Imagine hundreds of gay, pagan males flocking to Kansas once a year to celebrate their religion. The Board of Education would declare Darwin's birthday a state holiday before this scenario would occur, right? Actually, this gathering has been a reality since 1992, when the Midwest Men's Festival began meeting annually at Camp Gaea, a private park located north of Tonganoxie.
"There is camping, swimming and hiking," informs John Pearse, who heads the board of directors for Earth Rising Inc., which owns Gaea. "It's just like any other camp, but you can be naked. Two guys can walk around holding hands without risking getting beaten up; pagans can hold their rituals without getting a burning cross outside their tent. You can do what you want as long as you are not harming someone else or breaking laws."
Pagans freely practicing their religion in the heart of the Bible Belt? Now that's the kind of freedom that puts that warm, fuzzy, patriotic feeling in my heart and makes me proud to be an American. With the government's recent attack on civil liberties, it's good to know that the First Amendment is still working in Kansas.
Well it WAS working, until earlier this month when the Leavenworth County Commission denied Camp Gaea an operating permit. Now those who worship nature will no longer be able to hike to the meditation area of Moon-Fire Garden or stop by the sweat lodge on the way to Venus Mound.
I know what you're thinking. Just at a time when blind jingoism is sweeping the country, the Leavenworth County Commission has to go and do something completely un-American. What was it thinking?
"What goes on there is a nudist camp," declares Leavenworth County Commissioner Bob Adams. "I don't want to talk about it too much because if you don't say it, they can't charge it against you," he continues, alluding to the expected legal challenge by Earth Rising. Despite pleading the Fifth, Adams is quite frank about his views on certain religious minorities.
"I don't think (Camp Gaea) adds to the quality of life to our citizens in Leavenworth County," he says. "When I issue a special use permit, I consider the image it brings and how it is going to affect the county. That's what I base my decisions on. I want to make Leavenworth County a good place to live and raise a family. I want to create good places."
And for Adams, "good places" means no paganism and no homosexuality and ironically no "letting freedom ring" either.
"It's not appropriate," he says. "I think that different lifestyles don't mix."
Maybe Adams might see things differently if he actually visited the camp and met with people there. Joe Daniels, the only one of the three commissioners to not vote against Camp Gaea, stopped by the park and talked with its directors beforehand. But would Adams?
"No, I don't think so," he retorts firmly. "I don't care to get into a big controversy over this. I made my decision and I don't plan on changing in it."
Despite this intransigence, Pearse recognizes that the commissioners were under pressure from many voters in the county.
"The values of the people in the camp are different than the surrounding community," Pearse explains. "Nudity, homosexuality and non-Christian religions are not accepted. However, we are not imposing our values on the community, so we expect the community not to impose its values on us."
Respecting the First Amendment seems like a reasonable enough request. Pearse offers the lowdown on some of the misconceptions people have about Camp Gaea.
"You can take your clothes off if you want to, but it's not like in a nudist camp where everyone has to take their clothes off," he explains. "For most people it is a spiritual center. While most camp-goers are pagans, anyone can go; we have Christians, Buddhists and others. Families go as well and bring their children."
Pearse also informs me that Camp Gaea was one of the few places where pagans can freely perform their rituals in nature.
"The rituals depend on the tradition," he explains. "Wiccans usually call the four directions or invoke the goddess and the god, which represent the sun and the moon. The ritual could be wine and bread being passed around by the priest and priestess."
That's no big deal. It's not unlike what some Christians do every Sunday when they ingest the body of Christ and polish it off with a shot of blood. Pearse and supporters are prepared to take their case to court. The ACLU has encouraged Earth Rising to fight the denial of the permit as a land-use issue.
"The commission's decision was not legal because we haven't been breaking any laws," Pearse says. "The decision was made on a moral basis, not a legal basis."
Here's the real kicker: Earth Rising's ace land-use attorney is none other than the Kansas state legislator for Leawood, Republican Doug Patterson. Republicans defending the rights of pagans? Now that is a truly beautiful thing! What a country. Hand me some tissues, I'm going to break into "God Bless America." Maybe soon, pagan citizens will once again be able to take the trail to Herne's Hollow and freely do their energy work in the forest, knowing that their rights to worship multiple deities are protected in this "sweet land of liberty."