Letter to the Editor – When Religious Discrimination Hits Home

by Dr. Todd Berntson

The past 24 hours have been almost surreal. I was sitting at the dinner table with some  friends at an Indian restaurant when I received a call from my father that my cousin Brad was dead. Brad was four years older than me and had been my superhero while I was growing up.

As a kid I used to tell my friends incredible tales about the amazing feats that my cousin could do, as though he was some mythical figure with superhuman powers. Truth be told, in a lot of ways he kind of lived up to that. He was very good looking, smart, funny, incredibly strong, and was one of those guys that everybody liked. So, when I was told that Brad was dead, I was in shock. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of the bad news.

A short time later, I received another call informing me that my father and I would not be allowed to attend Brad’s funeral because I was Wiccan and Brad’s wife didn’t want me to “pollute their church” with my evil presence. I was dumbfounded by this. Even as I write this, I still have a hard time believing that this really happened. Does being Catholic mean that you cannot be accepting of other spiritual paths? What makes Wicca, which is one of the most gentle and forgiving spiritual paths, so “evil”? Would Jesus have barred me from saying goodbye to a deceased family member because I wasn’t Catholic?

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that this kind of thing had happened. Only four months prior, Brad’s father, Bruce, was found dead in a hotel room. When I attended his funeral at the church, most of the family would not even look at me or say hello. During the luncheon that followed the funeral service, I stood up to say a few kind words about my recently deceased uncle. As I looked out at the faces in the crowd, I could see several people looking at me as though I was some kind of leper. There was an almost palpable look of disgust on many of their faces. As we left, both my father and I commented on how unwelcome we felt.

This whole situation is very disturbing on so many levels. How can any spiritual tradition, be it Christian, Hindu, Shinto, Pagan, or Jewish, justify denying someone the fundamental human need to say goodbye to a deceased family member? How can the Wiccan spiritual path, which is founded on the reverence for all living things and celebrating the diversity of life, be considered so disturbing, so evil, that followers of the Catholic faith can feel justified in shunning members of their own family?

Although I am not a Christian, I often reflect a famous prayer attributed to St. Francis where he speaks: “Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted; to understand, than to be understood; to love, than to be loved.” Perhaps if those who so vocally profess their piety would simply follow their own prayers, the world would be a place with much more comfort, understanding, and love. And I would have had the opportunity to say goodbye to my superhero.

Goodbye Brad, I love you.


Todd Berntson is a doctor of chiropractic and a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology. He
has been actively involved in the Neopagan community both locally and nationally, and is the
Vice President of Summerland Spirit Festival, which is a spiritual retreat for followers of Earth-
centered spiritual traditions.

22 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor – When Religious Discrimination Hits Home

  1. Nessa says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how utterly ignorant and hateful some people can be, especially during times of grief. These are not “Catholics”, these are bigots who don’t have the faintest understanding of what a Wiccan actually believes, and have very little security in their own faith if they honestly believe that one Wiccan could “pollute” the sanctity of their church by simply being present. I’ve done readings as part of funeral services, I’ve actively participated in a baptism and have a Godchild in the Catholic Church; I don’t think my presence or actions have done any damage, and the church doesn’t either.

    Dr. Berntson, you have my deepest condolences, not only on the loss of your cousin, but on the insensitivity of your family during such a difficult time. One day, by their own beliefs, they will have to answer some very difficult questions about their conduct, and this is one for which they will have no excuses.

  2. Danielle says:

    You have my sympathies. Due to religious beliefs held by much of my family and that I am a trans woman, I no longer have contact with most of my family. I’ve made clear to then that my door is open, but it has the terms of required respect for me.

    As painful as it has been for me, particularly that after nearly a year of knowing they news was their Christmas present to me, and not withstanding the truth that the price is unreasonable, I know that it remains a price I do not regret paying.

  3. MarlisB says:

    I am an agnostic but have always been fascinated with religions and faiths of all kinds. The thing that has always bothered me with religions is, that the faithful will always absorb and hold dear the part that gives to them, and choose to ignore the part that gives, accepts, and imparts tolerance towards others. Being raised in an open household where my parents allowed me to choose my own path, I had often felt the need to be part of a spiritual family. Yet, the doublestandards and purposeful ignorance and downright bigotry of various faiths, disillusioned me and I left them all eventually to follow my own path of belief and spirituality. I would have understand it if the family had decided not to extend an invitation towards, say, a baptism, or confirmation, but to deny you the right to pay your respects and love towards a deceased family member is so very very unchristian in its lack of kindness and compassion. My condolences on your loss.

  4. dragonmommie says:

    I have never read any of your writings before, but clicked through from a friends’ sharing of your post on facebook. I am so sorry for your loss and for how your family is treating you… a little ashamed, too, because I’m Catholic, myself. I don’t understand this behavior from the perspective of our faith alone, but I’m not surprised. I mean, even if I were totally clueless about other religions, I would think that I would, at the very least, be comfortable with a family member of mine who had a different faith. I personally know a few pagans and respect them for their beliefs and know them to be the kind of people I would trust my child with… and that’s saying a LOT.

    Again, I’m so sorry you’re experiencing this and would implore you to not absorb the hate that is being thrown at you…. Peace.

  5. Leuk Zatara says:

    i am deeply sympathetic to your loss i have grown up with out the one hero most young men have to look up to. yet i had a great uncle that ment as much to me and it hit hard when he passed away. so far as these so called catholics it seems to be rather typicle of most christian based faiths they like to preach about love, understanding and acceptance yet when faced with a situation that demands any of those traits all to often they do the exact revearse. i firmly beleive that those we have lost know how we feel and they know how much they are missed saying good bye at a funeral is only a small portion of the grieving i said good bye to my lost loved ones by planting fruit berring trees or bushes in the wilds around where they lived. my children are being raised pagan and they know the hatred that will insue from more humans then not but they are set on following our path and living life in the light of the goddess. blessed be my friend may your pain ease soon

    • Todd Berntson says:

      Thank you for your kind words Leuk. I like your idea of planting something in his memory. I think that would be a great way to honor him, actually.

  6. lisaspiral says:

    Todd, I’m sorry for your loss. I’m also sorry that the fear in Brad’s family is preventing you from expressing your grief.

    Although it is Catholic policy not to allow people of other faiths to participate in the sacraments, it is not generally expected that you have to be of the faith to enter the church. If you were interested in responding to hate with love you might consider contacting the clergy directly.

    I also recommend checking out http://www.danoah.com/2011/11/im-christian-unless-youre-gay.html Although the conversation is specifically about being gay the responses run the gamut of bigotry experiences. They give some hope that even the worst offenders can come to open their hearts.

    May your heart and your family come to peace in this time of grief.


    • Todd Berntson says:

      Thank you so much for your words, Spiral. I did send a copy of this letter to both the clergy of the church where this service is taking place, as well as to the Archdiocese of Minneapolis / St. Paul. Here is what I sent them:

      “Hello Father Ploeg,

      I just wanted to share with you a recent experience I had. As you know, our fellow loved one Brad Berntson tragically passed away recently. To say that this has come as a horrible shock to everyone is an understatement.

      Unfortunately, I am being barred from attending his funeral at your church as I am from a Neopagan spiritual path. I have written a short perspective on this experience that I would like to share with you. My hope is that a greater understanding and acceptance of other spiritual traditions may be gained from this unfortunate situation.

      I wish you all well, and I hope that your service for Brad will help all of those who knew him along their path to healing.


      Todd Berntson”

  7. Gordon says:

    I’m sorry for your loss.

    The problem is not the Roman Catholic church. The problem is bad behavior on the part of some people.

    It’s also important to remember that Wicca was not founded on respect for all living things, or as a celebration of diversity. These are attributes of some modern traditions, or some modern Wiccans.

    Wicca was founded on being witchy, and on doing somewhat naughty things in ritual. Gerald Gardner and his friends were being very deliberately provacative. “Witch” is a term with many negative connotations, and not only in western civilization. Gardner himself did not claim the title of witch until the witchcraft laws were repealed, and he was retired with pension safely in hand.

    So long as we use the words witch, witchcraft and magic(k), there will be those who choose the definitions we don’t like, and who will react to us based on those definitions. The problem may be theirs, rather than ours, but we will also suffer their misapprehensions.

    • Jeanne Weiske says:

      Where do you get that nonsense? Wicca goes way back to early norther Eurpeans, mainly the Celts. It was demonized by the Catholic churchIt started out as worship of nature and respect for all things natural. To say ‘naughty things’ is only YOUR dirty mind conjuring up images created by the early church to demonize literally, any other form of worship that didn’t fit their particular ideals, and to impose their beliefs. Get an education before you post such nonsense, or keep proving your ignorance.

    • Khalila RedBird says:

      Not only is your comment ill informed, it is mean-spirited and hardly a compassionate response to the bereaved — who did not use the W– word. Some Wicca goes back to Gardner. Lots of us look to older, wiser, and even newer sources. The basics remain — harm none; respect nature and each other. You are 0 for 2.

      • Gordon says:

        Jeanne and Khalila,

        Wicca was invented in 1948 or so by Gerald Gardner. That is not a condemnation of Wicca, or of him. It’s simply the truth, and it’s been documented fairly thoroughly by Ronald Hutton. And it’s pretty clear that Gerald was quite the rake, as well. He borrowed this and that from various sources, but he’s the guy, and he was quite fond of having naked ladies around.

        I don’t say this to condemn anyone. I’m Wiccan, and my tradition is BTW. But to pretend that there is some great hidden version of Wicca that goes back beyond that is to kid oneself. Every religion starts somewhere. Mine happened to start about 64 years ago.

        There are aspects of earlier religions that have been adopted by some pagans, including some Wiccans. And there are many pagans who don’t use the W-word. But we pretty much get lumped together by those who don’t know us well. That’s most people, frankly, including our families.

        And the W-word will be used against us. I wish it were different, but I won’t change my path to accommodate others’ ignorance, and I don’t think any pagan should.

        • john Stitely says:

          Gordon, I normally don’t want anyone o change either — but since your response to another’s pain is remarkably lacking in compassion for another person in a time of sorrow, I would think that you should ask yourself why that lesson hasn’t come up yet. Todd’s sorrow is already aggravated as the result of the lack of compassion in the name of religion. That isn’t anyone’s faith that’s the problem. Its the result of arrogance and hubris and the mendacity of reading their own prejudices into the Gods intent. None of us should emulate that example. compassion nd humility were lessons that I received (though one could argue how well they have taken)

          Sorry for your loss Todd and sorry for your family issues.

          • Gordon says:


            In my first reply, the first thing I wrote was that I was sorry for his loss. Perhaps I should have left it at that. If you want to know the rest of my thoughts on this, feel free to email me at mplsgordon2@gmail.com.

  8. Arthur Frymyer, Jr. says:

    Dr. Berntson, please allow me to express my condolences on the loss of your brother. I’m sorry you had to deal with such rudeness and bigotry in your time of bereavement. Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ seem to have forgotten the words of Jesus when he said “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

    I am also writing this note to ask a personal favor. I’m in the process of writing a non-fiction book entitled “You don’t have to be a jackass to be a Christian.” The story you relate is exactly the kind of jackass behavior by supposed Christians I am writing about. I would very much like to include an excerpt from your letter in my book. If this meets with your approval, or if you wish to comment on it or converse with me about it, please send me an email to afrymyer at gmail dot com. Thank you very much.

  9. RevAllyson says:


    I am a minister, a Hellenic pagan… and also Christian. (Don’t ask – long story LOL). Please know that NOT all Christians are like that. Not even all Catholics are like that. I think enough people have said that above that I don’t need to harp on it.

    However, something that hasn’t been said above… While there is no *excuse* for the behavior of your friend’s wife, I would ask you to think about things from her point, just for a few moments. It sounds like she really doesn’t know you, and is stricken with grief of her own. Expecting someone who is aching within to overcome their in-bred fears is probably a bit much. Were you to approach her when all was fine, you might get a different response (at the very least a bit of “don’t ask, don’t tell”). In her grief, it sounds as if she is lashing out.

    Don’t get me wrong – what she has said is inexcusable. It is *wrong*. But now probably isn’t the time to take it up with her. Perhaps you can work past it… (“hate the sin, not the sinner” and all that jazz) say a prayer for her and for your friend.

    And from someone who follows a (somewhat different but still) Christian path, I apologize for her behavior.


  10. Following In The Footsteps Of The Gods says:

    Nothing can pollute a church except a mudslide. Your cousins wife has no right to keep you from being at the church service. I do hope that you get a response soon and can attend. As a Hellenist I would be very upset if I was told that I couldn’t attend my mother’s funeral.

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