Neighbor objects to Mountain Moon fest

Of The Gazette Staff

Church group to picket its own summer camp after unwittingly renting it out to coven of witches

There's not much Gail Beauchamp can do about a circle of Montana pagans who rented a nearby church camp for a summer festival next month, but the Red Lodge woman says Bible-believing Christians won't let it pass unnoticed.

"I believe in the right to freedom of religion,'' she said. "But I also believe in my right to protest.''

Beauchamp, who has Bible verses at her fingertips and considers spreading Christianity a moral responsibility, said she and other like-minded people will try to organize pickets at the entrance to the Westminster Spires Camp during the Mountain Moon Circle festival Aug. 11-14.

Nytewind, a retired schoolteacher living in Billings and priestess of the Circle, said she doesn't understand the animosity and fear that people harbor for what she describes as a "very beautiful, very positive religion.''

The priestess asked not to be identified by her secular name, fearing that public disclosure would reveal the identities of others who share her religion.

"People are afraid because we are very persecuted," Nytewind said. "People have lost their jobs and been rejected by their families."

The upcoming gathering is especially galling to Beauchamp because the Mountain Moon Circle plans to have its festival at a church camp.

According to a memo issued July 11 by Ted Williams, interim clerk at the Presbytery of Yellowstone in Bozeman, which operates the camp seven miles south of Red Lodge, a woman called in February to rent the facility for five days in August. The memo said that camp officials did not know the woman or her connection with the Mountain Moon Circle. Her deposit was accepted and the dates were reserved for her.

"When we discovered in May that her group was sponsoring an event for "pagans, witches, Wiccans, druids, heathens and all other faiths, we began to consider our options," the memo said.

In June, the Presbytery decided to notify the renter that her reservation had been rescinded, and her deposit was returned. But through her attorney, the woman filed a complaint with the Forest Service.

Babete Anderson, spokeswoman for the Custer National Forest, told The Gazette that the camp is on Forest Service land and operates under a special-use permit. Under the Forest Service permit, the camp can't discriminate against renters based on their religion, she said.

The Presbytery's policy of running the camp in accordance with the Holy Scriptures was trumped by government requirements of nondiscrimination on religious grounds, the memo said. It said that the camp must comply with government requirements and allow the Mountain Moon Circle festival.

"To do otherwise is to be in noncompliance, and Forest Service would break our lease on the camp,'' the memo explained.

"Now the One we claim to follow clearly calls us to love those we disagree with,'' it concludes. "So, as Christian witnesses, let's do what we can to lovingly serve them in preparation for and during their Aug. 10-14 event.''

Beauchamp, who said she has been called intolerant and worse for her stand against the Mountain Moon Circle, said posters on the picket line will attempt to educate the pagans.

"Our posters will be a plea to forsake these evil religions,'' she said. "I really feel these women are wasting their time.''

Beauchamp said she has learned that some of the people she knows and likes are Wiccans, and worries that their beliefs will condemn them to eternal damnation.

Nytewind describes her beliefs as an eclectic religion that honors the earth and the changing of seasons. No two Wiccans hold exactly the same set of beliefs, she said. Some of their beliefs are similar to American Indian religions with emphasis on fire, air, earth and water.

"Basically, all Northern European religions' roots go back to healers and wise women,'' Nytewind said.

Some Wiccans worship goddesses, others worship gods. Some believe in entire pantheons of gods and goddesses.

One entity her religion does not believe in is Satan, she said.

"If you're not a Christian, he isn't part of the pantheon,'' she said.

Nytewind expects about 35 people to attend the summer festival. Adherents of all religions are welcome as long as they are respectful, she said. Fees for the event, which includes food and a place to stay, are under $200.

The festival will include workshops, rituals and Isaac Bonewits, author of several books on magic and witchcraft. Bonewits will give workshops on topics including "Being a Pagan Man" and "Ritual for Empowerment.''

During three nights, sacred fire circles will be lit. The concept of the "Sacred Alchemical Fire Circle Enlightenment'' will be introduced to participants, she said. It's a trance dance that she describes as a healing experience. Not everyone will go into a trance, she said, but all will benefit.

"It's a very beautiful, very spiritual event,'' she said.

Nytewind said she has been to many similar festivals and has often endured the insults of people who disagree with her religion. Much of the hate is based on inaccurate propaganda, she said.

"It's an absolutely positive religion,'' she repeated.

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