Last week, I interviewed Byron Ballard about her experiences with local officials in Buncome County who use their positions to privilege Christians. This week, I talked to Literata about her experiences with court officials in Arlington, Virginia.
Q: Please tell us about your experience.
A: I had difficulty getting the state to recognize me as clergy in order to perform marriages. Virginia is unusual in requiring marriage officiants to register with the state first, and has tried to clamp down on unqualified officiants, especially people who are “ordained” through online resources such as the Universal Life Church. The laws are somewhat vague about the exact qualifications, so how applications are handled can vary widely in different jurisdictions. My jurisdiction did not want to recognize me and wouldn’t say why, but the problem arose when I told them that my religious organization didn’t have a physical location, such as a church building. I went to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and they were willing to help me. I can’t say enough good things about AU! After an exchange of letters with AU the county officials allowed me to register as a wedding officiant.
Q: Did you reach out to groups such as ACLU or Americans United and, if so, what was your interaction with them? Do you have suggestions for those who seek the assistance of such groups?
A: I contacted both AU and the ACLU, and AU helped me. AU is much more involved in local issues, and I would strongly encourage anyone with concerns to go to AU. I also urge Pagans to consider supporting AU’s work, whether it’s financially or spreading the word, because AU is responsive to us and to our needs. In a situation like this, you need expert advice, and you need to listen to it. That’s incredibly frustrating, but it’s the truth.
Q: Did you work any magic around the issue and, if so, and if you are willing, please describe.
A: I worked magic in a number of different ways. I grounded into my landbase over and over again, since this was a very local issue, and I called on all the Elements to support me in their particular ways, especially for strength and patience. I called on Columbia, and on Justice, many many times. Before I went in to the courthouse to apply again, I called on these Powers and infused my paperwork with magic of clarity and persuasiveness, as well as the rightness of my claim, and grounded myself with calm.
Q: Did you publicize your issue on social media? Why or why not? Was it helpful? Do you have suggestions for others in similar situations about when/how to use social media?
A: I did, and it gave me what I would refer to as the magic of community support. The personal comments of support helped me greatly. A number of Pagan groups, both regional and national, sent official letters of support. Those helped, especially because showing that I had roots in the community and was not just out there on my own mattered in a legal sense.
On the other hand, anyone in a situation like this needs to be aware that there will also be plenty of people who disagree with you, think you should be handling it differently, or whatever. There will be people who haven’t even read your story who will tell you to do what you’ve already done, or why you should do something that you’ve said is impossible, and oh sweet goddess of Justice there will be instant legal experts who will spew enough manure to keep your garden blooming for a year. If you can take the good and listen to the constructive criticism and leave the deconstructive criticism, then opening yourself up on social media or online can help. If you have trouble with any of that, then consider limiting the ways you are going to engage with the general public. Again, you need expert advice, and you need to consider all wisdom offered, but you are also going to have to discard some things and disagree with some people.
Along the lines of the letters of support, I also had people write individual letters expressing their outrage and naive legal opinions to the Clerk of Court on my behalf, and people talking about a larger letter-writing campaign. That was not helpful; it might have been a strategy to try later on, but the community needs to listen to the people in the situation (and the advice of the experts they’re listening to) to coordinate efforts most successfully. As a supporter, be willing to get on a list to get updates about more action in the future, for example.
Q: Can you share one “Don’t do this” tip and one “Be sure to do this” tip?
A: Do: As I’ve said above, get expert advice and listen to it. I can just about guarantee that it’s going to involve long delays, exchanges of letters, and tremendous frustration. You can’t do this alone; but you need to be strategic about how you mobilize and use expert advice and others’ support.
Don’t: Take any action you might regret later. You are going to be under scrutiny. It’s not fair, it’s not nice, and it’s infuriating, but it’s the reality, and you’ll do more good by recognizing that and making choices that will serve as a means to get you to the end you want most. Before you do anything, think about how it will look when the other side presents it. You may justifiably be angry enough to start yelling about your rights and the Constitution, but if you’re escorted out of the courthouse under guard, that’s going to hurt your situation overall. Don’t get carried away with the rightness of your cause. Be civil, even to people who insult you or denigrate your religion. Play the game, because the greatest satisfaction is playing the game successfully, because then we can start to level out the playing board for others like us.
If I may reiterate a third point: For supporters, you need to let the person in the situation take the lead on deciding on courses of action. I don’t care if you think a change.org petition will solve this, or if you feel divinely moved to write your own letters, or whatever. Don’t take independent action without consulting the person in the situation, who presumably is listening to expert advice. Do stay engaged, prepare for the long haul of months and years, and be ready to do what’s needed when asked.