By Maya Dollarhide
Thursday, October 31, 2002
Real witches don't spend Halloween sailing around the bright autumn moon on their broomsticks. Instead, they dress up for Samhain--the ancient Celtic celebration of the change of seasons, spirituality, energy, and, of course, goddesses.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Cyndi Simpson is out of the broom closet about being a witch, but she's still at odds with some members of her Virginia community who question her religion.
As a practicing Wiccan, Simpson has come under fire by the Board of Supervisors of Chesterfield County, which has barred her from offering a prayer before its open meetings, a customary practice there.
Simpson, 47, says she simply wants to share the Wiccan tradition with her hometown of Richmond. Wicca focuses on ritual, nature, spirituality, prayers and energy. For many women--and some men--it is a celebration of a mother goddess who nourishes every living thing.
Simpson is a "Reclaiming Wiccan," one of many traditions of the Wicca faith practiced around the world. In this tradition, a community of women and men work to unify spirit and politics. They cultivate intuition and energy through ritual and spiritual meditation. Simpson has also been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church for 30 years, where she says she has always been able to practice both faiths equally.
Although many other spiritual leaders in the Richmond area have spoken before the supervisors' meetings, Simpson is not allowed to lead a service; in fact, when Simpson voluntarily signed up on the list of those available to lead prayer services, her offer was flatly denied.
In a letter sent to her by County Attorney Steven L. Micas, the county told Simpson that "based on our review of Wicca, it is neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities. Accordingly we cannot honor your request."
"I wasn't going to talk about the goddess," Simpson said. "I was going to call the elements, maybe offer up an invocation to the highest being--something that would be non-secular. But they didn't want any of that. One of the board supervisors called Wicca a mockery."
Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that Chesterfield County has made a mistake in not allowing Simpson to speak. The ACLU has successfully represented Wiccans in the past and Willis has sent two letters to the county board asking it to reconsider the decision.
Don Kappel, a Chesterfield County spokesman, said Simpson has no case because the board's decision is not a First Amendment violation.
"These prayers are done on a volunteer basis and on a chosen basis by the board. We offer prayers by people who are religious leaders allied to Judeo-Christian practices. This is what the board wants," he said.
"They don't even have to have prayers at their open meetings," Kappel added. "It's not mandatory, so they can invite whomever they like. They were not interested in having Ms. Simpson speak."
Wicca adherents say stereotypes often keep them in the closet, although many religious scholars believe there are some 200,000 practicing Wiccans in the United States. Simpson says her case is just another case of prejudice against Wiccans.
"ItÂ¹s never been easy," agrees Wren Walker, a Wiccan who helps run Witchvox.com, an informational Web site for Wiccans. "If one is a witch or a Wiccan, there has always been someone who is quite pleased to tell you that you are destined for the fiery pit."
"Thankfully, these folks hardly ever show up on the doorstep with ropes and burning torches anymore," Walker said. "That does not mean, however, that Wiccans do not still face opposition. The bigotry simply appears in the more subtle forms of employment dismissals and child custody battles. In many ways, cases of discrimination such as these are much more difficult to both prove and to counter."
Starhawk, a leader in the goddess movement and the author of nine books, including "The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religions of the Great Goddess," said that cases like Simpson's occur far too frequently.
"Although there is a lot more understanding about Wicca than there was 20 years ago, there are still individual people who don't understand about the religion part," said Starhawk, who goes by her first name only. "Wicca is about religion . . . It's about Earth and nature being sacred; it's not about broomsticks and black cats or Satanism."
In Chesterfield County, the board of supervisors declined to comment for this article. But members did speak to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where one board member asked, "Is Ms. Simpson a good witch or a bad witch?"
Simpson insists that local officials would be surprised to learn that she's not the only witch in Richmond.
"There are Wiccans in the area, but people feel they need to be more careful here because of the radical right that are in the area," Simpson said.
"I really think I'm being discriminated by my faith," she added. "Look, I'm for separation of church and state, so although I don't even think they should have prayers at county meetings, but if they are going to do this then the prayers need to reflect the true religious diversity of the community."
Maya Dollarhide is an associate reporter for the Asahi Shimbun in their New York City news bureau.