Pagan festivals like Wiccans’ WitchsFest USA face Christian harassment

As widespread immunity and milder strains of coronavirus have spread across the United States, pagans and witches, like their neighbors, have begun to gather more freely at annual community events this summer after two years of relative isolation. So you have some uninvited guests.

Street preachers and Christian protesters have long been a staple of earth-based religion gatherings as they attempt to distract people and discourage them from enjoying the typical outdoor festivals and ritualistic gatherings. But this year, some participants say, these opponents of witchcraft and paganism have become more aggressive and even more dangerous.

“There were about 30 [evangelists] this year,” said Starr RavenHawk, an elder and priestess at New York’s Wiccan Family Temple and organizer of WitchsFest USA, a street festival held in the city’s West Village in mid-July.

Barely half a dozen of these disruptors have surfaced in the past seven years, RavenHawk said. But the groups that have emerged this year “are not just protesting,” she added. “They are at war with us together. They made that clear.”

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RavenHawk said the evangelists and street preachers walked through the WitchsFest holding up signs and preaching through amplification. By the end of the day, their presence had led to class cancellations and sales closures.

With no formal networks of places of worship and often far removed from fellow practitioners, American pagans and witches thrive heavily on gatherings with names like Pagan Pride and Between the Worlds to share information and fellowship. While some take place in conference centers or hotel ballrooms, summer events are typically visible and difficult to secure.

In 2016, Nashville Pagan Pride Day was attended by street preachers Quentin Deckard, Marvin Heiman, and Tim Baptist, who marched through the event with signs, Bibles, and a megaphone. In 2017, the Keys of David Church protested the Philadelphia Pagan Pride Day. In 2018, at Auburn Pagan Pride Day in Alabama, a group of Christian men circled a modest crowd to intimidate them.

Indoor events are not entirely immune. In 2018 and 2019, Catholics in New Orleans joined members of TFP Student Action, a division of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, to protest HexFest, held annually at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. Religious flyers placed under hotel doors informed participants that they were surrounded. “Your only hope is to accept defeat and surrender your life to whoever made you,” reads one flyer.

On the same weekend as WitchsFest USA, attendees at the Atlanta Mystic South conference found Christian pamphlets in the lobby and on car windows outside the hotel where it was being held. In Texas, Pastor Kevin Hendrix has encouraged Christians to speak out against the Polk County Pagan Market, which takes place in October.

Many pagan events are not held in public spaces for this reason, although this has changed in the last 10 years as occult practices have gained more public acceptance.

Held at busy Astor Place, a tourist crossroads, the all-day WitchsFest USA is one of the most visible pagan festivals and therefore one of the most vulnerable.

“RavenHawk organizes this wonderful event every year in the heart of New York City as a public celebration, where everyone is welcome as long as they maintain an atmosphere of respect for others,” said Elhoim Leafar, who was assigned to lead a workshop at WitchsFest USA and has been for years included.

The Christian group took a prominent position on a street corner when the festival started at 10 a.m. and began speaking to attendees and preaching through amplifying equipment. Among them, RavenHawk said she recognized members of the New York chapter of Christ’s Forgiveness Ministries, a Toronto-based organization that had previously sent visitors.

After her security team asked the preachers to leave, RavenHawk called the police, as she had done in years past. But for the first time, the cops did nothing, she said.

“The Christians say no one is molested,” RavenHawk was reportedly told by officers. In years past, officials moved preachers to the other side of Astor Place, where they would continue without the use of loudspeakers, which require a permit.

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This year, the Christian groups were allowed to remain at the festival with their sound system. According to RavenHawk, officials called the sermon “freedom of speech.” It’s unclear if the groups had permits.

One attendee, Soror Da Glorium Deo, said: “When the police had an opportunity to downgrade things by potentially escorting the troublemakers out of the area, they chose not to de-escalate.”

The New York City Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

“[The officers] treated us like we were invading Christian space, like they had more rights than we do,” RavenHawk said. “[The preachers] were loud and they kept going. That was of course disturbing.”

When the organizers removed the workshop tent from the corner near the preachers, the Christian groups followed. “At a certain point, the protesters were not only with microphones and banners around and in the corners of the event, but inside it,” said Leafar, whose class was canceled because of the preachers.

“We don’t protest publicly in their churches on a Sunday,” he said.

“It is not right, moral or ethical to harass any person, publicly or privately, because of their individual or family beliefs,” Leafar said. He believes this behavior stems from ignorance and a “contempt for our individual values.”

In the middle of that day, two vendors left, RavenHawk said, telling her that “they didn’t feel safe.”

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RavenHawk said she was tired of “turning the other cheek”. She has called the city’s Street Activity Permit Office, the borough council and the 9th Circuit of the NYPD. “I want a paper trail,” she said. “I want to know exactly what my rights are.”

RavenHawk also called the Lady Liberty League, a pagan civil rights organization based in Wisconsin, for legal advice and support.

“The United States is founded on religious freedom for all,” Rev. Selena Fox, co-founder of the Lady Liberty League, said in a statement to RNS. “Safe assembly and the right to practice our faith is our right as much as everyone else’s,” she said.

Some attendees have suggested that RavenHawk move the event to a less public location, such as a park or hotel.

“We shouldn’t have to move,” she said. “We’ve fought for this location for eight years.” According to RavenHawk, it took that long for the community board to designate WitchsFest USA as an “annual” event. Until then, she had to reapply every year, she said, asking herself questions like, “Are you going to burn babies?”

Leafar agrees it’s important not to back down. “If we remain silent in the face of these protesters, people who are new to our community will feel that they do not have the right to express themselves and openly pursue their individual beliefs.”

— Religious Intelligence Service

About Ellen Lewandowski

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