NEWS- Pagan holiday: Flier policy inspires non-Christians

Veronica Michaelsen would prefer that Albemarle County schools not send fliers from any religious groups home with school kids via "backpack mail." But after the Albemarle School Board, faced with a Constitutional challenge, approved mailings from all nonprofits, including religions, Michaelsen and her fellow NatureSpirit worshippers decided to use the system to educate others about their beliefs.

And so the first mailing from pagans went home with Albemarle children last week.

Adorned with a cross, a Star of David, and a pentagram, the flyer invited recipients to learn about December traditions on December 9, followed by a "Pagan ritual to celebrate Yule."

The calls from concerned parents began almost immediately.

Former Republican city councilor Rob Schilling, now a host on WINA radio's morning show, went to the NatureSpirit website after hearing about the flyer.

"They're talking about witchcraft and magic. Is this appropriate to be sending home with school children?" he asked on his December 5 show.

People who called the show were disturbed to see the Christian and Jewish symbols displayed with the pentagram, says Schilling.

NatureSpirit, a worship group at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, believes nature is an important part of spirituality, according to the group's founder, Lonnie Murray.

The group includes Wiccans, but NatureSpirit is not a bunch of witches, clarifies Murray– not that there's anything wrong with witches, he adds.

So why would an offshoot of the admittedly liberal congregation decide to promote paganism in public schools?

 "I grew up in this county," says Murray. "I know how difficult it is for any minority student. There's a lot of pressure to conform... We have a fair number of young pagans in our group."

Murray says the flier sends a message of "diversity, not of proselytization." He's reassured one upset parent that pagans are not "anti-Christian."

Jefferson Park Baptist Church Pastor Jeff Riddle posted the flier on his blog, and notes the zeal of pagans to "take back" Christmas.

"If the school allows the Baptist or Methodist church to send home a note to its students about Vacation Bible School, it also has to allow the Unitarian Church to send home a note about its 'Pagan ritual to celebrate Yule,' Riddle warns. "Conservative Christians who want to 'put prayer back in school' had better realize that it might not always be a Christian who is leading the prayers."

The point of his blog posting, says Riddle, is less to debate the school policy than to "encourage evangelical Christians to think about alternative education, given that you can't count on public schools to reinforce what we think is important."

The Riddle children are home schooled. "In public school, you can't refer to the Biblical authority– and I'm not sure they should," Riddle notes.

Albemarle opened the doors to religious nonprofits this fall after a demand from conservative Christian-backed group, Liberty Counsel. Diane Behrens, the county official in charge of approving fliers, has seen two or three religious flyers go in backpack mail so far this year.

"I wouldn't say I've had an increase," says Behrens. Under the old policy, she would have denied religious-themed fliers; now they're approved. She's had three or four phone calls about the pagan flier.

"I reiterate that we cannot discriminate on witch fliers as long as they're not discriminatory or lewd," she says.

And the fliers carry a disclaimer that Albemarle neither endorses nor pays for the message.

"Overall, the response has been positive," says Murray. "It speaks well of Albemarle County and the area that there's so much tolerance for diversity."

Still, Murray hesitates to announce his religion to the world. "As a minority,  non-proselytizing religion, even with adults who are doctors, scientists... there's always a bit of fear. It takes courage to come out and say it."

NatureSpirit founder Lonnie Murray and member Veronica Michaelsen want to educate Albemarle school children about paganism with a December 9 winter solstice program at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church.