As the pagan community matures and expands, and its groups become involved in purchasing land, sponsoring festivals, and building spiritual retreats and centers, legal questions regarding zoning, religious institutions, and home worship become critical. The First Amendment protects the rights of individuals to worship in their homes, and the government may not interfere with the exercise of religious life except to protect safety or health.
|A threat to the rights of any group is a threat to all.|
Zoning restrictions, however, may be used to inhibit the practice of religion in one's home. A recent example occurred in Palm Bay, Fla., where The Church of Iron Oak, a Wiccan congregation affiliated with the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, fought a lengthy and costly battle to protect the rights of its members to engage in "home worship." A Palm Bay ordinance required churches in residential areas to obtain a special zoning permit and restricted worship to no more than five people. The church successfully argued that its legal offices were located elsewhere and that the home of the ministers, where sabbat (from the original Greek word "esbaton", meaning "a sacred or holy day") worship was held, did not meet the ordinance's legal definition of a church; that is, for a building to be a church, the practice of religion must be its primary use, whereas the home where the worship had occurred was used primarily as a residence.
An important aspect in winning this case was the support from other religious organizations--including Jewish, Unitarian, and Christian fundamentalist groups--whose First Amendment rights were also at risk. A positive relationship with the interfaith community can provide invaluable support in critical cases involving religious liberties, as even the most unlikely of religious allies understand that a threat to the rights of any group is a threat to all.
There have been numerous instances where religion has been made an issue in child custody cases. Thus far, the U.S. Supreme Court has chosen not to take any cases in this area, and state courts vary widely in their opinions. In a recent New York case, a husband sought to win custody of the couple's children by raising the wife's Wiccan religious beliefs as a concern. The judge refused to consider it in determining "the best interests of the child," the main criterion for deciding which parent should be granted custody.
Generally, most states consider religion in deciding custody only when specific religious beliefs or practices may impede a child's development in some definable way. Some states, such as New Hampshire, take the position that religion may never be addressed in a custody determination because it would improperly entangle the government, via the courts, in religious matters. Other states include religious beliefs as one among many considerations. Until the negative stereotypes about Witches and pagans change, this area may present legal challenges, depending upon the state in which the parties reside. Domestic law attorneys and their clients can receive legal support through pagan legal networks.
Many pagans will not wear a pentagram--the five-pointed star that is the symbol of the pagan religion--at work nor discuss their beliefs for fear of being fired. While the Constitution does not protect employees of private (non-governmental) businesses, protection against religious discrimination is provided by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which requires an employer to accommodate an employee's religious practice so long as doing so would not cause any undue hardship to the employer. (The employer, however, need only make the most minimal accommodation, not the most favorable.) Title VII has been interpreted to include the right to take time off for religious holidays, and many states have enacted laws similar to and often more generous in the granting of rights and stricter in the enforcement of those rights than Title VII.
It is true, however, that individuals who "come out of the broom closet" at work can find themselves facing subtle forms of discrimination, and termination justified on such grounds as poor performance or reduction in work-force size. But when an employee has had a stellar employment history and upon going public suddenly finds a pattern of harassment or criticism developing, the threat of a Title VII complaint could put an end to such behavior. In addition to private legal representation, local governmental human rights agencies can assist someone who suffers religious discrimination in the workplace.
The right of students to wear a pentagram in school is an active area involving pagan religious liberties. An increasing number of schools are instituting rules and policies forbidding students to belong to groups or engage in activities considered to be "inappropriate or unacceptable in the school setting." Some of these rules actually refer specifically to pagans, Wiccans, and/or Witches as forbidden groups, and the wearing of a pentagram--frequently termed a "gang symbol"--has been one of the banned activities.
Students--primarily teenage girls--have successfully fought these restrictions with lawsuits or the threat of suits. Some of the most visible and recent cases have occurred in Lincoln Park, Mich.; Hammond, Ind.; and Elmwood, Ind. With the assistance of the Michigan and Indiana ACLU and various Wiccan legal rights organization, students have risked indefinite suspension, expulsion, loss of class credit, and other punishments in successfully defending their right to wear their pentagrams in school as a symbol of their religious belief. Brandi Lehman, for example, said she was forced to leave her post as a student teacher at Edgewood Elementary School after officials told her to stop wearing a pentagram in her third-grade classroom. In an interview with the Associated Press, Kenneth Lehman said of his daughter, "She did the best thing she could have done, she sought out a lawyer and took it to the courts.. The school taught her a lesson in one of her classes about individual rights, and she decided to take them up on what she was taught."
The First Amendment ensures that pagans are entitled to the same right to practice their religion in peace and freedom as any other religion in the United States. An awareness of these rights and a vigorous commitment to their defense will transform the climate of negative stereotypes and religious bigotry that have long restrained their uninhibited enjoyment by all citizens.
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.