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PAGANS IN POLITICS, HOW AND WHY
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by Rev. Philipp Kessler
December 10, 2012

In the United States, we just wrapped up a long and often tedious election season. President Barack Obama won a second term in the Oval Office and many lawmakers, local, state and national, have begun a new phase in their political careers. With November’s election over we no longer have to watch campaign ads on television, receive junk mail in our inboxes and snail mail or be bombarded with the memes over Facebook and other social media. That doesn’t mean it is over for another two to four years. Quite the opposite! There is always plenty of politics going around.

Every U.S. citizen of voting age has the right and the responsibility to take part in the political process. As members of minority religions, Pagans have an even greater responsibility to be involved. Many of us in the Pagan community feel a calling towards many political areas:

  • Environmentalism
  • Marriage Equality
  • Women’s Rights
  • Ethnic and Racial Equality
  • Gender Equality
  • LGBT Issues
  • Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO additive foods)

The list could go on and on. The question is, how do we, as Pagans, get involved in politics and to what extent should we be involved?

There are two answers to that question. The first, and the most simple, is to get out there and get involved. If you feel passionately about something it is your right and responsibility to do something to promote it, enhance it, change it, make it happen. The second answer is much more complicated.

A small number of Pagans have taken the very brave step of getting directly involved in politics by running for political office. Of that small number, few of them have publicly spoken of their religious beliefs from the outset, but most of them have had no choice but to address the topic during their campaign or during their term of office. Rita Moran and Edward Lachowicz (both from Maine) being examples of those who have been “outed” either during their campaigns or their terms. Not everyone can be a Dan Halloran (NYC Councilman) and use both his political party (Tea Party Republican) and his religious beliefs (Theod) to bolster his campaign and win an election. Few still can directly use their spirituality to help determine how they run their term of office, Lonnie Murray (Virginia) being the only example that I could find with a quick Google search. Then you have the double whammy of Jessica Orsini, a transgender Pagan who not only won Alderwoman in Ward III of Centralia, MO, but was re-elected to her office twice. There are other examples.

If you take a look at the examples listed above, you will see that many Pagans who run for political office are either forced out of the broom closet or have to deal with negative commentary on their religious and spiritual beliefs. These hurdles are something Pagans who want to run for office have to contend with and hopefully overcome. Cautionary tales though they may be, there are plenty of reasons why we as Pagans should get involved in politics on as many levels as we can.

The Keystone XL Pipeline and other environmental concerns, marriage equality and anti-bully measures, separation of church and state, and so on and so forth. All worthy causes. Are they worthy enough for YOU to get involved in politics? Maybe not, but they are for someone out there, hopefully several someones.

You may be wondering at what I am getting at with this article. Put simply, it is a call for Pagans to take an active role in politics. More in depth, it is a call for Pagans to step up and be represented in politics.

In November’s election we saw several firsts. Many of them important firsts. Mazie Hirono became the first Buddhist elected to the Senate and Tulsi Gabbard became the first Hindu elected to the House of Representatives. Both are from the state of Hawaii. By some definitions, these two women are Pagans. Though they may not define themselves as such, that is how many in the mainstream and in the Pagan community see them. Be that as it may, their elections to office, as members of the United States Congress, shows that the American people are ready to embrace people of diverse religions to represent them in Washington. Hirono and Gabbard join the ranks of “smaller” politicians like Halloran, Murray, Moran, Orsini and others who have broken the glass ceiling when it comes to religious and spiritual diversity in American politics. It was not that long ago that non-Christians were breaking that same ceiling. It is not that far off in our future that we may see a Wiccan, a Druid, or an Asatruar taking the oath of office to represent their state or even the country in Washington D.C.

Who that first Pagan in D.C. might be is anyone’s guess right now. The question is, what are we as members of the various Pagan religions in the United States are willing to do to make that happen.

In future articles I will be addressing the topics of running for local, state and national office; the hurdles that we as Pagans may have to jump to be recognized as a legitimate candidates; and how the right wingnuts will do their best to prevent Pagans from gaining those offices. I will also write about the actions of our elected officials, regardless of their religio-spiritual leanings and how those actions may affect as Pagans.

Until next time, Pax Religio!

Call for Writers Continues
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A quick post this week.

We’ve been sort of on-vacation since the election and now American Thanksgiving is upon us.  We’ll get back to more regularly scheduled posts following that holiday.  Or, we will at least until the Winter holidays interrupt the progress of our normal routines.

Remember:  our call for writers continues!  We’ve gotten a few responses and we’re chatting with people about what they might bring to the project.  If you’re interested in working with us, click the link above and let us know!

Voting is the best magic
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Today is Election Day: Vote!

Voting is where the magical meets the mundane, where we take our intentions and put them into action. Make it happen.

Among the many vital issues in this election, freedom of religion should not be forgotten. Obama stands for a vision of freedom of religion that guarantees rights to everyone – including minority religions. Romney is happy to let his supporters twist “freedom of religion” into a justification for the powerful to make theocratic choices about health care for others, and a justification for cruel and malicious bullying, and a general excuse for hateful behavior. The difference is clear.

In case you need it, here’s a site where you can find your polling location and here’s an overview of voting rights.

Further thoughts on being recognized as clergy
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Last week my efforts to get the Arlington County Court to recognize me as a member of the clergy finally succeeded. Now that it’s over, I’m going to reflect a little bit on some of the details and share some possible advice for others who find themselves fighting an uphill battle for rights and recognition.

First of all, I’m glad we didn’t have to make a court case out of it. (I was dealing with the bureaucracy of the clerk of court’s office, and we never had to file a case against them or go before a judge or anything.) It’s always deeply satisfying when minority rights win in court, but that’s a very time-consuming and expensive process. In my case, I got the outcome I wanted without having to go through that trouble.

Choosing what outcome to work towards was an important part of deciding how to handle the situation. Others have had problems with Arlington County Court before me; many of them decided that the outcome they wanted was to get their authorization to perform marriages in time for a particular upcoming ritual they had scheduled, or that they wanted it with a minimum of bother and were willing to go to a different venue to get it. I understand and support that.

My situation was different. I didn’t have a ritual already scheduled, and my personal commitment to civil rights was deeply offended by the seemingly arbitrary nature of the decision. To add insult to injury, this was happening in my home county, which also happens to be where some of the pentacle headstones for deceased service members are located. It galled me to think that the federal government would recognize deceased Wiccans, but the local government wouldn’t let me be a priestess to living ones. I had the time and some resources to pursue it, and was not afraid of losing a job or children if it became an issue, so I decided to push the bureaucracy.

And bureaucracy matters. This is where the rubber meets the road and the laws about civil liberties are put into practice, usually with an accompanying thicket of regulations that may or may not stand the test of constitutionality. The tremendous variations across Virginia in terms of clergy recognition are first and foremost a matter of different bureaucracies coming up with different rules. Those variations can pose a serious burden to non-traditional religions in some areas, including Arlington. Making small changes in the bureaucracy is part of the long work of getting our civil rights assured in practice, in everyday life, until it becomes unremarkable to be Wiccan.

Part of changing the bureaucracy is working with the bureaucracy, at least to a point. I had to collect the documentation and file the paperwork. When Americans United went to bat for me by writing letters, we had to wait and give the court a chance to respond. And when the court came back and described it as a miscommunication, I was willing to let them save face.

That’s another important point: I don’t know for sure that this was deliberate discrimination or that it was specifically anti-Wiccan or anti-Pagan. Personally, I suspect that it was more ignorance and general prejudice than active malice. Simply being unfamiliar with Wicca and thinking that it’s “not a real religion” (which is prejudice, but not necessarily anti-Wiccan hatred) would suffice to explain what I encountered. Whether or not there was personal prejudice that ran deeper (or had a more Christian source) I’ll never know.

And at some level, that’s unimportant. I don’t care if the court personnel grumble all the way to the filing cabinets and back as long as they file my paperwork. This too was part of outlining my objective. Would it have been nice to get an apology? Absolutely. It would have been even better to get something that would make it easier for Wiccans and other Pagans to be recognized in any circuit court in Virginia. But those were extremely unlikely, so I didn’t hope for them too much.

So another part of working with the bureaucracy was not alleging personal discrimination where I couldn’t prove it or where it could even be counter-productive. I took the reason the clerk gave me – although he said there were others that he wouldn’t disclose – and AU showed why that was unconstitutional. I spread the story to get help from the Pagan community because this posed a problem for us no matter the source, and I got some absolutely vital help, but I didn’t kick off a campaign of name-calling and unfounded accusations against the court. No matter what my personal suspicions were or are, calling the court out like that might have only pressured them to defend their decision any way they could, potentially giving me a lot more trouble.

It was also valuable to be able to present my situation as affecting not just Wiccans. As many people pointed out, there are plenty of Christian groups that don’t own property or meet in a fixed location the way the bureaucracy seemed to expect. Presenting this as a situation that cut across multiple non-traditional religious situations probably made the argument stronger and significantly widened my pool of potential allies. That’s not to say that it’s bad to point out problems that specifically affect Wiccans or Pagans, just that in this case that might not have been the best strategy.

Finally, I got expert advice. I can’t tell you how much of a difference it makes to get counsel. I had some initial ideas about the relevant laws and precedents, but the tentative argument I had put together was child’s play compared to the sophisticated analysis that Americans United produced. I can’t say it enough: get a lawyer. If you’re in a legal situation involving potential discrimination, you need a lawyer. This isn’t like realizing that you have a headache and deciding to take an over-the-counter pain reliever. This is like realizing that you need an appendectomy. It takes special training to fix the problem.

As an example, I’d like to briefly address one of the most common responses I got: “Why not give the court your home address as the location of your church?” There are multiple reasons I didn’t. For starters, the court already had my home address because it was on the photo ID I showed as part of the application process. If they wanted me to write that down, they could have asked for it or looked at my ID. More importantly, my home is not zoned as a church. This is a whole separate area of legal issues, but if I had submitted a legal document where I swore that my home was a church, I could have been in legal trouble in terms of zoning, and the county could have used that as a separate reason to deny me and even pursue legal action against me! It would have been immediately obvious that I was using my home address, too, which probably wouldn’t have helped the situation. When in doubt, follow the simplest legal advice ever: shut up and lawyer up.

That’s how I approached my situation. Every situation is different, but I hope there’s some potentially helpful advice for others there. As painful as these problems are, the more we address them, the more we move, step by step, towards having our civil rights recognized in practice.

Your Voice. Your Vote. Your Move.
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In lieu of a Faith Forum this weekend, I wrote a brief post about voting as an intentional, perhaps magical act, at the Pagan Activist blog.  My in-laws were in town and we’re battening down the hatches in light of Hurricane Sandy’s imminent arrival, too, so time was at a premium for me.

In other words, I’m taking the easier road this week and simply cross posting from that blog to this one:

We live in a pretty freaking awesome country.  Sure, it has its problems, not a few of which are connected to our politics, but there are some really great things about living in America.  If there weren’t, people wouldn’t still be trying to join us in as we continue our grand democratic experiment.

But there’s something that each of us should do, a role that — as citizens — we should perform that too few of us actually seem to accomplish.  It’s a fairly simple thing but, as we’ve learned, it can become deceptively complex.  If you haven’t guessed yet, it’s voting.

Read more at paganactivist.com.

U.S. Air Force Academy hosts first Hindu service
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The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, you may remember, created an outdoor circle for Pagans in 2010.  The academy continues to include religious minorities, hosting their first Hindu service in September.  I read about it this past weekend while learning more about the holiday of Navratri but didn’t want this lost at the bottom of last week’s Faith Forum.

It was officiated by members of the Sri Venkateswara Temple of Colorado for the holiday of Sri Ganesha Chaturthi, the observance of the birth of the god Ganesha.  Ganesha is the remover of obstacles, so Hindu members of the academy found it particularly heartening to hold this service at the beginning of the academic year.

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