I have been open about being a witch for over twenty years and the only instance I faced of intolerance was having old Italian women cross themselves when they saw me coming out of The Occult Shop in Toronto, Canada. I have had employers know about my faith and was even able to take personal time off for sabbats. But until now I had also always lived in large cities on the east coast.
So when I moved here to Texas, I was surprised by the horror stories I heard and the general atmosphere of fear that is prevalent among many pagans here in the south. Pagan parents were afraid of having their children taken away. "Don't drive in this county with a pagan bumper sticker." "If they find out I'm Pagan, I'll get fired." These were things I heard frequently. And the fear was contagious. I found myself wondering if I could loose my children simply because I am a public witch. I found myself starting to go back into the broom closet. When I realized what I was doing, I decided it was better to become even more public, time to learn the facts and become involved. What I found out surprised and reassured me.
In most cases involving government agencies, if a pagan has lost custody of children, there were other major factors involved. It may have been emotional abuse, neglect caused by alcoholism or drugs or very poor living conditions. Usually, there has had to have been a history of some kind consisting of at least one other complaint. It is very unlikely for a state agency to remove children from a home on the first visit.
Custody fights started by ex-spouses or relatives because of religion are more complicated. But as the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in January, 1992; "Courts have repeatedly held that custody cannot be awarded solely on the basis of the parents' religious affiliations and that to do so violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution." 1 But, if the judge is prejudice or uninformed, he may not automatically do this, so it is important to have supporting documentation supporting this ruling. Even if religion has not been raised, always discuss your religion with your attorney if you are involved in a child custody case. Your attorney may unexpectedly need to file a motion excluding religion. Many times, a lawyer will use religion as a basis if they think it might help win the case of their client.
Religious rights also appear to be supported by the courts in Texas. A San Antonio Pagan was able, without an attorney, to have a judge rule that religion could not be discussed in a custody case presented by her ex-spouse. Indeed, he even ruled that the plaintiffs could not use the word "evil." In a recent Houston case, when an over enthusiastic CPS (Child Protective Services) worker removed children from the home partially on the basis of "the mother practiced wicca as a religion," the social worker was removed from the case and none of her evidence was presented in court. Often, having a ordained pagan clergy going to speak to CPS on your behalf about paganism as a positive religion is enough to settle a CPS investigation.
But, unfortunately, there are people out there who will try to use the courts to support their religious bias. So here are some steps pagan parents can take to prevent such things from happening.
None of this should be interpreted as giving legal advice. Always consult your attorney.
Things To Do Now
- Become involved with the pagan community, even if you are a solitaire. This can help provide you with support and contacts when the going gets rough. This way you can obtain information and connections that can help your case. As mentioned above, sometimes having an ordained pagan minister or other well connected person talk with the government agency involved call resolve problems satisfactorily.
- If you have children, consider joining your local Universal Unitarian (UU) church. They recognize paganism as a legitimate path (and have a pagan specific organization called CUUPS.) They also have a wonderful comparative religions course for their Sunday School. This is one way you can say "I go to church" without compromising your religious beliefs. The UU Church is also very well equipped in dealing with religious rights issues.
- Become involved in your community, or at least become acquainted with your neighbors. People are less likely to accuse you of nasty stuff if they know you. Or if someone does lay such claims or rumors, it will have less fertile ground to grow in.
- Provide your children with some sort of religious teaching even if you believe the child should decide. The courts may tend to favor a parent who does teach some sort of religious ethic over a parent who doesn't.
- Remember that the same rights that protect you protect ex-spouses and relatives and their beliefs. So don't blow a gasket when dear old Grandma wants to take their grandchild to their church. Instead look on it as an educational opportunity for your child. This will be an opportunity to teach your child religious tolerance. Kids are very smart and will, on their own, pick up any discrepancies. After they return, sit down and discuss what they saw and heard and what they felt about it. If you let relatives take your children to their church occasionally, they are less likely to give you a hassle about your faith.
- Keep a press file of positive articles from newspapers about paganism. This can be used as evidence supporting your claim that paganism isn't about devil worship.
Things To Do If You Suspect Or Have a Problem
- Write things down. Take notes. If you can't do so during a conversation, do so as soon as you can afterwards. Note date, time and witnesses; add any information that can help your case. Include as much detail as possible. Send all letters by certified mail or Return Receipt Requested. Only send faxes if you can verify the fax was sent and received. Always copy your lawyer.
- Keep your temper! Be polite and gracious at all times.
- Get an attorney even if no legal action has happened yet. It will save you more money and headache in the long run. Make sure they are experienced in family or constitutional law.
- Write things down! (Did I say that already?)
- Answer only the question asked. Do not, for any reason, offer any extra information especially when dealing with the police or CPS. What you think may be helpful, may actually prove to be harmful. Remember: Everything you say can and will be used against you!
- Write things down! (Yes, it is that important!)
- If you expect CPS or the police are going to come visit your home, try and have a witness present. Find out NOW from an attorney what the state laws are governing illegal search and seizure. You need to find out if inviting law enforcement or social services into your home without a warrent, waives your right under illegal search. If it does, don't let any official in your home without a warrant.
- Get an attorney. Tell the lawyer everything, including your religion, any past history, etc. Be willing to follow their advise and offer to help in any way you can. By doing some of the footwork, you may save yourself some money.
- Call a religious rights organizations for help. Even if you have an attorney, call one of these organizations. They can save you time and money by providing research supporting religious rights for your attorney. This will save your attorney from having to do the work and will save you money.
- If you have to go to court or before CPS or an attorney, dress conservatively. Wash your hair. Wear NO occult jewelry. The object is to appear "normal."
- Don't create a media circus. Most judges despise that kind of thing and it can backfire. If media attention is required, let your attorney or religious rights organization that you are working with handle it, so everything is done in an organized manner.
- Don't volunteer any information. Only answer the question asked.
- Don't mention magic of any kind. (Face it, magic is vastly misunderstood. You don't have the luxury or time to educate in these circumstances.)
- Don't sign anything without the advice of an attorney. Even if signing a form means you'll get your children back immediately, it is still in your best interest to consult with an attorney. You may end up signing something which will create serious problems or headaches down the road. Remember, it is illegal for an government agency to insist on a child regularly attending a Christian church.
Remember, religious freedom is a right in this country, even if we still have to fight for it. The good news is that the courts and government agencies are starting to acknowledge that fact. There are now several religious rights organizations who can lend assistance and sometimes refer lawyers. But it is important for pagan parents to know the law, know what resources are available and how the system works. Knowledge is power.
© Jeannette K. Waldie
Original Publish Date: August 20, 1996
Note: This article was first published the the Fall Equionox 1996 issue of "The Accord," the newsletter for Council of the Magical Arts.
Website Source: http://www.ghgcorp.com (Site now defunct)
Legal Rights for Pagans and Wiccans - Can you lose your kids, your job, or your home just because you practice an earth-based faith? Believe it or not, you have the same rights as everyone else in this country. Learn about your rights as a parent, as an employee, and even as a member of the United States military.
Tips from a Pagan Police Officer - How to handle a visit from the Child Protective Services