By Peter Applebome, New York Times
Palenville, New York
During Palenville Pagan Pride Day in August, the agenda reflected the goddess-centered theology of the Divine Feminine, which members say has its roots 12,000 years ago in the Goddess Cybele in Central Anatolia, in Turkey.
So after the opening ritual at 9 a.m. and sandwiched around “Lunchtime with the Priestesses,” the schedule at the old Central House Inn included “The Goddess in Antiquity,” “Pagans in the Mundane World” and sessions on sacred drumming patterns, dragon rituals and the Cybeline Revival.
Still, it was the least celestial item that perhaps mattered most. That would be “Discussion of Maetreum of Cybele v. Town of Catskill, N.Y.,” a legal case dating to 2007 after the town first approved and then denied tax-exempt status for the group, which has been certified by the federal government as a tax-exempt religious charity. The goddess may rule the universe, but the lawyers will help decide whether the pagans of Palenville have a future in this historic old town just down the snowy hills from Hunter Mountain.
Built in the 1850s, the Central House functioned for most of its years as an inn in Palenville, a hamlet of about 1,000 in the Town of Catskill, which is the fictional home of Rip Van Winkle and has been called America’s first artists’ colony.
Thus, it was both somewhat jarring and not entirely impossible to imagine when four women, with interests in goddess worship and the idea of a women’s housing cooperative welcoming transsexual women, bought the increasingly decrepit inn in 2002. It eventually became the Catskills Phrygianum of the Maetreum of Cybele Magna Mater, their global headquarters and convent house. There it stands: yellow paint peeling, a pink bus in the snow, bright banners above the porch.
The group’s public face is Cathryn Platine, a stocky former certified nursing assistant and cabinet maker, who long ago lost a finger to a miter saw. Ms. Platine, 61, who describes herself as a lifelong pagan descended from a witch hanged at Salem and from John Quincy Adams, said her religion had been the only one singled out locally.
“We’re women oriented,” she said. “We’re goddess oriented. We’re gay and lesbian friendly. We’re witchy. We’re set up for communal living for priestesses. I think we set off a lot of buttons.”
She said the town’s legal case kept shifting, and the only constant seemed to be animus toward the group.
“It’s a mystery to us why this fight continues,” she said. “We’re pretty clearly who we are. And there’s nothing threatening about what we do here. Come on, we’re practically Catholic nuns except we’re willing to have sex.”
Daniel Vincelette, a lawyer representing the town, said the dispute was not over whether the group was a religion or a charity, but whether the use of the house was directly tied to the religious purpose. If the use is primarily residential and the religious use is incidental, that would not be tax exempt, he said.
“Whether it’s Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, whatever it is, we look at it the same way,” he said. “If you look at the documents, the way this has developed, the town’s position is that this is not supporting an exempt purpose.”
The town’s specific objections differed for the two years being contested by the group, but both focused on the use of the house, not whether the group was a valid religion.
That may be wise, given the religious figurines and pictures inside, the detailed theology on the Web site and regular events like daily praise observances, goddess meetups, full moon observances, priestess training and others that might not be Sunday church religion but could easily be viewed as religion nonetheless.
There are, of course, all kinds of questions that can be asked about religious tax exemptions over all, but the Maetreum’s $5,400 tax bill is unlikely to rival the multimillion-dollar exemptions of conventional religions. Still, with unconventional religions on the rise, it poses issues that go beyond the old inn here.
The Cybelines are facing possible foreclosure proceedings for the $13,800 they owe and appealing for money. But in the smorgasbord of religious law, they may also have weapons of their own if they want to pursue a discrimination claim. They say they just want to get back to where they were.
“Our goal is simply to have them recognize us, give back the money they owe us and our attorney fees, and leave us alone,” Ms. Platine said. “We will walk away from this happily if they’re willing to do that.”