Thursday, June 12, 2014

Catskill Steps up it's War on the Maetreum of Cybele; Fighting A Town run by Outlaws

Most of you are aware the Maetreum has been involved  in a seven year plus battle with the Town of Catskill, NY over our religious property tax exemption.   Last fall we won in the Appellate Court of New York and this made the town powers that be very nervous because they no longer had any basis to deny us that exemption.   They filed an appeal to the highest NY court and that is now ongoing but they did not ask for or were granted a stay on our victory.

What's a Catskillian bigot to do?   Why dig back into the bag of tricks that did not work in 2009, that what!  Code violation, yeah, that'll work so they scheduled a “fire and safety” inspection to take place a mere two days before the deadline for filing for this year's exemption.  Trouble is we saw through this immediately and refused the inspection.  You see for all those years Catskill's legal position is we are “merely a residence” and not a real church....until it's inspection time, then we are the real deal churchwise.  All well and good except for one thing.  We do live here.  Most people are unaware you can invoke your 4'th Amendment rights to refuse a safety inspection of your home and we did so in writing but we have additional legal protections under a Federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).  That law was written specifically for cases like ours and shifts a very very high burden of proof on a town once invoked.

Unless you are a town run by criminals that is.  Not yet convicted criminals mind you but that may change soon.  Let's be kind and call them scofflaws instead, an older term that fits perfectly.

So, two exchanges of letters with the Code office and we invoked all our rights in both.  Mind you, there are two different US Supreme Court decisions that make it clear that once 4'th Amendment rights are invoked, the town must get a warrant to do an inspection and the second of those two ruling also made it clear that no legal jeopardy can be attached (no charges of any kind) until that happens.  It also raised the bar on proof to get that warrant.  RLUIPA raises that bar WAY the hell up from that.

Ok, now the Board of Assessment Review (BOAR) hearing is almost upon us, what is a Catskillian bigot to do when the first move was countered?  Why issue a third letter demanding the inspection or else, the or else being that very legal jeopardy that the Supremes says is a no no....  But we must inspect before the hearing, find them in violation of something and use that as cover for denying the exemption!  Wrong again moosebreath, in order to make it stick you have to actually cite the section of code we were in violation of and when we checked it out with the legal definitions, it doesn't apply to us at all!

What's left to Catskillian bigots ordered to deny us?  Out and out breaking the law and that is exactly what Catskill opted to do,  break the law.  In open defiance of the second highest court in New York, they denied our exemption without giving a single reason at the BOAR even though I carefully spelled out that legally they were out of options here.  Ok, we saw that one coming but the next move beyond belief.  We were cited for a code violation and ordered to appear next week in town court in front of the town judge to the charges.  We had responded to the last threat in writing spelling out how the code we were charged with violating does not apply and why complete with legal citations and even a link to an article by the Counsel General of the State of New York.  We once again invoked our 4'th Amendment rights and our additional rights under RLUIPA.  Mind you charging us is illegal and an actual violation of our civil rights.  In the very first letter in the exchange I explained that their only legal action was to get a warrant after meeting an extremely high burden of proof to do so.  We twice offered a compromise that was ignored both times.

Deprivation of Civil Rights Under Color of Law is a federal felony and the code nazi violated that law.

This town trial should be most interesting indeed.  Stay tuned.  

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Rant

I need to vent a bit. I've been a practicing Pagan for 50 years now having studied in India as a teenager. I've been involved in Pagan community for about 45 years being a community leader and out Pagan spokesperson when it was dangereous to do so in central Ohio back in the mid seventies. I founded a unique, scholarly researched historic reclaiming of what was the most prominent Pagan religion of Rome that was subjected to wholesale erasure from history by the catholic church.

We built an actual Pagan infrastructure dedicated to charitable works and community service. Throughout all that the "movers and shakers" in Paganism have almost totally ignored us. Multiple contacts with COG totally ignored. Our legal battle, covered multiple times in the large Pagan blogs and even written up in the New York freakin' Times and one of only TWO major legal battles in the past decade ignored by the Pagan legal crowd despite our reaching out multiple times.  One self styled Pagan legal "scholar" did us actual, real world harm with a badly researched article about our initial loss after out and out refusing my offer of background material.  Raising the money for the winning appeal became almost impossible as a result.

I've tried to avoid anything that remotely looked like a witch war but I am sick and tired on being silent about the relentless self promoting "leaders" of Paganism who are all self promotion and no action. I'm sick and tired of watching our path being written out of Paganism by Wicca style Pagans who seem to think they own the word Pagan when arguably we have a much better claim to that label historically. We won a major legal victory for minority religions in general but when it looked like we lost, that was all over the place and the final victory ignored by the greater Pagan community.

All to often Wiccans dismiss us as some sort of Dianics. Dianics don't like us because we are open to all genders. Others dislike that we have reclaimed the original monotheistic Mother Goddess tradition. Others freak out that we are supportive of LGB causes. Sometimes I think we should just ignore the rest of the Pagan community and just do our thing. Ok, venting over, thanks for reading this far.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Paganism: Money is Bad, Right?

Reblogged from

–by Shauna Aura Knight
The question, “Should Pagans charge for services/rituals/events/classes” comes up with some frequency within our community. One of my activist goals is looking at underlying difficulties and assumptions in our culture and how that impacts us.
Pagans (and people, for that matter) have a really unhealthy relationship with money.
It’s one of our cultural “shadows.” Any shadow causes us communal grief. For me, activism is about looking at those cultural shadows and working with them. What are our current assumptions about money? How do those assumptions get in the way of healthy communities and future community resources?

Underlying Assumptions
“Pagans are broke.” What I think is actually means is, “Pagans have a complicated and unhealthy relationship with money and get recalcitrant about paying for things.”
There’s a spectrum of assumptions about money. On one end, you have the idea that “Charging for spiritual work is bad.” On the other end, “I should be paid reasonably for my time.”
What I’m not addressing in that spectrum is obvious extortion and unethical practices, including people who charge exorbitant money for a dangerously-facilitated sweat lodge, or people who say, “You’re cursed but I can lift it for a mere $1,000,” or people who embezzle, or manipulate people.
Now–while I’m not addressing the unethical folks, they impact our assumptions. Many Pagans fear donating to a group because they’ve seen the largess and corruption of the churches of their youth, and, they’ve seen various Pagan leaders fail to ethically handle money. 
I’m focusing on ethical Pagan leaders and teachers who feel that they should be able to charge for their time. After seeing several online discussions basically saying that anyone who charges for spiritual work is bad, or that spiritual work should always be free, I thought that a deeper discussion on money would serve.
The idea that “money is bad” shackles the Pagan community, holding us back and making us less effective in the kind of work many of our groups would like to be able to achieve.
What is Money?
A root challenge with this issue is that we need to define what money actually is. In the dominant culture, money is power, certainly. Big corporations, banks, and rich politicians control our laws. Religious institutions like the Catholic church have vast amounts of wealth. It’s no surprise that many have a knee-jerk reaction that “money is bad.”
But what is money? Money is, in essence, energy. It’s a representation of time and work. Ignoring income tax, if you make $10 an hour, then a $5 cup of coffee reflects a half hour of your effort.
Money is neither good nor bad, it’s simply an easier exchange rate than a chicken and a basket of tomatoes. Barter is, at its core, money. It’s resources being traded for other resources. Money isn’t inherently bad any more than the chicken you raised is bad. It’s just an agreed-upon exchange rate.
But “Real Witches” Never Charged
Completely untrue. If we look at our ancestors, the Witch/Shaman/Druid/Priest/Healer of the tribe was paid in the form of a tithe from the tribe. It might be a chicken, fur, or seat at the dinner table, or help building their home. It’s still payment. They couldn’t have focused on serving their community in that capacity without their community providing their upkeep.
Money is not a dirty thing. Money represents time spent working.
What Do Pagan Events Cost?
Let’s start with supplies. Candles, herbs, printing out handouts, food for the group. Is it fair to ask the group leader who’s already spent time organizing rituals and classes to pay out of pocket for all of that? Many people feel even charging for supplies is bad. Imagine a small group or a public ritual; perhaps money is donated, or members donate the supplies. It’s simple–those are hard costs, someone has to pay them, it’s just a matter of whom.
If it’s a public ritual, like my upcoming Imbolc in Chicago, money must be raised to pay for the $300 daily rental. We haven’t even gotten to additional costs, like a group, a web site, or printing flyers.
When talking about teachers charging, that’s usually where the fisticuffs begin.
What do I Charge?
For a public event like Imbolc, which has a ritual and workshops, I ask for a sliding scale donation, $5-$25, no one turned away for lack of funds. I feel it’s important to make these events open to people regardless of ability to pay.
At the same time, I can’t afford to foot the bill if an event doesn’t break even. It’s utterly unfair to ask clergy that have put in hours to plan, host, and cleanup an event to also spend money to cover the costs.
Traveling Teachers
The subject of money and charging for events and classes is very much on my mind because of recent events in my own life. I was recently in a car accident, and without getting into insurance details, the accident was not my fault but I won’t receive any money for a new car.
How is this relevant to charging for classes?
At least 75%-90% of what I used my car for was to run Pagan events in Chicago, and, to travel and teach at Pagan events. Now I have obligations to travel and teach at several events in the coming months, and many of these are not events I can now easily get to.
Let’s take a step back to assumptions like all Pagan authors are getting rich off of the community, and Pagans who teach at festivals make a lot of money.
When I travel to larger conferences and festivals, I pay my own travel and hotel costs. At some festivals where I’m headlining, I get gas money. I teach weekend-long intensives where I get gas money, and maybe a $200 stipend. However, looking at all of these, I’m actually operating at a loss. Why?
Car repairs.
If I drive 8 hours to teach for a weekend for gas money, I’m out the cost of an oil change. Add in $300 for new brakes and other car repairs…it all adds up. The past years I’ve paid thousands of dollars in car repairs for the pleasure of spending hours on the road to teach mostly without pay.
Why Would I Do That?
It’s the calling of my soul. There are so many groups out there desperate for help with leadership and community building, or learning to facilitate more potent rituals that will inspire their community. I’m a total sucker for a leader who messages me and says, “I loved your workshop at Pagan Spirit Gathering, and our local community is having so many problems but I don’t know if we can afford to pay you…”
So I tell them I can do it for gas money. Often, it’s that leader who’s paying my gas money out of pocket because they are afraid to charge anyone. “If I charge, no one will come,” they confide.
I admire the folks who do this–even while I regret that they continue enabling a dysfunctional pattern in our communities.
I’ve been writing topics of Pagan leadership because I think they are crucial. For instance, this blog post now. Am I getting paid for the 3 or so hours it takes me to write one of these? Nope. I do it because I’m called. I think that’s the essence of any deep calling–we’d do it whether or not we’re being paid.
I have done this work without pay for years. I’ve managed by living simply and other creative means. But it’s put me, financially, where I absolutely can no longer do this work without pay. What I charge is not enough.
Here is the crux of the issue. Many Pagans whine about not having access to things that other faiths have, but there’s a core reason for it–they aren’t willing to pay for it. Pagans are starting to want access to leadership training, and I’m thrilled to offer that. However, taking my time to offer that–driving 4-8 hours–my time spent teaching–preparing for the workshop–it’s rather a lot of time. It’s a part-time job, full time if you add in writing articles, blog posts, answering leadership questions on email or skype.
It’s work I love, but if I can’t make a living doing it, I can’t continue.
Do you get excited when Circle Sanctuary takes on a local school principle discriminating against a Pagan student ? Good. But, where do they get the time to do that? How does Selena Fox have the time to call people going through a crisis, or go to their hospital to sit with them while they’re dying?
Circle charges money for events. The money they raise through events, and through donations, allows them to pay staffers to do this work full time.
Fear and Values
This goes back to values–what we value. What we spend money on. I get frustrated to tears when I see Pagans attend my classes and not donate anything, or donate on the lower end of a sliding scale ($5 for a full weekend of instruction, where the upper rate would be more like $150 a person) and then drop $5 on coffee, $25 on lunch, and $40 on a couple of books at the Pagan bookshop.
I don’t expect everyone to drop $150 on a weekend. That’s why it’s at the upper range of a sliding scale, which functions like a tithe. Those who can pay $5 are welcome. Those who can pay $75-$150 are paying into the scholarship fund, helping the less abundant to be able to attend.
If there’s 20 attendees, gas money is $100, and the space rental is $200 for the weekend, and I get $200, that means two things.
  1. Each person needs to pay around $25, but sliding scale means that folks who can only afford to pay $5 can attend as long as a few people are paying at the middle or top of the scale ($75-$150)
  2. It also means I’m making about $100 for four days of my time. Figure in an oil change, car insurance, and some money for inevitable car repairs. One day is spent traveling to the event, one traveling home, and then 2 days I’m teaching. That doesn’t count the hours spent working with the event organizers consulting on what classes to offer, crafting class descriptions, helping promote the event via Facebook and Email, or the time it takes me to prepare the classes.
That makes it maybe more like $100 for one work week. Still think I’m charging too much?
I know that most groups out there can’t afford more. But if I can’t charge for my work, I can’t afford to do it. This isn’t about me and my challenges, this is about money and what we as individuals and as a community have decided we value, what we are willing to pay for. It’s about what resources we want for our community, for our future.
“If you charge for your work you aren’t really being spiritual.”
Having gone through several years living below the poverty line to be able to bring this work out to my community, I have a few four-letter words in mind for that sentiment.
There are many of us out there that just want to run an Imbolc or Beltane event without panicking the whole night before about whether we’ll break even on space rental. Others of us who want to teach and write and offer our skills up but we need to make a living if we’re going to devote our time to it. 
“If you’re trying to get paid then you aren’t in it for service.”
“You could be doing other things for money and still serving your community.”
“If you were really dedicated to spirit, spirit would take care of you.”
“You shouldn’t expect any money for your work.”
“All spiritual work should be free.”
“If you’re really serving spiritual community, you wouldn’t need to advertise your services.”
“You should just be motivated by love for your community, not a paycheck.”

Would I do this work without pay? Yes, absolutely. I did, and I have. Where did it leave me? Financially stuck between a rock and a hard place. Yes, I made those choices, so I bear that responsibility, but, it’s not something I choose to do going forward.
What do you Value?
If you want to see the Pagan community mature, if you want more services and education available, or Pagan-focused meeting spaces and community centers, if you want advocates for Pagan rights…they have a cost. Do you value some of these things?
Think about your relationship to money, what you value. Begin talking about money in your community. Let’s move past this myth that Pagans are broke and explore our relationship to tithing, donating, and paying for needed services.
There’s the saying, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” I think that we can build amazing resources for future generations, if we can get past our shadows around money.
For further reading:
Here’s a blog post that I wrote going into more depth on this topic.
In the next days on my main blog  I’ll be posting a series on Pagan leadership, with several articles focusing on Pagans, fundraising, and paying for events.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Pagan Leadership, By Their Deeds You Shall Know Them

Paganism is a big tent comprised mainly by those with an independent mindset or unconventional thinkers. As a direct result there is a certain tendency for resistance to anyone seeking to claim a leadership position that goes further than their own particular group. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of those seeking to be the 12 inch trout in the 13 inch puddle. You've seen them, they are the relentless self promoters. During the heyday of what I call the Witchcrap books from the late 70's and most of the 80's many of them cranked out book after book after book often based simply in the old table of correspondences and offering little in the way of actual information that could not be summed up completely in two or three paragraphs.

But they sold, boy did they sell. Today we can communicate widely and instantly via the internet with little requirement beyond a computer and the willingness to use it and the bottom fell out of the Witchcrap book industry. Getting published today requires actual ideas and original thought or enough resources to self publish which requires work. But promoting yourself only requires dedication towards flooding as many Pagan venues as you can with tales of your wonderfulness making your name familiar to a large number of seekers, no actual deeds required. In case you aren't getting my point, this 'taint leadership.

Let's be honest here, an awful lot of people come to Paganism seeking personal empowerment in a world that seems pretty much out of control and they first thing they want to learn is magic that can give them some sort of personal power over others. They are the ones that keep buying the Witchcrap spell books and will flood Pagan venues with requests for spells and healing energies for things they should be able to handle in a mundane fashion. Others come seeking more, ego gratification out of a lack of self-respect. I remember many years ago when I was a gypsy nursing aide encountering a young lady working in a nursing home who was always wearing black and had occult jewelry covering everything. She sought me out one break and told me how powerful she was, how sensitive to others energy she was and implying I should be in awe of her. She had no idea I was a lifelong Pagan myself and I didn't tell her but I ran into her doubles later on all over the internet.

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Shauna Aura Knight when she led a workshop on Pagan leadership at the Maetreum of Cybele. Now I doubt she would consider herself such, but she is an actual Pagan leader. She has been tackling the thankless task of debating exactly how one deals with self appointed leaders who are abusive assholes, total jerks or otherwise a problem for those they encounter. She is doing....... Others who do are those like the ever popular Starhawk who lives what she believes and the late Issac Bonewits who contributed many many original ideas on magical practice and leadership and wrote on bad leadership, cult identification and the concept of antagonists as borrowed from a gifted Christian writer on the subject. Laurie Cabot is a Pagan leader regardless of what you might think of her personal style. But there are a tonne of what Issac called “big nosed Pagans” out there who do little more than promote themselves.

Most of you will be familiar with the Maetreum's seven year long battle for legal recognition in property tax equality with Christian churches despite being incorporated under New York religious corporate law and fully IRS recognition as a church and religious charity. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of landmark cases regarding Paganism in the past thirty years and this has been one. One of the lessons we learned in the process is the utter worthlessness of the various Pagan advocacy groups when the rubber hits the road. NONE of them were there for us, not a single one! No legal advice, no references for a decent attorney, no legal representation. Not even help raising much needed funds for our legal fees. Individual Pagans helped with raising money, some non-advocacy Pagans groups contributed, but not one of those who claim a reputation for advocacy would so much as talk to us other than one self styled Pagan legal expert who wrote and said “buy my book, buy my book!” which as it turns out had not a single bit of relevant advice in it. When the initial ruling went against us due to extreme bigotry on the part of the judge, this “expert” announced she was going to write a "scholarly" review of the decision. We talked on FaceBook and I offered to provide the background and even documents on the case which was ignored. She called our attorney (without permission) for details resulting in our attorney calling me and asking if I knew this person and was she really a lawyer because her ignorance of the basics of law was staggering, her words not mine.

She wrote the article based solely on the decision of the judge with zero background material and even trashed me because the judge said I was not credible. That claim was on a single aspect of the case regarding the number of hours I put in a week on my duties as a priestess and he HAD to do that in order to ignore a prior, directly on point case in New York law in order to rule against us. I testified an entire day and everything else I testified to was repeated by two other priestesses in direct testimony. She had no way of knowing this. She had no way of knowing that during the years before the actual trial, the town officials had made one expression of bigotry after another to the press because she couldn't be bothered to read the twenty plus main stream media stories on the case, one in the New York Times. That the town's attorney, in direct violation of Federal and State law, repeatedly and endlessly challenged our legitimacy as a religion. Nope, she declared we were not discriminated against and simply not worthy. When we won the appeal she had declared we had zero chance of winning, she made a comment on a blog entry about the win that she remained skeptical! Of an Appellate level win! Talk about arrogance. It would not amount to a hill of beans except that her damn article really slowed down fund raising for the money we needed to file the appeal which we mostly had to raise ourselves because now much of the Pagan community considered our case hopeless. Real world harm from someone's ego that nearly shortchanged one of the significant wins in Pagan legal history.

This is the problem with the self styled leaders of our community. They can do actual real world harm. If you are trying to figure out who is a Pagan leader, look to what they actually do, not claim to do in the real world. By their deeds you shall know them.

Monday, January 20, 2014

We Aren't Wiccan

A recent article about our long long legal battle with the Town of Catskill pointed out
“the views and practices of their organization (the Maetreum of Cybele) vary widely from those of many “Pagan” and other minority religious groups”
This is true and it occurs to me a lot of misunderstandings actually surround that basic statement that should be discussed. I was the principle founder of what we call the Cybeline Revival and it does differ in many respects from most of the category it is lumped in with, neo-Paganism. First of all it is a theology based on historic research that tries to re create the basis of the Mother Goddess traditions of the ancient world. It is not about “the craft” as so many modern neo-Pagan groups are. That is not to say our priestesses are not skilled in the craft, most of us are. Rather that witchcraft is not the focus of what we do, what we believe and how we practice.

We are not reconstructionists. We started off with the history we had readily available, primarily the practices common in Greece and Rome during the classical period and our Season of the Tree celebration does reconstruct much of the body of ritual done in Rome as the Meglamensia as a celebration of that. Our goal, from the start, was to restore Mother Goddess theology and practices as if they had not been interrupted for some 1600 years by the attempt to erase us from history by the Catholic church. In order to do that we had to dig deeply into the prior Mother Goddess traditions stretching far back into pre-history, extract the essence and build from that. It is an ongoing process that although I started, is being continued by some of our younger priestesses, one of whom is pursuing that as the basis of her Doctorate.

We are not “Dianics”. Living in a patriarchy and coming from a history where the priestesses were required to be female bodied many confuse us with Dianic practice. Unlike Dianics, we encourage men to participate in our rituals, share our lives and undergo our Mysteries. Yes, we are decidedly pro woman, feminists and about female empowerment but we also acknowledge the historic fact that every single Mother Goddess tradition had transsexual priestesses as well as non-transsexual women priestesses. Dianics can be quite opposed to this fact. Dianics do not allow men to participate in their rituals.

And let's be frank, we are NOT Wiccan. Modern Pagan practices are often confused with Wicca as established by Gardner and later Alex Sanders. I won't get into my own opinions of that practice today which frequently has little in common with it's own rather late to the party roots and is quickly becoming a generic term rather than a specific one. Wicca depends on “the craft” at it's roots and if it has an actual theology, I have failed to find it because it was reclaimed for the most part from European folk magic and middle ages ceremonial magic that arose as opposition to the Catholic church. The so called rede came directly from Alister Crowley, the self styled most evil man in the world. The so called law of three fold return to discourage so called left hand path work (dark magic) is a hold over of the carrot and stick theology of Christianity and based in fear that the quite old association of cursing and witchcraft not be revisited upon them. And finally, in the original Wicca, one had to be initiated into a coven and there was no such thing as solo practice and self initiation, ideas introduced by Scott Cunningham.

The Cybeline Revival is unique in modern Paganism. We are basically monotheistic which I would argue Christianity never was. We re-introduced the ancient practice of Pagan monasticism, but just as in the ancient times not a cloistered monasticism, but very much a part of the world. One does not seek the priestesshood in our tradition as some sort of spiritual merit badge but rather a life long commitment to service towards others so our congregants are just as important in their own right as the priestesses. We don't serve up answers because we believe the Goddess is eminent in all so we teach people to awaken the Goddess within themselves. That means you have to do the work yourself, we just help you do so. Not a recipe for those who were raised in a world that encourages instant gratification to flock to us so we expect our growth to be slow. We believe in balance in the world, in spirituality, in all things so there is a place for light work as well as dark and a time and place for both.

Many Pagan writers have talked about the things that are at the root of our theology, we practice it.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Rebuilding a Pagan Community

I have been a Pagan most of my life.  In the sixties we were just coming into our own as a part of the counter-culture, what is today referred to as the hippy movement but actually was much much broader as the emerging liberation and civil rights movements, the anti-war movement and the beginnings of what would later be called the environmental movement or green revolution.  By the seventies we had a wide spread, loosely connected web of Pagan communities.  Oh, we had our differences, did we ever!  But there was a definite sense of being part of a greater Pagan Community.  Often the local communities sprung up with bookstores or occult shops, sometimes in competition with each other if there were several in an area.  There was an explosion of new traditions around this time.  It was a great time to be a Pagan but also a scary one as we had police "occult squads" all around the country looking for cults with dark motivations and far too many accusations human sacrifice etc. coming from the also emerging mega-church radical religious right.

But most of all, having come largely from the Wiccan roots of Gardner, we gathered and practiced in groups whether we called them covens or something else.  It was a community based movement overall.  There was a lot of individual fear of being outted as Pagan then but many of us were out and proud, myself included.  I taught a course for several years as part of the Ohio State Free University (loosely associated with Ohio State University) and was a consultant on Pagan and occult matters to the Psychology Dept. of OSU and as a result was one of the few "go to" Pagan speakers when the local papers or media needed someone to talk on all matters Pagan in Central Ohio.

I was personally targeted by the local mega church as a result and without going into details, they laid waste to much of my life then.  I retreated into the broom closet as a result for over a decade, mostly practicing solo, occasionally with a small group and retreating into scholarship which eventually led to my founding the Cybeline Revival.  I was not alone in this.  Hundreds of books on witchcraft and Paganism and all things occult were being published, the interest was still there, groups survived and continued but the steady march of the US towards the right made it feel unsafe to be too out especially to those interested but unable to connect with the remaining groups.  Along came Scott Cunningham with a series of books on how to be an eclectic solo practitioner which rapidly became wildly popular and over the next couple of decades the majority of our overall community largely turned away from group practice and towards solo practice, especially away from large urban centres. 

Here's the problem, Paganism, almost all traditions, at it's roots is a community powered path and we lost that and our way as a result.  We need to rebuild that sense of community to survive and thrive.  We need to join together and celebrate once again openly and unafraid.  We must put aside and reject the personal egos that solo practice promotes, build community centres open to all, acquire and share brick and mortar locations with each other and we need to SHARE with others as a community once again.  We have so much in common and we need to focus on that rather than our differences.  This is Pagan Pride season, find the nearest Pride event and join in.  If there is not one close by, get together now with friends and start planning one for next year.  Network with other Pagans, especially from other paths than your own.  If you are part of a group, encourage that group to network with other groups.  If you practice solo, look around, we are everywhere so step out of your shell and join in some group celebration somewhere.

The world is at a major crux right now and we ALL are needed and need to work together.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

New York Court Rules Against Freedom of Religion

The Christian right is fond of spewing "America is a Christian country" disregarding all facts of history and tonnes of statements from the founding fathers to the contrary.  Apparently at least one Judge in Albany did not get the memo that freedom of religion means ALL religions.  In Greene County, New York Pagans may be recognized as a legitimate religious path, but are treated to arbitrary standards no Christian church is held to when the rubber meets the road when it comes to equal treatment under the law.

The Maetreum of Cybele, founded originally in 1998 in Ohio by Cathryn Platine and joined quickly by Susan Davis, incorporated formally in 2005 under New York Religious Incorporation law.  Shortly afterwards the four owners of "Central House" in Palenville, NY deeded their interest to the Maetreum and thus gave up all individual rights to the property in an act of commitment to the vow of charitable works they each had taken as a priestess of Cybele.  That should have reset the clock regarding the property as far as the Town of Catskill was concerned.  The former owners had surrendered any control of the property which was now owned by an IRS registered and recognized church and religious charity under 501 c3 regulations.  The Maetreum of Cybele has only one of the original property owners as an active priestess, myself.  Another bought the interest of one of the original owners two years after the original purchase and the other two no longer have an active role in the the day to day activities of the Maetreum.  This means the six other active priestess besides myself have an equal say in all matters regarding the Maetreum and it's property.  That is important to note because the court regards the former use of the property as a continuation of the current use which makes about as much sense as going back to the family that owned the property from the mid-fifties to 2002 when it was run as a resort for Italian-Swiss people.

As part of the written and long adopted theology of the Cybeline Revival, the day to day name of our religion, charitable works, particularly those for the benefit of women in need is a cornerstone of how we live our religion.  Towards that end, since it's incorporation and indeed before that time, dozens of women in need have been housed at Central House.  Some, by no means all, of those women were transitioned transsexuals and somehow including helping them is not considered a worthy charitable work by the court.  I base this on this it even being part of the consideration rendered by the court.  Given recent Federal rulings on Title VII protections applying to those born transsexed as sex discrimination, a question now arises if the decision is hopeless tainted with sex discrimination as well as being openly hostile to a minority religion.

A prior decision and order given in the case by Judge Pulver noted that it was hard to not see discrimination in the actions of the Town of Catskill and noted that the standards being applied to the Maetreum of Cybele were standards no other local church had to meet and likely could even meet.  Every point in that decision was ignored by the trial judge, every one of them except that no court has the right to rule on the legitimacy of a religion but can only rule on the apparent sincerity of belief.  That is a matter of settled law.  Regardless of that, the opening and closing statements by the attorney for the Town of Catskill were almost entirely attacks on the legitimacy of a religion legally recognized by the State of New York and the Federal government.  Additionally the closing statement by the Town attorney consisted of slanderous personal attacks on myself, most of which had long been disproved (see link to Judge Pulver's decision above) and ruled against as part of the legal action prior to the trial.  Dan Vincelette had literally cyber stalked every single word I had ever written online to attempt to twist it.  He did this for seven long years in what should have been considered criminal acts, not evidence in a legal action regarding the property belonging to a religious corporation.  I am not the Cybeline Revival.  I founded it but my standing within the religion is exactly equal to every other priestess, we are organized and function as consensus based organization which is also clearly outlined in our theology and organizational models.

In 2006 the Maetreum of Cybele was granted property tax exemption by the Town of Catskill.  That year we also made a huge mistake in elevating a sociopath to priestess.  Sociopaths can be charming and often are which makes them very dangerous.  Inside organizations they often become antagonists.  Our sociopath followed the classic antagonist model and proceeded to attempt to completely destroy the Maetreum from within.  I was physically driven from the Maetreum property through extreme physical and verbal abuse on a level I had no idea could happen despite having worked with abused women for many years.  It was during this brief time period that the Catskill attorney contacted me, misrepresented himself as a "tax examiner" and asked to come on the property just to verify the number of buildings.  I told him he could with me present only. While the Maetreum property was held by those who attempted a schism at that time, we were in communication and I was trying to work out a compromise.  Vincelette showed up unannounced with a team of inspectors, bullied his way into the main house and proceeded to "blueprint" a 150 year old inn for building and alleged safety violations.  He wrote a "legal opinion" to justify removing our tax exemption that claimed the property was just residential even though he acknowledges that the schism group told him they still conducted regular religious services and functioned as the Maetreum.

It took a Freedom of Information demand two years later to see that so called "legal opinion" that by then had been the basis of two years of exemption renewal rejections.  The Town absolutely refused to reveal it to us before then in the Board of Assessment Review hearings for two full years completely tying our hands in proceeding to court.  During that time the schism had failed after less than a year and we had started rebuilding the Maetreum and the Cybeline Revival. Attendance was up, many many improvements were made to the property, the Temple was rebuilt to be permanent with concrete columns at the gateways to replace the former wooden gateways.  The entire first floor of the main house was purposed as public religious space, even the single bedroom on the first floor.  We started our "cafe" hours on Saturdays with an open house, free coffee and tea to encourage area women to come meet and talk in a safe space.  We greatly expanded our "meetups" so at least one of them happened almost every weekend.  We expanded our charitable outreach to the point where the majority of women living at the Phrygianum were part of that outreach to aid women who could not afford decent housing or were there on an emergency housing basis.  Many were escaping abusive situations as well.

In 2009 we finally learned how to file a lawsuit to challenge the continued sneering rejections of our property tax exemptions.  Up to that point the Town had required us to file extensive paperwork each year "proving" we met standards we had already met for the IRS in obtaining our recognized 501c3 status.  The assessor and Board of Assessment review rejected invitations to tour our property and see for themselves how we "used" it and it's clearly daily religious nature evident in every aspect of even the decorations in all the public spaces of the house, the Temple and the processional pathways.  During this time the Town Assessor let slip that our initial refusal of renewal of exemption was at the request of a member of the Catskill Town Board.  An attempt was made at the last minute at one of the Review hearings to hold us to a "change of use" filing requirement that wasn't part of the Town Code until AFTER the date we supposedly failed to file this mythical notice.

During the legal proceedings various members of the Catskill Town board and the various attorneys let slip over and over open admissions of the religious bigoted motives behind their actions.  Many of them are reported in the various news stories that were written. Here, here, here, here, here, here and here .

When we finally were able to have our day in court the proceedings took two days separated by over a month between them.  Still, the Town presented no direct evidence, no witnesses.  We left the court with the feelings we had more than proven our case, the judge openly hostile at times to the antics of the Town attorneys on cross examination and even indicating to our attorney that we had done so.  Written final arguments were dragged out for more than six months!  A decision was several months after that.  We could not believe that decision as it ignored almost every aspect of the prior decision handed down by Judge Pulver as well as just dismissing most of my own testimony which was uncontested!  It was basically based on the same unproven pronouncements by Vincelette that came just short of getting him charged with perjury by Judge Pulver and in no fashion had any appearance as having been written by the same Judge we had seen in court.

We are now fighting for our lives and to keep our property.  There are multiple excellent grounds for appeal which we have already filed notice to do.  Dan Vincelette told the Watershed Post  he didn't expect much protest from the pro-Pagans in this decision.  Please help us prove him absolutely wrong.  Spread the word of this outrage.  Make a donation to help us continue to fight this battle for ALL minority religious equal treatment, not just Pagans.  Demand justice!  If you have contacts with national media, show them this blog entry.  The court decision is here.