The Religious Rights of Wiccans and Pagans

Being aware of your rights--and the past successes in securing those rights--can empower and liberate you

BY: Phyllis W. Curott


From a mother worried that her ex-husband will use her religious beliefs to challenge her custody of their children to a bank executive concerned that she will be fired if her superior discovers she's Wiccan, to a high priestess and priest of a coven who are fined by their municipal government for worshiping in their home, countless practitioners of the Old Religion remain hidden, justifiably afraid that going public will lead to discrimination and even danger.

As the pagan religious movement grows, mainstream America is showing greater understanding and acceptance of it. Yet pagans (I use the term "pagan" here to refer to the Wiccan, Witchcraft, and overall pagan communities) are also coming under increasing scrutiny and attack, not only by the extreme right, but by many who remain uninformed and fearful because of long-standing negative stereotypes and religious bigotry. Over the years, members of the pagan community have battled for and won rights to religious freedom in a variety of important areas. Pagans must understand how the law protects them if they are to exercise their religious liberties. Whether you choose to be public, need to protect yourself, or wish to respond to injustices through social and political activism, being aware of your rights--and the past successes in securing those rights--can empower and liberate you.

The first part of this article addresses public pagan observances, and the second part will address personal expressions.

Incorporation and Clergy Recognition

Wiccan and pagan groups are increasingly organizing as legally recognized religious bodies in order to avail themselves of the numerous benefits of such status. These include the ability to conduct such religious services as legally binding marriages; provide pastoral counseling in hospitals, the military, and prisons; receive tax-deductible contributions; purchase land free of real estate taxes; obtain liability coverage for public events and group health insurance/insurance for clergy, and so forth.

We fought City Hall, and we won.

Since 1975, the Internal Revenue Service has recognized Wiccan congregations as tax exempt, either as religious organizations, churches, or temples. Careful attention must be paid to all legal requirements and correct wording in the drafting of all incorporation documents, by-laws, and submissions to states and the IRS, because not all state laws accommodate pagan theological concepts and practices. This is particularly true with regard to the distinction made in biblical religions between the clergy's and laity's roles in running an organization, which is often integrated into statutory language but doesn't apply to pagan groups, which generally are not governed by a board of directors composed of laity. But with the assistance of attorneys and other pagan groups who have successfully incorporated and received tax-exempt status, it is possible to vault any hurdles such language may present.

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