Occult classes canceled after church complaints
By JAMES MERRIWEATHER
The News Journal
DOVER, Del. -- Boscov's has been fined $5,000 and ordered to pay $21,000 to two Christians, two Wiccans and a pagan who accused the department-store chain of religious discrimination at its Dover store.
The plaintiffs contended that Boscov's bowed to pressure from church people and illegally dropped classes they planned to teach last fall during the store's Campus of Classes. In its defense, Boscov's said the classes -- including sessions on tarot, talismans, candle magic and the pentagram that drew complaints from Pastor William Jeffcoat of Capitol Baptist Church -- were called off for lack of diversity.
The Delaware State Human Relations Commission rejected Boscov's defense, all but accusing the company's witnesses of lying during two days of hearings completed Feb. 13.
"The commission finds that respondents' proffered reasons ... are unworthy of credence and served as a pretext for discrimination ... " the commission said.
Donna Jackson, a Dover spiritualist who was the lead complainant, was exultant after reviewing the commission's decision, which went out Wednesday and Thursday to parties in the case. While the case was pending, she said, expressions of support came in from Wiccans, pagans and Christians from as far away as Sweden, Ireland, Italy and Spain.
"I'm still shaking," said Jackson, who presented her case without the help of a lawyer. "I'm ecstatic over this.
"I wasn't confident or not confident about the outcome. It was something that we were just like on the edge of our seats with."
Jeffrey K. Martin, a Wilmington lawyer who represented Boscov's, said Thursday that he was weighing the advisability of recommending an appeal to Superior Court. From Boscov's corporate offices in Reading, Pa., a top official said an appeal was a real possibility.
"We're very disappointed with the decision, and we're examining our appeals options currently," said Jack Roach, senior vice president for risk management and loss prevention.
"That's all we can say at this time."
As the lead plaintiff and coordinator of the canceled classes, Jackson will get $4,500 from the department-store chain. Payments of $4,125 each will go to her co-complainants -- her son, Jason, a Christian from Dover; witches Marla Kepner and Chantel Henderson of the Camden-Wyoming area; and Norene Hamilton of Dover, a pagan.
Local practitioners describe paganism as any nature-based polytheistic spirituality, including Wicca, Buddhism, Druid beliefs and gnostic Christianity. Wicca is widely described as an Earth-based religion that finds the spirit of God in the wind, rain and other aspects of nature, drawing on the best traditions of witchcraft.
In its ruling, the Human Relations Commission traced the root of the case to fliers distributed at Pagan Pride Day, held at Boscov's last August, to get out word on the upcoming classes. At the time, Jeffcoat and some followers noted that some of the classes would be taught by practitioners of Wicca, which he described in his testimony as "very, very dark."
At the commission hearing, Jeffcoat and Boscov's officials testified that the decision to cancel the classes was made before his complaint was lodged. Citing testimony, the commission found, though, that another Baptist minister was among people who complained earlier about the courses, which were ostensibly canceled on the same day that an advertisement intended to attract participants to the classes was published in a local newspaper.
Jeffcoat was out of town Thursday and unavailable for comment.
In summing up its decision, the commission, which enforces the state's public-accommodations law, noted that the department-store chain came in for an extra whack or two because of its size.
"With all Boscov's civic involvement," the commission said, "their decision to single out a particular group and their inability to resolve the situation in a nondiscriminatory manner is particularly intolerable."
Hamilton, the pagan, said she didn't find much joy in the monetary award, given the investment of time in the case and the difficulty she faces in getting re-established as a spiritualist in the Dover area.
"But I think it's truly wonderful," she said. "It's a truly, truly wonderful victory for all the people considered to be in so-called minority religions."