Witches wage war on city hall, win sweeping reform.|
By the Power Invested In Me
For five years Judith Harrow traveled to New York City's clergy registry office, only to leave frustrated and disappointed. Though an ordained minister, she could not persuade the city to register her as an official member of the clergy. Without that recognition, Harrow could not legally perform marriages, even for members of her own congregation. The registry's obstacle course seemed unconquerable.
Roman Catholic priests, Protestant clergyman of all persuasions, rabbis, and others are accommodated without delay. Judith Harrow was not. Judith Harrow is a witch.
"This case serves as an example of problems in church-state relations when government aligns itself with or against a particular religion," says Madeline Kochen, staff attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The potential for abuse when government bureaucrats are allowed to make 'content-based decisions' about religions is illustrated by this case."
Witchcraft, or the Craft of Wicce, is the worship of the Great Goddess, a deity symbolizing all life. A tribal religion akin to shamanism, witchcraft holds that there is no separation between the spiritual and the secular; the natural the holy are the same thing. Rather than following a creed, witchcraft creates "experiences" out of ceremonies and rituals. During a typical ceremony, a coven (a group of witches) gathers naked around an alter and, with daggers pointed to the sky, chants praises to the Great Goddess.
Witchcraft "is based on the old pagan faiths purged from medieval Europe by the Roman Catholic Church," said Dr. James M. Fennelly, a professor of the Religious Studies Department at Adelphi University. Because it was so long persecuted, witchcraft is a secret religion -- not really an organized religion in the traditional sense. Few votaries will speak publicly about their beliefs. Even the number of witches is in question. Experts say there may be as many as 50,000 in the metropolitan area.
Some 60 witchcraft covens in 14 states are represented by Covenant of the Goddess. The group is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a religion and has tax-exempt status. In April, 1983, Covenant of the Goddess became a legal religious corporation in New York. Witch leaders were given clergy status and allowed to perform legal weddings anywhere in the state.
At least that's what the witches were told. New York City played by a different set of rules, as Judith Harrow discovered. Once president of the Covenant of the Goddess and still witch leader of the Proteus coven in uptown Manhattan, she was certified as a minister by Covenant of the Goddess in 1980, after three years of witchcraft study.
In March of that year she went to the clergy registry and was told she must furnish proof that her religion existed, that she was a leader in witchcraft, ordained, and graduated from an accredited seminary. The documentation she provided from Covenant of the Goddess never sufficed.
After two years Harrow turned to the New York Civil Liberties Union for help. Gara LaMarche, assistant director at the time, went with Harrow to the clerk's office.
"They made all these demands for documentation, and after we gave it to them they would change their minds about what they wanted," says LaMarche, now executive director of the ACLU in Texas. Harrow was also told that she would be registered as "spiritual leader" rather than "clergyman." The legal standing of the two, she was told, was the same. But Harrow says the clerk then said that Covenant of the Goddess, because it had only 'spiritual leaders,' would be restricted to two legally registered ministers, a leader and an associate.
"I asked why my congregation was being limited to two clergy when, for example, St. Patrick's Cathedral was not. The clerk replied, 'Well, you don't think you're the same as they are, do you?' 'As a matter of fact, I do,'" said Harrow.
Registrar Gwendolyn Jones would not respond to questions submitted to her and her office. According to a spokesman for the city clerk's office, which oversees the registry, Jones has been ordered not to speak with the press about the issue.
Eventually the terms of documentation were spelled out, and the witches fulfilled them. "Mind you, neither the Constitution nor New York State's law nor even the city's own administrative code makes seminary education or its equivalent a prerequisite for clergy registration," says Harrow. But the witches were still not allowed to register as full-fledged clergy.
In the spring of 1984, after four years of dealing with Gwendolyn Jones, Harrow and LaMarche took their case to city clerk (and Jones' boss) David Dinkins. He told them he had referred the matter to the Office of the Corporation Counsel -- the city attorney. His opinion did not equivocate: The discrimination had no legal leg to stand on. Anyone who has "authority from the governing body of an ecclesiastical body of the denomination or order, if any, to which the church belongs," has the right to be registered.
But the witches didn't see that opinion. Though it was sent to Dinkins on July 20, 1984, the clerk never informed the witches or the NYCLU of the outcome. Only during research for this article last December was the opinion discovered. After confronting the clerk with the letter, Harrow was allowed to register.
Steve Pressburg, spokesman for the city clerk's office, calls it "an oversight" that the witches were never informed of the opinion. City clerk Dinkins would not comment on the controversy regarding Covenant of the Goddess.
But on January 15, 1985, Harrow beat the system; the city attorney instructed the clergy registry that it could not legally discriminate against her and her religion. Reluctantly the clerk let her sign the register.
Pressburg admitted that the witches' First Amendment rights "probably were violated." He said the clerk's concern was that allowing the witches to register as clergy and perform legal wedding ceremonies would offend mainstream religious groups.
"If you're going to lump everyone under one category, you've got to be sensitive," says Ferdinando D. Berardi, vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York. "I obviously would not see them [witches] in any sense equal or comparable to other religious groups. But I wouldn't be completely upset over allowing them register with the city."
Madeline Kochen, who oversaw the final stages of the witches' case, says it doesn't matter whether the mainstream religious groups are offended -- their sensitivities are not what the First Amendment was written to protect. "It's bad enough for the government to discriminate, but to do it in the name of mainstream religions is worse," she says.
"The Constitution does not tie someone's religious freedom to paperwork," Kochen says of the city's registration process. "The fact that they don't have the documentation of a mainstream group does not mean that you can deny them protection of religion.
"If the government does get involved with religion and adopts a viewpoint, then it's bad for society. It's divisive and can lead to a disintegration of civil liberties."
That hasn't happened yet, and it seems unlikely in traditionally liberal New York City. The story of witch Judith Harrow and Covenant of the Goddess is not a conspiracy. It does show what happens when a few government officials let personal beliefs interfere with their official duty.
The city clerk's office insists that there will be no more discrimination and that the controversy is over.
Judith Harrow is elated. "In all the time I've been an ordained minister in Covenant of the Goddess, I've performed only three marriages -- all outside New York City. The important issue here is freedom of religion. Some other forgotten people have been given their First Amendment rights.
Scott James is a graduate student at Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City.
Liberty is published bimonthly and coprighted © 1985 by the Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 55 West Oak Ridge Drive, Hagerstown, Maryland 21701.