October 22, 1999
Sitnick ends use of proclamationsBy Susan Dryman, STAFF WRITER
ASHEVILLE - Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick said she's so frustrated with controversy over her "Earth-Based Religions Awareness Week" proclamation last week that she'll never make another proclamation, other than the few she's already promised.
"There was no harm intended, and because of this situation, that something so innocent can turn so controversial, I'm going to stop the process and that will be it," she said Thursday.
The mayor, who issues about a dozen proclamations a month honoring a variety of people, organizations and causes, came under fire this week by a group of local ministers who said some earth-based religions may promote satanism.
The ministers asked her to take back the proclamation and instead declare that last week of October "Lordship of Jesus Christ Week." Sitnick has indicated that she will sign that proclamation and several other routine ones at next Wednesday's meeting, but she won't take the earth-based religion proclamation back, as she has been asked to do.
The director of the Anti-Defamation League's east coast office says Sitnick meant well, but shouldn't have issued the first proclamation, and declaring a "Lordship of Jesus Christ Week" could only make matters worse.
Issuing another proclamation won't fix the situation, said David C. Friedman, director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith's regional office in Washington, D.C.
"I suspect this is an example of where in an attempt to make it right, you make it less right," he said.
Protecting the freedom to practice any faith is part of what the Anti-Defamation League stands for, he said, and the proclamation was no doubt issued in that spirit, he said. B'nai B'rith is the oldest and largest international Jewish service organization. The organization league works to eliminate racial and religious oppression.
The mayor - not the entire city council - issued the proclamation saying earth religions are among the "oldest spiritual systems on the planet" and Asheville "prides itself on being a center of religious tolerance and diversity."
Good intentions or not, government's shouldn't endorse specific religions, Friedman said, and a "proclamation" is such a positive gesture that it can be viewed by some as a rubber-stamp, he said.
Citizens shouldn't be lulled into thinking a mayor's proclamation is merely a ceremonial piece of pretty paper, he said, because "nothing government does is insignificant."
"I don't think her intention was to be divisive. Quite the contrary," Friedman said of Sitnick, adding that he knows her personally, and that she has a reputation of being devoted to freedom and tolerance.
"But unfortunately, it was something that probably would have been better undone," he said. "The government should say, `We made a mistake. Let's call a town meeting and have a discussion of the ways in which our different faith groups have contributed to this city.'...Get those folks together as citizens and say, `What can we do as citizens that will emphasize our fabric of pluralism, which is what distinguishes us as a nation, and is our strength."'
Friedman said the government should not be providing that kind of formal sanction of any one religion "because where do you draw the line?"
As a result of the controversy, Wiccan High Priestess Byron Ballard said more Pagans, fearful of discrimination or persecution, are considering coming out into the open. "It's horrible thing to live your spiritual life in the closet."
The stereotypes of witches as "handmaidens of Satan" arose during the Middle Ages when witchcraft was made illegal in Europe and its followers were tortured or burned to death, she said.
Wiccans do not worship Satan, who is a part of Judeo-Christian tradition. "Pagans worship a variety of ancient tribal deities. The dominant deity for most pagans is the Great Mother, the primal creator or Goddess."
While no membership rolls are kept by any Pagan group, Ballard estimates that Earth-based religions have about 1,000 adherents around Asheville.
"Pagans are everywhere. They clean your teeth, they're giving you money at the bank, they're checking you out at the grocery store. The dominant culture is fooling itself if they think we're just a few kooks."
Call Susan Dryman at 232-5953 or e-mail SDryman@CITIZEN-TIMES.com
October 29, 1999
Witch accuses Buncombe school system of religious persecutionBy Barbara Blake, STAFF WRITER
WEAVERVILLE - A longtime parent volunteer at North Buncombe Elementary School has filed a complaint with the Buncombe County Board of Education, saying she is being prevented from helping with her 5-year-old daughter's "fall social" today (Friday) because she practices a pagan religion.
School officials denied any discrimination Thursday morning after Ginger Strivelli hand-delivered the complaint to the system's central offices, saying they stood behind North Buncombe Principal Margaret Edwards' decision to ban all parents from volunteering at the school on this last day before Halloween on Sunday.
"To me, this is nothing more than religious persecution arising from religious opposition to what I said in the interviews," Strivelli said Thursday, referring to comments she made in local newspaper and TV reports last week in support of earth-based religions.
"Though Mrs. Edwards' policy was limited to this specific event and barred all parents, it is clear that the policy was aimed at keeping me away from the class event closest to Halloween, to placate the complaints she has received," Strivelli said.
School Superintendent Bob Bowers said the central offices as well as the North Buncombe office had received calls from parents and others who wanted officials to prohibit Strivelli from participating in her three children's classroom activities - as well as calls in support of her right to freedom of expression.
"Rather than deal with that or use the school as a forum for discussion of those various beliefs, the principal and staff made a decision to not have parents in the school (today)," Bowers said. "I support that belief and think it's a good stand whenever there's an issue that's so controversial as to disrupt the school day."
Cheri Novak, who works with women's empowerment programs and is a "mainline" Presbyterian in Henderson County, said she was stunned by the school officials' decision to keep all parents out of the school today rather than confronting religious bigotry.
"You wouldn't keep out somebody who was Jewish or Muslim, and she's certainly not imposing her beliefs on anyone else," said Novak, who has been a friend of Strivelli's for several years. "She's done all this volunteering at the school, and nobody cared (about her religion) until she was in the news.
"What are we going to do next? Make sure people of other religions can't come into the schools?" Novak asked. "I hate to say it, but look what happened with the Holocaust ... and I'm not sure we've learned that lesson."
October 27, 1999
Some ministers ask Sitnick to drop 'lordship' proclamationBy James Lewis, STAFF WRITER
ASHEVILLE - A group of city ministers, including the Episcopal bishop of the WNC Diocese, have asked Mayor Leni Sitnick to back away from a "Lordship of Jesus Christ Awareness Week" proclamation she is scheduled to sign today.
In an open letter sent to Sitnick late Tuesday, five area ministers said the proposed designation was appreciated, but signing the document would mean government had overstepped the constitutional boundary separating church and state.
"We deeply believe Jesus is Lord in all arenas of life. And we believe it is the task of the church to proclaim that lordship. But it is never the duty of the government, nor any official of government, to do so," the ministers state in a half-page letter.
The request was signed by Pete Peery, pastor of First Presbyterian Church; Todd Donatelli, dean at All Souls Episcopal Cathedral; Joe Hoffman, pastor at First Congregational Church; Buddy Corbin, minister at Calvary Baptist Church; and Robert Johnson, bishop of the Episcopal Church's WNC Diocese.
Sitnick promised to sign the proclamation in response to some local Christians who criticized her decision to sign another proclamation, which recognized earth-based religions.
A First Amendment expert says the city could have a difficult time defending the proposed Christianity proclamation in court, if it ever goes there.
"Ultimately, it boils down to what the Constitution says, and what it means as I understand it is that government is not supposed to endorse any kind of religion and is not to install any kind of religion," said Lee Brown, a law professor at California State University at Long Beach. "I think some could interpret (the lordship proclamation) as that."
Each proclamation is different, Brown said.
"I expect that the first one would not be any problem," he said. "Determining who is lord and who isn't probably would."
The proclamation to be signed later today would designate the end of October as a time to "reflect the positive contributions of Christianity, both past and present in our community."
It also states that "the United States of America was founded on the principles of the Bible" and "the Bible teaches that faith in Jesus Christ as Lord is our only possible means of salvation."
Sitnick said Tuesday afternoon she had not yet received her copy of the ministers' letter and declined to comment.
"I'm worn out," she said. "I will make decisions and announcements tomorrow."
A separate group of Christians derided Sitnick after she signed a proclamation on Oct. 13 for "Earth-Based Religions Awareness Week" and advised that some earth-based religions embraced the worship of Satan - a charge local pagans deny.
Two dozen local Christians protested outside City Hall last week, asking Sitnick to rescind the earth-based proclamation and instead sign a proclamation for Christ.
Sitnick, who is Jewish, issued a written apology, expressed her support for freedom of all religions and agreed to sign the newly offered proclamation, but refused to take back the one supporting earth-based religions.
Pastor Corbin said a proclamation from city government trivializes his faith.
"The open letter reflects our views on separation of church and state, and it's important to keep in mind that wall of separation that protects us all," Corbin said. "In some ways, it trivializes the lordship of Christ, and that's one of the unintended consequences. I think that's what bothers me most about it."
Jimmy Dykes, the pastor at North Asheville Baptist Church and chairman of the Community Council for Biblical Values, said the proclamation he helped draft does not establish a state religion and only brings attention to Christianity.
"I would agree with the letter to the extent that it is not the duty of the government to proclaim the lordship of Christ," Dykes said. "However, I disagree with the letter asking the mayor not to issue the proclamation. (The Bible says) it is blessing upon the nation or the community represented by the righteous, so we believe it would be a good thing for her to issue the proclamation."
Corbin and Todd Donatelli say they have spoken with Sitnick since the controversy erupted and each assert the mayor's actions were well-intended.
"I am saddened that this declaration to support those who have been on this land much longer than the rest of us has turned into suspicion of witchcraft," Donatelli said. "I know that Jesus Christ is lord in my personal life. To proclaim to people of Jewish faith or Muslim faith that Jesus is lord is not something we need to be doing."
Dykes asserts the proclamation is about awareness, not establishment.
"Our proclamation is asking Mayor Sitnick to recognize that there are many, many, many people in this community who believe that Jesus is Lord."
As for possible legal ramifications, Brown said no rule has ever been established for breaching the wall between church and state.
"The worst thing that could happen is the judge could say, `Shame on you mayor, and you didn't think this through well enough, and don't sign any more proclamations."
October 28, 1999
Sitnick retracts earth religions proclamationBy James Lewis, STAFF WRITER
ASHEVILLE - Mayor Leni Sitnick's proclamation for earth-based religious awareness has been returned, a second proclamation declaring "Lordship of Jesus Christ Awareness Week" will not be signed, and no more proclamations will be issued until further notice, the mayor announced Wednesday.
"I am deeply saddened that a gesture of good intention to support religious tolerance and freedom has caused division in our community," a solemn Sitnick read from a prepared statement at the outset of the City Council meeting. "It is my fervent hope that, as we get on with the healing process, we will all have a greater understanding of what our founding fathers meant when they wrote the First Amendment to the Constitution."
Sitnick's decision Wednesday came after she drew ire from some local Christians for signing a proclamation Oct. 12 proclaiming this week "Earth-Based Religions Awareness Week."
A group of ministers and others protested last Tuesday, claiming that some earth religions embrace Satan worship - a charge local pagans deny.
After the situation erupted, Sitnick then promised to sign the second proclamation in response to a protest last week where some local Christians who criticized her decision.
The proclamations left Sitnick in a "messy situation," according to one local minister, with the Christian community divided over her actions.
The Rev. Jimmy Dykes, pastor of North Asheville Baptist Church and chairman of the Community Council for Biblical Values, was promised a "Lordship of Jesus Christ Awareness Week" proclamation this week by Sitnick.
Dykes said he wished Sitnick had issued the second proclamation, but the fact that she didn't will have no real impact on local Christians.
"It makes no difference in terms of what the task of the church is. We will continue to proclaim Jesus as lord over Asheville and invite people to come to know him," Dykes said.
Byron Ballard, high priestess of a witches' circle known as Notre Dame del Herbe Mouillee, said she sent the proclamation back to the mayor after studying the issue over the weekend and talking with Sitnick Tuesday.
"A lot of what we do has to do with healing, and I just kept seeing people making comments in the media that seemed to be kind of covering them(selves) but not really facing up to anything."
Ballard said she even offered to burn the proclamation on the steps of City Hall when Sitnick called Tuesday to hear how the earth-based religion week was going.
Ballard said her decision had to do "not with the rhetoric coming at the pagan community but the fact that the Christian community is infighting. It was never, never our intention. We just wanted to raise awareness that there are people in this community who have this particular spiritual path."
Dykes said controversy will always come when people proclaim Christ's lordship.
"We don't like to see division in the community but that happens when you proclaim Jesus is lord," said Dykes, who urged people in the community to "find the peace and unity that comes with knowing (Christ)."
David C. Friedman, the East Coast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, a international Jewish organization, issued a statement Wednesday "strongly commending" Sitnick, who is Jewish, for coming to a resolution on the matter.
"Mayor Sitnick has acted in the best tradition of pluralism and understanding, while respecting the boundaries of separation of church and state," Friedman stated.
A group of five ministers, including the Episcopal bishop of the WNC Diocese, asked Sitnick Tuesday to abandon the "Lordship of Jesus Christ Awareness Week" proclamation that she had planned to sign.
In an open letter sent to Sitnick, the ministers said the proposed designation was appreciated, but signing the document would mean government had overstepped the constitutional boundary separating church and state.
"We deeply believe Jesus is Lord in all arenas of life. And we believe it is the task of the church to proclaim that lordship. But it is never the duty of the government, nor any official of government, to do so," the ministers stated in a half-page letter.
One of the letter's signers, Buddy Corbin, pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, said he was pleased with the mayor's decision.
"It's good because it sets a precedent for the future," Corbin said. "I think in many ways it was good for us, although it was at the expense of a person who I think was well-meaning."
Corbin said he feels that the outcome of the controversy has been positive because "it's brought a lot of conversation in the community."
Councilman Chuck Cloninger commended Sitnick's decision to stop proclamations.
"I support the concept of a separate church and state, and while it is appropriate to recognize the diverse beliefs that we all have it is also important to avoid action that give the appearance of endorsing one religion over another," he said.
Cloninger, who along with the rest of the council played no part on the proclamation process, stressed that he was neither condoning nor endorsing either proclamation.
Sitnick said she will make no further statements on the controversy and suggested instead reflection on freedom of all religions.
"I apologize if I have offended anyone, but I support all persons rights to religious freedom and am happy to say that 99 percent of the communications I have received, whether supportive or not, were from citizens who support the liberties granted by freedom of religion," she said.
Ballard said the first proclamation has already accomplished it's only intended goal - to raise awareness that earth-based religions are practiced by more than just a handful of people in Asheville.
"I just think that if we were a little more secure of our spirituality we could all be a lot more tolerant," she said.
October 31, 1999
Division between Christians and Pagans is centuries old
Kim Duckett, priestess of WHISPER, an Asheville circle that follows the godddess tradition, ties to a branch the names of Women who were killed as witches during the Middle Ages during a memorial service held last Sunday at Unity Center in Arden.
Proclamation controversy exposes rift in community.
Concerned Christians proclaim faith, pray for AshevilleBy Dale Neal, STAFF WRITER
ASHEVILLE - Christians crowded City-County Plaza Sunday, praying for pagan souls and city leaders, while proclaiming that Old Time Religion over Earth-based religions.
"We love the Lord and we love his creation here on earth, but we can't worship the creation and not the God who created it," the Rev. Ralph Sexton told about 1,000 concerned evangelicals from area churches. "The reason we're here is not to confuse acceptance with approval."
The Biblical Values rally followed on the heels of a much smaller ceremony Friday evening by Asheville's pagan community - an increasingly visible number of people who worship ancient nature gods and goddesses predating Christianity.
U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor took issue with Mayor Leni Sitnick's proclamation for Earth Based Religions Awareness Week and the positive contributions of local pagans. "I'm certainly tolerant, but I'm here today because my life has been changed by Jesus Christ and that can't be changed."
Sitnick changed her mind last week, rescinding the pagan proclamation and declining to sign a proclamation for "Jesus is Lord Awareness Week" in Asheville.
The Christians came out on a sunny autumn afternoon, some in their Sunday best, some in their church T-shirts, a few Christian bikers in leather vests, but all ready to stand up for their faith in front of City Hall.
The Rev. Jimmy Dykes, chairman of the Community Council for Biblical Values, said Christians hadn't come to gloat with superior numbers over pagans, but with what they believe is a superior message. "Let me say to every Wiccan, pagan, atheist and unbeliever, the path you are on, you will end up broken and empty and apart from God, yet Jesus gave his life for you, Jesus rose from the dead and Jesus is coming again, according to scripture,. The only way to God is through a personal relationship with his Son."
Sexton opened the rally, pointing to Biblical warnings against witchcraft and occult practices. He mentioned the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor who saw "gods ascending out of the earth." Earth-based religions are satanic in origin since in Christian theology, Satan was cast out of heaven onto earth, said the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.
"It's been the same battle between light and dark for 6,000 years since man has been on the earth," Sexton said.
A series of pastors then took the microphone, leading prayers for Sitnick and other city leaders, for the City of Asheville, for the pagans, and for revival among the Christian churches as well. The crowd bowed their heads. Some raised their arms toward heaven. A few knelt on the grass.
Gordon Pride, a member of the Candler House of Prayer, stood behind the speakers' platform, with a Jesus is Lord flag in hand. "We're not here to threaten anyone. We are to manifest the love of God. When the light is manifested, it will expose the darkness and expose the deception."
Larry Spears, youth minister of Erwin Hills Baptist Church, brought a group of teens to the rally. "We wanted to show the city that it's not just adults who are against Satan and for Christ."
Adam Clemmons, 17, said he would pray for the salvation of witches and pagans. "We want to help lead the pagans to the Lord."
Ban violated parent's religious freedom
Buncombe County Schools sent a terribly wrong message to youngsters at North Buncombe Elementary Friday when they banned all parents from volunteering in the school on the last day before Halloween.
The decision by Principal Margaret Edwards came after some parents complained to North Buncombe and the central office that they didn't want Ginger Strivelli, who practices a pagan religion, helping in her children's classes.
Strivelli's religion became generally known as a result of recent newspaper and television stories about a proclamation signed by Mayor Leni Sitnick in honor of Earth Religions Awareness Week. The proclamation was later withdrawn.
Strivelli has been a long-time volunteer at North Buncombe in her children's classes.
"To me, this is nothing more than religious persecution arising from religious opposition to what I said in the interviews," Strivelli said. Superintendent Bob Bowers said the school banned all parents to avoid having the controversy disrupt the school day.
Avoiding disruptions is a laudable objective, but not when it can be accomplished only by violating someone's First Amendment right to practice the religion of their choice. Rather than confront religious bigotry, the school system started down a very dangerous path.
By barring all parents from fall festival, North Buncombe Elementary did a disservice to promotion of ideal of tolerance.By Andy Reed
Most of us learn from some crucial experience that we can-not escape the inevitable con-sequences of our actions. If we're fortunate, we also learn that the converse is true: that our actions will rebound upon us in ways we never imagined.
As a Boy Scout many years ago, I often found on arriving at our campsite that firewood had been left behind. Our troop was taught that we, too, must leave wood for the next campers who arrived. When, occasionally, we came to a shelter late in the afternoon and found no fuel, we began our camp time by gathering tinder and wood to cut into splits and kindling. It was hard, work, especially after a hike in these moun-tains, but it was rewarding, as worthwhile, labor invariably is.
When we broke camp, we left wood behind. For some of us, myself included, the additional labor was something of a burden. We came to, understand that some people simply won't look after anyone else, and that it was up to us to do the right thing, even if others don't, even. if we were the only ones in the world doing it. We hoped the next campers would in turn. leave wood and an example for their suc-cessors, thus gradually spreading courtesy through the entire world of hikers and campers. The lesson we learned is familiar as the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, in more ambiguous terms, what goes around comes around.
I was recently reminded of that lesson when controversy erupted over Mayor Sitnick's proclamation of awareness of earth-based religions week. The response from a small segment of the Christian community led the mayor to accept their demands for a "Jesus Is Lord" proclamation. Her agreement to do so evoked a challenge from a different group of Christian leaders urging strict separation of church and state. Ultimately, the first proclamation was rescinded, the plan for the second. was dropped, and the tempest briefly returned to its teapot, until....
Until a few angry parents pressured North Buncombe Elementary School Principal Margaret Edwards to bar a pagan mother from. her children's campus during the "fall festival," which coincides (not coincidentally) with Halloween (a.k.a. Samhain), the most solemn Wiccan festival of the year. Supported by Superintendent Bob Bowers, Edwards caved in to the parents' demands. To make her deci--sion palatable, she barred all parents from th6' schoolboy the fall festival. Bowers, supported o her decision, not to "use the school as a forum for discussion of those various beliefs."
What are schools for other than to offer a forum for discussion? More important, what will our children learn from this controversy? That bullying works? That the First Amend-ment's guarantee of freedom of religion applies only to mainstream religious groups, not to unpopular minority faiths? That religious minorities Wiccans, Buddhists, perhaps Jews or Mormons should be shunned?
What sad lessons to teach our children, particularly in a public school, one of the pillars of Jeffersonian democracy! A rare opportunity was missed to educate them, to teach them, that, under our magnificent Constitution. every person is guaranteed the freedom to pursue the faith or non-faith of his or her -choice; that, though the majority rules, minorities' rights are guaranteed to protect them from "the tyranny of the majority;" that rea-soned discussion is the appropriate method for resolving controversy; that the role of a school' is to educate.
Edwards and Bowers have set a dangerous precedent. Come Christmas (a.k.a. Yule, -another pagan holiday), what will they do if scores of Wiccans demand that Christian parents not be allowed to participate in the school's holiday festivals?
"Thank you for expressing your concern. However, it is not the policy of this school or of the board of education to consider people's religious beliefs, whether in offering employ-ment or in accepting volunteer help. Under the Constitution and school policy, no parent, teacher, volunteer, or guest speaker may proselytize at school; but the school cannot and will not prohibit a parent who observes the board's rules from volunteering or, participating in -school actvities."
Do unto others as .... What goes around ... The consequences of our actions will inevitably, rebound upon us.
Readers may write to Andy Reed at the Asheville Citizen-Times, PO Box 2090, Asheville, NC 28802 or