In 2000, Don Frew, a Wiccan in Berkeley, California, got a phone call from a local Protestant pastor. Did Frew know, the pastor asked, that he had been nominated to the board of directors of an interfaith center in San Francisco--and would he consider joining? Please?

Did they care he was a Wiccan? Nope. Did they care that he was, in fact, a Covenant of the Goddess priest? Nope. Did they care that he wears a pentacle around his neck and calls himself a Witch? Not at all.

It turns out, in fact, that acceptance by mainstream religious leaders, says Frew, "has never been an issue." That was not always true for Wicca, the faith that Frew follows. In the last 20 years, some Wiccans have lost custody of their children, their jobs, their homes after their faith became public.

But today, as Wiccans celebrate Samhain, the new year and one of their most sacred holidays, their spiritual path is enjoying vast popularity and widespread acceptance. This weekend, Samhain celebrations and rituals will happen all across the country-and many Wiccans expect record turnout.

"I am glad that the religion is thriving," says Selena Fox, high priestess of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan organization near Mt. Horeb, Wis. Her group's Samhain event has grown from 12 people in 1974 to a three-day gala of 200 people, most of them Wiccans. In addition to a healing ritual, a purification ceremony and a sacred walk through the woods, there will be music, dance and pumpkin carving for the kids. "Spiritual needs are being fulfilled," says Fox. "We are not only keeping alive the old traditions, but also working with those traditions in new ways."

Wicca--or witchcraft, or simply "the craft"--is a modern faith with roots in the past. While Wiccans may trace their religious heritage to a variety of sources, most generally agree the faith was founded in the 1940s by a British man who drew on pre-Christian European practices. Today's Wicca is goddess-based and earth-centered, revering the divine in nature and in human beings.

In Wicca, there is no centralized religious authority, no creed or dogma to which Wiccans must ascribe. Some Wiccans worship together in covens, though scholars estimate half worship alone, as "solitaries". It is a religion of self-realization and self-responsibility. Wiccans have only one rule--the Wiccan Rede - "An thou harm none, do what thy will."

As more people embrace Wicca, the religion has become more visible and, to some extent, more mainstream. Wiccans like Frew and Fox now sit on interfaith councils in cities from Seattle to Orlando, and from New York to Los Angeles. Wiccan characters have popped up in television shows like "JAG" and "Charmed" and even in children's videos like "Scooby Doo and the Witch's Ghost."

Wicca may, in fact, be the fastest growing religious movement in the United States. According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, the number of people who identified themselves as Wiccans grew from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001--a growth rate of 1,575 percent.

And many scholars believe the numbers are actually much larger. Dr. Helen Berger, co-author of "Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States" (University of South Carolina Press, 2003) puts the number of "serious practitioners" at 250,000. But when she reckons the number of dabblers--people who take a little Wicca with their Christianity, Judaism or other tradition--the number could be much higher.

That growth has brought both challenges and opportunities. As Wicca sits on the cusp of broader acceptance, its practitioners have some serious questions to deal with. Can a religion that recognizes no religious authority organize itself enough to handle its growth? Can a religion that emphasizes personal spiritual experience maintain its authenticity? Can Wicca as it is practiced today survive its own success?

"The growth has been so explosive that what structure there is cannot accommodate it," says Chas Clifton, a Wiccan and editor of Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. "We are like a third world country that can't put up enough elementary schools fast enough let alone send someone to university."

Here are some signs of Wicca's acceptance:

  • This year's gathering of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona included 60 Wiccan and Neo-Pagan participants, more than ever before. In 2003, the first Neo-Pagan, a Wiccan, was elected to the council's board of trustees.
  • Pagan Pride Day, usually held in late September, has seen its celebrations grow from 18 in 1998 to 117 this year.
  • The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS), a group of Wiccans and other Neo-Pagans within the Unitarian-Universalist church, has grown to 70 chapters in 36 states.
  • Wiccans and Neo-Pagans have their own seminary in Bethel, Vermont.
  • The number of academics who study Wicca and other forms of Neo-Paganism has grown to the point that they plan to seek formal recognition as a group from the American Academy of Religion.
  • Books about Wicca have migrated from fringe publishing houses to big commercial publishers, including Harper SanFrancisco and Random House.
  • Spiral Scouts International, a Boy and Girl Scout-like organization, now has "circles" of little Wiccans and other Neo-Pagans in 22 states.
  • In Puyallup, Wash. officials cancelled Halloween school celebrations out of concern that witch costumes and decorations might be offensive to local Wiccans.