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County/Municipality church/state conflicts

Chesterfield County, VA refuses
to consider a Wiccan for invocation

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A local Wiccan priestess asked Chesterfield County, VA to add her to a list of religious leaders to give an invocation before county meetings. She was rejected, and launched a lawsuit:

bullet2002-OCT-4: Wiccan rejected: Cyndi Simpson is a Wiccan priestess who is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. She lives in  Chesterfield County, VA, a suburb of Richmond. In her area of the country, Wicca and other Neopagan religions are largely misunderstood, and often incorrectly associated with Satanism. She asked the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to add her name to the list of ministers and priests who give invocations at county meetings. Her hope was that if she gave an generalized invocation, "to the creator of the universe" she would help rid the community of misconceptions about Witches and Wiccans. She said:
"I wasn't going to talk about the Goddess. I was going to call the elements, maybe offer up an invocation to the highest being -- something that would be non-secular. But they didn't want any of that. One of the board supervisors called Wicca a mockery.....There are [other] Wiccans in the area, but people feel they need to be more careful here because of the radical right that are in the area. I really think I'm being discriminated by my faith. Look, I'm for separation of church and state, so although I don't even think they should have prayers at county meetings, but if they are going to do this then the prayers need to reflect the true religious diversity of the community." 6
She received several responses:
bullet

Steven L. Micas, the county's attorney, wrote back that: "Based upon our review of Wicca, it is neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities...Accordingly, we cannot honor your request."

Simpson said:

"I believe that this shows bias not only against my faith but against Islam, Hindu, Buddhism, Native Americans and any faith outside the Judeo-Christian religion. In a public area, government sponsored, we should all be welcome....I am a proud citizen of Chesterfield County. I think these kinds of public practices should reflect the true religious diversity of Chesterfield County, and I am part of that. I would welcome a phone call from any of the county officials."


bulletSupervisor Renny B. Humphrey, from the rural, heavily Baptist Matoaca District, said "I hope she's a good witch like Glinda." Glinda is the "Good Witch of the North" in Judy Garland's famous movie "The Wizard of Oz."

bullet

Board Chairman Kelly E. Miller said that Wicca: "...is a mockery. It is not any religion I would subscribe to. There are certain places we ought not to go, and this is one of them."

bulletOn a positive note, Supervisor Edward B. Barber seems to have been aware of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He said: "How do you justify drawing a line to say this religious practice is acceptable to begin a board meeting but this one is not?"

bulletKent Willis, spokesperson for the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said "They are dead wrong. Wicca is a highly recognized religion. The military manual for chaplains includes instructions for people who are Wiccans...Their reasoning is highly suspect." 1

Willis sent two letters to the county board asking it to reconsider their decision. Don Kappel, a spokesperson for the county said:

"These prayers are done on a volunteer basis and on a chosen basis by the board. We offer prayers by people who are religious leaders allied to Judeo-Christian practices. This is what the board wants. They don't even have to have prayers at their open meetings. It's not mandatory, so they can invite whomever they like. They were not interested in having Ms. Simpson speak." 6

Wren Walker is a Wiccan at www.Witchvox.com, a Wiccan information site. She said:

"It's never been easy. If one is a witch or a Wiccan, there has always been someone who is quite pleased to tell you that you are destined for the fiery pit. Thankfully, these folks hardly ever show up on the doorstep with ropes and burning torches anymore. That does not mean, however, that Wiccans do not still face opposition. The bigotry simply appears in the more subtle forms of employment dismissals and child custody battles. In many ways, cases of discrimination such as these are much more difficult to both prove and to counter." 6
Starhawk, author of "The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religions of the Great Goddess," and many other books said:
"Although there is a lot more understanding about Wicca than there was 20 years ago, there are still individual people who don't understand about the religion part. Wicca is about religion...It's about Earth and nature being sacred; it's not about broomsticks and black cats or Satanism."  6


bullet2003-JUL-22: Wiccan sues: Cynthia Simpson initiated a lawsuit against the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors. She claimed that she filed her lawsuit after country officials did not return her phone calls and made public comments ridiculing her religion of Wicca -- the largest earth-centered Neopagan religion in the U.S. The board restricts invocations to those which represent "a monotheistic faith consistent with Judeo-Christian tradition." In a court hearing, Simpson's attorney  Rebecca Glenberg of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that her client's exclusion from the list amounted to a disparagement of her religion. She said: "The policy on its face demonstrates a use of the prayer program that advances certain faiths and disparages others The core fact is Ms. Simpson was denied the opportunity to participate in this forum because of her religion." County lawyer Steven L. Micas disagreed, arguing that a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling gives the government wide latitude in offering legislative invocations that reflect the traditional values of a majority of its citizens. He expressed concern that if the board did not control who could speak then they would have to allow by the white supremacist World Church of the Creator and other fringe groups. Simpson said. "This is my own local government discriminating against me on the basis of my religion. It's not a private club or neighborhood association. We're strong as a nation because of our diversity. There are pagans fighting for you at this moment in Iraq." 2
bullet 2005-FEB-17: Wiccan wins lawsuit: A trial judge ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny Simpson the chance to deliver the invocation. The county subsequently appealed the decision. Simpson said that she was excluded because of a lack of understanding. She said: "People just don't know about...[Wicca] and there has definitely been a misrepresentation of Witchcraft...I understand all that ignorance and confusion." She plans to take the lawsuit further if the appeals court does not rule in her favor.

8 News referred to Simpson as "a self-proclaimed witch." We have found no evidence of this media outlet referring to Christians, Jews, Muslims etc. as "self-proclaimed." 3
bullet 2005-APR-14: Wiccan looses lawsuit: A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA ruled against Ms Simpson. They noted that the county has allowed leaders from a variety of religions to deliver the invocation. Therefore, the court ruled that the county had met the Constitution's requirement by not advancing any one given faith. The appeals court based its ruling in on Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 Supreme Court decision that ruled nonsectarian legislative prayer is generally constitutional. 8 Kent Willis, executive director of Virginia ACLU disagreed. He said that the policy of the county shows preference for one religion over another -- thus violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Simpson said: "This isn't right. I've been a separation of church and stater all my life, long before I was a witch. ... That's what was driving me all along." She is a member of a local coven known, tongue-in-cheek as the Broom Riders Association. 4

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who filed the lawsuit with the ACLU, said the 4th Circuit's decision shows "that bigotry is OK under certain circumstances....When government starts to involve itself with religion, it also has the right to choose which religions are legitimate in their eyes. And that's a terribly dangerous proposition."


bullet 2005-APR-28: Appeal to full court requested: The American Civil Liberties Union asked the full Richmond federal appeals court to review the decision of its three-judge panel. 5 This was unsuccessful.
bullet 2005-OCT-11: Appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court rejected: Rebecca Glenberg of the American Civil Liberties Union told the court that the county issues invitations to deliver prayers to all Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious leaders in the county, but refuses to invite Native Americans, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Wiccans. Local Hindu, Buddhist, and Native American groups filed a brief on her behalf. The Supreme Court refused to hear Ms. Simpson's appeal. As is normal in these cases, the court did not offer a reason.

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Wrapup:

Ms. Simpson notes that the reaction from the community was generally positive. She said: "I was surprised by that. We raised the level of awareness of Unitarian Universalism and of witchcraft."

According to the UU World Magazine:

"Many Unitarian Universalist congregations include members who embrace Wicca as well as other earth-based traditions and who consider themselves witches, Pagans, or neo-Pagans. In 1995, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations --an association of approximately 1,000 congregations with roots in two liberal Protestant denominations -- formally acknowledged one of Unitarian Universalism's religious sources in 'spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature'."

Ms. Simpson later attended the Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA where she began studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Chesterfield Gives Witch the Broom," Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2002-OCT-7, at: http://timesdispatch.com/news/
  2. "Witch seeks right to open board meeting with prayer," News-Journal Corp., 2003-JUL-22, at: http://www.news-journalonline.com/ (This is a temporary listing).
  3. "Witch Prayer Flap," 8 News, WRIC, Petersburg/Richmond VA, 2005-FEB-17, at: http://www.wric.com/
  4. "Appeals Court Rules Against Wiccan in Va.," Associated Press, 2005-APR-14, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  5. "ACLU asks court to reverse decision against Wiccan in prayer lawsuit," Associated Press, 2005-APR-28. Online at: http://www.wavy.com/
  6. Maya Dollarhide, "County Board Nixes Witch's Offer to Lead Prayer," Women's Enews, 2002-OCT-31, at: http://www.womensenews.org/
  7. The text of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruling is at: http://pacer.ca4.uscourts.gov/ **
  8. The text of Marsh v. Chambers is at: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/
  9. "4th Circuit rejects Wiccan's bid to lead prayer at county meetings," Associated Press, 2005-APR, at: http://wiccanet.us/
  10. The text of the the U.S. Court of Appeals panel's decision is available at: http://pacer.ca4.uscourts.gov/ **
  11. Donald Skinner, "Unitarian Universalist witch loses Supreme Court appeal Court rejects public prayer case without comment," UUWorld.org, 2005-OCT-24, at: http://www.uuworld.org/

** These are PDF files. You may require software to read them. Software can be obtained free from:

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Copyright © 2005 to 2013by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-APR-28
Latest update: 2013-AUG-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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