance to Republican allegiance and the transformation from anti-guns to pro-guns were at all related.

I am not saying there is something inherently linked about “Republicans love guns!”

I’m saying that as far as I understand it in relatively recent times the Republican party decided to transform itself by positioning itself as staunchly defending “tradition” – notably white hegemony. This is also known as the Southern strategy. The party of Lincoln became the home of Strom Thurmond.

I think it’s pretty clear that the way white hegemony has been questioned and challenged contributes to a segment of society feeling insecure and becoming afraid of persecution, especially by the federal government, which was part of what the Southern strategy capitalized on and encouraged. I’m wondering whether that same feeling has played a role in an increasing desire by these folks to arm themselves while support for gun control is fairly high among minorities and urban liberals. I have no idea if these things were causally connected. I’m still trying to figure out if they’re temporally connected.

Have I made things more clear, or hopelessly muddled?

After Thanksgiving, support the rights of workers

It’s appropriate that American Thanksgiving falls in the Samhain season. Part of the work of Samhain should be bringing in the harvest and being grateful for it. I see Thanksgiving as a way to continue the work of the season.

For many of today’s Pagans, this “harvesting” is largely metaphorical or figurative. We don’t have to lay down enough food to last the winter and decide which parts of our herds to slaughter. But there are lots of people in our world today who have to gauge their resources to the last penny, and then some, and who struggle year-round to make ends meet.

A prime example is the plight of Walmart workers. Walmart, owned by the richest family in America, has an extensive list of offenses: paying workers a pittance; failing to provide benefits, such that workers have to rely on additional government assistance; unsafe labor environments; discriminating against women; and trying to prevent workers from organizing in order to improve their situation. I’m not going to go into all the details; here’s one of many other posts where you can learn more.

This Thanksgiving, as we meditate on our gratitude and strive to find ways to share with those less fortunate, we have a prime opportunity to put our values into action:

Walmart is trying to start Black Friday early on Thursday evening. Don’t go.

Walmart workers are striking on Black Friday. Don’t shop at Walmart on Friday. If you can, check out the Corporate Action Network or OUR Walmart to find other ways to support them. There’s also an Occupy-organized fund to provide money for food for striking workers.

Voting and Columbia

As I said at Hail Columbia, voting is where the magical meets the mundane: we take our intent and put it into action. Go vote!

As Hecate says, we are the daughters and sons of iron-jawed angels. They and many others won us the right to vote. Go vote!

And finally, as a devotee of Columbia, this isn’t just the most important right of living in a democracy, it’s the most important rite. Go vote!

That last part is kind of a strange thing for me to write. I’m a secularist; I think we should base our choices for the country on secular, not religious grounds. I am motivated by my religion, obviously, but will seldom argue for policies on that basis, and when I do, I always also have sound secular arguments which will stand on their own. It drives me nuts when people say they’re going to write in Jesus for all the offices on the ballot and stuff like that. So where do I get off saying that Columbia has anything to do with this?

Well, I think Columbia’s a little like me: kind of conflicted. In some ways, I prize her as a contradiction in terms, a goddess of secular-ness. I think the values that she represents include the separation of church and state. If we’re going to be able to honor goddesses at all, we have to guarantee freedom of religion, and no religious tests for office, and all those other things that make us a secular country where many religions and none flourish.

This contradiction folds back on itself: I hesitate to say that voting is a sacred act – as opposed to a secular one – but I do think it meets a certain definition of sacrality. Voting to me is so very, very important that it is set apart. I focus my intentions on it beforehand. I take particular time to do it. Notice how voting places have their own boundaries defined, so that no overt politicking can take place within a certain distance of the polls. That reminds me of a circle, a set-apart space for this particular act of will to occur. So voting is set-apart, special, and perhaps that’s the right way for it to be to honor my goddess of secularity.

As a Witch, I will hold those tensions within myself. My religion and my insistence on the primacy of a secular government go with me, hand-in-hand, to the polls. And there, I will take a deep breath and put my intent into action. So whether I think of it as sacred or not, it’s a chance to make a change in the world: it’s magic.

So vote it be.