Wiccan High Priestess is Focus of Religious Freedom Case
For Pagans, the Rev. Rosemary Kooiman has become a new symbol of the struggle of Pagan believers to have their religions recognized by American law. For Ms. Kooiman, the results of her recent Virginia court case are a surprise. She had not even known that her case would be tried in court.
On May 8, Ms. Kooiman was denied permission by a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge to officiate at marriages in Virginia. Ms Kooiman is a Wiccan high priestess and presides over the Nomadic Chantry of the Gramarye in Lanham, Maryland. She had hoped to conduct the wedding of two Virginia members of her 50-member coven.
The court case came at the end of a lengthy correspondence between Ms. Kooiman and the county court. She had begun by sending the paperwork required for her application, including copies of her ordination documents and a letter from the trustees of her coven.
Says Ms. Kooiman, "I kept hearing back from the county, 'The judge isn't quite sure; he's wondering this, this, this' – three times this happened. Then I was told, 'You haven't been given a hearing number, but if you come in, you'll get to see the judge.' 'Good,' I thought, 'I'm finally going to get to talk to him.'"
When she arrived at the court house, she discovered that she was in fact scheduled for a hearing. "I was dumbfounded," she said. "I went totally blank; I was standing there with my thumb in my ear." Ms. Kooiman says that she had documentation at home showing that Wicca has been recognized as a religion by the U.S. and state governments, but since she had not known that she would be appearing in court, she did not bring the documents with her.
The judge ruled against her. "I am not criticizing your beliefs," Chief Judge F. Bruce Bach said, according to The Washington Post. "But your religion does not qualify as a religious denomination."
The following day, The Washington Post ran an article on the case, which was reprinted by other newspapers around the country. Within hours, the news had spread to the Pagan community by way of the Internet. "Wren's Nest," a Pagan news section that appears at the popular Web site The Witches' Voice, reprinted part of the article along with a commentary by the news section's editor, Wren Walker. "Obviously this judge doesn't know the rulings in his own state!" cried Ms. Walker. "The District Court of VIRGINIA declared in 1985 (Dettmer v Landon, 617 F Suup 592) that Wicca is clearly a religion for First Amendment purposes. . . . Members of the Church sincerely adhere to a fairly complex set of doctrines relating to the spiritual aspect of their lives, and in doing so they have 'ultimate concerns' in much the same way as followers of more accepted religions. Their ceremonies and leadership structure, their rather elaborate set of articulated doctrine, their belief in the concept of another world, and their broad concern for improving the quality of life for others gives them at least some facial similarity to other more widely recognized religions." This ruling, she said, was confirmed by a federal court appeals judge in 1986.
Ms. Kooiman, who does not have access to the World Wide Web, quickly learned of the interest in her case. "Oh, my dear, I've had phone calls from all over the country," she says. "It's all over the Net, I'm told; people keep sending me [articles]."
Ms. Kooiman says that the reaction from the Pagan community has been "high indignation. People have been saying, 'We support you one hundred percent.' I have not had one letter, not one phone call, saying, 'You're no good; you're a heathen.'" The only exception, she says, has been an envelope she received from a prisoner in Pennsylvania. It contained only a clipping of an article about her case and two religious tracts.
What she has learned from the phone calls, she says, is that Pagan difficulty in receiving religious recognition in Virginia seems to be confined to Fairfax County. "I'm hearing other people saying, 'Come down to our part of Virginia; we don't have any problems receiving recognition,'" she says. She believes that she has legal backing for her case, and her belief is shared by two attorneys who have contacted her. She is uncertain, though, how she can pursue the matter without adequate funding. "I don't have a foundation to collect money, so I don't know what to do," she says.
Nevertheless, Ms. Kooiman hopes to take the case further. "I don't think I can just let this go," she says. "It is definitely a case of religious discrimination. When you have the federal government saying Wicca is a religion and the county government saying it isn't, it doesn't make sense."
Ms. Kooiman mentions that she has been contacted by journalists throughout the country; she says that a local disk jockey asked her, "Do you worship naked?" but was surprisingly friendly toward her. Among all the radio and television interviews that she has given since the case was publicized, she says, one stands out for its supreme irony. A Washington television station aired a piece on her case, and followed it immediately afterwards with a piece on U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, whose congressional district includes parts of Fairfax County.
"He was replying to President Clinton's radio speech," says Ms. Kooiman, "and he said, 'We've got to sanction these countries that practice religious discrimination.'" She summarizes the lesson she learned from her court case by saying with a chuckle, "Religious freedom is fine for everywhere except Fairfax County.'"
Washington Feature: A Merry Meet in D.C.: America's Pagans Gather in the Nation's Capital. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Photographs by John Wallin. One month after Promise Keepers assembled on the Mall, Pagans from around the nation meet in Washington as a symbol of their freedom to worship.
© 1998 Heather Elizabeth