Growing up in America we are all raised with the understanding that there is religious freedom in our country. I know that where I went to school, I had classmates who were Jewish, Christian and Muslim. I was blessed to live in an area of the United States with some diversity. While I was raised Catholic, my parents taught my sisters and I to respect the beliefs of others even if they differed from our own. My mother and father always let us know that people of all races are beautiful and equal, and that sexual preference was a person’s own business. They were also accepting and supportive when I told them that I was a Pagan.
It’s strange how much the ideal differs from reality. While technically, on paper there is religious freedom in our country, religious equality is another story entirely. Almost any Pagan will tell you the stories about being accused of being a baby eater or of being a Satan worshipper for wearing a pentacle. Most of us have been through it and largely it’s all just rude but laughable stuff that rolls off your back and makes for some entertaining stories at post-ritual dinners.
But what about the stuff that isn’t so laughable? While that guy who screams “You’re goin’ to hell” at you while you’re checking out produce at the supermarket is easily written off as a random jerk, what happens when that guy runs your town? What do you do when he has a say in your ability to practice your faith undisturbed according to the laws of this country? This is precisely what is happening in Palenville, New York. Many of us are familiar with the Maetreum of Cybele and their tax case. I have become very familiar with the case as I am now in training to become a Cybeline priestess and will soon be moving into Central House, the religious residence on the property.
Over the past two years I have gotten to know Reverend Mother Cathryn Platine very well. We have spent hours upon hours talking about spirituality, the Goddess, our environment and methods of educating others about ways of living with greater respect for the Earth. The other priestesses of the Cybeline Revival are some of the kindest, bravest women I’ve ever known; women actively striving to preserve the place of the Goddess in a world that has worked so hard to forget her. These women are my spiritual community.
Sadly I was not present when all of the legal difficulties began. I hadn’t met Cathryn yet but the stories of discrimination, humiliation and waiting for the next shoe to drop have often been a topic of discussion amongst us; stories about issues with the Town of Catskill and even issues pertaining to the illegal occupancy of the property for a time by former Cybeline priestesses. Viktoria Whittaker, another priestess and the next in line to succeed Cathryn as Battakes (Reverend Mother) has also had to withstand the constant and harassing onslaught of litigation levied against the Maetreum. Cybeline priestesses, supportive residents of Palenville and donors from around the country have done everything in their power to continue to assist us in this battle with the Town of Catskill. To better understand the specifics of this case this is a timeline as explained by Cathryn Platine herself.
• July, 2005 – The Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater filed for incorporation.
• October, 2005 – The deed of the lands currently held by The Maetreum was officially transferred to the corporation.
• March 2006 – The Maetreum applied for property tax exemption which was immediately approved.
• June, 2006 – The Maetreum of Cybele applied for a 501(c)(3) federal tax exemption status as both a church and religious charity.
• November 2006 – A schism occurred between then priestesses of The Maetreum of Cybele resulting in Cathryn Platine fleeing the property in fear for her safety.
• March 2007 – The IRS confirmed 501(c)(3) federal tax exempt status, retroactive to 2005. Daniel Vincilette, the town lawyer, misrepresenting himself as the town tax assessor, inspected the property without prior notice and without Cathryn present as he had previously discussed with her. Just after the IRS approval, the Town of Catskill refused to renew The Maetreum’s property tax exemption at the request of a member of the town board.
• May 2007 – Rev. Mother Platine attended a Board of Review meeting to appeal the decision. When asked why the property exemption had been refused, board members would not provide the legal reference upon which that decision was reached.
• June 2007 – After months of attempts to rectify conflicts with the priestesses who illegally seized the property claiming that they were the rightful representatives of The Maetreum of Cybele, Cathryn contacted local law enforcement to remove them from the property as she was the legally recognized principal representative. They refused to take action. Rev. Mother Platine filed for eviction against the unlawful residents of the property and the eviction was thrown out in a local court.
• July 2007 – The illegal residents of the property vacated leaving behind squatters they had taken in during Cathryn’s absence. Many of these squatters had histories of mental illness and addiction.
• September 2007 – Cathryn regained residence of the caretaker’s home on the Maetreum’s land.
• December 2007 – The remaining squatters left the property.
• January 2008 – Rev. Mother Platine, Sr. Caillean McMahon and Viktoria Whittaker began to rebuild Central House after much of the home was destroyed during the schism.
• July 2009 – The Maetreum began legal action against the Town of Catskill.
• February 2011 – Judge George Pulver of the New York State Supreme Court in Greene County ruled that the Town of Catskill was holding The Maetreum of Cybele to standards to which no other religious organization was held but still wished to see the case go to trial.
• November 2011 – The case went to trial in Greene County with a different judge.
• June 2012 – Judge Richard M. Platkin ruled against The Maetreum of Cybele on the grounds that there was insufficient religious activity and that their charitable work was a front for providing affordable cooperative housing.
• November 2012 – The Maetreum filed for appeal.
• October 2013 – Arguments for The Maetreum’s appeal were heard.
• November 2013 – The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department, in a unanimous 4 judge decision, found for The Maetreum of Cybele, affirming that religious use of the property had been proven.
• January 2014 – The Town of Catskill filed with the New York State Court of Appeals stating that the appellate court did not have the right to overturn the ruling of the previous judge. Permission to appeal was granted. The Town has until June 2nd to file their appeal statements.
For seven years the priestesses of the Maetreum of Cybele have been fighting for their right to exist as other religious institutions do, by being offered the same rights and exemptions as Christian churches, Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques. Town board members have even expressed to local news sources that they will not stop until they win this case and that they feel that we are an “illegitimate religion”. As many small towns are feeling the pinch of trying financial times, it seems very strange to continue to pursue legal action on a case which has most likely cost more in tax dollars than winning would recover. While we hold full and new moon and solar holiday rituals in our outdoor temple and keep Goddess dedicated altar space in multiple locations in both homes on the property, it is still asserted by board members that our religious use of the property is insufficient. Is this is a case of blatant discrimination? I believe so.
Sadly this discrimination doesn’t stop with the Town of Catskill board. News sources have added their voices to the choir of intolerance with articles such as this one recently written with a definite air of mocking regarding the female aspect of divinity, the ordination of a priestess and a definite bias regarding intersex and transgender persons, somehow implying that they are lesser or undeserving of assistance, charity or equal rights.
Local vandals have in the past come onto the property, throwing rocks and slinging every slur under the sun ranging from race to sexual preference. One such incident occurred in the presence of fellow Pagan Activist contributor Shauna Aura Knight who led a community building workshop at The Maetreum. When the police were notified of the attack and threats of the vandal returning with an AK-47, the responding officer stated that since the vandal was only throwing rocks, that obviously that’s all he had. I firmly believe that had someone threatened a Christian congregation in a similar manner that the threat of further violence would have been taken seriously.
Even members of the Pagan community have been less than supportive. Some have called into question the practices of the Cybelines. Others have proposed that no religious organization should be given any tax exemption at all. Sister Viktoria Whittaker presents her perspective on the subject of federal religious tax exemption.
“The tax exemption.” says Sister Whittaker, “acts as check on the power of large churches and gives smaller churches a chance to survive”.
With recent Supreme Court rulings such as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission and the Citizen’s United decision, that tax exemption is what stands between us and a potential theocratic oligarchy. Should that tax exempt status be revoked from large churches, they would then be considered standard corporations. Because corporate campaign expenditures are no longer limited, their ability to pay for legislation would be limited only by how much they have, and how much they decide to shell out. For certain churches that can be an incredible amount of money. Currently though, laws do not allow 501(c)(3) tax exempt churches to financially participate in political campaigns or lobbying efforts.
Every person practicing a minority faith, especially a Pagan faith, has a stake in this case. While this may only currently apply to New York State, if the Town of Catskill succeeds, there will be precedent upon which other towns, driven by prejudice, may base their own cases. These precedents may not directly hold weight in other states legally; however, the case could provide a template for building cases against other religious organizations everywhere.
On behalf of The Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater I am asking for help. This continued litigation has very seriously depleted many of our resources of time, money and energy. We are asking that any religious organization in the state of New York who holds 501(c)(3) tax exempt status write an amicus curiae brief to be submitted with our appeal response. Should anyone have the means, donations to our cause would be appreciated as this most recent round of litigation will cost us $15,000. To date we have spent over $50,000 on this case, money which would have been better utilized in developing classes, literature and improving the buildings on our property which need repair. Should either request be outside of your means, please keep us in your thoughts. Tell others about us. Share this blog.
On Saturday, June 21st at 7pm eastern time, we will hold a ritual to ask for continued guidance on this next leg of our process. If you are in the Catskill area of New York and would like to join us on location, all are welcome. Should you wish to lend your assistance from elsewhere, please feel free to host your own ritual at the same time and perhaps together we can put the energy in motion to overcome this ignorance and abuse of our legal system, not only for us but for anyone who wishes to practice their religion with equal consideration. Below I have included information for our lawyer for the submission of amicus curiae briefs and the link to The Maetreum of Cybele’s website should you wish to donate to our cause.
May everyone be blessed with the freedom to peacefully practice their faith with the same lawful protections as everyone else.
If you wish to submit an amicus curiae brief please send all submissions to: Deborah Schneer, Attorney and Counselor at Law 23 Crown Street Kingston, New York 12401 845-658-7578 FAX: 888-589-5941