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Wicca, an Neopagan religion

Is Wicca a religion? Rulings by U.S. courts

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The word "religion" in North America is often associated with a centralized organization, local religious buildings, a minister preaching to a congregation, a single male deity, an extensive creed, etc. These factors are not really present within Wicca. This causes some people to conclude that Wicca/Witchcraft is not a religion. Being founded on beliefs and practices of a pre-Christian aboriginal religion, Wicca simply does not have a similar structure to more conventional religions. It bears many more points of similarity to Native American Spirituality and to Santeria than to Christianity, Islam or Judaism.

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U.S. Law:

One law which attempts to define a religion is:

bullet The Civil rights Act of 1964 states "To be a bona fide religious belief entitled to protection under either the First Amendment or Title VII, a belief must be sincerely held, and within the believer's own scheme of things religious." (USCA Const. Amend 1: Civil Rights Act 1964 701 et seq., 717 as amended 42 USCA 2000-16)

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U.S. Court decisions:

Some court decisions which have recognized Wicca are:

bullet An important ruling of a state Supreme Court was in Georgia: Roberts v. Ravenwood Church of Wicca, (249 Ga. 348) in 1982. It was similar to Dettmer v Landon, below.

bullet The District Court of Virginia declared in 1985 (Dettmer v Landon, 617 F Suup 592 [E. Dst. Va.]) that Wicca is "clearly a religion for First Amendment purposes....Members of the Church sincerely adhere to a fairly complex set of doctrines relating to the spiritual aspect of their lives, and in doing so they have 'ultimate concerns' in much the same way as followers of more accepted religions. Their ceremonies and leadership structure, their rather elaborate set of articulated doctrine, their belief in the concept of another world, and their broad concern for improving the quality of life for others gives them at least some facial similarity to other more widely recognized religions." This was a landmark case.

bullet Judge J. Butzner of the Fourth Circuit Federal Appeals Court confirmed the Dettmer v Landon decision (799F 2nd 929) in 1986. He said: "We agree with the District Court that the doctrine taught by the Church of Wicca is a religion." Butzner J. 1986 Fourth Circuit.
bullet A case was brought in 1983 in the U.S. District Court in Michigan. The court found that 3 employees of a prison had restricted an inmate in the performance of his Wiccan rituals. This "deprived him of his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion and his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws." More details

bullet A case Wheeler v Condom was argued before a U.S. Postal Service Administrative Judge regarding who had the right to pick up mail addressed to The Church of Y Tylwyth Teg (a.k.a. Y Tylwyth Teg), and The Association of Cymmry Wicca and delivered to a Georgia post office box. The 1989 decision recognized both groups as valid religious organizations. 2

bullet Many other cases are listed in the Welsh Witchcraft website. 3

Wicca has never been considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, that court once ruled on the Santeria religion. The case was:  Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. and Ernesto Pichardo v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993). This case involved the legality of animal sacrifices which are not a practice of Wiccans. Followers of Sateria often ritually kill chickens and other small animals, cook them and eat them in a feast.

However, the ruling did recognize the rights of a religion which is very different from Christianity and many other organized religions in America. If the legality and status of Wicca were ever to be challenged in court, the Santeria ruling would likely be considered a precedent for the court to follow.

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Government recognition

Wiccan and other Neopagan groups have been recognized by governments in the US and Canada and given tax exempt status. Wiccan priests and priestesses have been given access to penitentiaries in both countries, and the privilege of performing handfastings/marriages. On 2001-MAR-15, the list of religious preferences in the U.S. Air Force Personnel Data System (MilMod) was augmented to include: Dianic Wicca, Druidism, Gardnerian Wicca, Pagan, Seax Wicca, Shamanism, and Wicca. 4

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Some documents

The Alternative Religions Educational Network (AREN) maintains a list of documents designed to help the Neopagan community fight for equal rights. 5 Included are:

bullet Major court decisions: 
bullet Dettmer vs. Landon: concerns the rights of a Wiccan inmate in a penitentiary (described above)

bullet Lamb's chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District: concerns the rental of school facilities after hours by a religious group.

bullet Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc and Ernesto Pichardo v. City of Hialeah, (508 U.S. 520) in 1993: This concerns the right of a Santerian group to engage in animal sacrifice during their religious ritual. This ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court is of interest to Wiccans because it puts strict limits on laws that target specific religions or groups of religions.

bullet Wallace vs Jaffree: concerns the Alabama "moment of silence" law which allowed an interval of silence in place of prayer (until it was declared unconstitutional) 
bullet Excerpts from state constitutions which deal with religious rights.

bullet The text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

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Other court rulings:

bullet The 1964 concurring opinion by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Douglas, in the case of United States v. Seeger, (380 U.S. 163), confirmed that the United States is a pluralistic nation, founded on the belief that religion must not be used to indoctrinate or coerce. This was also supported by the majority ruling in Lee v. Weisman, (505 U.S. 577) in 1992.

bullet Military Courts of Justice in the U.S. have also found Wicca to be a valid religion, deserving of protection under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In United States v. Phillips, (42 M.J. 346) in 1995) the concurring opinion by Judge Wiss stated: "First, Wicca is a socially recognized religion.  It is is acknowledged as such by the Army.  See Dept. of the Army (DA) Pamphlet 165-13-1, Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups:  A Handbook for Chaplains (April 1980), revising A Pamphlet 165-13, "Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups:  A Handbook for Chaplains" (April 1978).  Further, it is acknowledged as such in courts of law." 7

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Useful references:

  1. The text of Dettmer v Landon is online at http://www.tylwythteg.com/landon.html
  2. The text of Wheeler v Condon is online at: http://www.usps.com/judicial/1989deci/md-45.htm
  3. Rebecca Lawrence, "Case Abstracts on Freedom of Religion Law,"  at the Welsh Witchcraft website. See: http://www.tylwythteg.com/caselaw.html
  4. "The Pagan and the Pentagon," Wiccan Pagan Times, 2001, at: http://www.twpt.com/pentagon.htm This seems to have been taken offline. Unfortunately, their website seems to contain neither a "contact us" link or an internal search function, so we were unable to locate the essay if it is still available.
  5. "The Legalities of Practicing Wicca and Paganism" by the Alternative Religions Educational Network (AREN) at: http://www.aren.org/legislature.html  
  6. "Mike's Pagan Place" at: http://paganwicca.webjump.com/law.htm
  7. These earlier editions have gone out of print. However, a new edition was published in 2001:
    bullet U.S. Department of the Army, "Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains," University Press of the Pacific, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store. It received a rating of 4.3 stars out of 5 by three reviewers.

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Copyright © 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2011-JAN-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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