The witches of Lancaster, California practice an ancient, Earth-centered religion known as Paganism. A group of more than 300 residents of the area 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles sometimes invites the public to their gatherings. But they say their Christian neighbors violated their rights on the evening of March 16 when they showed up for a sacred spring equinox ceremony in the parking lot of a local Pagan gift shop, praying loudly to Jesus while drowning out the witches? singing and chanting with Christian hymns.

What followed next has sparked heated debate among residents over the definitions of “free speech” and “hate crime.” Some question whether various religions groups in the predominantly conservative Christian area will ever be able to peacefully coexist. The dispute has attracted the attention of representatives from state and federal governments, who are monitoring the situation.

At first the Christian guests remained mostly seated along the edge of the Pagan ceremony, praying quietly. Among them was a volunteer chaplain from the Lancaster Sheriff’s Office who sat in an SUV with its motor running. But as the ceremony got rolling, the Rev. John Canavello, who has since been suspended from the Sheriff’s office, allegedly pumped up the volume on his car stereo, drowning out the Pagan songs with a loud blast of Christian music, according to High Priestess Cyndia Riker, owner of the Witches Grove gift shop, which hosted the event.

??They jumped out of their parked cars and started to circle us. They were praying hard. It was really chaos. But we were focused because we were determined they weren’t going to stop us and force us to hide,” Riker says. “They believe we are Satan-based and we’re not. We don’t believe in the entity so therefore he doesn’t exist.”

One of the witches called sheriff’s deputies to report a disturbance, but the deputies, whose station was three blocks from the event, did not respond for 4-1/2 hours, long after everyone had gone. The Pagans believe the incident was a hate crime and that the Christians should be prosecuted under a state law that says threats against religious practitioners are a felony.

Lancaster Sheriff’s Capt. Tom Pigott said that no actual threats were made and that California law only applies to disturbances taking place in tax exempt buildings, not in parking lots, therefore the Christians were merely exercising their right to free public speech. He says the slow response time had nothing to do with Pagans calling for help. “It was a busy Saturday with plenty of emergencies and a noise complaint was low on our priority list,” he says.

The Pagans plan to lobby the California legislature for tougher laws against people who interrupt religious ceremonies. Meanwhile Riker, a former Lutheran, says she has not cast any negative spells on the Christians and is open to welcoming them back to her circle. She says, “If they want to pray for my soul that’s fine as long as they do it quietly.”

To learn about a Wiccan who is also a cop, read ?Wiccan Warrior? by Kerr Cuhulain, click here.

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