Last night the Buncombe County School Board in North Carolina unanimously passed a policy regarding prayer, religious activities, and the distribution of religious materials by students in their schools. It was the culmination of months of activism that began when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. Strivelli felt that the manner in which Gideon Bibles were made available violated the Establishment Clause, and ostracized non-Christian students who didn’t want to use a special break to obtain a Bible. Strivelli, along with local activist and Pagan leader Byron Ballard, and a growing coalition of local residents, made clear that the board needed to remain neutral on matters regarding religion. Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog, who has covered previous meetings on this issue, has posted her impression of last night’s events.
“When it came time to vote everyone was on edge. I can only imagine this is what it’s like in a murder trial or something. The board got hung up about the word neutrality and whether or not it should be replaced with the word unbiased. The Fundies were clapping and whooping because I think they thought the vote would get tabled again. Honestly, I am not sure what they were excited about because the Americans United rep said that the words meant the same thing and wouldn’t change the policy in any way. Personally I thought they might table it again too the way they were hung up on one dang word and I was panicking a bit. Fortunately they voted. And it passed unanimously.
So what does this mean? As of now school officials have to remain neutral in regards to religion. They can still have their prayer over their lunch, wear religious jewelry, and have awesome bumper stickers on their cars. They cannot lead children in prayer (it must be student led), no distribution of materials, and no promotion of any specific religion. There is still more work to be done with the policy, including implementing the policy, but for now we can take a deep breath and move on to the next bit of work. I think I am going to request being a volunteer with the County schools acting as a consultant in regards to religions in the schools. There was something said about that at a meeting with Mountain Area Interfaith Forum.”
“Sadly, even if the board approves the two policies tomorrow night, it still won’t be over. We will have to police the system for years to come, calling, demanding, emailing. Every time a child whose parents practice a minority religion is othered or belittled or otherwise bullied because of that–someone will have to contact the system and demand that something be done.”
Missing from the policies passed last night were guidelines on the distribution of religious materials by outside groups, the issue that initially sparked this saga. That matter won’t be taken up formally until next year, when the board will consider allowing a yearly religions fair open to all faiths. It is assumed that until then, distribution of religious materials by any group won’t be allowed, though Strivelli and Ballard’s calls for constant vigilance will no doubt be required to make sure that remains the case. We’ll keep you updated of future developments in this matter when they arise.
For Pagans and other adherents to esoteric, indigenous, or non-Christian minority faiths, what has happened in Buncombe County should be an object lesson in the importance of being vocal, engaged, and active in supporting our equal treatment. Ginger Strivelli has risked personal attacks, a death threat, and ostracization in the name of protecting her children, and making sure local government works for the benefit of all citizens, not just the Christian ones. Modern Pagans have come very far since we first emerged into the public eye back in the 1950s and 60s, but we still have a long way to go. Even in seemingly cosmopolitan enclaves, many hold misconceptions about what our religions are like. This is why it’s so important to stand behind these brave individuals when they step up, in addition to supporting organizations like the Lady Liberty League who provide on-the-ground assistance and advice. Together, we can slowly change our culture into one that is open and welcoming to modern Pagans.