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Bewitched and Bewildered

Wiccans and other minority religions throw a wrench into Bush’s Charitable Choice plan
By JoAnn DiLorenzo

When Druid priestess Ellen Evert Hopman hears the term Charitable Choice, her inner voice shouts back like a tattletale: “Cius regio, cius religio.”
Cius regio, cius religio was the principle established by the British monarchy in 1551 essentially decreeing that the religion adhered to by the ruling prince of a given territory was the one and only legitimate religion for all his minions. Charitable Choice is the Bush administration’s initiative to funnel government money to government-approved faith-based organizations that provide social services such as drug abuse counseling.

“In the 1770s there was real fear in this country that the Church of England and George III would appoint bishops of that denomination and then the Colonies would have to support those bishops. All of the tithing would go to support the [King’s] religion,” said Hopman, who lives in the Valley, writes books on the medicinal properties of herbs, and practices her faith with a small group of fellow Wiccans.

As Hopman sees it, the Bush administration’s Charitable Choice initiative — which sits way at the top of the president’s “to do” list — stinks of cius regio. “George Bush is trying to throw us back to those times, in defiance of the Constitution. Personally, I am just as offended at the thought of supporting a Southern Baptist mission as they would be offended by supporting witches. So why would this country go down that road?”

The swirling debate over Charitable Choice foretells a fast-approaching domestic war for the new president.

While it is surely too early to draw a direct comparison, Charitable Choice, as the debate is shaping up, is reminiscent of the public spanking President Clinton took his rookie season in the Oval Office over his failed bid to ban discrimination against gays in the military. (The punishing defeat led, of course, to the fiasco known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”)

Peace-loving pagans have been some of the primary instigators against Bush’s plan to funnel public money to religious organizations that provide social services to the down-and-out (sometimes with a little proselytizing on the side). Alarmed by Bush’s so-called Charitable Choice legislation, the usually taciturn leaders in the pagan community have emerged as some of the most eloquent critics of Bush’s plan and staunchest defenders of the Constitutional separation between church and state.

Inevitably, the public discourse over Charitable Choice is accompanied by the now-familiar chorus of: “What do we do when the ‘witches’ come a-calling?” Bush’s point man on the faith-based initiative, Steven Goldsmith, has already gone on the record saying he does not believe pagan organizations would be eligible for federal funds. (Bush, too, has spoken his mind: “Witchcraft,” he said, is not a religion.)

Slowly but surely, the official dismissal of Wiccans, pagans and other followers of earth-based faiths is beginning to boomerang, according to Steven Benen, spokesperson for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Benen believes the hostility toward paganism and other non-mainstream religions (the Church of Scientology and the Nation of Islam have also been dissed by Jerry Falwell and other keepers of the religious right) is beginning to sour the American public on the faith-based initiative.

“The perception is these faith communities [Wiccans, Scientology and the Nation of Islam] represent the extremes in the country, and can’t be trusted with public funding,” Benen said. “That of course is completely unfair and, in a way, demonizes these faith traditions. … And that raises a red flag for many people and forces them to question just how Charitable Choice will be carried out. The reality is there are far more questions and concerns about this than there are answers.”

Americans want desperately to believe in the goodness of religion and the power of faith. If you believe the polls, that is.

Polls by the Gallup organization and others suggest that most Americans believe religion can help “answer all or most of today’s problems.” Another study released recently by the Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that the majority of citizens are convinced that local houses of worship, specifically churches, synagogues and mosques, as well as faith-based social service organizations — the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries and Habitat for Humanity, to name a few — function effectively as “problem-solving” organizations.

Forget for a moment about the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials and the Taliban. The truth is there is a general perception among most Americans that religious organizations are good. And faith-based organizations certainly perform good works. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the government should be paying them to preach the gospel. Charitable Choice — at least the current version created in the Bush Administration’s image — would do just that, according to Benen.

Various religious organizations, from Catholic Charities to the Salvation Army, already receive government funding, Benen said. But there are “safeguards” that prohibit religious proselytizing within any federally funded program. These programs are also barred from discriminating on the basis of religion: A Jewish person can’t be denied a job in a federally funded Catholic Charities program on religious grounds, for example. Benen said Bush’s working version of charitable choice would permit a federally funded faith-based program to use private money for proselytizing within a program supported by federal tax dollars. Outright discrimination on the basis of religion (or sexual orientation, for that matter) would also be permitted, Benen said.

“There’s no question, as more and more specifics are revealed, as people on the right, the left, in the middle raise more and more concerns that there really aren’t good answers to, I think the majority of Americans are going to become more suspicious of the initiative and far less supportive,” Benen said.

Even Jerry Falwell isn’t biting. In an interview on the beliefnet.com Web site, Falwell said, “[I]t is doubtful that [Liberty University, the evangelical college Falwell serves as chancellor] will ever apply for any assistance under the faith-based initiatives” unless there were “no strings attached [to funding].” The “strings” are legal barriers separating a faith organization’s soup kitchen, for example, from its religious mission.

While Charitable Choice has stirred up its share of animus from various political quarters, it is also finding friends in opportune places. The Washington Post reported recently that Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) will co-sponsor legislation with Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) that would crank up funding for an expansion of Bush’s new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The Lieberman-Santorum bill is said to be mirrored in the House by legislation crafted by Oklahoma Republican J.C. Watts Jr. and Rep. Tony Hall of Ohio.

Pagan voices are being heard on Charitable Choice, but it would be a mistake to assume the pagan community speaks with one voice on this issue or on how to respond to a president who has been willing to state publicly — and repeatedly — that he does not consider earth-based faiths to be bona fide religions.

At the first national Pagan Summit, held in early March in Bloomington, Ind., Charitable Choice was purposefully banned from the agenda, said Duke Egbert, of the Pagan Pride Project, who goes by Dagonet Dewr in his faith community. (Some neo-pagans leaders take on other names as they become more committed to their faith, similar to Roman Catholic Church nuns and Popes, for example.)

Feelings about the initiative within the sprawling pagan community are strong and polarized, Egbert said. There is no single view of how earth-based faiths should respond to the Charitable Choice proposal.

“One viewpoint says we should attempt to protest it; we should attempt to join any lawsuits against it and get it declared unconstitutional as fast as possible,” Egbert said. “The other says we should try to get in on it.”

At the very least, Egbert said, pagans aim to force the Bush administration to admit outright what it has been hinting at all along: that the president’s faith-based initiative is playing favorites with religions and that Wiccans and other fringe faiths need not apply.

Originally Published at http://www.newmassmedia.com/nac.phtml?code=wma&db=nac_fea&ref=15205 03/15/01

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