Virginia refuses to recognize me as clergy

The Arlington County Court refused to grant me the right to perform marriages in Virginia, apparently on  the grounds that my “congregation” does not own a building.

I presented my certificate of ordination and documentation of the 501c3 status of the Order of the White Moon, which ordained me. Since my Order is incorporated in California, the secretary asked me if I had a congregation in Virginia; I said yes. She asked me to list the address of the congregation, and I said that we don’t have a building. She asked, “So, what, you just meet in each other’s homes?” I said yes, we meet in each other’s homes, or out of doors (Wicca is, after all, an earth-based religion, but I thought that mentioning that would only be prejudicial to my situation).

She left and came back with the Clerk of Court, Paul Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson said that they were not going to approve me. I asked if it was because we don’t have a building. He said, “Yes, you don’t have a building, and there were a few other things.” I asked him if he would give me a written list of the reasons I was being denied. He refused; he offered to show me the relevant section (Sec 20-23) of the Virginia Code. I assured him that I had read the Code, and asked again if he would give me more specific reasons I was being denied. He said that approving these applications was at his “discretion” and that he didn’t “feel” I met the qualifications, but he wouldn’t tell me how. He told me that I could apply to another court in another county but that he thought they would probably give me the same answer.

Has property ownership now become the measure of what constitutes a “real” religion in Virginia, or at least in Arlington County? Or is this another example of anti-Pagan discrimination at work?

Patchwork enforcement and a history of discrimination

Virginia is one of the few states in the US that requires clergy members to register with a circuit court in order to be able to perform valid marriages. The requirements in Sec 20-23 of the Code state that the minister must present proof of ordination and “of his being in regular communion” with the organization that ordained him.

These requirements are apparently interpreted in widely varying ways across various circuits in Virginia, as different courts’ websites list different types of documentation – or none – that may be required. For courts that openly state they require more than just proof of ordination, the way they ask for information gives tremendous privilege to traditionally-organized, i.e., Christian, groups. And if granting these applications really is up to the “discretion” of the Clerk of Court, there is wide scope for potential discrimination against minority religions with or without the fig leaf of requiring a “location” and other organizational trappings potentially beyond the reach of minority religious organizations.

This problem goes back more than a decade; in 1999, the ACLU helped another Wiccan priestess get her application in this situation approved.

I think it’s not unreasonable that I am concerned about what kind of documentation will satisfy the court. I serve multiple groups, one of which meets in a designated location, but since it is an open circle, the people who attend are mostly not members of my ordaining organization. If I provide documentation of this group meeting in a specific location, will the court then ask how many people attend, and how often we meet? What will they require to conclude that I am “really” a High Priestess in a “real” religion?

Why this matters

This is about more than performing weddings. This decision has a chilling effect on me trying to function as clergy in other ways; if the Court will not recognize me as legitimate clergy in this situation, will my right to confidentiality be protected? How can I assure people who come to me for counseling that their communications with me are protected by clergy privilege?

And since this is one of the two major forms of government approval used by a wide range of institutions and organizations to determine whether someone is a “real” clergy member, it can impact my ability to reach out to those who have particular needs: people in hospitals, the military, and prisons all need clergy services, but those institutions are much more likely to deny me the ability to minister to the people involved if I can’t say that I’m approved by the State of Virginia to perform marriages.

And although I might have my application granted if I tried another court, that does nothing to resolve the doubt cast on my status by the court with jurisdiction over where I live and do most of my ministry. If another court approved me, it would only serve to highlight the irregular and potentially biased variations in granting recognition across jurisdictions.

What you can do

I currently plan to gather additional supporting documentation and reapply, and if I am denied again, to ask whether I can appeal to a judge of the court. I am also currently seeking advice from the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the Lady Liberty League. Here’s what you can do to help:

First, get the word out. The more Pagans pull together, the better our chances of being recognized as “legitimate” in these kinds of situations.

If you are a Pagan clergyperson in Virginia and you have applied to perform marriages, please write to me at literatahurley@gmail.com. If you were approved, I’d like to know when you were approved, in what court, with what paperwork, and what questions they asked, both written and verbal. People who have been declined, please tell me that too. The more information I have for comparison the better.

I would also like to be able to present letters of support from other Pagan clergy and potentially from Pagan organizations that ordain people, especially ones that ordain people all over the country. If you’re interested, please contact me. And if you have other ideas about how to help, please  speak up!

People who aren’t in Virginia, please provide spiritual and magical support. Pray and send energy that I am able to gather the evidence I need and make a convincing argument, that the court will grant my new application swiftly, and that I may stay positive and be patient throughout this whole process.

I sincerely hope that together we can ensure this is the last time a Pagan in Virginia has her credentials questioned and her status as clergy denied.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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39 Responses to Virginia refuses to recognize me as clergy

  1. mmy0 says:

    In addition to providing as much support as possible to Literata we should all check how “non traditional” religions/churches/officiants are treated in our own communities. My suspicion is that Pagans/Wicca are discriminated against in many other jurisdictions as well as Virginia.

    • The Wiccan church (Church of the Iron Oak, an Aquarian Tabernacle Church affiliate) in the town I grew up in almost got shut down under a city ordinance that prohibited groups of more than 5 people from praying together in a private home, despite the fact that many smaller Christian churches there met or held prayer groups in private homes and were never bothered about it.

      That was in the mid-90s. They did win their case, as it was clear-cut religious discrimination, but I knew some church members, and the actual court case got pretty nasty.

      • Literata says:

        Ouch. Yeah, I think I’ve seen some of the news stories about that.

      • Seriously, one of their members was an SCA blacksmith and had a small forge to tinker with. I remember with great clarity a friend who was a church member telling me about the lawyer for the other side (I don’t remember if he was a prosecutor or a counsel for the plaintiff or what) asking the smith, “Don’t you have a forge to birth great swords?” And the smith said, “Er, no. Letter openers, maybe.” This was one of the lighter moments from my friend’s point of view.

        Of course, there were also accusations of animal sacrifice, etc. The usual thing.

        • Literata says:

          Moments of levity like that can save one’s sanity.

          In my own case, I seriously wonder what the court system thinks they’re trying to prevent here. I mean, are they worried about me going on a wild wedding spree and marrying people while recklessly celebrating the fact that people love each other?

  2. Literata, may I write to our congressman on your behalf? If so, would you mind if I let other Wiccans in our community know that you have given this permission so they can write as well? Thank you for seeing the big picture in this, and for being brave enough to take a stand.

    • Literata says:

      I would like to take just a few more steps first before starting to write letters, in part so that if we start to write letters we can direct them to the person or persons who can do the most good and provide them with specific suggestions about what we need.

  3. I and our HP are ordained and recognized as clergy in Louisiana. We can do all things that all other Clergy can..but we were willing to take them to court if denied.

    One thing you can do to gain congregation is that every time you have an open circle..make it a membership. Have people sign with name and address. There is a group with a Camp ground not far from me, that holds events…they became a Church, as we did… and everyone that attends an event becomes a member.

    We became a legal entity by having a tradition that can be taught and passed on, a constitution and by laws…we sent the info to the Secretary of state and send a yearly amount of 5.00 to stay in good grace of the state.

    We have a Church Council, they voted to make us clergy. We are church created clergy…we took our ordination certificates to the Parish Seat where they have a copy in the files.

    Find out what the laws are in your area and work with them, and don’t be afraid to stand up..they can not treat one group different from others. We did it and others here in the deep Bible south did, so find out what the laws are.
    We do have a building, it was a shed that we made into a class room/meeting house. It was expensive but we did it with donations, recycling and allot of in service days. If you have to put down your home address, do it. Many churches meet in each others homes…

    Blessings and Gods be with you…
    Lady K,
    Wisteria Temple,
    Springfield, La.

  4. try Lady Liberty League

  5. Alabama has more sensible laws about this (pick your jaw up). I think clergy registration needs to go away nationally. What was required in Alabama was to register the “religious society” with Probate; in the form of a document identifying the society, signed by three trustees. For that matter, Alabama recognizes the ULC, because at some point in the past, they understood that the State should have no opinion for or against it. Or maybe they just wanted to keep the marriage rates up :-)

    I would think any group that went through all the nonsense required for 501c3 status would be beyond question, but that’s apparently not true in Virginia (or upstate NY).

  6. Matthew says:

    Just to clarify, is this in Arlington County, Virginia?

    I intend to write them in protest, and a few other places. I am curious whether they would deny Christian clergy whose congregations meet in homes rather than owning a building…

    This whole thing smacks of religious discrimination, which doesn’t sit right with me.

    • Literata says:

      Yes, it’s the Arlington County Circuit Court. I’m definitely going to look into whether they recognize other religious groups that don’t have traditional property locations.

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  8. When I applied for clergy status in Alexandria, I presented my certificate of ordination and a letter of good standing with the group that ordained me, which was based in Alexandria. They asked me where the group was and I gave the address of the High Priestess. This was done verbally. The address was within the jurisdiction of the court house where I applied. Once they realized that, they essentially shrugged and proceeded to ask me for my money and gave me my certification. It wasn’t presented as “we needed a building” and they did not ask me anything further about the group or denomination. You may be facing a case of territorial issues as much as, if not more than, religious issues.

    • Literata says:

      I’m not assuming that it’s a religious issue, but I am wondering. They clearly didn’t want a home address, although that might be another thing that varies from county to county – but the unpredictability and different requirements in different jurisdictions seem to me to be something that’s wrong, even if it’s not religious discrimination.

  9. May I suggest you check with Circle Sanctuary,they were the ones that took on the VA and won the right for soldiers to get VA provided grave stones for their graves. http://www.circlesanctuary.org/network/

    Another group that you might check with is AREN, Alternate Religions Educational Network. http://aren.org/

    Now those are the Pagan groups. But consider also Americans United for Separation of Church and State. http://www.au.org/ They like the ACLU have sometimes gone to bat for Pagan rights.

  10. Wow, this is crap… Even down here in Evangelicraptastical Louisiana, a pagan minister can register at the CoC office with out having to have a physical location of their “church”. My hubby and I were handfasted in December, and the minister we found lived in Baton Rouge in another parish. All he had to do was go to the court house here and register as a JP in this Parish to perform the service legally.

  11. Laurel Hess says:

    Here in Oregon and Washington you do not have to register with the state. Lyceum of Trees does ordain but it is after a supervised period of study. Sending strength and blessings your way.
    Rev. Laurel Hess
    Lyceum of Trees

  12. I am reasonably certain that Covenant of the Goddess has ordained members in Virginia and suggest you also contact them via pio @ cog dot org.

  13. Makarios says:

    Not much that I can do from up here in the True North Strong and Free, but I’ll do what I can to spread the word at least. And, of course, you have my moral support, FWIW.

    I believe that some of the commenters at Slacktiverse suggested that you enlist allies amongst the “mainline” religions. I seem to recall that this approach was very effective in the Pentacle Quest, and it may be worth considering.

    Blessings,
    Mak

  14. Not only am I registered as an officiant in Prince William County (which interestingly enough allows me to perform weddings anywhere in VA), I have also managed to get registered as an officiant in DC. I currently live in MD and even did so when I was ordained & registered. MD is a lot looser on officiants – they’ve got the same type of law as NY State. I suggest you also look into enlisting any local Quakers into your fight. I will send you an e-mail.

  15. nomad95 says:

    As a person of Christian background, I apologize. I am so often appalled by the behavior of a group that claims to follow the teachings of Christ – specifically “Do unto others as you would have them do into you” – that I an ashamed to be limited into that group. In fact, it is probably the single biggest reason I have fallen away from the church in recent years and instead try to take a more spiritual approach.

    I just wanted you to know that we aren’t all like that, and you have my support (for what it’s worth).

  16. I’m a member of ADF (http://adf.org) and we have two groves in Virginia. I don’t know the Senior Druids there or if they have ADF Clergy status, but I can follow up with them (and National) to see if they’ve run into issues getting credentials. Don’t feel you’re alone in this!

  17. Mark Bailey says:

    Hello, I’m an ADF member also and am ordained through the ULC.
    Every state is different and some can get very complicated.

    Approach this system not as a religious person but as a lawyer.
    Use the appropriate Statutes as you are talking to them to let them know you know what you are doing. Also use the correct verbiage “I am an ordained minister appointed by my denomination, and I would like to complete my state requirements in accordance with Title 20:23 of the Virginia Domestic Law”.

    If asked about a building where you are meeting, tell them that you do meet but that you are still putting aside money for a permanent building and that you meet where you can for now.

    Here are the Virginia Statutes on Domestic Law
    You are running into an issue with the Courts definition of Title 20:23
    In summation; “…proof of his ordination and of his being in regular communion with the religious society of which he is a reputed member, or proof that he holds a local minister’s license and is serving as a regularly appointed pastor in his denomination …”

    Unless you can prove this you may also be told to pay a $500 bond (Title 20:25)

    The below reference is a great one for more than just Virginia, so I suggest everyone take a look at it. I had to go through this in several states over the course of th last decade, they are not ‘against Pagans’… they are required by Federal and State regulations to monitor this in accordance with Tax laws as one example…

    References;
    For Virginia;
    http://law.onecle.com/virginia/domestic-relations/20-23.html
    http://law.onecle.com/virginia/domestic-relations/20-25.html

    • Literata says:

      I assure you I used the appropriate language, am aware of the section of the code, and so on. I don’t know whether or to what degree this was “anti-Pagan.” I am trying to charitably assume that it was not. But the requirement for a building is at the very least functionally discriminatory against minority religious groups and has nothing demonstrable to do with tax law or any clear government interest that I can discern – and as is shown by the way other parts of VA don’t require that.

  18. Literata,
    Do you know that Wicca is recognized as a belief system by the U.S. Armed Forces? The State of Virginia cannot supersede Federal Law, though I’m not certain what legislation establishes such guidelines for the military without researching it. I do know that the Constitutional 2nd Ammendment (?)(it’s early and I need more coffee) say the government cannot do things to inhibit religious freedom. Perhaps it’s time to enlist an ACLU attorney. May you beat them on this issue. BB

    • Literata says:

      I do know that, Patrick, because my husband is an active duty officer and I often work with military Pagans and Wiccans. Because of the First Amendment, that recognition by the military doesn’t establish law; there’s no way for the government as a whole to rule what is and isn’t a religion. But precedents like that are certainly something I’m going to bring in to bolster my position. Thanks for your support!

  19. Linda Kerr says:

    I’m the founder of Church of the Spiral Tree, an (Alabama) incorporated tax-exempt Pagan church. We ordain clergy all over the U.S., but I don’t recall ordaining anyone in Virgina. Please let me know if our church can be of any assistance. http://Www.spiraltree.org.

  20. Terry says:

    Literata, I know you call for Pagans to work together on this, but I hope you’ll accept support from this Roman Catholic. Here is my Franciscan-inspired response to your situation:

    http://secretblognumber2.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/in-virginia-jesus-might-have-a-hard-time-getting-clergy-status/

    Hopefully a few of my friends and readers will take the time to read and share it.

    Semper Fi,
    Terry

  21. Hi Literata,
    I’m sad to hear what has happened to you — I have some information that might be of interest.
    This situation may not be exactly what it seems.

    Far be it from me to defend the judicial/legal stupidity that abounds here in Virginia, but I recently had a conversation with a city councilman from Alexandria, and it turns out there is a non-religious background to this situation (not that it makes it okay, mind you…). He intimated the problem is prevalent in both Alexandria and Arlington.

    There seems to be a problem with “pastors” from outside of Northern Virginia (DC and Maryland particularly) that abuse their 501c3 status in order to flip real estate tax-free. They buy a blighted property in a re-developing neighborhood, have one “field trip” sort of worship service there with their actual congregation driving down for the occasion, and then proceed to flip the property without paying the usual taxes. Instead of making any actual improvements to existing structures, they often just sit on the property until it’s valuable as-is, and *then* sell it. This results in blighted properties remaining untouchable for rejuvenation until long after the rest of the neighborhood has been greened, stymieing these cities’ urban renewal plans. The city governments are trying to crack down on this behavior, and unfortunately, it seems you’ve been caught in the middle.

    It’s certainly not okay, I’m assuredly making no excuses for them — but hopefully this background information will be of use at some point.

    Blessed be!

  22. Pingback: Wiccan Denied Clergy Status in Virginia

  23. The law is as follows:

    § 20-23. Order authorizing ministers to perform ceremony.

    When a minister of any religious denomination shall produce before the circuit court of any county or city in this Commonwealth, or before the judge of such court or before the clerk of such court at any time, proof of his ordination and of his being in regular communion with the religious society of which he is a reputed member, or proof that he is commissioned to pastoral ministry or holds a local minister’s license and is serving as a regularly appointed pastor in his denomination, such court, or the judge thereof, or the clerk of such court at any time, may make an order authorizing such minister to celebrate the rites of matrimony in this Commonwealth. Any order made under this section may be rescinded at any time by the court or by the judge thereof.

    The “Ordaining Organization” has this on its website: The Order of The White Moon is an eclectic international order of women dedicated to The Goddess. The purpose of the Order is twofold: to help restore spiritual balance on earth by restoring the Divine Feminine to her rightful place, and to assist female-seekers in their personal and spiritual development. It is the position of the Order that all spiritual paths and belief systems can benefit by incorportating the Divine Feminine………. and then says The Order offers personal empowerment and priestess training to women aged 18 or older, via our online schools , or through a local teacher. ….. Women who complete Level I studies become permanent members of the Order. We offer ordination to Level IV graduates.

    NONE of this complies with the Commonwealth of Virginia’s requirements.

    You are not being discriminated against – you aren’t following the rules – unless you count rules of attempting to create drama and problems for those of us who DO follow the law.

    (and yes, I *AM* Ordained *AND* registered in Virginia – the first time with no problem – as are THREE other ministers I have ordained)

    • Terry says:

      Rhiannon, You state something definitively that someone without a dog in the hunt sees as more nuanced. I don’t see how a difference in nomenclature should disqualify them. The Order doesn’t use words like Pastor, Minister, Ordination or many other terms associatied with patriarchal religions. So what.

      The very latitude the clerk used to deny Ms Hurley’s request could easily be used to accept it, based on the vagueness of the statute.

      I do not have a legal education, so maybe you could explain how the two citations above are exclusive. Not being snarky or rhetorical, I’d just like a little more of an explanation

      Semper Fi,
      Terry.

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