The dear old Washington Post likes people who take bold stands in defense of the free exercise of their religious beliefs -- so long as those freely exercising their beliefs, it seems, aren't -- you know -- committed Christians in a tizzy over a certain kind of wedding ceremony or elderly nuns trying to defend their church's teachings on sexuality.
Consider, for example, a certain Phelan MoonSong (or Moonsong, both are out there in an online search) of Millinocket, Maine. He doesn't drive but needs a government-issued I.D. to get on an airplane, as do we all these days.
So he trundled off to the motor vehicle bureau, wearing the goat horns that are now part of his normal religious attire. The Post picks it up from there:
“As a practicing Pagan minister and a priest of Pan, I’ve come to feel very attached to the horns, and they’ve become a part of me and part of my spirituality,” Moonsong said, noting that he periodically soaks the horns in patchouli and cedar oil to keep them fresh and leathery. “The horns are part of my religious attire.”
Moonsong feels so attached to his horns that he refuses to take them off for anyone — including the state of Maine. In August, Moonsong said, officials at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in Bangor told him that he would need to remove the horns to receive a state-issued ID.
When he tried to explain to bureau employees that he is a “Priest of Pan” — one who considers the horns his “spiritual antenna” — they were not moved. They told that the horns would have to be approved by Maine’s secretary of state.
You can imagine what happened next: MoonSong's complaint sort-of stagnated until he dropped the ACLU card:
... Moonsong said he managed to avoid hiring a lawyer and filing a lawsuit.
After several months of waiting to hear from the state’s motor vehicle office following his initial visit, he says he informed the bureau that he was in touch with the ACLU. His ID arrived in the mail days later, he says.
A spokeswoman for the Maine secretary of state told the Bangor Daily News that Moonsong had not mentioned that the horns were religious in nature during his initial BMV visit.
“He did not cite religious reasons,” said the spokeswoman, Kristen Muszynski. “There are exceptions for religious headdress.”
And all's right in the world of religious liberty, so saith the scribes at The Washington Post, and, for that matter, so saith the authorities at the State of Maine.
Which, I suppose, is as it should be, since battles over religious headgear have long raged, with the decision generally going in favor of the headgear-wearer. The American Asssociation of Motor Vehicle Administrators, as the Post notes, has guidelines on how to handle such requests, not to mention a bunch of PDF-based articles on specific cases.
So what is the journalism question here?
Well, while the Post managed to mention the case of Alabama driver Yvonne Allen, who was told a headscarf-friendly rule applied "only to Muslims," there's no discussion, Post-wise of the broader application of the "free exercise" principle. This is rather strange, especially since the incoming administration led by Donald Trump might put a renewed emphasis on free exercise of religious conscience in areas other than the DMV.
Nor do we even have any consideration of how widespread horn-wearing is among pagans.
Are there experts on such questions? Granted, there's no grouping of pagan colleges or seminaries (at least not formally designated as such) from which academics can speak, but there is, well, Patheos.com, where "humanistic pagan" John Halstead holds forth on the faith he kind-of shares with MoonSong:
I agree that Mr. MoonSong should be able to wear his horns in his driver’s license photo. Second, I don’t think anyone has the right to force Mr. MoonSong to take his horns off. And third, I respect Mr. MoonSong’s right to call himself a Pagan.
But none of this changes the fact that I wish he didn’t. I wish he didn’t wear those horns and call himself Pagan.
There’s two reasons. The first is emotional: I just find it embarrassing. I already have to have the “not-that-kind-of-Pagan” talk way too often. And I just don’t like being associated with that kind of frivolity in religious matters. I take my religion very seriously, and it’s just really hard to take MoonSong seriously. But I’ll freely admit that that probably says more about me than it says about MoonSong.
But there’s another reason I wish MoonSong didn’t wear those horns and call himself Pagan: Tabloid publicity like this diminishes our credibility with the rest of world.
It would've been nice for the Post to have sought out another voice in this thing, especially since MoonSong and his horns have gone viral as an "epic win" for religious liberty. You know, there are probably even cultural conservatives out there savvy enough to hail this win as logical, if somewhat (to them) strange.
Meanwhile, let's see what happens if MoonSong takes up flower arranging, cake baking or wedding photography.