Parsing pagans properly

pagan holidayTom Breen is an extraordinarily good newsman in the Associated Press' Charleston, West Virginia, bureau. He manages to write compelling national stories by focusing on local trends and events. I've been reading his coverage of the sad case of a 20-year-old black woman who was raped and tortured. Six white individuals have been charged in the crime. Terry highlighted his story this past summer about small-town churches struggling to keep their doors open. His thoughtful comments have enlightened many discussions here at GetReligion, too. I was happy to see the way he covered the news coming out of Marshall University. Here's how he gets us into the story:

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.

The story has been getting a lot of play, so I'm thankful for how thorough and illuminating his story was. Breen took it beyond West Virginia to find out how other universities handle pagan holidays and to look at broader developments with pagan religious recognition, such as the Pentagon's recent decision to allow pagans a five-pointed star on veteran gravestones.

Breen took the time to interview reliable authorities on paganism, including Ronald Hutton and Helen Berger. He also interviewed our very own Jason Pitzl-Waters. And by "our," I mean someone who is a valuable member of our commenting community. Pitzl-Waters' Wild Hunt blog is a must-read for those interested in news and events dealing with the modern Pagan and Heathen communities -- and religion coverage in general.

With the general lack of information about pagans, and the diverse group of people who fit under its umbrella, Breen's story clarified what the term means:

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."

I asked Jason about the story and he said it was an important step in journalistic coverage to address modern paganism as a diverse movement of unique religious faiths, rather than as, say, a generic term for Wicca. Pagans have a broad diversity of thought within their religious culture, in the same way that monotheists do. One thing I find interesting is that The Associated Press Stylebook calls for a lower-case p when referring to pagans. And yet most pagan resources one finds in print use a capital p. Which do you think it should be?

Anyway, a shout-out to Tom Breen, for another well-researched and reported story. And to Jason Pitzl-Waters for his helpful quotes in same.

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