Chesterfield County, VA refuses
consider a Wiccan for invocation
A local Wiccan priestess asked Chesterfield County, VA to add her to a list
of religious leaders to give an
invocation before county meetings. She was rejected, and launched a lawsuit:
2002-OCT-4: Wiccan rejected: Cyndi Simpson is a
Wiccan priestess who is affiliated with the
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. She lives in
Chesterfield County, VA, a suburb of Richmond. In her area of the country, Wicca and other
Neopagan religions are largely misunderstood, and
often incorrectly associated with Satanism.
She asked the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to add her name to the list of ministers and
priests who give invocations at county meetings. Her hope was that if she
gave an generalized invocation, "to the creator of the universe" she would help rid the community of misconceptions about
Witches and Wiccans. She said:
"I wasn't going to talk about the Goddess. I
was going to call the elements, maybe offer up an invocation to the highest
being -- something that would be non-secular. But they didn't want any of that.
One of the board supervisors called Wicca a mockery.....There are [other]
Wiccans in the area, but people feel they need to be more careful here because
of the radical right that are in the area. I really think I'm being
discriminated by my faith. Look, I'm for separation of church and state, so
although I don't even think they should have prayers at county meetings, but if
they are going to do this then the prayers need to reflect the true religious
diversity of the community." 6
She received several responses:
Steven L. Micas, the county's attorney, wrote back that: "Based
upon our review of Wicca, it is neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic,
pre-Christian deities...Accordingly, we cannot honor your request."
"I believe that this shows bias not only against my faith
but against Islam, Hindu, Buddhism, Native Americans and any faith outside
the Judeo-Christian religion. In a public area, government sponsored, we
should all be welcome....I am a proud citizen of Chesterfield County. I
think these kinds of public practices should reflect the true religious
diversity of Chesterfield County, and I am part of that. I would welcome a
phone call from any of the county officials."
Supervisor Renny B. Humphrey, from the rural, heavily
Baptist Matoaca District, said "I hope she's a good witch like Glinda."
Glinda is the "Good Witch of the North" in Judy Garland's famous movie "The Wizard of Oz."
Board Chairman Kelly E. Miller said that Wicca: "...is a
mockery. It is not any religion I would subscribe to. There are certain
places we ought not to go, and this is one of them."
On a positive note, Supervisor Edward B. Barber seems to
have been aware of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He said: "How
do you justify drawing a line to say this religious practice is acceptable
to begin a board meeting but this one is not?"
Kent Willis, spokesperson for the Virginia branch of the
American Civil Liberties Union, said "They are dead wrong. Wicca
is a highly recognized religion. The military manual for chaplains
includes instructions for people who are Wiccans...Their reasoning is
highly suspect." 1
Willis sent two letters to the county board asking it to reconsider their
decision. Don Kappel, a spokesperson for the county said:
"These prayers are done on a volunteer basis and on a chosen basis by the board. We offer prayers by people who are
religious leaders allied to Judeo-Christian practices. This is what the board wants. They don't even have to have prayers
at their open meetings. It's not mandatory, so they can invite whomever they like. They were not interested in having Ms.
Simpson speak." 6
"It's never been easy. If one is a witch or a Wiccan, there has always been someone who is quite pleased to tell you that
you are destined for the fiery pit. Thankfully, these folks hardly ever show up on the doorstep with ropes and burning torches
anymore. That does not mean, however, that Wiccans do not still face opposition. The bigotry simply appears in the more subtle
forms of employment dismissals and child custody battles. In many ways, cases of discrimination such as these are much more
difficult to both prove and to counter." 6
Starhawk, author of "The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the
Ancient Religions of the Great Goddess," and many other books said:
"Although there is a lot more understanding about Wicca than there was 20 years ago, there are still individual people
who don't understand about the religion part. Wicca is about religion...It's about Earth and nature being sacred; it's not about
broomsticks and black cats or Satanism." 6
2003-JUL-22: Wiccan sues: Cynthia Simpson
initiated a lawsuit against the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors. She claimed that she filed her lawsuit after country
officials did not return her phone calls and made public comments
ridiculing her religion of Wicca -- the largest
earth-centered Neopagan religion in the U.S. The board restricts
invocations to those which represent "a monotheistic faith consistent
with Judeo-Christian tradition." In a court hearing, Simpson's
attorney Rebecca Glenberg of the American Civil Liberties Union,
argued that her client's exclusion from the list amounted to a
disparagement of her religion. She said: "The policy on its face
demonstrates a use of the prayer program that advances certain faiths and
disparages others The core fact is Ms. Simpson was denied the opportunity
to participate in this forum because of her religion." County lawyer
Steven L. Micas disagreed, arguing that a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling
gives the government wide latitude in offering legislative invocations
that reflect the traditional values of a majority of its citizens. He
expressed concern that if the board did not control who could speak then
they would have to allow by the white supremacist World Church of the Creator and other fringe groups. Simpson said. "This
is my own local government discriminating against me on the basis of my
religion. It's not a private club or neighborhood association. We're
strong as a nation because of our diversity. There are pagans fighting for
you at this moment in Iraq."
2005-FEB-17: Wiccan wins
lawsuit: A trial judge ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny
Simpson the chance to deliver the invocation. The county subsequently appealed the
decision. Simpson said that she was excluded because of a lack of
understanding. She said: "People just don't know about...[Wicca] and
there has definitely been a misrepresentation of Witchcraft...I understand
all that ignorance and confusion." She plans to take the lawsuit
the appeals court does not rule in her favor.
8 News referred to Simpson as "a self-proclaimed witch." We have
found no evidence of this media outlet referring to Christians, Jews, Muslims
etc. as "self-proclaimed." 3
2005-APR-14: Wiccan looses
lawsuit: A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
in Richmond, VA ruled against Ms Simpson. They noted that the county has
allowed leaders from a variety of religions to deliver the invocation.
Therefore, the court ruled that the county had met the Constitution's
requirement by not advancing any one given faith. The appeals court based its
ruling in on Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 Supreme Court decision that ruled
nonsectarian legislative prayer is generally constitutional.
8 Kent Willis, executive director
of Virginia ACLU disagreed. He said that the policy of the county shows preference for one
religion over another -- thus violating the First Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution. Simpson said: "This isn't right. I've been a separation of
church and stater all my life, long before I was a witch. ... That's what
was driving me all along." She is a member of a local coven known,
tongue-in-cheek as the
Broom Riders Association. 4
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation
of Church and State, who filed the lawsuit with the ACLU, said the 4th
Circuit's decision shows "that bigotry is OK under certain
circumstances....When government starts to involve itself with religion, it also
has the right to choose which religions are legitimate in their eyes. And that's
a terribly dangerous proposition."
2005-APR-28: Appeal to full
court requested: The American Civil Liberties Union asked the full
Richmond federal appeals court to review the decision of its three-judge
panel. 5 This was unsuccessful.
2005-OCT-11: Appeal to the U.S.
Supreme Court rejected: Rebecca Glenberg of the American Civil
Liberties Union told the court that the county issues invitations to deliver
prayers to all Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious leaders in the
county, but refuses to invite Native Americans, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs,
and Wiccans. Local Hindu, Buddhist, and Native
American groups filed a brief on her behalf. The Supreme Court refused to
hear Ms. Simpson's appeal. As is normal in these cases, the court did not
offer a reason.
Ms. Simpson notes that the reaction from the community was generally
positive. She said: "I was surprised by that. We raised the level of
awareness of Unitarian Universalism and of witchcraft."
According to the UU World Magazine:
"Many Unitarian Universalist congregations include members
who embrace Wicca as well as other earth-based traditions and who consider
themselves witches, Pagans, or neo-Pagans. In 1995, the Unitarian
Universalist Association of Congregations --an association of approximately
1,000 congregations with roots in two liberal Protestant
denominations -- formally acknowledged one of Unitarian Universalism's
religious sources in 'spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions
which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony
with the rhythms of nature'."
Ms. Simpson later attended the Lancaster Theological Seminary
in Lancaster, PA where she began studying for the Unitarian Universalist
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