The Wheel of the Year has once again rolled around to July 4th; Independence Day in the United States. Despite the fact that freedom of religion was written into the First Amendment of the United States Constitution in 1791, some Wiccans, Witches, and Neopagans still experience discrimination. In fact, there are incidents of witchcraft-related killings (of individuals accused of practicing) as recent as 2017 in Africa! (Scary, right?!) Thankfully, the United States has come a long way in learning to accept us as compared to those African cousins. So, for this Independence Day I wanted to spotlight on the history of religious freedom and witchcraft laws so the next time you are faced with some nasty close-minded bigot trying to act like they have a right to treat you poorly, you can tell them exactly how wrong they are.
The History of Witchcraft in America
I am fortunate, in a way, to live right in the heart ofc America’s first historic witch trials and killings which took place not in Salem, MA like most often thought, but in Windsor, CT in 1662. This was before the founding of the Constitution and the First Amendment which is what now guarantees us religious freedom to believe as we so choose. The witch trials in Connecticut laid the groundwork for those in Salem, later in the late 1690s. The Salem Witch Trials actually only took place over the course of approximately one year, but the hysteria that resulted left an indelible mark on the cultural mind due to the creation and publishing of a document called the “Malleus Maleficarum” or the “Witches Hammer” which was created as a sort of guidebook to help witch hunters identify witches for persecution. The image of witches that was painted in this text continues to inaccurately color the defining characteristics in witches in the popular media even today, in the modern age. (Such as witches having “familiars”, making pacts with the devil, etc.)
In 1735 the UK passed The Witchcraft Act which made it illegal to accuse a person of practicing witchcraft, but the idea and fear of witchcraft still persisted for many years to come. In fact, the last witch trial in the United States was as recent as 1848. The fascination, fear, and (finally)“normalization” of witchcraft has been a long road that we are still traveling.
The Establishment Clause is what assures us that all religions shall be considered valid. But how does one define “religion”? The best explanation I could find in relation to the legal freedoms to believe as we see fit came from a landmark case (United States v. Seeger) in which Seeger described it as, “the test of belief ‘in a relation to a Supreme Being’ is whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.” With this legal precedence behind us for reference, the spiritual practice of Wicca, Witchcraft, or various forms of Reconstructionist Neopaganism (i.e. Asatru or Hellenism) absolutely apply.
The Free Exercise Clause is where things could, theoretically, get a little hairy. Legal precedence shows that we are protected to practice and “exercise” our religio-spiritual beliefs as we see fit, but ONLY where it does not impinge on the liberties or safety of others. Although, any ethical practitioner I should hope would find great solace in this law. When you think about it, the Wiccan Rede of “An’ Harm it None” is really the same statement: Do as you will as long as it harms no one knowingly.
Between the late 1800s and the 1950s Witchcraft went underground. In 1951 the UK repealed their archaic anti-Witchcraft laws and in 1954 Gerald Gardner published his first book about Wicca/Witchcraft. Although the laws in the UK don’t directly affect those in the U.S., it changed the overall atmosphere so that suddenly those that had been practicing underground cold finally feel comfortable making themselves publicly known.
In the 70’s authors like Doreen Virtue and Margot Adler even published books about witchcraft claiming a long-buried tradition that had survived through history which further lead to the mass resurgence of Wicca and witchcraft that we are seeing today.
Moreover the point of this is that this Independence Day we should be celebrating the strides that have been made through the amendment of law and the actions of pioneers in occult like Gerald Gardener, Doreen Valiente, Aleister Crowley, etc. In a way we should also be grateful for the men and women that died during the Witch Trials. Whether they were truly witches or not, their deaths laid the groundwork for the current reality we live in that affords us the freedom to be our magickal, witchy, authentic selves! Let us always remember where we came from and honor the memories of those that have gone before us by letting our light shine bright.
Have you ever faced discrimination for your religious or spiritual beliefs? Tell me about it in the comments below!