Religious books removed from drug items display after inquiry

MURFREESBORO — Until last week, a glass case in the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department lobby displayed books related to the Wicca religion and Celtic lore alongside drug paraphernalia.

No labels explained why the bongs, pipes and drug-related items were in the case with books, including Living Wicca, Celtic Lore, The Witches’ Almanac and Celtic Magic.

The religious items, which had been on display for at least most of 2003, were removed after The Tennessean asked where the items had come from and why they were on display.

Civil liberties experts and those familiar with the Wicca religion expressed concern when they were shown photos of the original display. They later praised the department for removing the items.

”Is this supposed to be a message that these items are contraband?” asked Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, upon seeing the photographs.

”The written materials are all accessible, available to the public and protected under the First Amendment. Don’t they recognize they’re legal and protected? It sends a very bad message to link books and bongs.”

Deputy Chief Virgil Gammon said the assembly of the confiscated items by deputies was not directly supervised and once the ranking officials were made aware there might have been offensive items in it, they were removed. He said the department had not received any complaints from the public about the display.

Wicca is described as an earth-based religion, whose basic principle is ”do as you will, harm none.” The religion has some roots in pre-Christian times.

John Ferguson, an attorney and scholar who looks at religious issues for the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said the original display raised constitutional issues.

”Anytime the government puts up a display containing religious items, they need to make sure they’re not promoting or denigrating them,” he said. ”With no description or context, the average viewer could interpret it as having a negative connotation.”

Willie Jones, the owner of Magical Journey, a spiritual reality store on Louise Avenue in Nashville, said he didn’t want to pass judgment on the display, but called it ”uninformed.”

He offered to give a presentation on Wicca to the department and donate a copy of the book, The Law Enforcement Guide To Wicca, which was written by a Wiccan police officer to explain the religion to his peers.

After learning that the display had been changed, he said, ”It always impresses me when someone re-evaluates their thinking.”

”I want to commend them for doing the right thing,” the ACLU’s Weinberg said.

And Ferguson agreed: ”I think it’s a positive thing they decided to revisit the message they wanted to send the community.”

The case now contains the remaining drug-related items, over-the-counter energy supplements (sometimes called ”trucker speed”), two issues of High Times marijuana magazine and the book The Emperor Wears No Clothes: The Authoritative Historical Record of Cannabis and the Conspiracy Against Marijuana.

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