Religious Materials Debate Continues in Buncombe County

Religious Materials Debate Continues in Buncombe County February 3, 2012

This past December, 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. The school claimed their policy of distribution for religious materials was open and neutral, but when tested with Pagan books the school’s tune quickly changed. The Buncombe County School Board now said their policy was under review, while Strivelli received a death threat for speaking out. Last night, the school board held a meeting to unveil (but not vote on) a new distribution policy for religious materials. In a packed room, a climate of fear and anger held sway, according to Angela Pippinger of The Pagan Mom Blog.

A view of the Buncombe school board meeting.

For awhile there seemed to be a balance of people who supported and opposed the policy. But then some preachers got up and made direct personal attacks to Ginger. They claimed she was the only one with a problem with the bible distribution. Little do they understand how many pagans in the county that fear coming out and speaking up. And after that meeting, I completely understand!  Then it got even worse when a preacher spoke up that only bibles should be allowed in schools. And that is when the preaching began. People after people felt the need to quote scripture. One guy even read from the bible and stated that if we were real pagans that our ears would burn after listening to the scripture.

All through this we quietly sat and allowed people to speak their minds. While I fully support freedom of speech, this was quite difficult. It was off topic. It was all about the “us vs them” mentality. I wanted to speak because it had been so long since anyone from the pagan community spoke. But I was scared. Yep, you read that right. The hostility was so thick that I wasn’t sure that I could handle standing before those people and be subject to a possible attack. When Ginger spoke about her feelings of being bullied and that she was the only one brave enough to stand up to the masses, the crowd rebuked her. The same crowd we respectfully allowed to speak their minds now could not handle her speaking her own. I will speak at the next meeting. I have things to say and I need to stand by my desire for a strong interfaith world by standing up and speaking.”

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Regarding the proposed policy, it states that school officials  “while acting in their official capacities shall not use their positions to endorse, promote, or disparage a particular religious belief, viewpoint or practice.” It also requires ongoing training to staff, and to have principals consult the superintendent over any instance that might violate the Constitution. Local activist and Pagan leader Byron Ballard called the proposed policy “fair,” but also commented on the atmosphere of the meeting, saying it “was like an audition for preachers,” and that many in attendance seemed “desperate and fearful.”

As for Ginger Strivelli, she bravely faced the crowd, telling them that “I am the only one who is courageous enough to stand up to your bullying,” and that “this is not a church […] this is a public school board meeting.” What she is doing is not easy, but her work, along with the work of Byron Ballard, is slowly changing the culture in Buncombe County. Next month the school board will likely vote on the new rule, Byron Ballard suggests sending them an email of support.

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I am expecting an official response from Ginger and Byron’s media liaison on last night’s events, and I will post that here as an update once I receive it. You can be sure I will be keeping an eye on this situation, and will report on any progress or developments.

UPDATE: The Lady Liberty League’s Education Task Force has issued a press release with statements from Selena Fox, Byron Ballard, Ginger Strivelli, Lady Miraselena, and Lady Arsinoe Meri Ma’at. Here’s Selena Fox’s statement on behalf of the Lady Liberty League:

“Having liberty and justice for all in this country may be in the Pledge of Allegiance, but it is not an automatic reality. The large volume and intensity of sectarian religious rhetoric in the February 2nd meeting proves the necessity to have a religiously neutral public school policy, It also demonstrates that, all of us, need to be vigilant and willing to work together to make this happen wherever discrimination occurs. And, we have been very pleased to see that Pagans and those of other beliefs have been collaborating, networking, and speaking out in favor of the separation of church and state in this Buncombe County public school situation. We ask that you continue to send support to Ginger, Byron, and others who are on the front lines of this quest. We will post any updates on the Strivelli Family Support and Lady Liberty League Facebook pages.

In her statement, Ginger Strivelli simply adds: “Thanks to everyone who has been giving us support.”

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50 responses to “Religious Materials Debate Continues in Buncombe County”

  1. I have a ton of respect for the people standing up the religious bullies like this. When I was in highschool I hated the days they would come in and hand out bibles. The school would literally funnel the students down a hallway with guys handing out the bibles on both sides. I felt as though if I didn’t take one I would be subject to taunting and maybe even get beaten up.

  2. As an interfaith educator and a practicing Heathen, I will be following and sharing this developing story. We need to support folks like Ginger and Byron whenever we can. Hold them up as champions not only against bullying, but also FOR religious liberty and free choice.

  3. Is their faith so fragile that it cannot stand up to any challenge? Is their fear of being wrong, or worse, told that they aren’t the only game in town so great that they would stoop to such nastiness? Obviously so. Their screaming outrage reveals that they revere their book more than the person they claim to worship.

  4. Why on earth would you put yourself through this and make yourself a huge target?

    Simply inform them that if they refuse to obey separation of church and state that they better put their lawyers on retainer, then leave and let them decide if they want to put their money where their mouths are.

    Let them walk down that path on their own and destroy themselves without taking you down with them.

  5. It’s like religion is their territory, and the claims of any other religion are framed as an invasion of their vital interests. Like most territorial claims, it is based on a history of taking the territory away from others.

  6. The policy is drafted in order to meet the requirements of Church & State. True to our democracy, the Board allows for public commentary during the first reading so that people can vocalize their opinions on the issue. While the ranting and raving occurred, a few were respectful and pointed out things that they didn’t understand or language that could be confusing in the future. If the policy doesn’t pass at the March 1st meeting (voting takes place at that meeting) then there is already preparation of a lawsuit with the ACLU being involved. In my humble opinion, it is best to deal with the growing pains of a changing community and get this done the right way instead of having to go to litigation. If we go to litigation, it will split the community even more and make the healing process that much longer and painful.

  7. Justice is never painless. I hope they do vote to adopt the sensible policy and one that will uphold the law. If they choose not to, they should be taken to court, where they will lose. They’re not interested in “uniting the community” unless it means putting us back under the heel of their boot.

  8. Is their faith so fragile that it cannot stand up to any challenge?

    YES, yes, it is. It’s why they act like simply hearing about their god and/or hearing their scriptures will cause people to forsake their gods – because that’s what they did. Their “faith” is about as deep as a saucer, and they are woefully insecure in it. It’s what makes them so angry and fearful and hateful – because they require constant reinforcement to keep that insecurity at bay. The presence (yes, the mere existence) of other religions’ adherents is enough to challenge their house of cards and bring it tumbling down.

  9. don’t forget it is also the inbred fear of damnation driving this. One of the basis of each branch of monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) Holds pagans as the ultimate evil and the most insidious temptation that leads to hell. This is the continuation of the age old battle of monotheism and it’s drive to stamp out all forms of paganism/polytheism, another basis of each branch.

  10. Wow I feel very proud that somone is willing to stand up for what they believe in. The church and school should be so far apart that they never meet.

  11. FYI: Just a minor correction, Jewish people don’t believe in damnation. There is no Hell. That is a Christian construct. Jewish culture preaches more of a sacred comradeship of the Chosen. Fear comes from God’s wrath – if anything. Jews don’t feel a need to stamp out other religions either.

    I like to make that distinction between Christianity and Judaism. All Monotheistic religions are not equal.

    But your point applies to Christianity (And, I do not know about Islam)

  12. I am truly sorry that I cannot come up and stand next to the other pagans in that room. There was a time in my life previously that my livelihood did not depend on the façade of me not being pagan. Unfortunately that is not true of my current state. My sleep family and I live in such a manner that we cannot voice our pagan faith openly. Less than a handful of very close friends can be trusted with that information.
    I praise you for your efforts and pray that someday soon I will be able to be pagan and not fear of reprisals of the local community. THANK YOU! For fighting the battle that I cannot do at this time. My sons and daughters thank you as well!
    Good Journey

  13. This whole situation distresses me. I come from a Catholic family and while we have some probably irreconcilable differences there is no negativity in our relationships. We simply respect each other. I do not understand this fear and hatred- although I certainly recognize it. For a country that claims to be open and accepting it seems like every single group has had their time where they had to step up and -earn- that acceptance. I guess it’s our turn. The only caution I have is this: Deserve it. I’ve already seen in some other places what can only be described as Pagans stooping to the same sniping and vitriol as the Evangelical Christian individuals (because this is about small groups and individuals, not the whole!) that are making our lives uncomfortable. If we as a community want to earn acceptance we’re going to have to follow Ginger Strivelli’s excellent example. Maintain dignity as much as possible. I’ll step off my soapbox now, I just felt like I needed to say it. My heartfelt well-wishes are with Ginger Strivelli and her family.

  14. “The presence (yes, the mere existence) of other religions’ adherents is enough to challenge their house of cards and bring it tumbling down.”

    Absolutely – you get down to it, it makes it tough on them to sell their view that their God is the “only true God” when people who worship other Gods (or none at all) aren’t exactly suffering in a biblical sense. Christian fundamentalism is only capable of surviving in an environment of fear and ignorance, where references to anything outside of that sphere are eliminated, and the folks preaching away at the school board meeting proved that beautifully. Folks who have seen “Jesus Camp” may remember Becky Fisher stating that children are where they need to focus their efforts when it comes to evangelizing and that’s exactly what they’re doing, they’d just prefer that the rest of us didn’t know that is what’s going on.

  15. There is a reason that Church and State were separated by the wise men that founded this country. It was probably one of the best parts of our foundation. This shows what happens when people think their version of belief is just fine for Everyone to accept, but try and share a belief that is not popular and the true colors come out. Conversion is a constant goal for most Christian religions, and a core of the belief system, but our schools can’t be their recruiting grounds, unless children are given equal access to explore ALL religious belief systems, including the LACK of any. Thank you, MS. Strivelli, for standing up for religious freedom!

  16. Judaism is very diverse. The Book of Revelations was written by a Jew (all of the New Testament was written by Jews), and it is full of visions of Hell and Damnation. In fact, Revelations is simply one, minor and rather mediocre, representative of a large body of Jewish apocalyptic literature from that time.

    But your broader point, that Judaism and Christianity should not be lumped together, is well taken. Judaism is an ancient and traditional religion, and was already recognized as such by Pagans prior to the advent of Christianity. Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, are both examples of “modern” (in historical terms) religions that are explicitly based on the determination to overthrow tradition.

  17. The most we had at my high school (I graduated in 1997) was “prayer at the flagpole”, and they never numbered more than maybe 15 people. I can honestly say that I was never approached by anyone trying to convert me, or trying to give me a bible or tract. Ironically, the uber-Christian kids tended to snub anybody who didn’t go to their church and didn’t seem too keen to deign to talk to us heathens, LOL.

  18. Sikhs are monotheists, but they believe in reincarnation, not in eternal damnation. There exist a few sane forms of monotheism.

  19. “One guy even read from the bible and stated that if we were real pagans that our ears would burn after listening to the scripture.”

    It seems to me this attitude is different only BY DEGREE to the attitude of the notorious Helen Ukpabio’s attitude. There is a delight in causing PAIN to others who are identified as “THE OTHER.” This is sick.

    Like some kind of infection, it’s good that the pus is coming out…even if it ugly and it stinks.

    Perhaps the healing can begin soon…but whatever the consequence, let us support Ginger and the other Pagans in the area as much as possible!

  20. Because Ginger is a brave human being who knows a basic truth: if someone doesn’t stand up to the bullies, then the bullies win and a community continues to live in fear and ignorance.

    I’ve lived in two Southern states and have had people witness and preach at me, so I understand what she went through.

    Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Rosa Parks, and many others have made themselves a “huge target” because even with the risk, they knew that freedom requires vigilance and intelligent action. They’re my heroes and now so is Ginger Strivelli.

  21. I’m in Asheville, and I’m sorry I missed that school board meeting. I had no idea it was even going to happen. You can be darn sure I won’t miss the 1 March meeting.

  22. These school board meetings are sounding more and more like church revivals, with the “pastors” revving up the emotions of the group as they do before an altar call. Who are they kidding? That’s what it’s all about anyway…turning the schools into extensions of their churches.

  23. In my humble opinion, you should never be affraid to speak your mind. It is your right as a human. I understand feeling intimidated, especially when in a crowd which shares an opinion that differs from your own, and when it comes to certain points, mob mentality takes over… That notwithstanding, I pretty much speak my mind, and take my chances. More of us need to voice our frustrations, let those “in charge” know that we are here, that we are tired of their broken system, and that it is in need of fixing. I greatly dislike lables, I’ve been labled by humans in positions of “authority” all my life, and they know nought. I consider myself a Pagan, a Heritic, a Mage, and a Spirit currently occupying human form. I consider modern “civilization” to be backward thinking and highly destructive. Having said all that, may whomever you choose to worship smile upon you, and may your day be an enjoyable one.

  24. I began my education one district south, in the Transylvania County school district. I moved to Tennessee in the first grade and have been here all of my life since, now 23 and a sophomore in college.

    The Gideon Bibles were never distrusted in my old school district, Sumner County, Tennessee, while I was there from 1996 to 2008. Not even my local community college distributed them. See You At The Flag was a little irritating, a little too much teacher involvement some years, but I didn’t say anything since nearly the whole school was there those years. I moved south to Maury County. Suddenly, not only was See You At The Flag a huge thing, but the Gideon Bible people were at my state funded community college every semester at least once. There was a student organization day with not one but three Christian groups. No other religious group was offered, despite there actually being a comparatively high percentage of Pagans to the surrounding area at the time. My boyfriend’s summer chemistry teacher, who usually taught at the private Christian school down the road, made it no secret it was a pastor as well. From what I understand, he was talking about Christianity at least once a week, maybe more. How in the heck does that relate to Chemistry? There is more than a little scorn by some if you aren’t a Christian and they find out. Thankfully, I haven’t met any despite being relatively open about my beliefs, but I know of others who have met them. My younger brother’s school is the same way, but worse. He isn’t Pagan, he identifies as Christian and is one of the kids to pick on those different, mostly because it is what every other child at his school does. Its shocking.

    I’m a little unsure about the college policies regarding religion, but I believe since it is a state funded public community college, things like this shouldn’t be allowed. I’m not sure if the teachers are involved in the religious mess in the county public school district at large, but things still need to change.

  25. By the way, (for clarification) Pagan: A person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions. Heretic: A person holding an opinion at odds with accepted doctrine or dogma, a free thinker. Mage: A person in touch with the paranormal. Spirit: An entity which exists outside the bounds of physical “reality”.
    I have been to Christian churches, I have read the Bible, I have also read the Satanic Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita, the teachings of The Buddha, A Basic Call To Conciousness, Black Elk Speaks, Biographies of Crazy Horse, Geronimo, and others… I have also read Animal Farm, & 1984 by Orwell, The Catcher In The Rye by Salinger, On The Road by Kerouac, Naked Lunch by Burroughs, Of Mice And Men by Steinbeck, Another Roadside Attraction by Robbins, Illusions by Bach, pretty much everything Stephen King ever wrote, and possibly most importantly The Doors Of Perception, & Brave New World by Huxley.
    I’ve also read most of Shakespear’s work. I’ve also studied Mythology.
    I could give you my opinions on religion, politics, government, the reasons why gold and those who hoard it always hold positions of power, the missing parts of human history, the reasons my Native American and Celtic ancestors were conquered, etc. ad infinitum…
    That is, to say, presuming that you were to be interested in my opinions… Please excuse my rambling, if you would, they labled me “ADD” among other things, except that they didn’t use that particular terminology back in the early 1970s. My hero has always been Crazy Horse, and Crazy Horse was never affraid to speak his mind, he was never affraid to fight when it was necessary to do so. Next time you feel intimidated by a mob, try praying to Crazy Horse, ask him for some of his strength and stamina.
    (Yes, I know I spelled Heretic wrong in my original comment. Oops.)

  26. Crazy Horse was a True American Hero. He was never affraid to speak his mind. He stood up for what he believed. He became a huge target for the US government. He was eventually imprisoned and murdered by members of the 7th cavalry.
    I’ve been all across this continent, and I’ve seen many things. I saw a guy with “WWJD” on his hat being verbally abusive to a homeless girl. I felt bad for her, she did absolutely nothing wrong, so I bought her a couple cheeseburgers.
    What would Crazy Horse do?

  27. Ahoh, ahoh. My ancestors were Mohawks and Scots. Want to talk about having your territory taken away forcefully?! This whole thing was supposed to be prevented by the Constitution, the very same Constitution that those in power have been spitting on and using as toilet paper for years. We all need to stand up for ourselves. (Now, before it’s too late!)

  28. I give you a big “Hell Yeah!” I’ll presume that “Jesus Camp” is a film? I haven’t seen it, but I was sent to a camp when I was a “juvenile offender”. It was called “YGI Camp” (Youth Guidance Inc.) We were deprived of food as punishment, or forced to do “knuckle buster” pushups on the gravel, forced to run laps, something they called “sitting position”, where you put your butt up against a wall with your knees bent, and stay there until you fall, forced to attend their evangelical church services every day, told that we were all sinners, doomed to eternal damnation, that we must repent and accept Jesus, that if we lived a “carnal life” we would surely die and burn in hell…
    (This is my own personal experience!)
    This was in the mid 1970s. I was a kid, not a criminal.
    I’m not anti-Christian, they have a right to believe whatever they want, but so do we! I had a guy preach to me every day at work a few years ago, he hollered at me for throwing a banana peel out of the truck, I told him banana peels are biodegradable, they go back to Mother Earth. He said, “We are supposed to hate the world!” I told him the Earth is our Mother, and we as a species are raping and murdering her, if we destroy our home, then we all perish with Her. Then he started ranting about being raptured and going to heaven, and I put on my headphones and cranked up my walkman.
    I don’t hate them, why do they hate me? I try not to hate anyone, but I surely hate hypocrisy.

  29. I can’t say as to why anyone else does it, but personally, I choose to make myself a target of my own volition. I do it for the greater good of all humanity, and our brothers & sisters of other species, and our Mother Earth. My hero has always been Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse was murdered by the US government because he stood up for his people.
    Threatening lawsuits does not always get action, sometimes one must take action in order to get action. Sometimes we must put our necks out, lest we remain turtles in the shell. I have seen a raccoon smash a turtle’s shell with a rock and then eat the turtle. I prefer to be a bear. If it gets me killed, then so be it. I’m tired of being pushed around by folks in positions of “authority”, especially when I do not recognize said “authority”.
    May whomever you choose to worship smile upon you.

  30. Wow. I feel a deep sorrow for you, Sunblade. I am curious as to what kind of job would descriminate against you like that. Modern “civilization” and socioty is sick and broken, and it sorely needs fixing. Debt-based economy and fear-based religion, abuse of power, elitism, and planetary destruction… They would murder the dawn and replace it with artificial light, herd everyone into the corral, and feed us to their god, if they were able… Sick, just sick.
    I wish you a better time.

  31. I’m not sure exactly why these lyrics seem strangely appropriate here, y’all can be the judge: “Circle of hands, cold spirits, bland. Searching my land for an enemy. Came across love’s sweet cost, and in the face of beauty, evil was lost. Murder the dawn, spreading their scorn, cursing the day, of which love was born. We must keep them away, or pretty soon we’ll pay, and count the cost in sorrow. Sacrifice, the future has its price, and today is only yesterday’s tomorrow…”
    –Uriah Heep

  32. (I will add this just because: While I don’t personally believe in human sacrifice, I once sacrificed a 1970 Pontiac Tempest. She was old and tired after many many miles, she was not a virgin, and she gave up her life willingly. I still miss her sometimes.)

  33. thank you. You’re right, I was just trying to be broad, maybe a little to broad, but when I typed this I was thinking of Christianity in particular, though Islam shares (I.E. inherits) many of the same fears.

  34. from what I understand, Judaism and even much of Catholicism (with it’s saints and angels) has many pagan undertones.

  35. AP – It doesn’t matter that Jews “wrote the book.” The Israelites and Modern Jews are incredibly different. In fact, those ancient Jews were, according to historical accounts, quite nasty to the Pagans of the time. (Pagans who bear little resemblance to modern day Pagans.)

    My comments about Satan refer to modern day teachings. (I was raised Jewish. So I know from personal experience…) FYI: Modern Jews would never seek to “overthrow” any tradition or convert the non-believer. Its not in the Jewish worldview. It is an exclusive “club,” so to speak.

    But yes, I think it is important for Pagans to mark the difference in faiths and be careful with our words.

    Thanks for the input.

  36. Our ears are burning alright! Burning with curiosity for life, and perception of the truth! And we are resolved to not bow down to ignorance.

    Moments like this make me love my fellow pagans like no other! Women like Ginger and Angela and Selena Fox and men like Jason make me so proud to be a part of this community. And I’m saying this as a total hermit and misanthrope who usually yells rather than talks to his co-religionists.

  37. My understanding is that the early Catholics, during their conquest of Europe, subverted many Sacred days, (in order to gain followers [?]) and even built churches on top of Sacred sites. They also incorporated certain rites and rituals into their dogma.

  38. I ended up with about a dozen of them. Since we had numerous complete Bibles in various versions, the Gideon pocked testaments ended up in the trash.

  39. That is absolutely true, Spirit Bear. Ancient pre-christian sites that have been built on by christians can be found all over the UK and Ireland. It is said that if you scratch the surface of any christian festival, a pre-existing pagan one can be found underneath.
    There is nothing new or original in christianity that has not been plagiarised from some vastly older belief system.
    In Britain, Iron Age people were accustomed to gathering and holding rites and rituals in sacred groves of trees. When the christians came and built their churches, they built them with rows of ornate pillars to resemble trees (which is why there are so many depictions of foliage carved there in stone) in order to entice the people to worship there instead.
    I heartily endorse your feelings, Spirit Bear, and admire and send my support to Ginger, who is a very brave lady.

  40. I’m reminded of the comments of a friend of mine who was active in the religious coalition for equal marriage in Massachusetts at the time when we were working so hard to recognize same sex marriage in our state. (For the win! Yay!)

    She said that the legislators came to understand that one side–the equal-marriage side–was far more civil and reasonable than the other–the Christianist-motivated opponents to equality. And she said that, while they never succeeded in convincing all legislators to support equality, it was noteworthy: whenever a mind was changed, it was changed in favor of equal marriage.

    Never doubt what persistence, courage, and good manners can accomplish. Yeah, we need to be stubborn as hell and firm in our convictions… but when we keep our voices calm and rational, we actually do come to outweigh the shouted voices of intolerance.

    You go, girl!

  41. I can understand and agree with allowing for public commentary during the first reading of a policy so people can vocalize their opinions on the issue.

    What I cannot understand is how quoting from the bible or preaching salvation and literally prosthelytizing is considered vocalizing an opinion on the policy itself. Even a statement of “I think Christianity is the only legitimate religion and therefore should be the only one allowed in schools” – that would be an opinion (an erroneous one, IMO!, but an opinion nonetheless), but flat out preaching is not expressing an opinion and did not belong in any way in a school board meeting. As was said, this is not a church, and that should not have been allowed.

    Having patiently listened to all this off-topic preaching, the idea that the pagans were not allowed to speak their own opinion (much less preach the benefits of paganism) is so inherently unequal and unfair that I am at a loss for words.

    These people do not want a fair policy or a legal one, and I doubt they are going to allow a fair policy to pass on March 1st. I’d rather find our way to equality without litigation as well and you’re right that litigation is always disruptive to the community; however, it won’t be the pagans that are causing the disruption, but the hard-line Christians who will stick by “my way or the highway” to the bitter end.

    It doesn’t even make me mad anymore. It makes me sad.