Institutional prejudice against Witches denies religious freedom

Despite Asheville’s reputation as a haven for diversity, our mountains also harbor an ongoing disgrace — pervasive, institutionalized prejudice against Pagans and Witches that denies us access to public property and community resources that are routinely made available to Christians. Not so long ago, racist administrators of schools, governments and public organizations often used Jim Crow laws to keep racial minorities out of sight and “in their place.” Today, local officials concoct arbitrary laws, rules and policies whenever members of minority religions seek equal rights with Christians.

In recent years, Western North Carolina’s Witches and Pagans have increasingly been speaking out — protesting and holding rituals for our right to a seat in the front of society’s bus. In a state where vandalism, cross-burnings and arson have traditionally terrorized the Goddess’ hidden children into concealing our pre-Christian beliefs, we’ve caught the bigots off balance by stepping out from the shadows and proudly, publicly wearing our pentacles, reading our tarot cards and dancing our spiral dances. So the forces of religious prejudice have rigidified into their next line of defense: local school administrations and city governments run by conservative, Reagan/Falwell-era Christians.

Institutional bigots always pretend they’re not prejudiced — they’re just following the rules. But it’s obvious, from the experiences we and other WNC Witches have undergone, that the only rule they consistently follow is to open the door of public access to Christians and bar it to Pagans.

Every fall, schoolchildren and parents are allowed to hold a seemingly idolatrous ritual around the flagpole in front of their school. Administrators announce the rite over the loudspeaker, and teachers lead their classes out to circle round the tall, erect pole and utter prayers to a male deity. Yet school officials see no problems with the “Meet Me at the Pole” ceremony, because it’s all “voluntary” — even though the students are holding only Christian Bibles and praying only to the Christian God.

But when Witches seek to circle on school property and pray to our Goddesses and Gods, even many hours after school is closed, administrators suddenly find all sorts of rules to require us to be herded into a stadium, pinned under bright lights and guarded by sheriff’s deputies who must be hired at our own expense. That’s what Coven Oldenwilde found out in September, after we applied to hold the annual Public Samhain Witches’ Ritual on a twilit field at Owen High School.

Bureaucrats generally rely on the same tried-and-true tactics of suppression — stalling a decision until the last minute (so we won’t have time to appeal or protest), and passing the buck back and forth between administrators (each one claiming “the decision’s not up to me”). Buncombe County School District officials used both these tactics when we applied to use the Owen field.

Apparently, these obstacles weren’t sufficient, so school officials consulted with the Asheville Parks & Recreation Department to see how it had handled previous years’ Samhain Rituals. This department is headed by Irby Brinson, who has informed us repeatedly that, using his official powers of “discretion,” he will never permit Witches to circle in our own neighborhood parks. His current rationale? Safety. Brinson insists he’s concerned about “protesters,” even though we haven’t had any (aside from one silent stalwart clutching a dog-eared sign) since a group of hecklers bused in by Trinity Baptist tried but failed to shout down our first public Rite back in 1995.

Thus, “safety concerns” have now become a default means to prevent Witches from circling. Despite local Wiccan Rituals’ perfect safety record (due to our own diligence in providing internal security), and despite the fact that cops only glower at us and videotape attendees while often rudely refusing to identify themselves (which fosters tensions and establishes a presumption of our guilt in the minds of the populace), agencies now demand that Pagans pay for such police “protection” during our Rites.

“Safety” is also the justification for requiring us to buy expensive event insurance. Though Christian congregations routinely insure their block-long buildings and often routinely include special-event riders under their existing policies, Witches prefer to worship outdoors. We couldn’t get building insurance for our sacred groves and stone circles if we wanted it. Nor could most of us afford it, since we don’t solicit funds, as the churches do. Yet agencies now demand that we automatically purchase millions in insurance as a condition for their approval for Wiccans to conduct any public Rite.

What makes this tactic especially effective is the fact that insurance companies are private entities, and they can revoke a policy for pretty much any reason they choose. This occurred during Coven Oldenwilde’s preparations for our third Public Samhain Ritual at East Memorial Stadium, when we put our house mortgage on the line to obtain the $3 million insurance policy the city required us to buy from Webb Insurance. Unbeknownst to us, Webb was (and is) the city of Asheville’s principal building-insurance provider. Just days before the Ritual, however, Webb learned from the city that the event involved Witches. The policy was abruptly canceled.

But what bureaucrats seem to consider most “unsafe” about Witches is our insistence on honoring the dark as well as the light. They reject our invitations to demonstrate for them how much light our torches and lightsticks actually cast (even though many non-Pagan groups, such as the American Cancer Society, are allowed to hold annual luminaria and candlelight services on public property). Instead, these officials adamantly insist on drenching our rituals in the harsh glare of stadium floodlights.

Why do they fear the sheltering dark? Is it a fundamentalist’s fear of mystery, or an urban male’s dread of the darkness of forest and womb? Or is blasting us with bright light simply the closest they can get these days to burning us?

One more widely used tactic of institutional prejudice also deserves exposure: the old slam-the-door on Witches by slamming it shut on everyone. When Christian parents complained last year about a Pagan parent volunteer who wanted to help organize North Buncombe Elementary School’s annual fall social, administrative officials brazenly canceled the entire event.

When Coven Oldenwilde applied a few years ago to the state Department of Transportation’s Adopt-A-Highway program to clean up a litter-strewn section of the Billy Graham Freeway, program coordinators at first tried to talk us out of it with various excuses: they didn’t want groups to “advertise” themselves, our sign would surely be vandalized, etc. When that failed to stop us, they abruptly declared that the entire road was too hazardous for citizens to clean, and that they had decided not to allow any new groups to adopt it — although organizations that had already adopted parts of this “unsafe” road would be allowed to continue to clean up their signposted portions.

And when Christians reacted angrily to the mayor of Asheville’s well-meant proclamation honoring Earth Religions Awareness Week, she ditched the Witches and fell back on the old bureaucratic tactic — banning all religion-related proclamations.

But while religious bigots always firmly believe they have ways of holding back minorities, they fail to realize that they can’t stop us. Despite the pervasive — and seemingly endless — nature of repression, many institutional prejudices no one ever thought would end (such as slavery, or women being denied the right to vote) have eventually fallen to the enlightenment of, and pressure from, the people.

We encourage all Asheville residents of good conscience to begin according all faiths the respect, consideration and deference they deserve as valid, legally recognized spiritual paths — regardless of the differences in their approaches. And we challenge those in positions of power to cease assuming that Witches automatically merit suspicion and prejudicial treatment.

[Lady Passion and *Diuvei are the High Priestess and High Priest of Coven Oldenwilde, an Asheville-based Wiccan coven. For more information, see http://members.aol.com/oldenwilde.]

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