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Morgan Ravenwood

 

Hate Crimes and Hate Incidents:
Shedding New Light on Pagan Persecution

by Morgan Ravenwood


 As I was reading yet another report of a Pagan group being evicted from a meeting hall because an intolerant Christian group decided to stage a protest outside the building, I tried to understand why, in many quarters, such behavior is considered acceptable because it’s done under the guise of “free speech.”  Since this activity was clearly performed with the intention of intimidating and humiliating the Pagans and reviling their religion, a question raised itself in my mind: was the “protest” in actuality a hate crime?  I then proceeded to do a little Internet research and came up with the following:

The International Association of Chiefs of Police defines “Hate Crimes” and “Hate Incidents” thusly:

“Hate incidents involve behaviors that, though motivated by bias against a victim's race, religion, ethnic/national origin, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation, are not criminal acts. Hostile or hateful speech, or other disrespectful/discriminatory behavior may be motivated by bias but is not illegal. They become crimes only when they directly incite perpetrators to commit violence against persons or property, or if they place a potential victim in reasonable fear of physical injury. Officers should thoroughly document evidence in all bias-motivated incidents. Law enforcement can help to defuse potentially dangerous situations and prevent bias-motivated criminal behavior by responding to and documenting bias-motivated speech or behavior even if it does not rise to the level of a criminal offense.”

So, from a legal perspective, while not quite meriting the definition of “Hate Crime,” the protest WAS a “Hate Incident,” which is still a serious matter that could easily lead into criminal behavior.  With that in mind, it’s time to consider what this means for the Pagan community (and, indeed, every other “minority” religious group).  This could well give us the impetus we need to push for the establishment of a policy of “zero tolerance” of religious persecution of any kind.

The fuss being made by Fundamentalists about the “Harry Potter” books has been a landmark event, bringing Witchcraft---both as a religion and as a practice---into the public eye.  Though there isn’t a single mention of Wicca or even Paganism in any of the “Potter” books, the Religious Right has been using the books as weapons to justify their attacks upon these religions. A lot of school and public libraries have caved in under their pressure and removed the “Potter” books from their shelves.  However, there are still some logical thinkers out there--in the middle of April, a federal judge ordered “Harry Potter” books back onto anArkansas school district's library shelves, rejecting a school board's claim that tales of wizards and spells could harm school children.  While I applaud this judge’s decision, I have a different slant on the “Potter” issue.  A lot of the “Right”-ers have attempted to get the books removed from schools via the church/state separation argument that they endorse a religion (presumably Wicca).  I say if that’s the way they want to play, that’s fine---therefore, in the event of any future “Potter” incidents, including book burnings, demonstrations, etc., somebody---WARD, AREN or even an ordinary citizen backed by the ACLU---should file Hate Incident complaints against the offenders, and insist that they be prosecuted under their state’s hate crime laws.  No doubt this would cool the religious fervor a bit.

Another area where a lot of religious discrimination still abounds is in the public schools.  Recently, inKnoxville,Tenn., a Pagan schoolgirl was taken out of school by her parents after the school sponsored a “Christian Crusade” campaign and required students to attend religious revivals during school time.  Before she left the school, the girl was harassed, threatened and injured by classmates because of her religion and for her refusal to participate in the “crusade” activities, with no attempted intervention by school staff.  With the help of the ACLU, the girl has filed a lawsuit against the school district.

According to the Hate Crime description I cited earlier, since physical injury was involved, the girl was the victim of a hate crime.  The offending students should have been arrested and charged with such, but unfortunately, this was not done.  Still, this may be the “landmark” case that changes such inept law enforcement procedures.

From what I’ve read and heard, there is a lot of hate crime legislation pending in both state and federal courts.  It’s time for the Pagan community to jump on this bandwagon and go along for the ride.  Since two areas where intolerance and hatred seems to proliferate are race and sexual orientation, we have a lot of allies in our battle for equality.  Since the murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay rights issue has received a lot of international attention and publicity. Though racism will never completely die, it is increasingly being beaten into submission by those who refuse to continue to suffer prejudice and persecution at the hands of ignorant, intolerant fools.  Now we, as a thriving and growing but still persecuted religious community, need to follow in the footsteps of these likewise persecuted groups and work hard to make religious tolerance a reality.

Despite the efforts of our own government to slowly erode our civil rights into extinction, we still have a lot of them left.  These must be the tools we use to assert our right to peaceably assemble, whether in a park, public building or even in our back yard, and practice our religion without fear of persecution, condemnation or molestation by anyone.  These fundamental rights must also extend to those members of minority religions who own and run businesses.  . With so many “protesters” claiming they are simply exercising their right of free speech when they harass members of minority religions, obviously, the laws must be changed to prohibit ANY persecution that conforms to the hate incident description above, whether or not it is on private property.  Megaphones and microphones know no boundaries. 

As our current government has taught us only too well, “Free Speech” isn’t completely “free.”  People have been jailed for speaking out and protesting against the war inIraq, even though they harmed nobody in doing so.  Surely those who harass, belittle and humiliate other people because of their race, sexual orientation or religion deserve no less.

Interestingly enough, I am finding that the people who are having the hardest time with pushing for religious equality are Pagans themselves.  I actually got flak from some of them when I suggested that the earlier mentioned protest at the meeting hall distinctly bordered on being a hate crime.  I think that this is due in large part by their being used to the “status quo.”  The persecution of Pagans is by no means a new concept, as we all know.  It was the reason for the coining of the term “in the broom closet” and is the way of life for the majority of Pagans.  Unfortunately, the secrecy that surrounds Paganism only contributes to its tarnished reputation among mainstream religions.  If more of us conducted some open, public rituals and gatherings, pretty soon the word would spread that there was nothing Satanic, dangerous or evil going on.  We need to continue to work to dispel all the misconceptions about our religion and, most importantly, we need to stay in the public eye rather than furtively sneak around to Circles and meetings.

When we are harassed and reviled for what we believe, we need to stand up for ourselves and fight back with all the resources at our disposal.  Firstly, we must make law enforcement work for us, instead of allowing them to sink to the same level of mentality as those doing the persecuting.  On a higher level, we must push for better and more clearly worded laws protecting anyone from being harassed at home or work because of what they believe and/or practice.  When such things DO happen, we must remain vigilant in our pursuit of justice.  One organization that actively works toward this end is the ACLU, which is full of caring, energetic and helpful people, as well as AREN (Alternative Religions Educational Network) and WARD (Witches Against Religious Discrimination).

Another thought suggested by some Pagans is to print up and distribute “tracts” similar to those constantly strewn about by Christians.  There are a lot of pro and con opinions on this, but I personally don’t have a problem with it if the tracts are only of an educational nature and don’t proselytize. 

Another valuable resource is the local police department.  It is advisable for at least one local Pagan clergy member to introduce him- or herself to the police chief (especially if you’re going to conduct outdoor and/or public rituals of any kind) and offer to assist in any matters pertaining to occult-related crime.  This can work wonders just in case some local teens decide to play a prank in the cemetery or some similar incident arises, because the police department is a direct link to the media, who are usually all too willing to label such shenanigans as “Satanic” or “Witchcraft” or, even worse, lay them at the door of the local Pagan group.

These suggestions are, of course, only those of one person.  I’m sure there are many more of you with great ideas of your own.  However, the only way we’re going to effect any positive change is to work together.  There’s strength in numbers, as the mainstream religions have discovered.  We just need to learn it for ourselves and use it to best advantage. 

Blessed Be,

Morgan Ravenwood
HPs, Desert Moon Circle
Lake Havasu CityAZ
Email:
  morgan_313@yahoo.com