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.
Generally, the use of any public facility, park, or beach falls under constitutional protection. However, such use will require filing a permit application and adhering to the restrictions imposed, such as bans against fires, limitation on sizes of groups (for large groups, payment of certain fees or additional restrictions may be justified by the attendant increase in support services, risk to public safety, etc.), or hours of use. For example, if your group wishes to do a full-moon ritual at midnight, but the park closes for public use at 10 p.m., your permit will be denied, and such denial will not be deemed unconstitutional.
If, however, your use conforms to all requirements and lawful restrictions, and the permit is denied, you have a basis for a constitutional challenge. For instance, in 1993 I was not only an attorney but also a plaintiff in a case involving the city of Chicago. As a priestess, I was to lead a full-moon goddess ritual in a public park for the Parliament of the World's Religions. The city of Chicago first denied our permit because the person filing it had requested use after the park was legally closed. The permit application was then corrected to conform to city regulations. The city, however, again denied the permit, even though other religious groups had previously been granted permits to use the park for worship. With the assistance of the local ACLU, the city was challenged, and a permit was finally granted. The ritual was attended by the media and more than 700 clergy and practitioners of the world's many faiths.
High Priestess Phyllis W. Curott is a lawyer; author of 'The Book of Shadows'; founder of the Circle of Ara and the Temple of the Sacred Earth; and president emerita of the Covenant of the Goddess. Visit her site.