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.