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Unitarian Universalist witch loses Supreme Court appeal

Court rejects public prayer case without comment.
By Donald E. Skinner

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The U.S. Supreme Court rejected on October 11 an appeal concerning the separation of church and state brought by a Unitarian Universalist whose faith path is witchcraft.

Cynthia Simpson sued the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors in a suburb of Richmond, Va., in August 2002 when it declined her offer to give a generalized prayer “to the creator of the universe.”

Lawyers for the county told her that invocations before the supervisors’ meetings were “traditionally made to a divinity that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Based upon our review of Wicca, it is neo-Pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities.”

Simpson, who was a member of the UU Community Church of Glen Allen, Va., until recently, sued the county and initially won before a federal judge who said the county's policy was unconstitutional because it stated a preference for a set of religious beliefs. Simpson lost on appeal when a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the county had modified its policy.

Simpson acknowledged that the county gradually changed its policy after the lawsuit was filed. The policy became more inclusive, but still excludes witchcraft and other traditions, she said.

Her case was appealed to the Supreme Court where Simpson’s American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, Rebecca Glenberg, told the court that the county issues invitations to deliver prayers to all Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious leaders in the county, but refuses to invite Native Americans, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Wiccans.

Simpson said she filed suit in December 2002 when the supervisors refused to speak to her and when they expressed disrespect in the news media about her faith. “I felt I was left with no other options,” she said.

There were some positive outcomes from the case, however. She said local Hindu, Buddhist, and Native American groups filed a friend of the court brief on her behalf. And community reaction was generally positive. “I was surprised by that,” she said. “We raised the level of awareness of Unitarian Universalism and of witchcraft.”

Simpson is a practitioner of the Reclaiming tradition within Wicca. Wicca is based on respect for the earth and the cycle of the seasons.

Many Unitarian Universalist congregations include members who embrace Wicca as well as other earth-based traditions and who consider themselves witches, Pagans, or neo-Pagans. In 1995, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations—an association of approximately 1,000 congregations with roots in two liberal Protestant denominations—formally acknowledged one of Unitarian Universalism’s religious sources in “spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

Simpson moved from the Richmond area this summer and began attending Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pa., to study for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. She is currently a member of the UU Church of Lancaster, Pa.

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