Posted on Sun, Sep 19, 2004 http://www.thestate.com/mld/thestate/news/local/9703075.htm


Great Falls resident’s problems multiplied after she challenged Town Council’s prayer policy


Staff Writer

A quiet life no more

Darla Kaye Wynne lives in an unassuming white house on a street of equally unassuming houses in the out-of-the-way town of Great Falls.

With a front yard full of tomato plants and a dog or two frequently playing there, it looks like any other house you might expect to see in a small town like Great Falls.

But Darla Kaye Wynne, because of her religious beliefs, no longer lives a quiet life in this town.  And her home is no longer the haven it used to be.

Wynne, 40, practices the earth religion Wicca, a Celtic-based faith whose followers worship both a god and goddess.  Raised a Southern Baptist in Louisiana, she took up Wicca in her 20s and has gained the rank of high priestess.

This small-boned, talkative woman with long, blond hair at first glance doesn’t seem different from many other women you might meet in small-town South Carolina.  The only indication of her chosen faith is a pentagram necklace.

But Wynne has gained national attention for herself — and Great Falls — because she sued her adopted town over a prayer.

In late July, Wynne won a decision from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia ordering Great Falls not to invoke the name of Jesus Christ during prayers before its Town Council meetings.  She said the prayer excludes non-Christians like her.

Wynne said she has endured escalating harassment from townspeople hostile to her religion and her lawsuit.

That harassment, according to Wynne and police reports, recently included someone’s breaking into her home and beheading one of her beloved parrots, an African gray she named “Little One.”  A note attached to the bird’s body read, “You’re next!”

“I’ve been devastated by all of this here,” Wynne said in a recent interview.  “People have asked me why I don’t just leave, but if I left, it would be like the people who did this won.  You couldn’t pry me out of this town now.”

She said the parrot’s death is just the latest and most violent in a series of attacks against her animals, including the deaths of several cats and the beating of one of her Yorkshire terriers.

“The kind of people who have been harassing me are the kind of people who will hurt an animal to drive a point home instead of confronting me directly,” she said.

Town officials and town attorneys said they know about the violent acts against Wynne’s pets and property and don’t in any way condone them.

Police Chief Mike Revels said Little One’s killing, like previous incidents, is being investigated.

Brian Gibbons, a Chester-based attorney who serves as legal counsel for the town of Great Falls, said, “This town doesn’t condone any illegal behavior toward Ms. Wynne.  Our police chief has done everything he can to protect her.

“The freedom to pray and express ourselves at Town Council meetings is the issue to us.  The town itself has never denigrated Ms. Wynne.  It just doesn’t agree with her position on prayer.”

Town officials have appealed July’s decision by a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit and hope to have their appeal addressed within 30 days, Gibbons said.  They have petitioned for the full court of appeals, 14 judges, to hear the case.

The town argues its prayers, customarily offered by individual council members, do not violate the separation of church and state, and that they reflect the beliefs of a majority of the citizens in Great Falls.

Great Falls, like most of South Carolina, is an overwhelmingly Christian community.  Churches dot the rural highways leading into the town of 2,200 and line its main street.  According to figures released by the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, 2.2 million of South Carolinia’s more than 4 million residents identify themselves as Christians.  No more than 5,000 South Carolinians identify themselves as pagan.

“It’s a very important issue, especially from a religious standpoint,” Gibbons said.  “Christianity is the prevailing religion in South Carolina, and it’s very important for Christians to be able to express their faith openly.”

Great Falls leaders’ position on prayer has gained support from South Carolina’s attorney general, Henry McMaster, who has said he would help the town fight the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.  Support for the town has also been voiced by a Virginia solicitor involved in a case similar to Wynne’s in Chesterfield County, Va., where a Wiccan has challenged a county council’s prayer.

Wynne’s position, meanwhile, has gained support from free-speech advocates ranging from the ACLU to the American Jewish Congress.  Recent news stories and columns about her experiences have sparked frequently heated discussions on Internet message boards worldwide.

“This is a diverse country with many different religions and faiths, as well as people with no religious beliefs,” said Columbia-based attorney Herbert Buhl, who is handling Wynne’s case.  “To have representatives of any government involved in giving a prayer that favors one religion over another is simply unconstitutional.”

AN AFFORDABLE HOUSE

This clash of religion and politics, old-time Southern custom and ancient Celtic religious rituals started because Darla Wynne needed an affordable place to live.

In 1998, the recently divorced Wynne bought for $5,000 a house on Walnut Street in what is called the Mill Hill section of Great Falls, and moved there from Statesville, N.C. Wynne had lived in Alaska before that, but she had moved to the Southeast to be closer to her mother, who lives in northern Florida.

Wynne chose Great Falls because she wanted a home with the kind of quiet, rural atmosphere she had become accustomed to in Alaska.  She first learned of the available Great Falls property in a newspaper ad.

The culture of small-town South Carolina and its overwhelmingly Christian majority wasn’t alien to Wynne because of her upbringing, she said.

Wynne found work in the Great Falls area as a home health worker and a driver for elderly people with medical problems, particularly Alzheimer’s patients.

Shortly after she arrived in Great Falls, Wynne said, she attended a council meeting to ask how to get drug dealers off a street corner near her neighborhood.

But Town Council members, she said, instead questioned her about bumper stickers on her 1995 GMC Sonoma truck that signified her Wiccan beliefs.  The stickers bore slogans such as “Witches heal” and “Freedom of religions means all religions,” along with the pentacle symbol (an upright star within a circle), which is associated with Wicca.

Town leaders declined to talk about Wynne’s allegations, referring to the town’s legal position.  In statements in the town’s legal brief, council members and Mayor H.C. Starnes maintain Wynne never was purposefully ostracized from the meetings.

Wynne said she became increasingly uncomfortable at the meetings, not because of the questions but because of the invocation that opened each meeting.

“A council member has always offered a prayer before our meetings,” said longtime Councilman J.C. Broom.

Broom himself often offered a prayer ending with the phrase “In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray.  Amen.”

At first, Wynne bowed her head silently during the prayer, but in 2000 she asked Mayor H.C. Starnes if a nonsectarian prayer could be offered that wouldn’t alienate non-Christians.  She was refused.

Wynne then suggested members of different religions be allowed to offer prayers, but the council refused, according to the ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.  She filed a lawsuit against the town in U.S. District Court in 2001.

Wynne initially worked the case on her own behalf, but she eventually received backing from the American Civil Liberties Union, with Buhl as her counsel.

ATTENTION BEYOND GREAT FALLS

Wynne’s story got national attention in early August when syndicated writer James Kilpatrick wrote a column supporting her position against sectarian prayer in public meetings.  The column ran the same week Wynne’s parrot was attacked.

As a result of the column and subsequent stories about Little One’s beheading, Wynne’s situation has caught the attention of everyone from pagans to fundamentalist Christians, free speech and religious freedom advocates and anonymous loose cannons.

Vague threats against her by someone claiming to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan were posted on the Great Falls Internet message board.  Threads containing the threatening language, as well as most of the others having to do with Wynne’s situation, have been taken down from the board.

Because of Little One’s beheading and the Internet threats, a dozen pagans from around South Carolina showed up at the Aug. 16 council meeting to bolster Wynne and her cause.  They walked into council chambers with Wynne, sat with her and listened quietly to the proceedings.

“I thought it was important to peacefully show solidarity with her — to show her there were others in South Carolina who heard about this and support her,” said Kit Peters, 28, of Charleston, who traveled to the meeting with his wife, Jamie, 26.

To comply with the 4th Circuit’s ruling, the meeting began with a prayer that called on “God” but not Jesus Christ.  Printed agendas passed out to attendees also included an outline of the town’s policy of religious tolerance.

Another contingent of supporters likely will show up at the next Town Council meeting, scheduled for Monday.

Gibbons, meanwhile, said he and the council members eagerly await the decision on their appeal.  Gibbons has indicated the town would be willing to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if its appeal is denied.

Wynne said she is staying close to home, where she can watch over her cats, dogs and pet raccoons.

“I kind of feel like a prisoner here these days,” she said.  “I don’t leave my house without somebody being here or watching it for me.

“But I’m not leaving.  If I left, they wouldn’t continue to investigate what these people have done to me, and if I left, what would happen to the next person who moves to Great Falls and is different?”

Reach Knauss at (803) 771-8507 or cknauss@thestate.com.





© 2004 The State and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.thestate.com