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When Pagans Deal with the Law

If you've been following The Wild Hunt, Works of Literata, and Hecate, you've likely seen that a local Pagan priestess was recently denied a license to perform legal marriages in Arlington County, Virginia.  The clerk's refusal to give her a list of the ways in which her application was deficient suggests that there may be some discrimination and denial of due process here. 
 
I've discussed relevant Virginia law at my daily blog, but I'd like to talk just a little bit about what Pagans can do when they find themselves in similar situations.  The actions that you take at the beginning of a case, before you've hired a lawyer, often have a huge impact on the final outcome.  (Full disclosure:  I know Literata and consider her a dear friend.  My understanding is that she took and is taking the steps outlined below.)  
 
First, and I know that some of you don't want to hear this, when dealing with government and corporate officials such as, for example, the clerk of a county court, look and act professional.  
 
That means that, for the half an hour or so that you have to deal with this person, you wear conservative clothing (a suit, if at all possible, with a conservative necktie for men), eschew elaborate make-up and jewelry, and, if possible, cover up tattoos.  Sure, it's wrong for people to judge you based upon such artificial standards.  But, they do.  Is your goal to get, for example, a license to perform legal marriages or to advocate, for example, for tattoo acceptance?  Figure out your goal ahead of time.  Make life easy for yourself.
 
It also means that, before you go to the meeting, you read the website, download all the forms, fill them out thoroughly and neatly, and bring extra copies.  Walk in with your papers organized in a folder or notebook.  Have a card with your name and contact information on it.  Carry a briefcase. 
 
Walk into the meeting in a professional manner (put away your cell phone and spit out your gum), stand when the official enters, and offer your hand for a handshake.  You should already have rehearsed (at least in your own mind) what you'll say and how you'll answer any likely questions or objections.
 
Second, start off on a pleasant tone.  As magic workers, we all know that we can often get people to comply with us when we walk in projecting a glamour that indicates that we expect compliance.  Doesn't always work, but it's always worth a try.  What you don't want is for the clerk, hir secretary, the building guard, etc. (all of whom are going to get deposed down the road), to later be able to say that you came in with a chip on your shoulder, acting angry and making accusations, causing them to distrust and fear you (which, trust me, they'll say after being coached, if they possibly can).  Again, be professionally polite.  
 
Third, do what Literata did.  When your request is denied, ask, politely, for a written denial that explains all of the reasons why your request is being denied.  If the official won't give that to you, say, politely, "I believe that my due process rights entitle me to such a list; I'm disappointed that you won't give it to me.  I do intend to pursue this further.  Here's where you can contact me if you reconsider or change your mind.  Have a very nice day; thank you for your time.  I appreciate that you took time out of your busy day to meet with me."  
 
Go home and write hir a letter/email that you copy to yourself/fax, etc.  State factually and without emotion what happened. "Dear Mr. Ferguson, I met with you at about 11:00 am on Friday, June 29th.  You denied my application for . . . ."  Include the fact that you asked for a written statement and were refused.  Renew your request.  Copy the official's boss.
 
Fourth, and this is a related point: document, document, document.  And, then, document.  Many courthouses and corporate offices don't allow cellular devices.  But if you're in a situation where you (or the person that you bring with you and, if you possibly can bring someone else, you should do so) can record the event on a cell phone or tablet, do so.  
 
If you can't record, you can go home and write down EVERYTHING that happened.  Do this right away.  What was the secretary -- whose eyebrows went through the roof upon seeing that you were a Wiccan -- wearing?  How long was she gone when she went to "check with her boss"?  What did you say?  What documents (include your copies in your file) did you offer?  What happened when you asked about your ability to appeal the decision?  Write it all down and date it.  Get the person who went with you to sign it and date their signature.  Do this for every phone call, email exchange, meeting, etc. 
 
Finally, and this is advice that I gave to Literata,  think long and hard, do divination, meditate, and talk to your family before you decide whether (assuming that simpler methods fail to provide results) to file a lawsuit.  I'm often amused at people who show up on Pagan chatboards and say, "Sue!  You will win!"  Those people are, oddly, never lawyers.  No lawsuit is certain.  What is certain is that lawsuits cost money and often thrust litigants into the public eye in ways that they never anticipated.  What impact will a suit have on your job?  Your spouse's job?  Your children?  Your custody arrangement?  Your own peace of mind?  How much of your credit history, professional life, health records, personal business are you willing to have exposed in a deposition?  Don't assume that anything is off limits.
 
Don't get me wrong.  Lawsuits are often the only way to hold officials accountable.  They can do tremendous good, even when they simply lead to settlement rather than a trial.  But they are a form of ritualized combat (and I admit that I have spent most of my life in mad and desperate love with this form of martial art, often winning, but frequently coming home late at night to nurse my wounds.  I have scars that you cannot imagine.  And I always have the "comfort" that is is not really "my" ox being gored, but "merely" the ox belonging to the person who hires me.  It's even more painful when it's your ox) and combat, of necessity, has winners and losers.  Can you walk away whole if you lose?  I am not trying to discourage you from entering the fray and doing your best to achieve change.  I am trying to ensure that, if you do so, you do so prepared.
 
We can all hope, indeed, I do hope, that the clerk of the Arlington court simply failed to grasp the situation and will soon grant Literata the appropriate license.  But it doesn't hurt any of us to be prepared when we engage with members of the majority religion.
 
*I am not a member of the Virginia Bar and my area of expertise is in a very different area of the law. I am not providing legal advice in this post. The opinions expressed in this post are mine alone and are not meant to represent the opinions or positions of any other person or entity.
 
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HecateDemeter is a woman, a Witch, a mother, a grandmother, an ecofeminist, a lawyer, a gardener, a reader, a writer, and a priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

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