Discrimination Against Pagan Religions in the Federal Workplace, and some Good News
Here I am in the heart of the Bible Belt. You can’t throw a stick without doing it in Jesus’ name.
This is still the area of the country where you meet someone for the first time and they have 2 immediate questions: 1. What’s your name? 2. Which church do you belong to?
One of the biggest changes for me when I migrated from the private sector to the public sector in 1987, taking a job then as an intern on an Air Force Base, was that I was no longer patted on the head for being female, downgraded in pay for being single, or downgraded in pay for being married. I earned the same as the guy hired to do that same job instead of 40% less as I was accustomed to in private industry. I also noticed that the Government teams on my side of the negotiation table were usually multi-generational, male and female, and 2-3 different ethnicities while the private industry side of the table was usually comprised of white men over 45 with an occasional white or Asian male mathematical genius around 35. Oh, yes–the stereotypes were alive and well. “Who’s on the other side of the table?” became a game to me after a couple of years, and I was very proud of the diversity on my side of the table. For the most part, though, my very diverse side of the table was still all Christian, but I thought we were diverse because we had a Mormon and a Catholic among all of us Baptists.
Yes, those were the days when I was a devout Christian, and like most of my fellow “churched’ employees, I complained so often about being discriminated against…when really what I saw as discrimination was simply not being allowed to force my personal brand of spirituality onto everyone else. I’d never been denied anything at work because I was Southern Baptist–all professional organizations still blessed every work-related meal in Jesus’ name, retirement ceremonies were opportunities to deliver Christian sermons to a sometimes mandated (and captive) audience, extra points were given on annual awards write-ups and promotion resumes that included community involvement such as singing in the choir at the Methodist Church or teaching Sunday School, no one lectured me publicly on my spiritual beliefs, and no one ever told me my career could not progress because of my personal relationship with Jesus.
When I converted to Wicca in 1997, I was the only Wiccan I knew at work, so I kept it a secret for a while, except from a non-Wiccan colleague in another career field who helped me where he could. I didn’t know how many pagans were on the same military installation, all in the broom closet, most scared of losing their jobs or losing promotions, of being harrassed or run off the road (as I was twice) or of losing custody of their kids or of public ridicule.
And yes, there was public ridicule. About the time my co-workers were convinced I wasn’t crazy after all, I attended a 75-person mandatory suicide prevention class in which the military instructor chose to ridicule a distraught pagan and give extreme details of the man’s personal suffering over a relationship breakup. The situation had nothing to do with his religion but the instructor used it (he told me when I confronted him) as an interesting story to keep the class awake. Awake and laughing. Do you think the secret pagans in the room spoke up? I didn’t–and I was out of the closest at the time. There was no way to balance the lurid details and humiliation of that story with the logic I could have presented. People love sensational stories, and I didn’t have anything to counter with.
Most of the discrimination came from people who never even thought about what it was like to be in a minority or alternative religion. There was the woman I’d known for 10 years–I’d trained her years before and had just spent my lunch hours for 3 solid weeks drilling her so she could pass a Contracting Officer’s warrant board when she first noticed the little pentacle I wore and BACKED OUT OF THE ROOM, telling me she had no use whatsoever for people like me…though she’d been very happy to take my volunteer help when no one else had time for her. I was the same helpful person mistaken for a “good Christian” after she’d discovered my religious beliefs as I’d been before, but her own prejudices came to life in a split second in front of me.
Another coworker, who thankfully retired not long after, had survived cancer by becoming very close to Jesus and thought the rest of us should share her enthusiasm so she littered the only bathroom on the floor with Southern Baptist propaganda, aka the same church magazines I’d grownn up with. Seriously, you had to reach around a magazine article about how you NEED to be Christian to pluck tissue from the dispenser beside each toilet. I of course was a horrible person for seeing this as a bad thing and feeling she was shoving her religioun down my throat. Or up my…..yeah.
When one of my colleagues and closest friends stopped hiding her beliefs, she was harrassed by a Lieutenant Colonel wanting to convert her and make her defend her beliefs (no stranger ever came up to me when I was Christian and insisted I defend my beliefs on cue). Worse, her supervisor began to harrass her on a regular basis and in a way that was clearly affecting her work, the quality of work she was given, and whether her mad skills were made known through awards and other avenues available to the supervisor. Yes, all of this was in direct violation of what supervisors are permitted to do but no one spoke up on her behalf. She refused to “make things worse” by going to the Equal Opportunity office which handles discrimination complaints, so I went on her behalf to see what they recommended. They told me that they had very few, if any, complaints about religious discrimination on this military base and then….then the counselor I’d gone to see about religious discrimination began to tell me how being Black in America is real discrimination and what hardships he’d endured personally. Had he misunderstood that I was there to interview him personally rather than ask his guidance in his professional capacity? No. As a Christian himself–as he told me, along with how Christians are persecuted–he discounted everything I said and just…did not…understand how I could be anything but Christian. Hmmm, and I wonder why his office has had so few discrimination complaints related to religion…..
The worst of it for me was from a Colonel who headed up my organization in the late 90’s. I’d managed to keep my beliefs a secret until he found out through a personal connection and then he apparently had many fun chats with other high-level managers about yet another of my eccentricities. He used to lean into my face, to the point where my eyes would cross, to call me “different” and a “Druid witch,” mainly because those were the only words he could think of that conjured up the vision he had of me in his head. He told me frequently that I would never get promoted because of my beliefs, that he couldn’t afford to have someone who thought that differently in charge of other people. He told me I would never be a supervisor or go any higher in the organization, though he courted me heavily to work for him when he retired and started his own company. Though I was pagan clergy by the time he left, he refused to allow me to give the invocation at any work-related pot-luck lunch, holiday banquet, or professional organization’s buffet. Instead, men within the organization who were church deacons and lay preachers gave the same invocation in Jesus’ name time and again, with no variety and certainly no non-denominational utterances. When I did get promoted again, it was outside his organization and by the next promotion, all the people who used to sit and laugh about my religion with him were long gone.
But that tide has been slowing turning, at least in my own Federal workplace, and I’ve seen the biggest changes in the past year. Some things have happened that I never thought I’d see.
The civilian heading up my organization last year approached me to ask if I’d consider being a supervisor. That was something I’d given up on here, mainly because of what the Colonel had repeatedly told me, that my organization would never put a “Druid witch”–inaccurate but his terminolgy–in charge of anything. She’s a very devout, sincere Christian, and she also knows my religious beliefs…but she didn’t let our different beliefs matter when it came to work, and that’s the way I think it should be.
A few months after that, I was promoted to a level I’d been told would never happen because of my religion. Though I will admit that I changed a few words on my resume–at the distressed pleadings of my fundamentalist Christian best friend to not beg for people to discriminate–so that my community leadership skills and Circle would be phrased instead as leader of a co-ed spiritual group. Accurate but not incendiary. Sounds like I teach Sunday School instead of healing rituals.
And this year, I was asked by the interns hosting the Christmas Party/Holiday Party to give a non-denominational blessing. Ironically, I was called away for a work emergency but I was tearfully pleased that after offering for 15 years and being turned down to the point of having given up, I was asked.
So that tide is turning. So far, in a year as of this week, no one has imploded from having someone with different spiritual beliefs as a supervisor. If they have questions, I’m happy to answer. I know some have wondered and some talk among themselves, but they don’t seem frightened that I’ll make them work late on a full moon night and sacrifice them on top of the photocopier–bwahahahahahaha. (Oh, please–with cutbacks, it’s hard enough to keep enough people to do the job!) It’s been an absolute pleasure to be a supervisor, and probably the best gig I’ve ever had. And as far as differing spiritualities, while I may love to discuss when I have the time, we all get along fine, and that’s a testament to respecting each other’s personal choice on what and how to believe. I work very hard to take care of my folks, and I feel that they take care of me right back. It’s a pleasant place to be.