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Wiccan Puts Faith in the Court System

From The Morning Call

As a member of a religious minority, Judith Smell is sensitive about her right to practice whatever religion she chooses.

So when Lehigh Carbon Community College declined to hire her, she suspected it had something to do with her faith. And on Dec. 17, she sued the college in federal court, saying the school had violated her right to religious freedom.

Smell, 37, of Coaldale, Pa., practices a pagan religion known as Wicca. She describes it as a nature-based faith that is attuned to the elements -- earth, water, air and fire.

Across the nation, other Wiccans have turned to the courts to protect their right to employment, to wear religious jewelry and to have custody of their children.

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Despite stereotypes of witches casting spells against people, Smell said she adhered to the Wiccan principle that prohibited followers from wishing harm to anyone.

“Why do people have anything against me?” she said. “It’s not like I’m going out there sacrificing goats or cats.”

Smell’s contact with the college started in January 2003 when an employment agency hired her as a temporary employee.

Working at two campuses, she served as a site supervisor, filling in for an employee on disability leave.

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In August 2003, she applied for the job on a permanent basis after the regular employee decided to not return. She provided 15 written recommendations from faculty members and department heads who “enthusiastically and unequivocally” supported her being hired, according to her suit.

But the college refused to hire her solely because of her religious beliefs, she has alleged.

Representatives of the college could not be reached for comment.

The relatively brief suit, containing 21 paragraphs, does not provide details about why Smell concluded that the college considered her religion when it decided to not hire her. And in an interview, she declined to address that issue.

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But she said people knew of her faith because she wore a pentacle -- a star inside a circle -- hanging from her neck. For the Wiccans, it is a symbol showing the unity of the natural elements and spirit.

She said some administrators questioned whether it was proper for her to wear the jewelry.

But she had seen Christians wearing crosses and Jews wearing Stars of David, she said. “I have just as much a right to show my religious beliefs as anybody else does,” she said.

On her desk, she had a fountain with water flowing over stones, which for her hold strong powers. Whenever anyone at the college asked about the items, she told them about her beliefs. “I just answered openly and honestly,” she said.

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She gave students stones from the fountain when she thought the stones might calm them if they seemed anxious, perhaps about an upcoming exam.

Raised a Catholic, she turned to the Wiccan faith about 10 years ago.

As a Wiccan, she does not believe in a god or a devil, she explained. Instead, she believes in a goddess who is good and bad.

She celebrates eight major holidays, including the winter and summer solstices and the fall and spring equinoxes. She performs some of the same rituals as Christians, including decorating a tree, which she did for the winter solstice last week.

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Richard J. Orloski, Smell’s lawyer, said one of his challenges would be to prove that Wicca was a religion deserving constitutional protection. The Supreme Court has not addressed the issue. But some lower courts have.

In 1986, in a case brought by a Virginia prison inmate, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Wicca must be considered a religion. But for security reasons, the court limited the inmate’s access to items, including candles and incense, which he wanted to use in his religious practices.

A related case from Ohio pending before the U.S. Supreme Court involves the right of prisoners, including a Wiccan and a Satanist, to have access to religious items, such as religious literature.

Smell is asking that the college be required to hire her for the job or a comparable job. She also is seeking back pay and compensatory damages.

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