Domestic Witchery ExaminerKris Bradley
This morning, the New Jersey Board of Education will vote to approve their list of religious holidays permitting pupil absence from school for the 2010-2011 school year. Included for the first time on this list are the eight Pagan/Wiccan holidays, or sabbats. If approved, this will mark the first time any state has approved Pagan holidays to a state calendar, and will set a precedence for other districts and states across the country.
This story starts with a mother sending in a note to get her daughter excused from school for Yule, 2009. Rev. Elena Ottinger's daughter attends Pennsville High School in the Salem County School District, located in Pennsville, NJ. Brianna Ottinger had recently finished her "Year and a Day", a traditional time of study for many Wiccan initiates. Rev. Ottinger, who has a doctorate in metaphysics, wrote a note to her daughter's school, letting them know that she would be taking Yule off from school to celebrate. When Brianna came home that day, it was with the list of approved religious holidays for NJ schools and a note from the vice principal that stated while they would give Brianna an excused absence, it would not be an excused absence based on a religious holiday.
Looking at that list, which includes a variety of approved days (including the birthday of author and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard), Rev. Ottinger decided that it was not enough just to get an excused absence for her daughter, she wanted her daughter and others like her to have the same religious freedoms at school that others did.
When she phoned the Pennsville High School's vice principal to discuss the matter, Rev. Ottinger was told to call the State Board of Education, who explained to her that even though the state puts out a calendar, it's up to each township whether to allow and excuse religious holidays for students. At that point Rev. Ottinger states that she tried to get an appointment with the district's superintendent to discuss the matter, only to be told that she would be dealing with his secretary, who asked for three days to look into the matter. After four days, Rev. Ottinger says she called back only to be told by the secretary that they were "looking into it" and would get back to her.
Seeming to not be getting any help from her daughter's school district, Ottinger went online to ask for ideas and support in Pagan forums that she frequented. Many responded back to her that it was "not my problem" as they didn't have kids. New Jersey Pagan Amie Tolomeo suggested that Rev. Ottinger call the ACLU and eventually called them on behalf of Ottinger. The ACLU then put Ottinger in touch with a lawyer who was instrumental in helping to get Wiccan prisoners their religious rights in New Jersey, who Rev. Ottinger retained.
Rev. Ottinger's lawyer contacted her daughter's school and gave them 24 hours to give a religious excuse for Yule or the Ottingers would take the district to court on the matter. Though Rev. Ottinger reports that the ultimatum was at first rejected by the district, eventually the school board's lawyer did call to report that Brianna would et the Yule sabbat off as a religious holiday.
Not wanting to stop at just her district, Rev. Ottinger called the state and requested that the Wiccan holidays be added to the state calendar. The NJ BOE requested that Rev. Ottinger send in any information that she could on Wicca as a religion, such as when it was established and when the holidays fell during the year. Rev. Ottinger at that point contacted other Pagans in the community and requested that they, too, send in information about Wicca to the board, to show that there was more than just one individual interested in adding the holidays to the calendar.
One of those asked to write in was the Rev. Matthew Bartkey, Pastor and President of the Board for Sacred Wind Sanctuary, and am a Local Coordinator ad Secretary of the Board for Central New Jersey Pagan Pride Project, Inc. Rev. Bartkey helped organize a letter writing campaign to the BOE, and posted about the topic in Facebook, Myspace, Witchvox, and several Yahoo groups, that Rev. Bartkey considers "the main sources of information for the NJ Pagan Community".
And it wasn't just New Jersey Pagans who wrote in. Brianna Ottinger's grandmother, herself a Christian, wrote to the state BOE to ask that they give Pagans the "religious freedoms that are afforded to everyone." Many of Brianna's school friends also wrote letters of support as well. Rev. Ottinger, along with her lawyer and the personal friends who had supported her every step of the way, sent in multiple packets of information on Wicca.
Rev. Ottinger not only hopes to get the Wiccan sabbats on the calendar for New Jersey, but also wants the policy of giving individual school districts the discretion whether to allow the holidays to be excused changed. The holidays, Rev. Ottinger believes, should be automatically excused as a religious holiday for students who supply the necessary parent approval.
As this article goes up, the New Jersey Board of Education is in session. When a decision has been finalized, this column will be updated. Click subscribe at the top of the page for an email alert to new articles by this author.