A Simple Scoff

Recently, while discussing the recent lawsuit filed by a self-identified Pagan against her managers and the franchise owner of the Panera Bread for wrongful termination, I was surprised that a friend of mine immediately suggested she was making it up. While that remains to be proven in a court of law, in the age of #metoo I wondered why he and others like to do the Starr Jones “al-leg-ed-ly” air-quotes when the story comes up. Really? Do people who feel they weren’t discriminated against often ask for a jury trial?

I began to wonder if the issue was that he, like so many others, understand religious discrimination in the vaguest of terms that happens to Jews or Muslims. That it happens at all and does real harm remains an abstract concept. This was certainly the case with heterosexual America who took decades to come around to supporting marriage equality. But religious discrimination has been around a lot longer than gay rights, so what is going on here?

First, Americans are not very well-versed in other religions. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey concluded that around eight in ten Americans understood Easter as the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection (not crucifixion), or that an atheist does not believe in any deity, or other similar tenants of the Christian faith. Recognize Abraham as the patriarch willing to sacrifice his son? Seven out of ten. Describe and atheist as someone who does not believe in God? Nine out of ten.

America is doing great on its dominant religion!

Islam fared well too as six out of ten Americans could recognize Ramadan as a Muslim holy month, or that Mecca is the holiest city where Muslims must make a pilgrimage. Six out of ten could describe an agnostic too. But then we get to the rest of nation’s faiths:

Many Americans also struggle to answer some questions about the size of religious minorities in the U.S. and about religion’s role in American government. For instance, most U.S. adults overestimate the shares of Jews and Muslims in the U.S. or are unaware that Jews and Muslims each account for less than 5% of the population.3 And when asked what the U.S. Constitution says about religion as it relates to federal officeholders, just one-quarter (27%) correctly answer that it says “no religious test” shall be a qualification for holding office; 15% incorrectly believe the Constitution requires federal officeholders to affirm that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, 12% think the Constitution requires elected officials to be sworn in using the Bible, 13% think the Constitution is silent on this issue, and 31% say they are not sure.

What Americans Know About Religion, July 23, 2019, Pew Research Center

So if Americans have little understanding of religions they have at least heard of, what can we expect of them from religions they have not? A “Pagan” and “Paganism” are words that are loaded with centuries of scorn and remain difficult to define today. Call a heathen a Wiccan and tell me what happens. See? We really are our own worst enemy some days.

The point I am making is that if someone cannot imagine what discrimination was taking place, then they are not going to conceive of it as real. I have tried, unsuccessfully, explain to a Christian coworker that my gods are not substitutes for her Gods, but in her well-meaning way she envisions it that way. I am not offended but I am frustrated. What Janus and Jesus or Minerva and Mary have in common I will let you try to suss for yourselves.

And as fascinating as the results of this study are, they focus on Abrahamic faiths, and only briefly touch on other religions. And of the questions they did ask none involved Buddhist or Hindu conceptions of deities, divinities, spirits, etc. If you only know the idolaters = bad narrative of the Old Testament, trying to imagine idolaters = injured party by Christians is like learning calculus. You can do it if you work at it.

Then the second thought I had about why the automatic rejection of belief comes from the ongoing war waged against public perception of lawsuits targeting large corporations. Remember the frivolous lawsuit against McDonald’s over the hot coffee? Well, that is how many people remember the 1992 incident. The idea that people create frivolous lawsuits to try to cheat corporations became widespread in the 1990’s and remains so today. But the alternate narrative is that Stella Liebneck was a 79 year old woman who received life-threatening injuries from the near boiling coffee. And that McDonald’s had already received over 700 documented complaints about the coffee but chose to do nothing. See?

Putting Pagan in the headlines, while factually correct, has the potential to make people think the story is clickbait, or exaggerated, or a life. No one is really “a Pagan” and therefore cannot be seriously going to sue a company like Panera. Except that this has happened before. Consider the Case of Pauline Hoffman who alleges she was forced to resign her position at St Bonaventure University because she was a practicing Wiccan. From this article:

“You might not want to be so overt about being a witch if you want to move up.”

“The Law Should Protect Wiccans From Religious Discrimination—But Will It?” — Rewire News Group, Jun 21, 2019, 12:38pm Imani Gandy

To provide some context, the article goes on to explain: “In a policy document, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said that “[f]or purposes of Title VII, religion includes not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” That means that Wicca’s adherents, even if they are few and far between, are entitled to the protections Title VII offers—and that includes not being singled out for unfair treatment. (It is unclear how many Wiccans there are in the United States, but a 2018 Pew Research poll puts the number of Wiccans or Pagans between 1 million and 1.5 million.)”

But there are some limitations, and one of those applies to religious institutions. “…Title VII specifically permits religious educational institutions to hire and employ people of a particular religion if that institution is owned, supported, controlled, or managed in whole or in substantial part by a particular religion or if the curriculum of that institution is directed toward the propagation of a particular religion.”

What about the research?

Abstract 1

This article describes a field experiment in which we sent fictitious résumés to advertised job openings throughout the American South. We randomly altered the résumés to indicate affiliation in one of seven religious groups or a control group. We found that applicants who expressed a religious identity were 26 percent less likely to receive a response from employers. In general, Muslims, pagans, and atheists suffered the highest levels of discriminatory treatment from employers, a fictitious religious group and Catholics experienced moderate levels, evangelical Christians encountered little, and Jews received no discernible discrimination. 

1. Wallace M, Wright BRE, Hyde A. Religious Affiliation and Hiring Discrimination in the American South: A Field Experiment. Social Currents. 2014;1(2):189-207. doi:10.1177/2329496514524541
Abstract 2

This article describes a field experiment in which we sent fictitious resumes to advertised job openings in New England, in the Northeast region of the United States. We randomly altered the resumes to indicate affiliation in one of seven religious groups or a control group. Resumes that mentioned any religious affiliation received about one-quarter fewer phone calls than did the control group but there were no significant difference in e-mails received. Muslim applicants received one-third fewer responses from employers, either as phone calls or e-mails, than did the control group. There was also evidence of discrimination against atheists, Catholics and pagans. These findings are consistent with theoretical models of secularization and cultural distaste theory.

Bradley R.E. Wright, Michael Wallace, John Bailey, Allen Hyde, Religious affiliation and hiring discrimination in New England: A field experiment, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, Volume 34, 2013,Pages 111-126, ISSN 0276-5624,

There is not really a lot of study on the subject but what there is echoes these findings. Similar stories are found in Canada, Scotland, Australia, England… the sort of places where modern Paganism has the most adherents. The existence of the “broom closet” at all tells anyone in the lgbt+ communities all they need to know about harassment: loss of jobs, lack of adequate healthcare, being used against someone in divorce or custody battles, ostracism from family and friends. The list of tragedies is long and profound, especially given how little understanding there is of the new/old religions and their practitioners.

If there is a Devil, he is not being worshipped under a Full Moon by devotées of the Goddess. No, his sermons are a simple scoff by self-righteous folk who fail to consider the plight of others.

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