Michigan high school student fights policy barring Wicca

Monday, March 8, 1999

A federal judge in Michigan has indicated he will decide soon whether a public school policy that bans the wearing of pentagrams and bars Wiccans from meeting on campus flouts First Amendment rights.

Represented by the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, Crystal Seifferly, a 17-year-old senior at Lincoln Park High School, sued the suburban Detroit school district in February. The ACLU argues that the school policy violates Seifferly's free-speech and religious-liberty rights.

Late last year Thomas Kolka, the high school principal, issued a policy intended to suppress gangs and cults. The policy bars students from forming groups and engaging in activities that would be considered “inappropriate and unacceptable in the school setting.” Some of the groups that the policy lists as “inappropriate and unacceptable” include “Wiggans [sic], Pagans, and Witches.” The policy, moreover, specifically listed the wearing of pentagrams as behavior that would not be tolerated.

At a hearing before U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen last week, Kolka testified that he did not know Wicca was a religion and that he implemented the policy to squelch a satanic club, which he and a few parents believed was forming at the high school.

Seifferly, who is an honors student at the school, explained to the court in affidavits that she is a member of the Wiccan religion, which focuses on self-improvement and the betterment of life. She said she wears the pentagram, a five-point star symbolizing “air, water, earth and spirit,” to show her “religious dedication.”

In its complaint before the district court, the ACLU cited a 1986 federal court ruling that the Church of Wicca is a religion protected by the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Dettmer v. Landon upheld a lower district court ruling that the Church of Wicca had a “broad concern for improving the quality of life for others,” and that the church “occupies a place in the lives of its members parallel to that of more conventional religions.”

Seifferly testified that when she told Kolka of her religion and desire to wear the pentagram, she was informed that she could wear the garb at home but not at school.

The ACLU has asked the federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the policy during the litigation.

Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU, says that the school's policy not only violates Seifferly's freedom of speech but also subverts both religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment.

“I think the school's policy is especially indicative of the tired stereotypes and false assumptions of Wiccans,” Moss said. “The right to religious freedom is most frequently threatened by attacks on minority religions. This case represents an example of the trivialization of religious beliefs that are very meaningful to a number of people.”

The ACLU's brief before the federal judge states that the school policy runs afoul of the establishment clause of the First Amendment because “it expressly favors traditional religions, such as Christianity, over non-traditional religions, such as the Wiccan religion.” The brief points out that students at Lincoln High School are not barred from wearing Christian crosses or the Jewish Star of David. “A more egregious violation of the Establishment Clause principle of complete official neutrality toward religion cannot be imagined,” the ACLU claims in its brief.

Kolka told the federal judge that he was not singling out Wiccans or Seifferly, but was only “trying to make the school safe.” He added that another student had been suspended from school for carrying a book with a pentagram on the cover.

In late 1997, a U.S. District Court in Texas invalidated a public school policy that barred students from wearing rosaries outside their clothing while on school grounds. The school policy considered rosaries, which are a symbol deeply rooted in orthodox Catholic beliefs, to be gang-related. The court in Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School District decided that the policy violated two high school students' free-speech and religious-liberty rights.

“This court does not doubt that a dress code can be one means of restricting gang activity on campus,” Judge David Hittner wrote. “However, while this court will not endeavor to make a comprehensive list, surely there are a number of more effective means available to NCISD (the school district), other than a blanket ban on wearing rosaries, to control gang activity and ensure the safety of its schools. The regulation places an undue burden on Plaintiffs, who seek to display the rosary not to identify themselves with a gang, but as a sincere expression of their religious beliefs.”

Moss said that Rosen indicated he would decide soon whether to temporarily invalidate the Michigan school policy against Wiccans and their religious garb.