Barnveld, Wisconsin - With an estimated 400,000 members nationwide, and a high-profile fight with the federal government over veterans’ grave markers, Wiccans are moving into a more prominent place in the religious landscape.
Selena Fox is leading the way.
A Wiccan priestess and founder of Circle Sanctuary, a 200-acre nature center in the Wisconsin woods about 30 miles west of Madison, Fox battles for acceptance of the so-called neo-pagan religion.
Though they are often equated with witches, many Wiccans reject the label because of the baggage it brings.
Fox, whose graying hair flows midway down her purple dress and matching cape, exudes more hippie-esque charm than any kind of Hollywood-conjured witchery. She embraces the task of fighting discrimination against Wiccans.
“Spirituality should be something that lifts the spirit,” she said.
Fox, a 57-year-old psychotherapist, wants to make clear that Wiccans do not worship the devil or engage in Satanism. She doesn’t cast spells, ride a broomstick or wear a pointy black hat.
The golden rule for Wiccans is, “And it harm none, do what you will.”
A nature-based religion, the Wiccan faith is founded on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons.
A “yule tree,” which looks identical to a Christmas tree, sits in a corner of the 100-year-old red dairy barn Fox has converted into an office, meeting room and spiritual center.
“We worship the divine and we do that by recognizing that the divine permeates all of life,” Fox said.
The highest profile fight in Wiccans’ struggle for recognition is with the federal government over its refusal to allow pentacles on grave markers issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The pentacle, a symbol of Wiccans, is a five-pointed star representing earth, air, fire, water and spirit. Variations of it that are not part of the Wiccan belief have been used in horror movies as a sign of the devil.
Last month, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of Circle Sanctuary and others arguing that the VA is violating the constitutional rights of Wiccans.
Buried at Circle Sanctuary’s cemetery are the remains of two soldiers - a Vietnam veteran from Ohio, and Jerome Birnbaum, a Korean War veteran. There also is a memorial to Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed in Afghanistan last year.
The widows of Stewart and Birnbaum are part of the lawsuit.
Fox and others say not including the pentacle on the list of accepted grave marker symbols is especially maddening because the Army Chaplain handbook has listed ways to accommodate Wiccans since 1978 and about 1,800 active-duty service members identify themselves as Wiccans, according to 2005 Defense Department statistics.
Fox said the VA’s lack of acceptance of the pentacle points to prejudice.
“I didn’t want to have to sue the government to try to get the U.S. Constitution upheld,” Fox said. “It’s discrimination. There’s no other explanation I can think of.”
A spokesman for the VA had no comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
People are attracted to the Wiccan religion for its devotion to nature and incorporation of both male and female deities, said Nikki Bado-Fralick, an assistant professor of religion and women’s studies at Iowa State University.
She estimates the number of Wiccans nationwide has increased from about 40,000 in the late 1970s to around 400,000 today.
The Census Bureau, based on a survey in which people self-report their religion, put the number at a more modest 134,000 as of 2001. Fox said she thinks that number is low because many Wiccans fear reporting their religion.
“Oh lord, everyone thinks you worship the devil,” said Joey Bunbury, a 39-year-old property manager from Madison and a Wiccan for about a decade. “People don’t understand.”
Some Wiccans use the name good witch, pagan or neo-pagan, to describe their spirituality, but others say there’s just too much of a negative connotation and prefer to be called Wiccans.
“There’s a misinterpretation that says if you say you’re pagan or Wiccan, you’re weird,” said Jerrie Hildebrand, an ordained Wiccan minister living in Salem “Most of us look like Joe or Jane America and you’d never know.”
Hildebrand is assistant director of the Lady Liberty League, a group headed by Fox that addresses discrimination.
She said the group receives more than 100 complaints a year, and only a handful ever get amicably resolved.
Complaints range from school children being told they can’t wear jewelry with Wiccan symbols to workers who face harassment.