Dissecting a new Wiccan dilemma

As always, the goal here in GetReligion land is to dig into the nuts and bolts of religion-news coverage in the mainstream press. Truth is, this is easier to do when the coverage is bad than when it is good. Besides, when we praise coverage almost no one writes comments and these good-coverage posts do not affect the trolls who say that we hate the mainstream press. However, some stories deserve to be praised -- such as the following msnbc.com investigative piece about a Wiccan believer who may or may not have lost her Transportation Security Administration job because of prejudice against her faith. As is often the case in workplace controversies, it is hard to describe the precise point where personality conflicts turn into discrimination that can end up in court.

But there are three things I can say about this story.

(1) Reporter Bill Dedman literally buries the reader in often riveting information about the conflict between witch Carole A. Smith and Mary Bagnoli, her former mentor and the woman whose complaints about Smith and her work drove this case to its still messy conclusion. No, we do not know anything about Bagnoli's religious beliefs, in case that would be relevant.

(2) It's clear that religion played some role in this case and that the Religion in the Workplace rules created in the era of the Clinton White House -- the product of a stunningly broad coalition of religious groups -- remain as relevant as ever. This story could have used a small sidebar detailing the key details of these rules.

(3) Wiccans face a tough decision in the complex marketplace that is American religion. Do they openly tell co-workers about their faith, placing the religion card on the table in case they later need to prove discrimination, or do they try to keep their faith hidden out of fear of intolerance? How would we answer that question if we were talking about Jews, Muslims, Sikhs or, oh, Pentecostal Christians?

Here is a key chunk of the story, offering a summary of the initial accusations:

The assistant director told her he was investigating a threat of workplace violence. He said that her former mentor in on-the-job training, officer Mary Bagnoli, reported that she was afraid of Smith because she was a witch who practiced witchcraft. She accused Smith of following her on the highway one snowy evening after work and casting a spell on the heater of her car, causing it not to work. Well, actually, Bagnoli said she hadn't seen Smith's car, but she had seen Smith. "I thought to myself," Smith recalls, "what, did she see me flying on my broom?"

Carole Smith proudly acknowledges being a witch, a practitioner of Wicca, the pagan religion. She does have a broom, too, but just for show. Not all Wiccans use the word witch, but Smith and some others are reclaiming it as a term of respect, sometimes said to mean "wise woman." She says she had told at least one person at work about her beliefs. But as for hexes, no, Smith said Wiccans don't go in for that sort of foolishness.

"I was dumbfounded," Smith said. "I told him, that's not what Wicca is. We don't cast spells. That's not witchcraft. That's black magic or voodoo or something else. To put a spell on a heater of a car, if I had that kind of power, I wouldn't be working for TSA. I would go buy lottery tickets and put a spell on the balls."

The assistant director, Matthew W. Lloyd, testified later that he realized immediately there was no genuine threat of workplace violence. Smith hadn't followed anyone home -- that's the only highway going toward her home from the airport. It was just a personality conflict made worse by fear of an unfamiliar religion.

In addition to the Wiccan element of the story, Smith also turned into a whistle blower about security issues in the Albany airport security zones, even if she did this, in part, as a reprisals about the complaints about her work that were stacking up in her own personnel file.

As a reader, the most striking passages in this piece come near the end when Dedman draws on court transcripts that cut right to the chase. This is long, but it gives you a good idea about the style of this news feature.

Though she lost her case, the transcript of the hearing is revealing. The judge who ruled against her kept pointing out that the TSA officials were changing their stories.

"You expect me to believe that?" Judge William Macauley of the EEOC asked one supervisor. "You're hedging," he told another.

The judge was most withering in dealing with Matthew Lloyd, the assistant director who handled the workplace violence complaint. Lloyd couldn't explain why he had not noted in his report his conclusion that there was no actual potential for workplace violence. He couldn't explain why he had told other managers that Smith was uncooperative when she left his meeting in tears, when, as he testified, he had concluded that she was merely emotional.

And Lloyd kept changing his story about why he thought mediation "would be a good venue for Ms. Smith to alleviate any misconceptions" about her religion.

Judge Macauley: Why? Why? Why? Why should that be a good venue? It should be an irrelevant venue. If Ms. Bagnoli has a problem with her religion, then she needs to be corrected that it's not relevant on the job and to ignore it. Am I correct?

Lloyd: Yes. You're absolutely correct.

Judge: Let's take the witchcraft out of it. If someone complains to you, he's Jewish, and refers to a stereotype about his Judaism, go to mediation and work it out? Is that management's response to that?

Lloyd: No. That would not be management's response to that.

Judge: OK. But witchcraft takes it into a different thing? I guess. I guess witchcraft and Judaism are different in the sense that -- what?

Lloyd: To be perfectly honest, sir, at the time, I wasn't even -- I didn't know anything about witchcraft or Wiccanism. ... I wasn't even aware that Wiccanism was a recognized religion at the time. I had to research it afterwards.

Judge: What's your impression of witchcraft?

Lloyd: I don't have an impression of witchcraft.

Judge: You don't have an impression? You expect me to believe that? You have no impression of witchcraft. ... When someone says, "I'm a witch," you say -- you just draw a blank?

Lloyd: Well, it could be claimed they're a good witch, or it could be, you know, the Wicked Witch of the West. I don't know enough about it to make a determination.

When asked why the agency's reaction to the religiously based complaint about hexes was listed on Smith's termination letter, TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said, "But it also listed a lot of good reasons to fire her."

This is must reading for anyone who cares about religious liberty and mainstream coverage of religion in the workplace. This, by the way, is not a liberal case or a conservative case. It's a religious liberty case. Period.

Read it all.

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