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.