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Religious intolerance in Canada

2008: Conflict over Tarot cards in Toronto, ON

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Overview:

Organizers of the Miss Toronto Tourism pageant for 2008 invited Stephanie Conover, 23, (Miss Canada Plus 2007) to be one of their judges.In an unusual show of religious bigotry, they later decided that she was unfit to serve as a judge because of her hobbies. Director of the Miss Toronto Tourism pageant notes that hers is a private organization, receives no government funds, and thus can discriminate on any grounds that they wish. Public reaction to their decision was intensely negative.

Ms Connors is the first known beauty queen who is openly Neopagan .

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Background:

Stephanie Conover was crowned Miss Canada Plus 2007. The Miss Canada Plus Pageant (MCCP) celebrates "women with real curves" and is held annually in Toronto ON for "plus sized" women. It is believed to be the first and only pageant of its kind, and is intended:

"to inspire plus-size women to recognize their external and internal beauty, by encouraging wellness and empowerment through a sense of recognition, inclusion and acceptance in the world of fashion and beauty." 1

Ms. Conover agreed to a request from the Miss Toronto Tourism pageant to be a judge on 2008-FEB-02. On JAN-21, they asked her for her biography. She said:

"I told them everything I do, how I'm an entertainer and a singer and a dancer. I talked about my charity work and I said I also have hobbies, including songwriting, knitting, painting, yoga, reiki and tarot cards." 2

Her hobbies include:

bullet

Yoga, that was"

"... developed in ancient India to unify body and mind with universal spirit, thereby encouraging physical and mental well-being. Most commonly, it involves a series of stretching postures (called asanas), breathing exercises, and meditative practices." 3

Many practitioners believe that it increases bodily flexibility, improves their muscle tone, and reduces stress.


bullet

Reiki is pronounced "ray-kee." It means "universal life energy" in Japanese. It is a healing technique developed in the 19th century by Dr. Mikao Usui and involves a practitioner moving their hands gently in specific positions either on or above their client's body. According to practitioner Kathy McConnell:

"It has nothing to do with Religion and can be practiced by all. You can use it on family, friends, pets."  4


bulletTarot cards are a set of 78 playing cards that contain pictures and symbols. They are used by fortunetellers and others in an attempt to predict the future.

Karen Murray, the pageant director of Miss Toronto Tourism is reported as saying:

"We just got her bio a week ago and we don't agree with it. We want someone down to earth, not someone into the dark side or the occult."

Ironically, Ms. Conover is a follower of Wicca, the largest of many Earth-centered Neopagan religions. So, she is probably more "down to earth" in the sense of being closer to nature than are most Canadians. Ms. Murray was unaware of Conover's religious affiliation at the time.

According to the Toronto Star, on JAN-24, Murray and another official wrote to the Miss Canada Plus group stating:

"We need a judge who has an upright reputation and we would be proud to introduce to the audience ... Our board of directors has eliminated her as a judge as tarot card reading and reiki are the occult and is [sic] not acceptable by God, Jews, Muslims or Christians. Tarot card reading is witchcraft and is used by witches, spiritists and mediums to consult the dark world."

The letter continued with a couple of quotations from the Bible including:

Leviticus 19:31 "Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God. (King James Version).

The letter concluded:

"We hope that Stephanie Conover will turn from these belief systems and will repent from her practice of them."

Many evangelicals and other conservative Protestants believe that Tarot card players are occultists who contact demons who are under the control of Satan. The web site GotQuestions.org states:

"The word 'familiar' is from the Latin familiaris, meaning a 'household servant,' and is intended to express the idea that sorcerers had spirits as their servants ready to obey their commands. Those attempting to contact the dead, even to this day, usually have some sort of spirit guide who communicates with them. These are familiar spirits."

"Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 20:27 and Deuteronomy 18:9-14 refer to 'mediums and familiar spirits' and forbids being involved in them, as a they are an abomination to the Lord. The medium was one who acted as a 'go-between' to supposedly contact or communicate with the dead, but in reality they were contacting demons who convinced the mediums that they were 'familiar' and could be trusted and believed. The practices associated with mediums and familiar spirits were banned in Israel, and the punishment for practicing such things was death."

"To this day, familiar spirits (demons) are under the control of their master, Satan. They influence people to spread lies and deceit in order to thwart the kingdom of God." 5

Polling data from the U.S. shows a wide gap among Christians concerning the existence of Satan:

  • 75% of Roman Catholics reject Satan as a living being';
  • 55% of Protestants do as well. 6
  • Among the general public, those who regard Satan as a mythical being outnumber those who believe he is a living entity by about a 2:1 ratio.
  • Even more Americans are believed reject the concept of demonic beings who assist Satan.
  • Essentially all mental health professionals reject their existence.

These values are believed to be even higher in Canada because of the larger percentage of Roman Catholics, secularists, Agnostics, Atheists, etc. in the country.

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Ms. Conover's reaction to the rejection:

Ms. Conover said that she was stunned by the letter. The Toronto Star newspaper reported:

" 'I was fuming. They said tarot cards are the occult and that I use them to commune with dark forces,' which she insisted is not the case. 'They're completely benign. I use them for healing, to give guidance. You can buy tarot cards at Chapters [Canada's largest bookstore] or the CNE' [Canadian National Exhibition]."

"She also said reiki is a well-known Japanese healing system that allows people to transfer positive energy to a sick person. 'It definitely goes against convention, sure, but anything that helps avoid use of prescription drugs is a bonus, I think'."

"Conover said she practices Wicca, which to some means she's a witch. But she said [that] the Miss Toronto Tourism people didn't know that and that they based their rejection of her on tarot cards and reiki."

" 'Some would call me a witch, yes. But we don't believe in the devil. There's no devil in Wicca. We believe whatever you send out, good or bad, comes back to you three times. Ninety per cent of those who practice witchcraft or Wicca do it for the betterment of themselves or others. It's a religion and we're trying to get it recognized by higher-ups in government."

"Conover said she also promotes diversity and multiculturalism as her mother is black and her father is white. Murray insisted Conover is 'trying to stir up trouble' by raising the issue in the press. 'She's obviously a very vindictive person,' she said. Murray said her [own] group doesn't get government funding and has the right to decide who acts as a judge in their pageant."

"Asked if her group is a religious one, Murray replied, 'We adhere to God's principles. We're God-fearing. I wouldn't say we're religious'."

"Conover said she's looking into challenging the Miss Toronto Tourism pageant in court, or at a human rights tribunal."

" 'They said they wouldn't be proud to introduce me and that I don't present an upstanding character. I'm a very open-minded person and a very loving person. To say I'm not of upright character, it's blasphemous'." 2

Jason Pitzl-Waters, a Neopagan, interviewed a pageant director identified as Karen Hunter for his "The Wild Hunt" blog. He wrote:

" 'We are not a religious pageant,' director Karen Hunter assures me. She says folks of many backgrounds will be at the waterfront Radisson Admiral hotel on the big night. 'We don't want to offend anybody.'

However, it seems that the pageant already has offended Neopagans and those who support religious diversity and religious tolerance.

Andrew Weir, vice president of the unrelated organization Tourism Toronto, said:

"Its caused some confusion but it has nothing to do with us and we have nothing to do with them. All I can say is thats not how we market the city." 10

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Reactions from the public:

The Toronto Star newspaper published five letters to the editor about the Conover incident. All were highly critical of the intolerance shown by the pageant:

bullet Dawn L. Rogers, Toronto: I'm disheartened to see that narrow-mindedness and religious intolerance are still alive and, apparently, thriving in Toronto. For years we have been trying to increase understanding and acceptance toward other races, religions, cultures - differences in general.

To read that tarot cards and reiki are considered part of the occult simply tells me how uninformed Karen Murray, Miss Toronto Tourism pageant director, actually is. I embrace many of the philosophies of Wicca, such as respecting our environment, doing good deeds, harming no one and respecting all people, regardless of religion. These philosophies are very similar to Christian, Jewish and Muslim philosophies as well.

Is Miss Toronto Tourism an organization with which Stephanie Conover would want to be affiliated? God-fearing is one thing; respecting people and their religious differences is obviously something Murray and her colleagues do not embrace.

I don't think this is the type of pageant I would want Toronto to be endorsing, regardless of whether there is no government funding. We are a country known for our respect for human rights; we are a city known for its multiculturalism.

Why would we want that tarnished by the ignorance being displayed here, let alone endorse it with Toronto's name?

bulletSharon Rose, Toronto: If we already thought beauty pageants were irrelevant, they have since slid right past anachronistic on to defamatory. Miss Toronto Tourism official Karen Murray is making a mockery of an already questionable institution. Her suggestion that tarot cards are used to contact dark, occult forces would be funny if it weren't laced with religious prejudice.

Stephanie Conover is justified in bringing this discrimination into the light. The right to practice religion, spirituality or personal growth is being compromised by prejudices that supposedly disappeared with the rack and thumb screws.

As an aside, it is interesting that the pageant is being held on a Wiccan holiday, Feb. 2, which is Imbolc or Bride's Day.

bulletLesley Law, Whitby: I was shocked by the comments attributed to Miss Toronto Tourism director Karen Murray. Her comments about the Wiccan faith were inaccurate and reeked of intolerance. If anyone in this story is being 'vindictive,' it is Murray.

While she is entitled to disagree with Stephanie Conover's views, she should not be allowed to bar her as a pageant judge. I had hoped that the days of religious persecution in Toronto at least were over.

bulletCelia Featherby, Toronto: Anyone who uses biblical quotes as a means to exclude an individual from participating in an event that is intended to be inclusive has demonstrated their own lack of suitability for a position of responsibility and decision-making.

All of Karen Murray's Christian outrage further marginalizes her. It's a beauty pageant, for goodness' sake. Give your head a shake or get a tarot reading to find out why benign differences make you angry enough to quote scripture.

bulletMike Lieberman, Aurora: I certainly hope Miss Toronto Tourism pageant director Karen Murray will be true to her word in adhering to "God's principles" and reject the "occult" by taking care not to publicize the pageant nor expect people to read about it in any dangerously pagan newspaper that promotes those equally anti-religious astrological horoscopes. 8

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Reactions from the local Neopagan community:

Neopagans in Toronto organized a protest at the Waterfront Radisson Admiral where the Miss Toronto Tourism pageant was held on the evening of 2008-FEB-02. One of the protest organizers, Tracey Hayes, said:

"Were going to have people from different religious organizations Christians, Muslims and Hindus as well as Wiccan groups. Were also mobilizing the gay community because we believe two of the organizers are members of an anti-gay organization. Were getting support from right across the country. This is a human rights violation."

Michael Makaid, an organizer of the Toronto Pagan Conference, said:

"We were shocked that a non religious beauty pageant that supports multiculturalism would do this. As a Torontonian, that enrages me. Its about discrimination not Paganism. We have loads of people who are [both] Pagan and non Pagan who are upset about this."

Rob Roberts, reporter for the National Post newspaper, wrote:

"Ralph Hamelmann, who runs The Psychic Brunch, said 16 of 18 sponsors have withdrawn their sponsorship of the pageant. Of the two remaining, Alfredo DiGenova, general manager of Adrenalin Fitness, has no plans now to withdraw despite pressure, [who responded:]

'Ive received seven e-mails since Tuesday asking me to drop my sponsorship. I think the whole thing is blown out of proportion. Its their pageant so they can have whoever they want'." 10

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Miss Canada Plus Pageant," has its home page at: http://www.mcpp.ca
  2. Jim Byers, "Beauty queen not fit to be judge: Pageant," The Toronto Star, 2008-JAN-28, at: http://www.thestar.com/
  3. "Glossary of complementary medicine terms," Connecting with Healers, at: http://www.connectingwithhealers.com/
  4. Kathy McConnell, "Reiki healing path," at: http://www.reikithehealingpath.com/
  5. "What are familiar spirits," GodQuestions.org, at: http://www.gotquestions.org/
  6. "Americans Draw Theological Beliefs From Diverse Points of View," Barna Group, 2002-OCT-08, at: http://www.barna.org/
  7. "Snubbed Canadian Queen comes out of the broom closet," The Wild Hunt, 2008-JAN-27, at: http://www.wildhunt.org/
  8. "The ugly side of beauty: Letters to the editor," The Toronto Star, 2008-JAN-29, at: http://www.thestar.com/
  9. Mike Strobel, "Miss Toronto Tourism pageant dumps beauty queen as a judge -- I guess it just wasn't in the cards," Toronto Sun, 2007-JAN-27, at: http://torontosun.com/
  10. Rob Roberts Toronto pagans target beauty pageant over snub to wiccan," 2008-JAN-31, at: http://network.nationalpost.com/

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Copyright 2008 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2008-FEB-01
Latest update: 2013-SEP-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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