ASHEVILLE - Some 25 people gathered outside of City Hall on Tuesday afternoon to ask Mayor Leni Sitnick to revoke a proclamation they thought encouraged recognition of witchcraft.
Last week, the mayor issued a Proclamation of Awareness of Earth Based Religions. Ministers and residents said they felt the proclamation opened the door for witchcraft, the occult and satanism.
"We just wanted to counter that (proclamation) by making a positive statement that we believe Jesus is Lord," said West Asheville Baptist Church Pastor Ken Lewis, who attended the rally. "We wanted to let the community know, but also let (the mayor) know that that's not the heartbeat (of the city and county), that what was said and done (with the proclamation) was negative, not positive."
Rev. Jim Dykes, chairman of the Community Council for Biblical Values, served as spokesman for the group. Dykes asked Sitnick to take back her proclamation and replace it by declaring a week "Lordship of Jesus Christ Week."
Lewis said the group is planning to hold a community service at City-County Plaza at 3 p.m. on Halloween in response to the proclamation.
The mayor responded with a written response.
"I don't tell anyone how to believe, but I support everyone's right to freedom of religion," she stated. "I apologize if I have offended anyone, but I support all persons rights to religious freedom."
The statement did not say if the mayor would agree to the Christian proclamation.
"It is not for anyone to tell another how to worship their creator," the mayor wrote. "Being `aware' of different religions, of all religions, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Native American or any other, should not be feared."
The ministers' gathering came days after a witch read a book to Dickson Elementary School students. In addition to asking for the proclamation the residents plan ask the Asheville City and Buncombe County school systems permission to go into the schools and share a "historical account" of the Christmas story.
"We believe by the witch going into the one school that opens the door,"Dykes said.
Byron Ballard, a Dianic High Priestess, brought an educational program on the Celtic origins of Halloween to Isaac Dickson Elementary School last week as she has done each October for the last four years. She tried to dispel stereotypes of witches as evil, warted hags riding brooms. Ballard carved a turnip into a jack o'lantern just as the Irish did, and at the end of the program, identified herself as a practicing witch.
Under North Carolina law, public schools may have programs about religious holidays, including particular beliefs. Schools may not, however, observe holidays as religious observances.
Ballard said she doesn't talk about specific rituals or beliefs, and like all Wiccans, she does not proselytize or seek converts to paganism.
"If Christians want to come into the schools and tell how they celebrate Christmas or make Advent wreaths, they're welcome to do that," she said. "But you can't tell them Jesus is their savior."
Minister Albert Bishop, who attends Riverside Baptist Church, said he was concerned about how students might react to seeing a witch. He said they could get curious about witchcraft and experiment with it.
"If they see these things happening, they may see it as exciting, and that may send them to hell," Bishop said.
Ginger Strivelli of the Appalachian Pagan Alliance reads Halloween stories at North Buncombe Elementary School where her children attend classes. Like other mothers, she passes out treats and helps throw a fall party for kids in kindergarten and first grades.
"It wasn't preachy," Strivelli said. "It's certainly inappropriate for any religion to go in to the schools and be preachy."
Strivelli said teachers have handled the diversity of beliefs in a classroom diplomatically, often sending home questionaires asking how families celebrate their traditions. When Strivelli answered truthfully, the class artwork that year included winter solstice, the pagan holiday of Yule, as well as Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
"There's a whole lot more Christian indoctrination going on in the schools," said Strivelli, who said she's more offended when her children are required in schools to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase "under God."
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