Religious discrimination against Neopagans

Religious discrimination against Neopagans

Neopagans are a religious minority in every country where they exist,[1] and have been subject to religious discrimination. The largest Neopagan communities are in North America and the United Kingdom, and the issue of discrimination receives most attention in those locations, but there are also reports from Australia and Greece (the latter specifically concerning Hellenic Neopaganism).


United States

According to Starhawk "religious discrimination against Pagans and Wiccans and indigenous religions is omnipresent in the U.S."[2]

In the armed forces

In 1999, in response to a statement by Representative Bob Barr (R-GA, now Libertarian) regarding Wiccan gatherings on military bases, the Free Congress Foundation called for U.S. citizens to not enlist or re-enlist in the U.S. Army until the Army terminated the on-base freedoms of religion, speech and assembly for all Wiccan soldiers.[3][4][5] Though this movement died a "quiet death", on 24 June 1999, then-Governor George W. Bush stated on a television news program that "I don’t think witchcraft is a religion and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it."[6][7]

"Emblem of Belief"#37

U.S. Army Chaplain Captain Don Larsen was dismissed from his post in Iraq in 2006 after changing his religious affiliation from Pentecostal Christianity to Wicca and applying to become the first Wiccan military chaplain. His potential new endorser, the Sacred Well Congregation based in Texas, was not yet an officially recognised endorsement organisation for the military, and upon hearing of his conversion, his prior endorser, the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, immediately revoked its endorsement. At this point, the U.S. Army was required to dismiss him from chaplaincy despite an exemplary service record.[8]

Prior to 2007, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs did not allow the use of the pentacle as an "emblem of belief" on tombstones in military cemeteries. This policy was changed following an out-of-court settlement on 23 April following a series of lawsuits against the VA.[9][10][11] See Patrick Stewart (soldier).

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs does not list any Ásatrú symbols as available emblems of belief for placement on government headstones and markers.[12] According to federal guidelines, only approved religious symbols—of which there are 48[13]—can be placed on government headstones or memorial plaques. Ásatrú Folk Assembly have demanded such a symbol. However, there are steps for requesting a new emblem of belief on an individual basis besides the current 48 by next of kin.

In prisons

The 1985, Virginia prisoner Herbert Daniel Dettmer sued Robert Landon, the Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, in federal court, to get access to objects he claimed were necessary for his Wiccan religious practice. The district court for the Eastern District of Virginia decided in Dettmer's favor, although on appeal the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that, while Wicca was a religion, he was not being discriminated against. This case marked the first legal recognition of Wicca as a religion.

In 2004, a case involving five Ohio prison inmates (two followers of Ásatrú, a minister of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, a Wiccan witch and a Satanist) protesting denial of access to ceremonial items and opportunities for group worship was brought before the Supreme Court.[14] Among the denied objects was instructions for runic writing requested by an Ásatrúer, which was initially denied when prison officials raised concerns that runic writing could be used for coded gang communication.

In an interview about the role of race-based gangs and other extremists in America's prisons, the historian Mark Pitcavage came to the conclusion that, "[n]on-racist versions of Ásatrú and Odinism are pretty much acceptable religions in the prisons."[15] But, materials from racist variants of these religions may be prohibited by corrections departments.

In early 2011, A Stillwater prisoner named Stephen Hodgson filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Minnesota claiming his religious rights have been violated.[16] Hodgson claimed he was prohibited from practicing his Wiccan faith when guards and prison administrators refused to allow him to use prayer oils and herbs needed. Stephen Hodgson claims his religious mail has been confiscated, and he has been prohibited from burning incense or using prayer oils and herbs. He claimed those items were necessary for the practice of his religion and that they posed no danger to guards or other inmates. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights agreed with Hodgson, saying "probable cause exists to believe that an unfair discriminatory practice was committed."

The discrimination case is awaiting trial. Hodgson is serving two consecutive life sentences for two murders in 1991.


According to Gerald Gardner, who popularised Wicca in the twentieth century, the religion is a survival of a European witch-cult that was persecuted during the witch trials (sometimes called the Burning Times), and the strong element of secrecy that traditionally surrounds the religion was adopted as a reaction to that persecution. Since then, Margaret Murray's theory of an organised pan-European witch-cult has been discredited, and doubts raised about the age of Wicca; many Wiccans no longer claim this historical lineage. However, it is still common for Wiccans to feel solidarity with the victims of the witch trials and, being witches, to consider the witch-craze to have been a persecution against their faith.[17]

There has been confusion that Wicca is a form of Satanism, despite important differences between these religions.[18] Due to negative connotations associated with witchcraft, many Wiccans continue the traditional practice of secrecy, concealing their faith for fear of persecution. Revealing oneself as Wiccan to family, friends or colleagues is often termed "coming out of the broom-closet".[19]

Wiccans have also experienced difficulties in administering and receiving prison ministry, although not in the UK of recent times.[20] In 1985, as a result of Dettmer v. Landon [617 F. Supp. 592 (D.C. Va 1985)], the District Court of Virginia ruled that Wicca is a legally recognised religion and is afforded all the benefits accorded to it by law. This was affirmed a year later by Judge John D. Butzner, Jr. of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [Dettmer v. Landon, 799 F. 2d 929 (4th Cir. 1986)]. Nevertheless, Wiccans are sometimes still stigmatised in America, and many remain secretive about their beliefs.

Also in 1985, conservative legislators in the United States introduced three pieces of legislation designed to take away the tax-exempt status of Wiccans. The first one was House Resolution (H.R.) 3389, introduced on 19 September 1985 by Congressman Robert S. Walker (R-Pennsylvania), which would have amended to the United States Internal Revenue Code that any organisation which promotes witchcraft would not be exempt from taxation. On the other side of Congress, Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina ) added Amendment 705 to H.R. 3036, "The Treasury, Postal, and General Government Appropriations Bill for 1986", which similarly stated that organisations promoting witchcraft would not be eligible for tax-exempt status. After being ignored for a time, it was attached to H.R. 3036 by a unanimous voice vote of the senators. Congressman Richard T. Schulze (R-Pennsylvania) introduced substantially the same amendment to the Tax Reform Bill of 1985. When the budget subcommittee met on 30 October, the Helms Amendment was thrown out as it was not considered germane to the bill. Following this, Schulze withdrew his amendment from the Tax Reform Bill, leaving only H.R. 3389, the Walker Bill. Joe Barton (R-Texas) was attracted to become a co-sponsor of this bill on 14 November 1985. The Ways and Means Committee set aside the bill and quietly ignored it, and the bill was allowed to die with the close of the 99th session of Congress in December 1986.[21][22]

In 2002, Cynthia Simpson of Chesterfield County, Virginia, submitted an application to be invited to lead prayer at the local Board of Supervisors meetings, but in a response was told that because the views of Wicca were not "consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition," her application had been denied. After the Board reviewed and affirmed their policy, Simpson took the case to the U.S. District Court of Virginia, which held that the Board had violated the Establishment Clause by advancing limited sets of beliefs.[23] The Board appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 2005 reversed the ruling and held that the Supreme Court's holding in the Marsh case meant that "Chesterfield County could constitutionally exclude Simpson from leading its legislative prayers, because her faith was not 'in the Judeo-Christian tradition.'"[24] The Board had also since modified its policy to direct clerics to not invoke the name of Jesus.[25] On October 11, 2005, the United States Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Simpson,[26] effectively ending the debate.[27][28][29]


The United States government does not officially endorse or recognize any religious group, but numerous Ásatrú groups have been granted non-profit religious status going back to the 1970s.[30]

An inmate of the "Intensive Management Unit" at Washington State Penitentiary alleges that adherents of Ásatrú in 2001 were deprived of their Thor's Hammer medallions as well as denied religious literature, as well as complaints against the prison chaplain calling Ásatrú "'devil worship,' etc."[31]

In 2007, a federal judge confirmed that Ásatrú adherents in US prisons have the right to possess a Thor’s Hammer pendant. An inmate sued the Virginia Department of Corrections after he was denied it while members of other religions were allowed their medallions.[32]

In the Georgacarakos v. Watts case Peter N. Georgacarakos filed a pro se civil-rights complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado against 19 prison officials for "interference with the free exercise of his Asatru religion" and "discrimination on the basis of his being Asatru".[33]

The Cutter v. Wilkinson case was partially about an adherent of Ásatrú being denied access to ceremonial items and opportunities for group worship.[14][34] The defendants on numerous occasions refused to answer or respond to letters, complaints, and requests for Ásatrú religious accommodations. They also refused to respond to complaints of religious discrimination. Ásatrú inmates were denied group worship and/or group study time as they did to other religions. They refused to hire a gothi to perform blots while providing priests for members of other religions. The Ásatrú inmates were also denied the right to have their own worship or study services.[35]

In a join press release the Odinic Rite, Ásatrú Alliance and Ásatrú Folk Assembly charged the FBI with violating its First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, free speech, and peaceful assembly by giving "False, misleading and deceptive information about our religion and its followers" in FBI's Project Megiddo report.[36]

The Anti-Defamation League publishes lists of symbols used by anti-Semitic groups.[37] Included in these publications are several Germanic pagan symbols that were sometimes used by the Nazis and some neo-Nazi groups, but have also always been used by non-racist pagan religions. Following an organised e-mail protest (mainly by the Odinic Rite), the ADL clarified that these symbols are not necessarily racist. It has since amended its publications to categorise these symbols as "pagan symbols co-opted by extremists".[38]

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, there have been occasional clashes between New Age travellers and authorities, such as the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985. There are also occasional charges of harassment against Neopagans such as the following examples.

In 1999, Dr Ralph Morse was appointed by the Pagan Federation as their first national youth manager. Following an article that appeared in the Independent on Sunday on 2 April 2000, Morse was summarily suspended from his post as Head of Drama, Theatre Arts and Media Studies at Shenfield High School in Essex.[39] Morse was subsequently fully investigated by the school and reinstated with a full retraction released to the media.[40][41]

In 2006, members of "Youth 2000", a conservative Catholic organisation, on visit to Father Kevin Knox-Lecky of St Mary's church, Glastonbury, attacked pagans by throwing salt at them and told them they "would burn in hell". Knox-Lecky apologized and said he would not invite the group again. The police warned two women and arrested one youth on suspicion of harassment.[42][43]

In 2007, Brighton teaching assistant claiming she was sacked for being a Wiccan.[44] A teacher at Shawlands Academy in Glasgow was denied time off with pay to attend Druid rites while members of other religions have their days of observance paid.[45] A Neo-druid group from Weymouth, Dorset was molested by threats and abuse.[46]

The University of St Andrews in Scotland have since 2006 allowed equal rights to The St Andrews Pagan Society, but under some strict rules.[47]


In modern day Greece, the Greek Orthodox Church has the status of state religion, and consequently, alternative religions such as Hellenic Neopaganism may be subject to discrimination.[48]

According to Greek Law No 1363/38, with amendment Law No. 1672/39: "Anyone engaging in proselytism shall be liable to imprisonment and a fine between 1,000 and 50,000 drachmas; he shall, moreover be subject to police supervision for a period of between six months and one year to be fixed by the court when convicting the offender." The second law requires anybody that is not an Orthodox Christian to obtain a "church license" from both the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs and the local Orthodox bishops, but only the Orthodox Church, Judaism and Islam are recognized as "legal persons of public law." According to a press release from The Supreme Council of Gentile Hellenes there have been threats against the life of its members and a book store burning.[49]

The Greek Society of Attic Friends, which state that it has 40,000 members, has been unsuccessful when they asked for recognition as a legal religion and were denied the right to build a temple in Athens[50] and to use existing temples for worship.[51]

In 2006 an Athens court ordered the worship of the old Greek gods to be unbanned. Father Eustathios Kollas, head of the community of Greek priests, said: "They are a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion who wish to return to the monstrous dark delusions of the past." The followers of Ancient Greek religion now prepare to push for full recognition.[52] So far they do not have the right to perform baptisms, marriages or funerals.[53] They are opposed by the Greek Orthodox church.[54][55]


In 2003, Olivia Watts charged the mayor of the City of Casey, Victoria, Rob Wilson, as violating the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 after he issued a press release in June of that year titled "Satanic cult out to take over Casey", in which Watts was mentioned by name. During a hearing on 12 August 2004 in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, Watts said that after the press release, she suffered vandalism to her property and an assault at her home, in addition to general "hatred, contempt and revulsion". On 13 August, it was revealed in tribunal that the matter had been settled overnight, and Wilson read a statement acknowledging that Watts was not a Satanist and expressing "regret for any hurt felt by Ms Watts in consequence of his press release".[56][57]

South Africa

The South Africa's Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) in South Africa have voiced objections to the proposed Witchcraft Suppression Bill.[58]

See also


  1. ^ Consistently below 0.5%. Estimated ratios may approach 0.4% in Iceland and the UK. In the USA and Canada, Neopagans account for an estimated 0.2% of the population.
  2. ^ "Washington Post: Discrimination Against Pagans". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  3. ^ "'Satanic' Army Unworthy of Representing United States" (Press release). Free Congress Foundation. 1999-06-09. Retrieved 2007-07-11. 
  4. ^ Silk, Mark (Summer 1999). "Something Wiccan This Way Comes". Religion in the News 2 (2). ISSN 1525-7207. Archived from the original on 2007-05-24. 
  5. ^ "Barr's Witch Project: Lawmaker Wants to Ban Witches from the Military". LawStreet Journal. 1999-11-01. Archived from the original on 2000-02-29. Retrieved 2007-07-11. 
  6. ^ Clifton, Chas S (2000-11-20). "Fort Hood's Wiccans and the Problem of Pacifism". Proceedings of the American Academy of Religion 2000 Meeting. Retrieved 2007-07-11. 
  7. ^ Assortment of links regarding calls to ban Wicca from military establishments: [1], [2], [3], [4]
  8. ^ Cooperman, Alan (2007-02-19). "For Gods and Country". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  9. ^ Associated Press (2007-04-23). "Wiccans symbols allowed on grave markers in government cemeteries". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 2007-07-11. 
  10. ^ "Veterans Affairs Department Must Accommodate Wiccan Symbol On Memorial Markers At Government Cemeteries, Says Americans United" (Press release). Americans United ( 2006-06-08. Retrieved 2007-07-11. 
  11. ^ "Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers". Retrieved 2007-07-11. 
  12. ^ "Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers — Department of Veterans Affairs". 
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b Greenhouse, Linda (2004-10-13). "NY Times: Justices Will Hear 2 Church-State Cases". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  15. ^ Interview with Mark Pitcavage - Behind the Walls
  16. ^ Wiccan Prisoner sues State
  17. ^ Buckland, Raymond (2002-09-01) [1971]. Witchcraft From The Inside: Origins of the Fastest Growing Religious Movement in America (3rd ed.). St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications. ISBN 1-56718-101-5. OCLC 31781774. 
  18. ^ Davis, Derek; Hankins, Barry (2003). New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America (2nd ed.). Waco: Baylor University Press. pp. 75. ISBN 0918954924. OCLC 52895492. "Much to the chagrin of practitioners of Wicca, there has been confusion in the minds of many about their religion, which is often linked with Satanism, although there are important differences." 
  19. ^ 'Bewitched' (2003-12-04). "Witch Way". Retrieved 2008-05-16. "Believe me, coming out of the "broom closet" is a one-way trip." 
  20. ^ Spurr, Michael (2005-08-31). "Practice of Paganism in Prison". HM Prison Service. Retrieved 2007-07-11. 
  21. ^ "Witch Busters: A Summary of Anti-Witchcraft Activity in the 99th Congress". Archived from the original on 2007-03-11.,+Occult,+Mysticism/Info+on+pagan+rituals+&+other+info/index18.htm. Retrieved 2007-07-11. 
  22. ^ Adler, Margot. "Witches, Pagans, and the Media". Retrieved 2007-07-11. 
  23. ^ Simpson v. Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, 292 F. Supp. 2d 805, 820 (E.D. Va. 2003)
  24. ^ "Simpson v. Chesterfield County, No. 04-1045". UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT. 2005. Retrieved 2008-08-16. 
  25. ^ Simpson v. Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, 404 F.3d 276 (4th Cir. 2005)
  26. ^ Simpson v. Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, 126 S. Ct. 426 (2005), p. 221
  27. ^ "Fourth Circuit Holds That Local Government May Restrict the Leading of Its Invocations to Representatives of Judeo-Christian Religions" (PDF). Harvard Law Review 119 (4). February 2006. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  28. ^ Markon, Jerry (2005-04-15). "Wiccan Bias Suit Against Va. County Dismissed". Washington Post: pp. B03. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  29. ^ Associated Press (2005-10-11). "High Court Grounds Broom Rider". CBS News. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  30. ^ Linzie, Bil (2000) (PDF). Drinking at the Well of Mimir. Retrieved February 2007. 
  31. ^ Walla Walla's Suppression of Religious Freedom[unreliable source?]
  32. ^ "First Amendment Center: Va. inmate can challenge denial of Thor's Hammer". 
  33. ^ "Georgacarakos v. Watts". 
  34. ^ "Spokesman Review: Sweet air of religious freedom could turn sour". 
  35. ^ "Portions of the Ásatrú Complaint". 
  36. ^ "CESNUR — Updates on FBI and Project Megiddo, November 10, 1999". 
  37. ^ "Hate On Display: A Visual Database of Extremist Symbols, Logos and Tattoos". ADL. 
  38. ^ "Hate On Display: A Visual Database of Extremist Symbols, Logos and Tattoos". ADL. 
  39. ^ Independent on Sunday articles dated 2 April and 9 April 2000 and The Foundation for Religious Freedom responding comment; CNS News Coverage (Foreign Bureaus)
  40. ^ Lucas, Phillip Charles; Robbins, Thomas (2004). New Religious Movements in the 21st Century. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415965764. 
  41. ^ Strmiska, Michael F (2005). Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1851096086. 
  42. ^ "Pagans are a-salt-ed". The Sun (London). 2007-05-17.,,2-2006510299,00.html. [dead link]
  43. ^ Shaikh, Thair (2006-11-04). "Catholic marchers turn on Glastonbury pagans". The Guardian (London).,,1939477,00.html. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  44. ^ The Argus: Teaching assistant claims she was sacked for being a witch; BBC: White witch 'sacked for days off'; The Sun: Sacked because I am a witch; Personnel Today: Pagan teaching assistant brings tribunal claim for unfair dismissal; The Guardian: Sacked witch 'told pupils she could teach them spells'. The case was settled out of court. The Times: Weirdest workplace disputes; The Guardian: White witch settles job dispute with school
  45. ^ "Pentacle Magazine: I Want Pagan Holidays". 
  46. ^ Cited examples are a dead bird with a noose around its neck with an attached paper saying "Die Witches". Dorset Echo: Pagans suffer ritual abuse
  47. ^ "The Times: University allows pagans to hold rituals". London. [dead link]
  48. ^ Moore, Charles. "The Telegraph: Modern Athenians fight for the right to worship the ancient Greek gods". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  49. ^ "Χριστιανικοί διωγμοί κατά των Ελλήνων". 
  50. ^ "Ongoing Persecution of Pagans in Modern Greece". 
  51. ^ "The Age: Modern pagans worship illegally in Athens". Melbourne. 2007-01-22. 
  52. ^ Smith, Helena (2006-05-05). "The Guardian: Greek gods prepare for comeback". London.,,1767802,00.html. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  53. ^ Brabant, Malcolm (2007-01-21). "BBC: Ancient Greek gods' new believers". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-01-04. 
  54. ^ Smith, Helena (2007-02-01). "The Guardian: By Zeus!". London.,,2003096,00.html. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  55. ^ "International Herald Tribune: Zeus honored by modern pagans in ceremony in Athens". 
  56. ^ Berry, Jamie (2004-08-13). "Tribunal hears claims of Satanic cult". The Age (Melbourne). Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  57. ^ Stokes, Jenny (2004-08-14). "Rob Wilson VCAT case — statement". Salt Shakers. Archived from the original on 2006-02-13. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  58. ^ "Reuters: S.Africa witches fight for rights". 2007-07-20. 

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