Toil and trouble

One day, the idea of television as a brain drain is going to be put out there on the garbage heap, right next to "doctors recommend smoking Chesterfields." The fascinating things I've learned from TV make all those hours listening to dull civics teachers seem even more wasted now than they did then.

A good example of amazing TV is something recently aired about the Salem witchcraft scare, probably on the Discovery Channel. A historian figured out that a similar type of hysteria also hit Europe, but in the form of lycanthropy, a psychosis that makes people believe they are werewolves. Both in Salem and in England it was always the poor people who were being accused. And in both places the rich were eating wheat bread while the poor were eating rye bread. Rye sometimes contains a fungus called ergot, which causes hallucinations and could easily cause a person to believe they were being set upon by the devil. So while people really were acting like they were possessed, it wasn't the devil, it was the ergot. Ergo, a lot of innocent people got hanged because they didn't have the Discovery Channel to clue them in to the facts.

Pretty amazing detective work, to find a fungus 200 years and an ocean away, don't you think? And further proof that when people are demonized, it's usually because the people doing the judging are just ignorant of the facts. Centuries later appearance and truth still can be wildly disparate. And people still don't know what to make of witches.

School for scandal

These are the two problems facing Crystal Siefferly, a 17-year-old high-school student in Detroit who was told she'd have to wear her pentagram necklace underneath her shirt. But from the frying pan, Crystal has thrown the school into the fire. Crystal is a witch, or in more culturally palatable terms, a Wiccan. For her the pentagram -- a five-pointed star symbolizing air, fire, water, earth and spirit -- is a religious emblem.

School officials say they never meant to step on anyone's pointy-toed shoes. They just wanted to stem student violence when they banned pentagrams as satanic symbols (the upside-down pentagram is associated with Satanism), along with other Marilyn Manson-type garb and symbols for gangs and white supremacy.

If you didn't know any better it would be easy to lump the pentagram in with all that crap kids buy at Spencer's. But asking Crystal to hide her religious symbol is akin to telling a Muslim student her head scarf has to go, or telling a Christian kid his crucifix is too weird and disturbing for the classroom. Her case offers an opportunity for Wicca to come "out of the broom closet," as it were, and show that neo-Paganism and Satanism aren't the same and that people who describe themselves as witches do not also believe they can turn you into a toad. Wiccans revere their god and goddess in the form of nature and practice Magick, which can be described as the power of positive thinking. The Michigan ACLU positively thinks this is a case of religious discrimination and has taken up Crystal's case.

Andy Kayton of the Florida ACLU said a similar case could happen here, but the student's side would be stronger here since Florida made the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into state law. If Crystal's pentagram "reflects sincere religious belief," she shouldn't have a problem. As pure ornamentation, though, it's not a matter of free speech. "Students don't have a lot of freedom in the school setting," he says, "and expressive behavior can be banned."

Law and order

Yet students do have rights. The Florida ACLU recently filed suit on behalf of nine Miami students who published an underground pamphlet Kayton says was "critical of the principal." The school reacted by dredging up a Florida law that made the distribution of literature subjecting anyone to ridicule a misdemeanor unless the writer's name and address were published. The school further invoked Florida's hate-crime statute, which elevated the charge to a felony; the principal is African-American and read the pamphlet as a threat, though Kayton says the students were a multiracial group and the pamphlet was vulgar but not threatening. The students weren't just disciplined; they were arrested. Some were even strip-searched. "Twenty years ago," Kayton says, "the notion of student rights really had resonance." But today order takes preference over dialogue. "We're ... teaching our children a terrible lesson in democracy," he says. "They're going to be conditioned in a way that they have no real expectation of individual right of expression." Essentially, he says, the Miami nine were arrested for being immature.

So much for missing your teen years. At least Crystal's case teaches a good lesson in sticking to your guns, something her school administrators, because of their blanket ban, will not be able to do. That's a direct criticism, but I'm not printing my address. Blessed be, what a girl has to do these days to get strip-searched.

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