Virginia recognizes me as clergy!

My reapplication today was successful! The Arlington County Court has officially granted me authorization to perform marriages.

Literata with authorization

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.

AU sends letter in support of recognizing me as clergy

Today Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the Arlington County Court in support of my application to perform weddings. They are very clear about the situation:

Your denial of Priestess Hurley’s application violated the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We ask that you grant the application, as well as any similar applications that you may receive in the future.

The letter goes into great detail about the relevant legal precedents, including details of interpreting and applying the First Amendment and other Constitutional protections. It cites many instances of legal recognition of Wicca as a religion entitled to First Amendment protections, including applications of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and landmark cases for minority religious rights such as Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc v. City of Hialeah. They specifically state:

Your failure to recognize Priestess Hurley as a valid minister constitutes discrimination against the Wiccan faith and its adherents, in violation of three separate provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

The letter also addresses the only reason that the Clerk gave me for denying my application, pointing out that denying my application on the basis of not having a fixed address for my ministry is unsupportable based on the relevant sections of the Virginia code and would also discriminate against many other religious groups that meet at members’ homes or otherwise do not have a fixed address.

In addition to asking the court to grant my application, the letter concludes with the reminder:

To be constitutional, any policy concerning licenses to perform marriages must not discriminate against any non-traditional religion.

AU has asked the court to respond within 30 days.

I have been very grateful for the outpouring of support from Wiccans and Pagans both in Virginia and elsewhere. I have been gathering letters of support for when I reapply after  the court replies to AU.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State played a role in the Pentacle Quest and has stood up for Wiccan rights in numerous other situations. They are diligent watchdogs against unconstitutional activity and staunch supporters of minority religious rights. I strongly encourage Pagans all over the country to support AU, whether by becoming members, attending their events, or following their news online. They are currently organizing concerts for the end of this month in all 50 states as demonstrations in support of separation of church and state. To find out if there’s one near you, look up Voices United.

I’ll be posting further information when AU gets a reply from the court and I prepare to apply again. To contact me about sending a letter of support, telling your story of being recognized as clergy (especially in Virginia), or to get email updates about my situation, you can write to me at literatahurley@gmail.com

Continuing Education for Pagan Clergy

As I crawl out from underneath the summer crud I caught last weekend, I’m starting to put together my continuing education plan for my priestess work. That leads me to ask: what do others’ plans or approaches look like?

For those not familiar with it, continuing education (CE) is a requirement for licensure in many professions. I’ve encountered it primarily in the context of health care professions, where CE credits can be gained from activities like reading a journal article and taking a multiple-choice test, attending a workshop and completing an evaluation, or participating in more traditionally structured classes. A certain amount of CE credit is required for renewal of licenses on a regular basis.

I’m not advocating anything as strict as licensure requirements for Pagan clergy. They’re unworkable in a wide number of ways, not least of which is that ordination or initiation is not something that can be revoked. But I would probably be impressed by an organization that ordained clergy and required them to demonstrate adherence to certain minimal standards in order to remain “in good standing” or current with that organization as long as the standards are reasonable and clearly laid out, etc etc.

Be that as it may, I’m going to try to set some standards like that for myself. Have others done this? How?

In health care, there are a number of goals of CE requirements: keeping up with advances in the field, broadening one’s base of knowledge and skills, and maintaining fundamentals. I think we can analogize most of those to Pagan clergy.

So what should be included? Off the top of my head, here’s a few things that I’m thinking about:

*Advances in the field: Stay aware of current Pagan news through blogs, websites, periodicals; read major new books that come out.

*Broadening awareness: Build my list of resources for people who come to me with problems that aren’t primarily in my domain or that bridge multiple domains, especially things like mental health, violence, abuse, addiction, etc. Attend rituals that are in other traditions or forms and read fundamental texts in other branches of Paganism.

*Maintaining fundamentals: Build on basic skills and knowledge of Paganism/Wicca and related fields through reading and workshops on things like meditation, ritual, magic, etc.

I’m tentatively thinking about creating a set of goals that have a mix of these things that I want to accomplish on a quarterly basis, with some flexibility to allow for the fact that a lot of my face-to-face CE will probably happen at yearly gathering like Sacred Space.

I’m writing about this here because I want to hear about how others have handled this and because I’m hoping that I’ll use my blog as a way to report on my CE work. In health care, a CE credit requires more than just going through the motions or being physically present at a workshop; you have to demonstrate that you’ve accomplished something or acquired knowledge or skills. One of the best ways I can think of to do that is to write about what I’ve studied. And I’m hoping you all will help keep me accountable, too.

So what do you think? What would Pagan CE look like to you?

Virginia refuses to recognize me as clergy

Update: Virginia did eventually recognize me as clergy!

The Arlington County Court refused to grant me the right to perform marriages in Virginia, apparently on  the grounds that my “congregation” does not own a building.

I presented my certificate of ordination and documentation of the 501c3 status of the Order of the White Moon, which ordained me. Since my Order is incorporated in California, the secretary asked me if I had a congregation in Virginia; I said yes. She asked me to list the address of the congregation, and I said that we don’t have a building. She asked, “So, what, you just meet in each other’s homes?” I said yes, we meet in each other’s homes, or out of doors (Wicca is, after all, an earth-based religion, but I thought that mentioning that would only be prejudicial to my situation).

She left and came back with the Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson said that they were not going to approve me. I asked if it was because we don’t have a building. He said, “Yes, you don’t have a building, and there were a few other things.” I asked him if he would give me a written list of the reasons I was being denied. He refused; he offered to show me the relevant section (Sec 20-23) of the Virginia Code. I assured him that I had read the Code, and asked again if he would give me more specific reasons I was being denied. He said that approving these applications was at his “discretion” and that he didn’t “feel” I met the qualifications, but he wouldn’t tell me how. He told me that I could apply to another court in another county but that he thought they would probably give me the same answer.

Has property ownership now become the measure of what constitutes a “real” religion in Virginia, or at least in Arlington County? Or is this another example of anti-Pagan discrimination at work?

Patchwork enforcement and a history of discrimination

Virginia is one of the few states in the US that requires clergy members to register with a circuit court in order to be able to perform valid marriages. The requirements in Sec 20-23 of the Code state that the minister must present proof of ordination and “of his being in regular communion” with the organization that ordained him.

These requirements are apparently interpreted in widely varying ways across various circuits in Virginia, as different courts’ websites list different types of documentation – or none – that may be required. For courts that openly state they require more than just proof of ordination, the way they ask for information gives tremendous privilege to traditionally-organized, i.e., Christian, groups. And if granting these applications really is up to the “discretion” of the Clerk of Court, there is wide scope for potential discrimination against minority religions with or without the fig leaf of requiring a “location” and other organizational trappings potentially beyond the reach of minority religious organizations.

This problem goes back more than a decade; in 1999, the ACLU helped another Wiccan priestess get her application in this situation approved.

I think it’s not unreasonable that I am concerned about what kind of documentation will satisfy the court. I serve multiple groups, one of which meets in a designated location, but since it is an open circle, the people who attend are mostly not members of my ordaining organization. If I provide documentation of this group meeting in a specific location, will the court then ask how many people attend, and how often we meet? What will they require to conclude that I am “really” a High Priestess in a “real” religion?

Why this matters

This is about more than performing weddings. This decision has a chilling effect on me trying to function as clergy in other ways; if the Court will not recognize me as legitimate clergy in this situation, will my right to confidentiality be protected? How can I assure people who come to me for counseling that their communications with me are protected by clergy privilege?

And since this is one of the two major forms of government approval used by a wide range of institutions and organizations to determine whether someone is a “real” clergy member, it can impact my ability to reach out to those who have particular needs: people in hospitals, the military, and prisons all need clergy services, but those institutions are much more likely to deny me the ability to minister to the people involved if I can’t say that I’m approved by the State of Virginia to perform marriages.

And although I might have my application granted if I tried another court, that does nothing to resolve the doubt cast on my status by the court with jurisdiction over where I live and do most of my ministry. If another court approved me, it would only serve to highlight the irregular and potentially biased variations in granting recognition across jurisdictions.

What you can do

I currently plan to gather additional supporting documentation and reapply, and if I am denied again, to ask whether I can appeal to a judge of the court. I am also currently seeking advice from the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the Lady Liberty League. Here’s what you can do to help:

First, get the word out. The more Pagans pull together, the better our chances of being recognized as “legitimate” in these kinds of situations.

If you are a Pagan clergyperson in Virginia and you have applied to perform marriages, please write to me at literatahurley@gmail.com. If you were approved, I’d like to know when you were approved, in what court, with what paperwork, and what questions they asked, both written and verbal. People who have been declined, please tell me that too. The more information I have for comparison the better.

I would also like to be able to present letters of support from other Pagan clergy and potentially from Pagan organizations that ordain people, especially ones that ordain people all over the country. If you’re interested, please contact me. And if you have other ideas about how to help, please  speak up!

People who aren’t in Virginia, please provide spiritual and magical support. Pray and send energy that I am able to gather the evidence I need and make a convincing argument, that the court will grant my new application swiftly, and that I may stay positive and be patient throughout this whole process.

I sincerely hope that together we can ensure this is the last time a Pagan in Virginia has her credentials questioned and her status as clergy denied.

Unequal Rites

The magnificent Board Administration Team at The Slacktiverse suggested “Unequal Rites” as the title for their cross-post of my story about being refused clergy status in Virginia. I’m going to borrow that title here to share just a little bit more personal reflection about why what seems like no big deal – the ability to sign marriage licenses – matters so much to me and, I think, to the Pagan community.

I had mixed feelings about getting the ability to sign marriage licenses because I don’t think that the government should require couples to get married by someone else, whether that person is clergy or a justice of the peace or whatever. I think that marriage or handfasting is a bond formed by the couple themselves; for the government’s purposes they should tell the government that they have formed – or dissolved – such a bond, but in my religious and personal understanding, the couple themselves are the ones responsible. They don’t need me to “marry” them. I don’t want to have any “power vested in me” by the State of Virginia.

But I do want to be able to help people meet the government requirements for this important event. Our society isn’t going to move in the direction I would prefer anytime soon, and in the meantime, people want to be married/handfasted, and they want government recognition of that status. This is an important life cycle event, and while some people will go the civil route, most people continue to expect the religious ceremony to grant them the legal status also.

I concluded that I would treat my role in “marrying” people as being a kind of court reporter: for its own reasons, which I disagree with, the government only allows certain people to sign marriage licenses. I decided that in applying for the right to sign marriage licenses, I was jumping through hoops in order to help people in the Pagan community meet government requirements. (As I noted in the previous piece, it’s also a vital part of being recognized by other institutions as “real” clergy, which is crucially important to me.)

And it’s also important, I think, that this is one of the things that forces people who might not otherwise participate actively in religion to interface with clergy. Like it or not, the civil ceremony is still seen as a less-desirable backup option, so getting married causes all sorts of people – spiritual but not religious, solitary practitioner, whatever – to seek out a clergy person with compatible beliefs and practices. By being such a clergy person, I can potentially serve a lot more people than are members of my Order, or my coven, or any other group.

The Supreme Court has ruled that we have a fundamental right to marry. (Loving v Virginia – yes, the same state of Virginia which I am currently struggling with!) We are slowly but surely moving towards extending marriage equality to people regardless of gender. But this is about more than the simple legal status of marriage; it’s also about how that status is conferred.

Pagans shouldn’t have to go to Christian clergy in order to be married. They shouldn’t have their religion denigrated by the government so that they have to go the “alternate route” of having a civil ceremony as well if they don’t want to.

Having our rights means having our rites.

I’m ordained!

It’s official: I am now an ordained High Priestess through the Order of the White Moon!

This is the culmination of almost two years of work and is a big step in terms of legal recognition for me. I will now be able to perform marriages/handfastings and be recognized by most institutions as “real” clergy.

If you’re in the area, we’ll be celebrating at Sin E pub in Pentagon Row next Saturday, June 2nd, starting at about 6pm. We should be in the back room by the fireplace. Come by and lift a glass!