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Witchcraft, sans warts, growing

Hoping to move beyond images of broomsticks, incantations and spells, those who study and follow witchcraft made the case in an academic forum Wednesday that it's a serious, fast-growing religion.

Witchcraft, several practicing wiccans said, is an attempt to reconnect with life and is often met with prejudice.

"If you counted specific denominations, wicca-pagan-druid would be the seventh-largest religion in the United States and the fastest-growing," said Gary F. Jensen, chairman of Vanderbilt's sociology department. "I'm not sure it will have any more impact than the political groups that it tends to be most akin to like the Green Party and other environmentally oriented groups."

In the United States, wiccans tend to be overwhelmingly white, female, well-educated and computer literate.

Some call wicca, or witchcraft, a "living room religion" because it makes few demands on its adherents and gives followers the freedom to pick and choose what they believe.

But many wiccans find such latitude a refreshing change from what they see as the rigid beliefs of organized religion.

"Because wicca isn't organized _ and organization is the source of power _ it will probably remain an individualist and small religion," Jensen said after the panel discussion. "But that's what many people are looking for."

Wicca calls itself an earth-based religion. Adherents say it's an effort to reconnect with the life-force of nature, both on earth and throughout the universe. Practicing wiccans honor the old gods and goddesses including the god of the sun, moon and animal life.

Jensen, who will soon publish an academic paper titled "Out of the broom closet: A social ecology of American witchcraft," said the Star Wars movies are animated by pagan beliefs right down to "The force be with you" _ an acknowledgment of the spirituality that imbues the universe.

Wiccans say their religion isn't a hard and fast set of beliefs, but a feeling that each individual has the power to experience the mystery of life and feel at one with all life.

"Many wiccans say "quantum weirdness' is compatible with their spirituality," Jensen said. "They find certain aspects of science appealing, so they're between religion and science in that they reject what some see as the overconstraining elements of religion, but they also reject the use of science to exploit the environment."

Oct. 31 _ Halloween to most nonwiccans _ is observed as Samhain by some pagans.

It grew out of the beliefs of the ancient Celts who considered the day to be the eve of the New Year and a night when the barriers between the living and the dead were uncertain, allowing ancestors to walk in this world. The Celts marked the day with a feast to welcome their departed kin.

Kelly Kaufman said her belief in pagan ways was a political statement.

"It's a deep and abiding commitment to support god as I understand god," she said.

That view has sparked a lawsuit in Tennessee.

India Tracy, a 14-year-old student in Maynardville, a small town about 165 miles east of Nashville, said she was harassed when she declined to portray the Virgin Mary in a Christmas play and declined to participate in religious meetings outside school.

The girl's parents, who practice paganism, filed suit and asked the federal court to award $300,000 in damages.

Self-proclaimed witch Laura Miller, left, clutches a witch doll as Kelly Kaufman, hidden behind Miller, and Melinda Brown, background, listen to Professor Gary Jensen, right, as he talks about the historical roots of witches during a panel discussion on witches at Vanderbilt University.