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Wiccans seek to preserve nature, promote equality

On Halloween night, when costumed kids plunder their neighborhoods for treats, Selena Fox honors her dead ancestors and friends at an altar in her home. The ceremony follows a week of activities that include feasting, a costume ball, Tarot card readings, listening to Celtic music and dancing around a large bonfire.

But Oct. 31 is more than Halloween for Fox, the high priestess and founder of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church located in rural Iowa County, southwest of Madison. Instead, she celebrated Samhain (pronounced Sow-in), an end-of-harvest festival that’s best described as New Year’s Eve for the world’s pagan religions.

Fox, who founded the nonprofit organization in 1974, is not fond of the “W” word, which conjures images of pointy black hats and broomsticks. The word also is weighted with the dark history of genocide against early pagan practitioners, whose isolation and affinity for nature were mistaken for black magic and Satanic liaisons.

Fox’s church occupies a recently rehabbed barn and about 200 acres of forests and fields just north of Barneveld. She’d like for people to recognize Wicca and the dozens of other pagan religions for their devotion to preserving nature.

Fox believes that absolute equality is a universal truth, and supporting LGBT rights has always been a part of her civil rights work, as well as that of her husband Dennis Carpenter, a psychology professor at U.W.-Richland Center. As a college student, she helped found the Lambda Alliance, one of the first gay rights groups in the southern United States. 

Born Suzanne Marie Bisset to a Southern Baptist family, Fox grew up in Alexandria, Va. As a child, she first experienced an unusual connection to nature while sitting under a pear tree in her parents’ backyard. The surroundings seemed to speak to her in unusual ways, she says.

“I began to feel the tree and understand it, as I did other forms of plants and animals,” says Fox, who changed her name when she began to write about pagan themes and issues. “I started having mystical experiences as a child, including precognitive dreams.”

Now 64, Fox began identifying with pagan spirituality at age 17 and became interested in the classics and ancient traditions. At 21, she conducted her first ceremony, one based on ancient Greco-Roman traditions, to welcome spring in the Sunken Gardens on the College of William and Mary’s campus in Williamsburg, Va., where she was an undergraduate. She graduated in 1971 with a degree in psychology, spent some time at Rutgers University and finally landed at UW-Madison, where she earned a master’s degree in counseling in 1995.

Fox’s interest in social justice issues intensified concurrently with her faith. She was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and an early feminist, working as executive assistant for Kathryn Clarenbach, the founding chair of the National Organization for Women.

Fox also was active in the  first Earth Day. As an undergraduate in 1970, she organized an environmental teach-in while at William and Mary to take action against pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Fox became an ordained minister in the Wiccan church in 1978. Her ministry has included performing same-sex marriages — something she says that she’s been doing for 30 years.

“Spiritual marriage rites, whether legally binding or not, can enrich the relationship and strengthen support for the couple within their converged networks of family and friends,” Fox says. 

In March, Fox was one of four religious leaders who performed blessings of same-sex couples at the culmination of the national interfaith service on Capitol Hill, part of the rally for marriage equality on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. More than a dozen same-sex couples were joined together during that ceremony.

The Wiccan faith and other pagan religions are seeing greater interest from the LGBT community, whose kinship with the groups is strengthened by their mutual experience of social persecution. However, it’s hard to know how many gay and lesbian members the faith has attracted, because many fear persecution if they come out as pagans.

For that reason, the number of practicing pagans in general is hard to estimate. Based on networking and other means, Fox believes all U.S. pagan groups combined total from 750,000 to 1.5 million practitioners.

The numbers are growing thanks to the efforts of Circle Sanctuary and other pagan groups. Circle Sanctuary ministers have been active as chaplains in the U.S. military and in prison programs, and the organization has been a strong supporter of environmental programs, including prairie restoration.

The Wiccan church’s most visible success was a 2007 victory against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to allow pentacles, the Wiccan equivalent of the Christian cross or the Jewish Star of David, to be carved on the headstones of military veterans. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, representing Circle Sanctuary and the widows of several Wiccan soldiers, won the concession from the Bush administration to settle a suit filed in U.S. District Court of Western Wisconsin.

The graves of nearly a dozen military veterans, including that of U.S. Army Sgt. Patrick Dana Stewart, the first Wiccan serviceman killed in Afghanistan, sit atop the “Military Ridge” section of the Circle Sanctuary Cemetery, one of Wisconsin’s first ”green” cemeteries. Fox serves as director of the cemetery. 

“I have been a peace activist all my life, but I have a warrior dimension to me,” says Fox as she gazes at Stewart’s grave marker and the forested hills beyond Military Ridge. “As a nation we were founded on the basis of equality, and we have to work to guarantee equality and freedom for all.”

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