FW: Pagan holidays added to excused absences
- Interesting article for Discussion:--
"Of course it is happening in your head, Harry,
but why on earth should that mean it is not real?"
~Dumbledore to Harry Potter
Pagan holidays added to excused absences
By TOM BREEN, Associated Press Writer Thu Nov 1, 3:49 AM ET
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - When George Fain visits a grave to mark a pagan holiday, she won't have to worry about the work she's missing in her classes at Marshall University .
That's because her absence Thursday on the Samhain holiday has been approved by the Huntington school, which for the first time is recognizing pagan students' desire to be excused from class for religious holidays and festivals.
The university with an enrollment of about 14,000 may be the only school in the country to formally protect pagan students from being penalized for missing work that falls on religious holidays, although others have catchall policies they say protect students of every religious faith.
But as members of the eclectic group of faiths gathered under the term "pagan" become more willing to publicly assert their beliefs, other schools may follow Marshall's example, Fain said.
"I think we may have opened a door," she said. "Now that we know we can be protected, that the government will stand behind us and we feel safe, it's going to be more prevalent."
The decision to allow pagan students to make up missed work from classes on holidays was simply an extension of existing university policy toward members of other religious groups, said Steve Hensley, Marshall's dean of student affairs.
"I don't think there are a lot of students here who have those beliefs, but we want to respect them," he said. "It was really just a matter of looking into it, and deciding what was the right thing."
Students are responsible for establishing that they are religious believers and that the holiday in question is important to their respective tradition by filing a written request with Hensley. The university is aware of the potential for some students to falsely claim to be pagan, he said.
Paganism experts say they aren't aware of any other university with such a policy. A call to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers was not returned Wednesday.
Some schools have blanket policies that allow students to be excused for any religious holiday. Lehigh University in Pennsylvania has had such a policy for about eight years, said Lloyd Steffen, a religion professor and the university's chaplain.
Such an accommodation for pagan students is rare in Britain, the birthplace of modern paganism.
"Nobody yet gets any holiday for pagan festivals in the United Kingdom. It seems to be an American original," said Ronald Hutton, a history professor at the University of Bristol in England.
By specifically including pagans, Marshall is taking an important step toward recognizing the validity of their beliefs, said Jason Pitzl-Waters, an authority on paganism who edits the Wild Hunt Web site, a blog about religion, politics and culture.
"That's part of the struggle for modern pagans," said Pitzl-Waters, a pagan. "Even though modern paganism has been in public since the 1950s, a lot of people still see it as a rebellious teenage activity, not necessarily something you do as a religious observance."
That's starting to change, according to Helen Berger, a sociology professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.
She cited the recent decision by the Department of Defense to agree to pagan requests that the five-pointed star — sometimes called the pentacle — be allowed on the gravestones of veterans in national cemeteries.
"That was a major win, and it's encouraged them to start looking for areas where they can gain the rights and recognition that other religions have," Berger said.
The term "pagan" encompasses a diverse array of faiths that can include Celtic, Druid, Native American and various earth-centered and nature-based beliefs.
"What binds us together isn't our theology, necessarily," Pitzl-Waters said. "What binds us together is a sense of communal practice and togetherness."
Marty Laubach, a sociology professor at Marshall and adviser to a group of pagan students, said he's seen fliers advertising pagan meetings ripped down by others.
But actions like the university's decision on absences encourage pagans to be more vocal, he said.
"You'll have more people now who are willing to say, `These are my beliefs,'" he said. "The American neopagan movement is a lot stronger than you think.".