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News from the Asheville Citizen-Times

October 22, 1999

Sitnick ends use of proclamations

By 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."

Staff Writer Dale Neal contributed to this report.

Call Susan Dryman at 232-5953 or e-mail

October 29, 1999

Witch accuses Buncombe school system of religious persecution

By 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."

Call Barbara Blake at 232-6020 or e-mail at

October 27, 1999

Some ministers ask Sitnick to drop 'lordship' proclamation

By 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."

Call James Lewis at 232-2936 or e-mail at

October 28, 1999

Sitnick retracts earth religions proclamation

By 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.

Call James Lewis at 232-2936 or e-mail at

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.
Halloween is significant holiday for pagans.


ASHEVILLE - The final Halloween of the century finds two diametrically opposed faiths fighting ancient fears of each other that stretch over the past millennium. Pagans and Christians can't even agree on the nature of the holiday tonight. While most families celebrate by trick-or-treating and dressing up in scary costumes as innocent fun, some Christians avoid a holiday they see as satanic.

Riverside Baptist Church offered a "Kid's Alternative to Halloween" this week. "We want to get the focus off Satan and his minions and on to Jesus Christ," said Tony Sanford, Riverside's youth minister. Instead of a haunted house full of goblins and monsters, children were escorted through a series of staged scenes from the Old Testament, followed by a hayride depicting the life of Christ.

"We're not afraid of witches," said Sanford. "They should be afraid of us. Satan, the master they serve, was defeated 2,000 years ago by Christ."

Pagans counter that Satan is strictly a Christian concept, and that Christian holidays were built on ancient traditions honoring nature gods and goddesses. "Christians have been around for 2000 years. We’ve been around for 2 million years, said Ginger Strivelli, a founder of the Appalachian Pagan Alliance who lives near Weaverville.

Tonight, the growing number of witches, Wiccans, pagans, druids and those who honor nature deities will celebrate Samhain, the ancient Celtic New Year and the holiest of the eight holidays in the Wheel of the Year. Some will hold quiet family feasts reflecting over the past year, looking ahead into the future. Others have more solemn rituals dwelling on those who were tortured, burned and hanged during the Middle Ages in Europe and in North America.

"We're never going to convince some Christians that we're OK," said Kim Duckett of WHISPER(Women's Holy, Inspirational, Spiritual Performances, Events, Rituals), a local circle that follows the Goddess tradition. "I educate non-pagan people to keep them from killing my people."

The ancient animosity between Christians and pagans runs deep, according to Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School, and a scholar of religious sects in America.

He pointed to Exodus 22:18 "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live", and other scriptural prohibitions against witchcraft and occult practices. "Some of this fear gets conjured up in the Middle Ages and with the Salem witch trials," said Leonard. "They're minions of the devil in popular lore. That's what intensifies these explosions between the two groups."

Fears of satanic ritual and zealous persecution were fanned again in Asheville in the controversy over Earth-Based Religion Awareness Week.

Mayor Leni Sitnick issued a proclamation on Oct. 12 to recognize the area's growing pagan community. Some Christians immediately called upon the mayor to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ Awareness Week. On Thursday, Sitnick accepted the return of the pagan, proclamation and said she would not sign the Christian proclamation.

The Rev. Jimmy Dykes, pastor of North Asheville Baptist Church and chairman of the Community Council for Biblical Values, said he didn't believe such a proclamation would have been an endorsement of religion, but would have acknowledged the tens of thousands of people who believe Jesus is Lord in this community."

Dykes downplayed any suggestion that Christians were fearful of witches or that their Proclamation was aimed specifically at witches.

"The central teaching in the Bible is that the only way to have a relationship with God is through faith in Jesus Christ. No matter who you are, whether you’re a Wiccan, a Muslim, or an atheist, we want them and this community to know that Jesus is Lord, and He loves them."

"We absolutely can't back off of that. We don't question their right to refuse to believe. We simply proclaim the truth."

But pagans disagree. "The bottom line is there is more than one religion, and they are all valid and sacred," said Duckett.

In the heated rhetoric of some Christians, pagans hear an implicit threat and see explicit persecution. Byron Ballard, the high priestess of a local coven, said her group’s outdoor sanctuary was vandalized last weekend. A wooden cross was placed on their altar and Christian tracts were scattered around the area.

"The witch burnings could happen again," Duckett observed."The people who put witches to death were everyday people who had strong feelings.It's very serious, and it's already happening.I hear what a Jewish person would hear when people say the Holocaust couldn't happen again."

Duckett, who holds a Ph.D. in Women's Studies, practices her pagan faith as a spiritual psychology. Duckett and other pagans believe their traditions were driven underground by a zealous Christian church as tens of thousands and some believe millions were tortured, hanged and burned as heretics and witches. The majority of the victims were women.

She believes that the fears generated by witches may be grounded in their collective unconsciousness of the horrific persecutions in the Middle Ages. "Six generations of Europeans saw their mothers and sisters mur-dered. I think there's a real fear. around that memory ; it's buried deep in the unconscious," said Duckett. "The way these two tradi-tions bump against each other, you know something powerful is going on."

Despite the controversy and their fears of discrimination, more witches are coming out of the "broom closet," said Ballad as the widely diverse pagan community seeks recognition and respect. "What makes a religious group legitimate?" Ballard asked rhetorically "We have clergy, we serve those people with rites of passage and do our best to feed the hungry, clothe the naked. We celebrate hol-idays. We are raising our children. How much more legitimate is that? The only difference is we're nature worshippers."

Byron Ballard, the High Priestess of a local Wiccan coven, performs a blessing of "Drawing the Circle", using a ritual dagger during a press conference in Asheville. The dagger or "athame" is used like a magic wand for "energy work", Ballard said.

Ballard believes witches may draw fire because their members are mainly women, a view shared by the Rev. Howard Hanger, an ordained Methodist minister who pastors the non-denominational Jubilee Community. "Witches represent powerful women who scare the cultural pants off our macho society," said Hanger. "I think it was the reason they were once put to death. It's definitely an irrational fear. If the Cherokee had come in wanting a proclamation of earth-based religions, no one would have minded."

As far as the scriptural prohibitions against witchcraft, Hanger pointed out that the ancient Hebrew text proscribed death sentences for children who disobeyed their parents. "If you want to go by the law, you better watch out. A lot of it con-flicts blatantly with the way we live and believe now."

While pagans and Christians share an uneasy history of stereotypes and suspicion, Leonard sees the larger issue as religious pluralism in an increasingly multi-cultural America.

Despite the First Amendment, Leonard said, "we do know That America gives religious liberty grudgingly. In the 1600s, Puritans exiled Baptists and hanged Quakers as heretics. In the 1840s, Protestants were shooting Mor-mons in Illinois. In the 1850s, Catholics were being shot in the streets in Kentucky. In the 1960s, black churches were burned. We're always struggling with this question. With radical religious liberty, we don't have to agree with each other, but we have to tolerate them. The early Baptists said 'we'll debate anyone we don't agree with, but we won't burn them.'"

In the search for tolerance, some local leaders see grounds for a Christian-Pagan dialogue in Asheville to help dispel fears and stereotypes on either side.

"I would love to talk with them. Pagans need to know there's lots of Christian women who are completely with them," said the Rev. Carter Heyward, a feminist theologian and ordained minister in the Episcopal Church who lives in Transylvania County. "We might see it differently, but we both see something sacred in the earth."

"We need to talk about what happened in the past and take responsibility for it," said Duckett."We need to do it in a circle. I'd love to see that happen."

Call Dale Neal at (828) 232-5970 or

Local Pagans, Witches Find Special Meaning in Halloween


After centuries of stereotypes and persecution, Wiccans or witches started coming out into the open after Great Britain rescinded-laws against divination in 1951.

Wiccan covens are now given tax-exempt status as churches by the Internal Revenue Service. Wicca is also formally recognized in chaplain handbooks for the U.S. Armed Forces.

Wicca, also known as the "Craft of the Wise", Is but one tradition among earth-based religions, which include druids who follow Celtic rites from Great Britain, followers of the goddess tradition, and Asatru, worshippers of Norse deities.

Wicca itself is divided into a multitude of traditions, including Dianic, Celtic, Old Forest, Radical Faeries, Strega, Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and others using a variety of rituals focusing on many different deities. There is no central Wiccan or witch church that keeps count of membership.Most pagans practice in small circles or individually.

The Associated Press estimated the number of practicing witches at 50,000 across the United States, or more than the Quakers, who boast 32,000 members. Other scholars offer estimates in the hundreds of thousands, while Wiccans say worldwide their faith. reaches millions.

In Buncombe County, there are at least 15 different covens, circles or study groups who practice paganism, according to Byron Ballard, a Wiccan High Priestess. She conservatively estimates that there are at least 1,000 pagans across the county.

ASHEVILLE - While many witches and pagans enjoy the fun of Halloween with trick-or-treating, cos-tumes and jack-o'-lanterns, the hol-iday means much more than just candy, decorations, and parties to modern believers of the "Old Religion."

Tonight across Western North Carolina, in their homes and in their circles or covens, the growing number of witches, Wiccans, druids, goddess followers and other pagans who observe Samhain, the ancient Celtic New Year and the holiest of the eight holidays in the Wheel of the Year.

For some, Samhain conjures the ancient celebrations of bountiful harvests, a reflective time to take stock of the past year, make resolutions for the year ahead. Even though they focus on remembering dead ancestors, pagans say there is nothing morbid or ghoulish about their observance.

"We celebrate the festival as a family with a big emphasis on heritage and ancestry," said Tim Wallis-Johnson of Asheville. "There's no emphasis on dead people, ghosts or goblins. It's not a scary thing." With three young children, Tim and his wife, Sharon, enjoy trick-or-treating. On Samhain, the family will sit down to a evening meal where all of the dishes are based on family recipes. The conversation soon turns to those beloved but departed grandparents who once sat at the family meals.

That desire for family tradition led Tim to actively pursue paganism as a spiritual Path for his kids. Healthy children need to mark the seasons. They need to look back and remember the things they did with their families."

Sharon says Samhain has a homey feel for her. "I look forward to autumn in the mountains, shuffling through the leaves in the dark when we go trick-or-treating, and then to share something as intimate as death with each other. You have to trust one another to share those stories."

But for other pagans, Samhain takes on more somber overtones.

For the past six years, Kim Duckett, the priestess of WHISPER, a local Woman's Spirituality group, has offered the Memorial for the Nine Million, a ceremony honoring the innumerable victims of witch hunts in the Middle Ages and throughout Western history. Such services recalling "The Burning Times" help pagans sort through their emotions of rage and hurt and help them heal, Duckett explained.

Duckett, a follower of the goddess tradition, uses the Wheel of the Year as a "spiritual psychology." Samhain marks more than an agricultural myth, she said. "Samhain is all about death as a part of the Cycle of Life."

The priestess offered examples from litanies she's read at past Samhain rituals. "At Samhain, we honor all that has been. We honor that which is dying or has died. Acknowledging our gratitude for its existence in our life and the gift it gives us. We turn away from the outer - to draw inward, ever inward, to descend into our deepest selves - to face the mysteries of loss, letting go, separation and death."

During October, Duckett's group has been studying issues related to death, including workshops on wills, power of attorney and burial rights.

While Halloween stereotypes persist of evil witches and scary ghosts, pagans believe their faith lets them unmask and confront death directly, unlike the rest of society.

"There's a taboo about death and dying. But it's common as birth. it needs to be honored, not feared. There's no horrible place you go after you die," said Sharon Wallis-Johnson.

"There's nothing threatening about our path. Even our most solemn holiday we can talk about something like death and dying and it feels like something warm and comforting, to know that people will honor you and you are part of the cycle of life."


Concerned Christians proclaim faith, pray for Asheville


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."

Call Dale Neal at 232-5970 or e-mail


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.

For more info:Asheville Citizen-Times Newspaper Online


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?
The rare opportunity is becoming, unfortunately, more and more common. Perhaps next, time Edwards and Bowers will respond to demands that they bar someone from campus with a polite refusal and the following explanation:

"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

email him

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