Witch Fights Christian Town

Associated Press/October 18, 1998
By John Rogers

Republic, Mo. -- There are times, Jean Webb admits freely, when she thinks of running, just as far and as fast as she can from this quiet little town that has become her personal hell.

The times when the phone rings and a caller lets loose with a string of obscenities. The times when a formerly amiable supermarket clerk sees her in line and closes the register. The times when a neighbor stands outside and shouts that Mrs. Webb is a witch who will face eternal damnation for what she's done.

``There is a part of me that would just love to pack and run,'' says this outgoing, 36-year-old mother of two teen-agers who, in fact, considers herself a witch.

``But if I did that,'' she continues, ``all it would do would send them a message. That if there was any other minority they dislike, all they would have to do is be nasty to them and they would run.''

And so Mrs. Webb, who was born and raised a Baptist, married in the Baptist church and then, in her mid-20s, converted to the pagan faith Wicca, says she is in this fight for the long haul.

She won't run and she won't drop the lawsuit she and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed against this bedroom community just west of Springfield for refusing to remove the fish symbol of Christianity from its city seal.

It's not a battle she takes lightly, the curly-haired woman says as she sits down to talk one recent day in a living room filled with candles, incense, stone tablets and -- this one is a joke, she says with a chuckle -- a witch's broom.

``I know how important the ichthus symbol is to some people,'' she says of the small, simple fish drawing that has graced the city seal since 1990. It's as important, she realizes, as her symbols are to her.

But such symbols don't belong on a government seal, she says, adding that having the fish there is not only a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state but also a signal that Republic is a town where only Christians are welcome.

Mayor Doug Boatright and other supporters of the symbol say it was never placed there to foster discrimination, only to reflect the community's deep commitment to religious values.

But Mrs. Webb says for her it has become a symbol of hatred in a town of 6,000 people that she and her family moved to three years ago because everyone seemed so nice.

She, her late husband, Ed, her 14-year-old daughter, Jessica, and her 16-year- old son, Jeff, settled in a tidy new house so much on the edge of town that one door down the neighborhood turns into an open field and then becomes the woods.

The field, Mrs. Webb says, is where her children once played for hours until people began painting the huge rock there with graffiti accusing Jessica of being a devil worshiper.

They are words she said her daughter heard before, in school in Aurora, a rural town 15 miles south that the Webbs left behind. She had been openly Wiccan there. But when she arrived in Republic she and her family decided not to mention her beliefs.

``We even considered attending the Baptist church as a cover,'' she says now.

Meanwhile, her children made friends at school, and Mrs. Webb landed a job at the local newspaper, The Republic Monitor, where the flexible hours allowed her to care for her 61-year-old husband, who died Aug. 30 of emphysema.

The first she heard of the dispute over the fish was when a man came to the weekly newspaper last February to complain that the ACLU was threatening to take the city to court because someone had objected.

``He was very hyperactive and the editor said, `Just blow him off,''' she recalls. ``He said this is not an issue we're going to get involved in.''

But then she went to a rancorous Board of Aldermen meeting where it was decided to keep the fish, an experience that moved her to write an editorial opposing the symbol.

Soon after it was published, she says, she was fired, and she can only assume it was over the editorial and the controversy it stirred. The newspaper declines to discuss her departure.

On July 1, less than a month after leaving the newspaper, she became the plaintiff in the suit brought by the ACLU. A trial is probably a year away, said ACLU attorney Dick Kurtenbach.

In the meantime, she said, she hasn't been able to find another job, and her daughter has taken so much abuse at school that she is being schooled at home.

She is suing, Mrs. Webb says, not for the money or the attention but because she believes she is right.

She reluctantly accepted a plaque last week from the ACLU, which praised her courage. Then, when she took it home and hung it on the wall, Jessica told her she was proud of her.

``Do you have teen-age daughters?'' she asks a reporter before saying goodbye. ``Do you know how hard it is to get one of them to say that?''

[Note: Claims that there are ties between witches and Satanism is a widespread misconception. In fact Wicca, which is practiced by many witches--is a distinctly different belief system and has no connection to Satanism.

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