(RNS) — As widespread immunity and milder COVID-19 strains have spread across the U.S., pagans and witches, like their neighbors, have begun to gather more freely this summer at annual community events after two years of relative isolation. So have some unwelcome guests.
Street preachers and Christian protesters have long been a fixture of earth-based religions’ gatherings as they try to distract and deter people from enjoying what are typically outdoor festivals and ritual gatherings. But this year, some attendees say, these opponents of witchcraft and paganism have become more aggressive and even dangerous.
“There were about 30 (evangelists) this year” said Starr RavenHawk, an elder and priestess of the New York City Wiccan Family Temple and organizer of WitchsFest USA, a street fair held in the city’s West Village in mid-July.
Over the past seven years, barely half a dozen of these disruptors would show up, RavenHawk said. But the groups who have appeared this year “aren’t just protesting,” she added. “They are collectively at war with us. They made that clear.”
RavenHawk said the evangelists and street preachers walked through WitchsFest, holding up signs and preaching through amplifiers. By the day’s end, their presence had caused class cancellations and vendor closings.
Without formal networks of houses of worship and often living far from fellow practitioners, American pagans and witches depend heavily on assemblies with names like Pagan Pride and Between the Worlds to share information and camaraderie. While some are held inside conference centers or in hotel ballrooms, summer events tend to be visible and hard to secure.
In 2016, Nashville Pagan Pride Day was visited by street preachers Quentin Deckard, Marvin Heiman and Tim Baptist, who marched through the event with signs, Bibles and a bullhorn. In 2017, The Keys of David Church protested Philadelphia Pagan Pride Day. In 2018, a Christian men’s group encircled a modest crowd at Auburn Pagan Pride Day in Alabama in an attempt to intimidate them.
Indoor events aren’t entirely immune. In 2018 and 2019, members of TFP Student Action, a division of American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, were joined by Catholics in New Orleans to protest HexFest, held annually at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. Religious flyers placed under hotel doors informed attendees they were surrounded. “Your only hope is to accept defeat and surrender your life to One who created you,” read one flyer.
On the same weekend as WitchsFest USA, attendees at the Mystic South conference in Atlanta found Christian pamphlets in the lobby and on car windows outside the hotel where it was taking place. In Texas, pastor Kevin Hendrix has encouraged Christians to take a stand against the Polk County Pagan Market, held in October.
Many Pagan events are not held in public spaces for this reason, although that has been changing over the past 10 years as occult practices have found more acceptance in the public eye.
Held in busy Astor Place, a tourist crossroads, the daylong WitchsFest USA is one of the most visible pagan festivals and, therefore, one of the most vulnerable.
“RavenHawk creates this marvelous event every year in the heart of New York City as a public celebration where everyone is welcome as long as they maintain an atmosphere of respect towards others,” said Elhoim Leafar, who was scheduled to lead a workshop at WitchsFest USA and has attended for years.
The Christian group took up a prominent position on one street corner as the festival began at 10 a.m. and began talking to attendees and preaching into amplification devices. Among them, RavenHawk said she recognized members of the NYC chapter of Christian Forgiveness Ministries, a Toronto organization that had sent visitors before.
After her security team asked the preachers to leave, RavenHawk called the police as she has done in past years. But, for the first time, the cops did nothing, she said.
“The Christians say nobody is being bothered,” RavenHawk was reportedly told by the officers. In past years, officers would relocate the preachers to the far side of Astor Place, where they would continue without the use of speakers, which require a permit.
This year, the Christian groups were allowed to remain at the festival with their sound amplification. According to RavenHawk, the officers called the preaching “freedom of speech.” It is unclear whether the groups had permits.
One attendee, Soror Da Glorium Deo, said, “When the police had the opportunity to downgrade things by possibly escorting the troublemakers off the area, they chose not to de-escalate.”
The New York Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
“(The officers) treated us as if we were invading the Christians’ space, as if they had more rights than we do” RavenHawk said. “(The preachers) were loud, and they were carrying on. Of course it was disruptive.”
When organizers moved the workshop tent away from the corner near the preachers, the Christian groups followed. “At a certain point, the protesters were not only in the surroundings and corners of the event with microphones and banners, but inside it,” said Leafar, whose class was cancelled due to the preachers.
“We are not publicly protesting at their churches on a Sunday,” he said.
“It is not correct, moral or ethical to harass any individual in public or in private based on their individual or family beliefs,” Leafar said. He believes that this behavior comes from ignorance and a “contempt for our individual values.”
By the middle of that day, two vendors left, said RavenHawk, telling her that “they didn’t feel safe.”
RavenHawk said she is tired of “turning the other cheek.” She has called New York’s Street Activity Permits Office, the Community Board and the 9th Precinct (NYPD). “I want a paper trail,” she said. “I want to know exactly what my rights are.”
RavenHawk also called Lady Liberty League, a pagan civil rights organization based in Wisconsin, for legal advice and support.
“The United States is founded on religious freedom for all,” said Lady Liberty League co-founder the Rev. Selena Fox in a statement to RNS. “Safe gathering and the right to practice our faith is as much our right as it is anyone else’s,” she said.
Some attendees have suggested that RavenHawk move the event to a less public location, such as a park or hotel.
“We shouldn’t have to move,” she said. “We fought for this location for eight years.” It took that long, according to RavenHawk, for the community board to designate “WitchsFest USA” an “annual” event. Until then she was required to reapply every year, she said, enduring questions such as, “Are you going to burn babies?”
Leafar agrees that it is important to not back down. “If we remain silent in the face of these protesters, those people who are new to our community are going to feel that they do not have the right to express themselves and pursue their individual faith openly.”
This story has been updated.