Religious Intolerance, Crack of the Masses

Here’s a scary Halloween story.

Police officers with shot guns and flack jackets break up a pagan wedding, where 2 people are wearing fairy wings
by Tish Owen (owner of The Goddess and The Moon, Nashville TN)

Last night, Saturday October 4th, 2002, I attended a handfasting in Edwin Warner Park in Nashville, Tenn. This is a park that we have used for ritual, both large and small, for more than ten years now. The wedding party was small, only 8 people including myself. The groom had gone down to the park office and gotten a permit for the site. He told the woman who issued the permit that the purpose was a handfasting. In all the years that we have used the park, we have never hidden who we were or what we were doing in the park. I myself have a very nice relationship with the woman in the Parks Reservations office. The bride was young and nervous, she wore a beautiful white gown, flowers in her hair and fairy wings. The groom was handsome and nervous, tall and dressed in ren clothes and a lovely cloak. The ceremony was performed by a friend of mine, many of you know, Beth. It was touching and wonderful.

As we were bringing down the circle and asking for blessings and protections on the park, we were stormed by 6 park rangers. They roared into the area with search lights on, jumped out of their cars with guns raised, cocked and loaded. They screamed at us to freeze, and raise our hands. We were quickly surrounded by men with guns trained on us. They also had flashlights with which they blinded us. They demanded to know where the other people were, and when we tried to answer, we were screamed at to answer when we were asked a question.20 Thus began an hour long ordeal where we were searched, questioned, and verbally abused, all while we had our hands raised and guns pointed at us.20

The permit was produced within 2 minutes of the rangers arrival, but that did not satisfy them. They asked us who we were, what we were doing and several more times, “where were the other people.” We were asked who was in charge, Beth stepped up to that. One of the rangers started to yell at her about the candles. He stated that he had had that conversation with her before. I stated that it was a conversation he had with me about a year before. He recognized me at that point and started to tell me that we could not have religious ceremonies in the park. I told him that we had that conversation as well a year before. That the next Monday after our conversation, I had talked to his boss at Warner Park who told me that we were within the rules of the park and that no other permit was necessary. The calmer and more reasonable we were, the more an gry and agitated the rangers became.20

After about 15 or 20 minutes, two of the rangers started discussing me within my hearing, one of them turned to me and asked if my name was Ann Gattis, I told him it was Tish Owen. They continued to discuss me, and said that they recognized that name as being on permits for years. One ranger asked if we did not usually get a site by the river. I told him we did. Another asked me if I owned a shop, I told him I owned the Goddess and the Moon. Then they said that we were not honest when we got permits as to what we were doing, and the permits were always in different names. We were accused of not shooting straight with them and telling them half truths. I asked what those half truths were and was told that I would not tell them my correct name. I told them that my name had been Owen for four years and my ID would show that to be the truth. We were accused of being unorthodox. Several of the rangers said “If you didn’t know, and you came up on this, what would you think?” Another said “no matter what, you think that we are supposed to just walk up and make all nice with you people.”

We were asked what religion we were several times. One ranger asked if we were Wiccan. One ranger, the one I had spoken to the year before said that ‘this is a park and you are trying to turn it into something else.” I was told by one ranger that I was arguing with him, when all I was doing was answering his questions. Another told me he did not like my attitude. The men in the party were all searched. Finally we were allowed to put our hands down. If you have never stood with your hands above your head for 30 minutes, let me tell it is not pleasant. All through the ordeal, the bride cried, sometimes breaking into sobbing fits. They searched our belongings including all the ritual gear. They confiscated the sword and athame, after driving them both into a picnic table to prove they were sharp. They made us all produce IDs, took all our info and the tag numbers from our cars. At least two of the rangers told the bride to stop crying because everything was just fine now and there was no reason for her to continue crying.

Finally they left the immediate area. We began to clean up and make sure that we had gotten everything. Beth walked around the circle to make sure we had gotten all the tea lights. One of the rangers came running back to us, and yelled at her to tell him what she was looking for. They again retreated from the area. We loaded our cars and talked among ourselves, still in shock. One of the men, laughed and said “hey this is the first shotgun handfasting.” We all laughed and that brought the rangers back to ask what was going on and say, “We heard someone screaming!” We stated that we were laughing. That did not seem to sit too well with him. After a minute or two, another ranger approached us and demanded once again to know where all the rest of the people were, all the people who had run into the woods. We told
him again, there was no one else. He then asked the same question, and got the same answer. We were then told to collect our stuff and get out, despite the fact that it was 1 minute after 10:00 and the park does not close till 11:00. We packed and left, as we left, we were stopped and our cars were checked, for a head count.

I must say that all the members of the wedding party were calm, acted very well, and were very cooperative. It is always smart to cooperate with a man who has a gun in your face. There was no panic. Even the bride did not panic, she was just so upset that her wedding was ruined by the rangers. Who could blame her. After having thought about this for more that 24 hours, I can say with total honesty that I believe that if one of us had so much as sneezed, we would have been shot. The rangers were driven by testosterone, adrenalin, fear and hatred. If you think that you are safe from this level of storm trooper behavior, you are wrong. They knew who we were and that we had the proper permits within minutes, yet they continued to harass us for an hour. We are a diverse community of free thinkers and independent people, yet, in the face of such action we must pull together…

I wrote to the owner of the store, asking if I could help. I’m not Pagan but I’m against religious intolerance, especially by the Police.

Here was the reply

Greetings Lee,

Indeed the incident did happen. If you got a copy of the original email that I wrote, then you have the details. We had a meeting with the park officials that went very well. We recovered the property that was conficated, our names were removed from the incident records, the bride and groom will get a written apology and their money for the site returned, we have guidelines for pagans in the park and I will be teaching an alternative religion class to the rangers in January. We wished to solve this problem and make sure that it did not happen again. We opted to try and do this internally with park officials. We feel that we have done so. I did talk to my lawyer to get her advice and find out what kind of a case we had, and we had a good one. Still it seemed that the greater good was served by not bringing in lawsuits. At this point we are pretty satisfied. Thank you for your concern.


Here’s a link about the article in a local paper with the Police’s side of the story.
Just in case that link doesn’t work anymore, here is a local version of that article on my own server.

As an end note, even if they were doing what the police thought they were doing, as long as they weren’t hurting anyone or anything, they shouldn’t have received the treatment they did. I’m reminded of a quote from this really good book I read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”.


  1. Stardust says:


    This is me. It was actually October 5…today is our 3 yr handfasting anniversary. I will never forget this day as long as I live. Beautiful yet scary at the end. And yes I was sobbing. Someone did make a quiet comment about me not being able to stop crying because my wedding was ruined.


  2. Lee says:

    I’m really glad that such a tumultuous ceremony hasn’t kept you from enjoying your life together.

  3. Charlotte, UU at large says:

    What a horrific story…it is my sad duty to inform that public school teachers are regularly dismissed for being Pagans….less so in Mass.

  4. Stardust says:

    I can’t prove I was ever dismissed for being Pagan, though I know a lot of teachers didn’t like me just because I liked Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, faeries, and decorated my classroom with such and along with a theme of blue and stars. All my students loved me, even when they said they hated me, sooner or later they’d tell me they loved me.

    We’re renewing our vows next year but at Midsummer. October here in Nashville is so fickle that we’d rather do it during the week, at hopefully a better park (hopefully, cross fingers) and on Midsummer around late afternoon so we can get good pictures, then hang out and have a blast with friends. Then maybe in October we can go get our 5 yr anniversary tattoo (provided all the money isn’t spent on the handfasting as I have a zillion ideas yet have acted on none, LOL).

    As I always say “Why can’t we all just get along??” Maybe some day. Too bad I probably won’t be around to see it. It probably won’t happen for hundreds of years from now.

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