Thank the Goddess for the First Amendment

3rd Wednesday: Current Events (issues from one Wiccan Witch’s perspective)

Ohio prisoners who identify as Pagans are no going to be able to practice their religion, and receive ministry in their religion, while in prison.  Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction approved 50 religious groups who will be allowed to visit inmates, including all manner of Paganism and Witchcraft. Ohio is joining West Virginia and a few other states in this step forward to ensure religious rights.

You gotta love the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Music to my ears. I can’t imagine living in a country without laws similar to the First Amendment. My heart breaks for so many countries in Africa, where people – especially children – are still being violently persecuted for suspicion of Witchcraft, or the attempt to exterminate Christians in the Middle East .

Life is not problem-free, of course, even when you do live in a free country. Laws can’t stop every nut case out there. Sure, there are cases in the U.S. of bigoted people harassing, trying to deny rights, or (in some isolated cases) severe persecution that seriously threatens a person’s health, liberty or well-being. In in this day and age, and in this place, we’re in better shape than most of the world has been throughout history, or even than some parts of the world are right now.

Of course, like with everything else, the First Amendment comes with a trade-off. We have the freedom to post our blogs, hold our rituals, celebrate our sabbats, raise our kids in our faith and post our endless supply of empowering memes. But for us to have this right, the First Amendment also has to allow those we disagree with to practice their religion.

Not only do they get to practice it (like we do), but they get to speak out against ours. Free religion and free speech kind of go hand-in-hand in a lot of ways when you think about it. We get to write books and give speeches on YouTube videos about why  we disagree with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, etc., etc. But the same rights are afforded to Pat Robertson calling Wiccans ‘evil’ on his television show, or the Westboro Baptist Church showing up to say ‘God Hates Fags’ outside funerals.

Being Pagans, especially being Witches, we understand this. Everything is a give-and-take in nature, and in life.

That’s why in Washington D.C. people could peacefully assemble one week wearing pussyhats while trying to bring attention to their right to their birth control of choice, or an abortion if they choose to get one. While the very next week, at the March for Life, people who believe babies are being murdered, got to express their concern.

Sometimes when we have our own passionate beliefs, when something we disagree with truly offends and repels us, it can be hard to be supportive of the First Amendment. Look at Milo Yiannopoulos fleeing from UC Berkeley a couple of weeks ago. Some people are actually cheering that he was shut down because they hate the things he has to say. I have no problem with hating the things someone has to say; but I have a real problem with denying people First Amendment rights, then trying to justify that with a ‘but’. If you find yourself saying, “I support the First Amendment, but not for (fill in the blank),” then guess what? You don’t support the First Amendment.

I have to be honest, it freaks me out a when people celebrate stifling free speech with violent riots (what went on at UC Berkeley do not qualify as ‘protests’; they were riots). Because that’s the same kind of thinking behind the villagers who grab the pitchforks and the torches to go after the Witches.

It also freaks me out when people want to make certain religions illegal, when peaceful assemblies turn violent, when people abuse their right to criticize the government by trying to villainize/demonize those they disagree with, and when the press abuses their power by being deliberately dishonest and manipulative—trying to promote a narrative and an agenda rather than giving the cold, hard, unadorned, unexcused facts.

The Freedoms of the First Amendment provide us with an incredibly strong foundation for society, but every time we use a ‘but’ to justify chipping away at them we are contributing to the crumbling of that foundation. Sometimes there is cause for a ‘but’, of course (like someone directly inciting violence or sacrificing babies, for example), but those times should be exceedingly rare.

These freedoms are never going to be easy to execute in diverse nation; the founding fathers knew this when they framed the Constitution. And the more troubled times are, the more the country is divided on which values to embrace or which solutions are best, the harder it gets to put vehement disagreements and personal feelings aside in order to stand up for the First Amendment.

But I’m afraid I have to side with Evelyn Beatrice Hall on this one: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

I can’t help but think of our Pagan ancestors being persecuted for their beliefs, and how many of their persecutors thought they were justified. With every fiber of their being, those persecutors truly and wholeheartedly believed Pagans were practicing some repulsive, offensive, deadly stuff, so they justified their own oppressive behavior.

Freedoms like those afforded in the First Amendment were a huge step forward for human societies (and it still took time to catch up in practice with that massive philosophical threat); it truly chills me to the bone that these days we seem to be taking a step backwards. People are back to intolerance, back to justifying their actions, to denying that attempting to oppress that which they hate.

Dennis Prager, conservative talk show host and author, says, “I prefer clarity to agreement.”

While I may not agree with all of Prager’s positions, I do embrace that particular bit of wisdom. It rings true to my religious values, and it helps me remember just what a stroke of brilliance the First Amendment is, and why we have a responsibility to watch our ‘buts’. If we’re not careful, we could pull our own foundation right out from under us, and I can’t imagine where we, as Pagans, might be then. With two-thirds of the world being Muslim or Christian, two religions that believe we’re ‘the enemy’, anything that would weaken First Amendment rights is the biggest threat we face in the long run.

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