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Orange County

Pagans' Presence Tests Tolerance in High Desert

Lancaster: Deputies fail to act after Christians disrupt ritual. Some see it as a black eye for the area.

April 28, 2002|RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the shivery evening of the spring equinox, 50 hooded pagans formed a circle in the parking lot behind the Witches Grove gift store in downtown Lancaster. After praying to their gods, they prepared a ritual sacrifice: a white chocolate bunny destined for a fondue pot.

A desert wind killed the Sterno cans, and the tongue-in-cheek offering was spared. By then, about 20 Christians had gathered nearby to pray for the pagans' souls, and two were walking around the circle reading Bible verses. The tone of the evening suddenly shifted.

Words were exchanged. A praying man, who turned out to be a sheriff's chaplain, was blaring Christian pop tunes through his SUV speakers. "Forgive them, Lord," he said. "They don't know what they're doing."

The pagans said they felt intimidated and called the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Although the Lancaster station is three blocks away, it took deputies 4 1/2 hours to respond. By the time they arrived, everyone was gone.

The events of the evening of March 16--since dubbed "Wiccagate" by the local media--have ignited an intense debate among local residents over 1st Amendment rights, hate legislation and the limits of tolerance in the high desert, a bastion of Christian conservatism that is grappling with growing racial and religious diversity.

Authorities Say No Crime Was Committed

Many of the pagans call the interruption of their services a hate crime. But Lancaster Sheriff's Capt. Tom Pigott said no one was assaulted, no property was damaged and no laws were broken.

Nevertheless, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich has asked the Sheriff's Department to explain why deputies took so long to respond, and the Antelope Valley Interfaith Council has scheduled a day of prayer May 19 in response to the events.

"What technically happened was not a crime, but a great deal of hatred motivated the action," said council President Bishop Bernard Price, whose Church of St. Thomas is part of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. "The Christians accused [the pagans] of being Satanists, and [the pagans] don't believe in that. It's only the religious right that believes in Satan."

Many of the Christians who were in the parking lot that night are unrepentant and are worried that the 2-year-old shop in the heart of downtown Lancaster is an outpost of satanic activity. Yet for many residents, the incident is an embarrassing public relations gaffe for the Antelope Valley.

In recent years, valley leaders have founded a number of politically correct institutions to combat the area's reputation for narrow-mindedness, including a hate crimes hotline, a human relations task force and an anger management course for teens drawn to bigotry. This year, thousands of local students created a giant human peace symbol for the third annual "Increase the Peace" day, in which speakers took up themes of harmony and tolerance.

Pastor Tom Pickens, president of the Antelope Valley Christian Ministers Assn., said events such as interfaith prayer services held after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks better reflect the valley's religious attitudes.

"I think it's somewhat unfortunate that this incident has been blown out of proportion," Pickens said.

Cyndia Riker--the owner of the Lancaster store catering to witches and warlocks--disagrees. The mother of three calls her religion, paganism, an earth-centered form of worship with a history that predates Christianity. Paganism and a popular subset of the religion, Wicca, have nothing to do with Satanism, she said.

Delayed Response Called Deliberate

Riker, who has owned the shop since September, believes the delayed response by authorities was the result of a close relationship between the department and some of the protesters. She noted that Pastor Billy Pricer was among the Christians in the parking lot that night.

Pricer, a former sheriff's deputy, is head chaplain at the station and works closely with local deputies through UCAN, his counseling program for at-risk youth. The man blaring his stereo was Pricer's son-in-law, John Canavello, then associate chaplain at the Lancaster sheriff's station, authorities said.

Some of the pagans say Canavello flashed his sheriff's identification card that night and told the pagans their calls to the station would be ignored. Canavello denies the allegations, but said his ID was on his dashboard.

Capt. Pigott denies any conspiracy. He said his deputies did not know Pricer and Canavello were at the ceremony and they were overburdened that night.

Lancaster dispatchers received a call about a religious observance being disturbed about 4 p.m., but deputies recognized the address as a business and logged it as a loud music complaint, he said. With 76 other calls that night, deputies had to prioritize and could not get to the shopping center until 8 p.m., well after the incident was over.

The incident was reviewed by hate crimes specialists from the Sheriff's Department and the district and city attorney's offices. They all determined that no laws were broken, said Sgt. Katherine Voyer, who heads the sheriff's hate crimes task force.

They also declined to categorize it as a "hate incident," because no derogatory words were used, Voyer said.

But Riker and other pagans said they are dismayed by what they see as weaknesses in anti-hate laws that let the Christians off the hook.

Riker said her group will begin lobbying officials to change the laws.

While Canavello has been suspended as a sheriff's chaplain for his involvement in the incident, Riker said she also would like the Sheriff's Department to cut its ties to Pricer.

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