Origins

United for Liberty: A Special Report

A Special Report
By Selena Fox
Originally published in CIRCLE Magazine (then known as Circle Network News)
Winter, 1985, page 14.

Thursday, September 26, 1985, USA. Hurricane Gloria was raging in the Atlantic, battering the shores of North Carolina with water and wind, and moving rapidly up the coast.

In Washington, DC, it was pouring rain. Hurricane warnings were out. On Capitol Hill, the US Senate was working on the Postal Appropriations Bill (HR 3036) for 1986. A different kind of storm was brewing for Wiccans. Jesse Helms, a senator from the same state being hit by Gloria, put forth an amendment to the bill:

No funds appropriated under this act shall be used to grant, maintain, or allow tax exemption to any cult, organization, or other group that has a purpose or that has any interest in the promoting of satanism or witchcraft: provided that for the purposes of this section, "satanism" is defined as the worship of Satan or the powers of evil and "witchcraft" is defined as the use of powers derived from evil spirits, the use of sorcery, or the use of supernatural powers with malicious intent.

At first, this amendment was laid aside in order for the Senate to discuss scheduling considerations due to hurricane Gloria. But a short while later, Helms again asked the Senate to attach the amendment to the bill, and without debate, all Senators present passed the measure with a voice vote. Amendment 705 was well on its way to becoming law.

While, to the general public, the amendment might appear to be directed only at magical practitioners who harmed others, it is clear to anyone who reads the accounts of the senate proceedings published in that day's Congressional Record that it was really an attack on Wiccan groups. Helms quoted from a letter he had received from Treasury Secretary James Baker III as proof that Witchcraft was considered a religion by the IRS: "Under the (IRS) standards, several organizations have been recognized as tax exempt that espouse a system of beliefs, rituals, and practices, derived in part from pre-Christian Celtic and Welsh traditions, which they label as "witchcraft." While he did present this letter for inclusion in the Congressional Record, Helms did not quote the rest of the letter which said the IRS already had sufficient safeguards to prevent dangerous and unlawful groups from having exempt status, and that the IRS found no evidence that any of the Craft groups granted status were engaged in any illegal activity. Instead, Helms mistakenly claimed the contrary, saying: "we allow tax exempt status for bona fide religious organizations because we believe they help promote the common good ... witchcraft groups do not; in fact they lead to violent and unlawful behavior."

The News Spreads

News of the Unanimous endorsement of the 705 by the Senate was noted in some media reports that day. Pagans who heard these reports started spreading the word throughout the nation. Within hours after the amendment passed, calls started pouring into Circle Sanctuary and many other Wiccan centers. News quickly reached Dennis and me along with all the other Pagans who had gathered in Los Angeles for the Harvest Moon Celebration. It even reached deep into the wilderness of northern Georgia where Jim and other magickal people were taking part in the Spiral Gathering.

As the news spread, so did the questions about what, if anything, could and should be done about the legislation. Because the amendment's definition of Witchcraft was inaccurate, would it really affect Wiccan and other benevolent magickal religions? Would this definition legally prohibit using the word to describe beneficial spiritual paths? Would protesting this amendment actually increase the public's incorrect association of Witchcraft with Satanism? Would those who publicly spoke out be risking attack by fanatics bent on suppressing religions different from their own? Was it even possible to get rid of the amendment since it was so close to becoming law?

After taking a good look at factors surrounding the amendment, it became clear to us and many other Wiccans that we had to challenge the U.S. Senate's decision; it was a threat not only to us and other Wiccans, but to the religious freedom upon which the USA was founded. Denial of tax exempt status not only would mean that Wiccan circles would not be entitled to the same rights as other churches, but it also means that the Congress was taking power to legislate what religious were acceptable and what were not. This step could be used to against not only other non-Christian spiritual groups, but against any religious group, including the fundamentalists themselves, depending on the religious leanings of whatever the elected officials happened to be in power. The amendment was un-American and dangerous.

ACLU Begins Action

One of the first things I and several other Pagans did after hearing about the amendment was to call the American Civil Liberties Union, a national organization of attorneys and other citizens that have done much over the years to uphold all aspects of the constitutional rights in this country.

When I talked to Barry Lynn, the ACLU's legislative attorney, I was glad to hear that the ACLU had already started taking action. He had begun talking with contacts on Capitol Hill about religious freedom implications of the amendment. I was disturbed to learn that he was getting little support for fighting it on this basis. It seemed the legislators felt it could be politically damaging for them to come to the defense of Witchcraft and Satanism; how would their constituents react if opponents made an issue of this in campaigns for the next election? Also, since Helms was a powerful senator, some were reluctant to tangle with him and any legislation he proposed.

Barry also told me that the media hadn't been much help so far. While a few reporters had picked up on his press releases and mentioned that the amendment was an attack on religious freedom, most media reporters did not treat the amendment seriously, if they even mentioned it at all.

Even though the situation did not look good at this point in early October, could anything be done to get rid of the amendment? It would be best to eliminate the amendment before it became law rather than to fight it in the courts because of the time and expense involved and the precedent it would set. The bill to which the amendment was attached was soon to be considered by a joint conference committee comprised of 11 Congressmen and 6 Senators. They would put together the final version of the bill, which would then go through a routine approval of both House and Senate and be signed into law by the President.

While there was little time left, there was still some hope yet for eliminating the amendment if there was a great outpouring of protest by the citizenry to legislators on Capitol Hill, especially to committee members. I told Barry I would get the word out through Circle Network, and we agreed to keep each other posted about efforts against the amendment.

Pagan Calls to Action

After making some more phone calls to Pagans on Circle Network with Capitol Hill connections, I compiled a flyer urging action and we started mailing out copies of this Pagan Action Alert by first class mail to as many people as we could on Circle Network.

Other Pagans also were putting together their own flyers calling for amendment protest and circulating them to those they knew. These flyers along with our own got reproduced by others and distributed to even more people. Flyers were posted on bulletin boards and handed out to a variety of places across the nation: food co-ops, feminist bookstores, magick shops, metaphysical centers, universities, New Age conferences, Pagan festivals, renaissance fairs, and in Christian churches friendly to the Craft.

The call to action also went out via telephone trees, over several Pagan computer bulletin boards, and at special meetings.

The Protest Grows

The call to action was being spread by many people in many ways, and many people responded to this call. Thousands of letters and phone calls protesting the amendment started pouring into the offices on Capitol Hill.

We heard that the office of Congressman Roybald, who chaired the committee considering the bill and amendment, was receiving more than 200 phone calls a day. Some offices of legislators got so many calls and letters, that they had to appoint staff to handle them.

Magick Circles

Magick to defeat the amendment and to preserve religious freedom was also being worked throughout the nation. Solo practitioners and groups of many traditions of the Craft and other paths of Paganism, did ceremonies and meditations throughout the whole month of October, particularly at Dark Moon and at Full Moon, which also was the festival of Samhain for some. Never before had the Neo-Pagan Movement in this country united in such a grand magickal working.

Other religious groups, including Buddhists, Hindus, and Christian Spiritualists, also came to our aid with prayer services.

The Tide Turns

For more than two weeks, every single communication to Capitol Hill was against the amendment. When some fundamentalists started calling to support the amendment in mid month, this served to make the amendment even more controversial and demonstrated that one religious group was indeed trying to oppress another.

Before amendment 705, most legislators had never even heard of the Wiccan religion. The letters and phone calls that poured in changed this.

Capitol Hill was abuzz with amazement, not only at the amount of protest about the amendment, but at the diversity of those speaking out. People from every state, from cities and rural areas, and from every walk of life, including the US military, came out against the amendment.

So much protest was brewing about the amendment that the media stated giving the controversy coverage, and even more people started protesting it.

In addition to Wiccans and other Pagans, people from many religions stated their opposition to 705, and through the efforts of the ACLU and others, a variety of mainstream religious groups, including the United Church of Christ and some Jewish organizations came out against the amendment.

In fact, even one of the powerful fundamentalist political machines that had originally been behind the amendment reversed its position and started opposing it, when they realized it could harm them, too, in the long run.

By the time the committee met on October 30th to consider the bill and its amendments, every member was very aware of the religious freedom problems with 705. When the meeting began, not one Congressman or Senator would speak in behalf of the amendment, including the Senators who had originally voted for it.

Amendment 705 died that day in committee. The official reason was that the amendment was under the domain of the House Ways and Means committee and, therefore, was not legislatively appropriate to the bill. Yet, it is clear to anyone who followed the life and death of 705, that other factors were involved. With in one Moon's time, political sentiment about the amendment had completely turned around!

The death of the amendment was a great Halloween treat for Wiccans across the land. But, as many of us gazed in the future in our Samhain rituals, we got the message that this is not the end of this story; that we must stay united for liberty and be prepared to act again whenever our rights are attacked.