People often say, “I’d love to practice my faith openly, but I’m afraid I’ll lose my job/my kids/my house/my hamster/whatever if I come out of the broom closet!” While it’s true that there have been cases of discrimination against Pagans and Wiccans in certain parts of the country, the fact is that if you educate yourself about your own rights, it’s a lot harder for someone else to try to take them from you.
If you live in the United States, the best place to start educating yourself is to understand the First Amendment and how it affects you. In addition to guaranteeing us the right to free speech, the First Amendment states that the government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. What this means is that you’re allowed to be Christian, Wiccan, Jewish, Muslim, a Satanist, or a member of the Grand High Order of the Sparkly Toaster Oven, and there’s no one in the government who can prevent you from holding your beliefs.
Legally, you can’t be fired from your job, lose custody of your kids, or have your house repossessed SOLELY on the basis of your religious beliefs. However, there are a couple of things you need to bear in mind. First, religion is not a viable defense if you’re doing something illegal. You can’t neglect your children or beat up your neighbor and then claim religious discrimination when someone calls the authorities. Likewise, if you fail to show up at work on time or you demonstrate a lack of competence in your job, saying you got fired because you’re Wiccan or Pagan probably won’t hold much water in a lawsuit.
If you suspect you may be a victim of religious discrimination, be sure to document EVERYTHING that takes place. Keep a diary of any conversations or events that take place, as they happen. Finally, understand that there is a difference between discrimination and people just being opinionated. Religious discrimination takes place when you are denied the same rights as other people, on the basis of your religion. Someone who tells you they think Wiccans are devil-worshippers or who asks you if you’d like to join them at Bible study is not discriminating against you or persecuting you, they are merely sharing their opinion.
There are some things you can do to help reduce the chance that you will be discriminated against on the basis of your religion.
- Educate yourself about the laws in your area. Find out what your local school board’s stance is on Paganism and Wicca, and learn what your employer’s position is on taking time off for Sabbats or regarding the wearing of religious jewelry.
- Network with other Pagans and Wiccans. Even if you practice as a solitary, there is strength in numbers. By making yourself known in the Pagan community, you make it easier for like-minded people to come to your aid if you need them to.
- Get to know your co-workers and neighbors. If someone knows you as a friend or neighbor first, then when they figure out that you’re Pagan or Wiccan, they’re far less likely to stir up legal trouble for you.
- If you’re a parent, be sure to provide your children with some sort of spiritual framework. Even if you plan to let them choose their own path eventually, start giving them a foundation now for making an educated decision later in life. If you find yourself in a courtroom, it may make a better impression if you’ve provided your child with some religious education.
- Understand that while you have religious freedom, so do other people. If you’re involved in a divorce or custody battle and your ex wants to take Junior to church on Sunday mornings, let them go. It shows people that you’re open minded, and it also provides your child a chance to compare religious paths.
- If you do have to go to court, dress in a conservative manner. Don’t show up wearing a cape, holding a sword, and sporting a pentacle the size of a large Schnauzer. Arrive clean, well groomed, and wearing a nice suit or dress, just like everyone else. Be respectful of judges, attorneys, and even people who have made nasty accusations about you and your beliefs.
- Finally, be sure that you never sign any document without consulting a civil rights lawyer first. If someone presents you with a piece of paper and says you’ll only get your kids back if you sign it, call an attorney immediately. It’s better to wait a day or so to see your children than to unknowingly sign away your rights forever.
Be sure to read our interview with author Dana Eilers, who wrote the book Pagans and the Law.
Ultimately, it’s important to understand that education equals empowerment -- you can protect yourself by becoming aware of the rights in your state or area.
If you ever believe you may be set up for discrimination based on your religion, talk to an attorney -- try to find one who specializes in Pagan and Wiccan cases. Finally, make sure you’re setting the best example you can as a Pagan or Wiccan, so that when people meet you for the first time, they’ll get a good impression of people who practice nature-based faiths. You may be less likely to face discrimination if people get to know you as a person rather than just a symbol or piece of jewelry.