By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - Vanderbilt University, a prestigious school in the buckle of the South's "Bible Belt," is now offering excused absences to students wishing to observe Wiccan and pagan holidays.
This practice is already followed by the U.S. military.
Four Wiccan holidays were on the calendar Vanderbilt University's Office of Religious Life sent to faculty as days on which they should work with students who asked for excused absences.
"Vanderbilt's Office of Religious Life makes available to the campus community a calendar of holy days from a respected international source to raise awareness of the diverse religious practices that may exist on campus," reads the official university statement. The source is the BBC Interfaith Calendar.
"Students who wish to observe holy days are asked to coordinate with their professors ahead of time to make arrangements that will help them be observant while balancing their course work," the statement said. "Arrangements are made at the faculty member's and the student's discretion."
The news that students could get excused absences to celebrate Samhain (Halloween) or dance around the Maypole for Beltane (May 1) drew an enthusiastic reaction from at least one member of the Nashville Wiccan community.
"Wow, that's good news," said Frank "Elf" Gattis, who calls himself "resident skeptic and philosopher" at Goddess and the Moon, a Nashville bookstore that focuses on Wiccan and other "fringe belief systems that incorporate magic."
Wiccan practices involve honoring nature and the ritual practice of magic.
While it began as a Wiccan bookstore, Gattis says the store also deals with Native American, Norse, Voodoo and Gypsy religious traditions. Raised a Nashville Catholic but now practicing from "a smorgasbord" of rituals, including Wiccan, he said this is one more step in accepting diversity.
"A lot of people have a struggle being taken seriously for their beliefs," he said.
New Jersey public schools also recognize Wiccan holidays. New Jersey's Board of Education lists Wiccan observances along with Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian and others, including the Church of Scientology's celebration of L. Ron Hubbard's Birthday on March 13.
U.S. military chaplains recognize and include these beliefs and rituals along with any others practiced by members of the Armed Forces, according to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Todd Breasseale, in the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.
"We make all reasonable accommodations," said Breasseale.
"I'm immensely proud of how diverse our force is. If there is an organized religion out there, there's either a chaplain who can help deliver the rites of that religion or a chaplain who has contacts in the civilian community who can.
"Often, chaplains draw upon the service members themselves as sort of lay ministers for some of the smaller or less-common religions."
He called it "a remarkable example of how through tolerance and diversity, the U.S. Military is stronger and better ... and uniquely American."
(Writing and reporting by Tim Ghianni; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton)
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