A Maine Pagan Priest Can Wear Horns In An Official Photo

A Maine pagan has won the right to wear goat horns in a state-issued identification card. This is an example of the government treating all religions equally, and that’s a good thing.

Phelan Moonsong, 56, is a Pagan minister and a devotee of Pan. He has been wearing the goat horns since 2009, when he picked them up at a gathering of Pagan men.

To Moonsong, the horns are important religious attire.

“As a practicing Pagan minister and a priest of Pan, I’ve come to feel very attached to the horns, and they’ve become a part of me and part of my spirituality,” he told The Washington Post. “The horns are part of my religious attire.”

Moonsong doesn’t leave the house without his horns, and he takes them off only when sleeping or showering. But a few months ago, he ran into trouble at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, where an official told him he would need to take the horns off to get a state ID. When Moonsong protested, he was told he’d have to appeal to Maine’s secretary of state.  

The DMV is not a good place to adjudicate religious-liberty disputes. 

“She told me that I had to send in some documentation or religious text to show why it was required for me to have my horns on,” Moonsong said. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go ahead and do that,’ but it seemed like an onerous requirement.”

When Moonsong informed the bureau that he had been in contact with the American Civil Liberties Union, officials apparently decided to stop fighting. His ID, replete with a photo of him wearing the horns, arrived in the mail a few days later.

There are a couple of lessons to take from the incident. The first is that government agencies must treat all faiths equally. Accommodations for religious headgear are routinely granted to Jews and Muslims. Therefore, they must be extended to Pagans (and others) as well. Likewise, if an accommodation is denied, it can’t be denied for the members of just one group and offered to others. Equal treatment is the key. 

The second lesson is that government officials are often poor judges of religious sincerity and shouldn’t try to play that role. Reading about Moonsong’s case, one can’t help but get the impression that bureau staffers doubted his sincerity. Perhaps they had never met a priest of Pan before, but that didn’t give them the right to subject Moonsong to an inquisition or require him to prove that his religion is real. That’s never a good role for bureaucrats to play.

Some demands for religious accommodations, such as Kentucky clerk Kim Davis’ insistence that she should not have to give same-sex couples marriages licenses they were legally entitled to have, infringe on the rights of other people and should be denied. Moonsong’s request didn’t harm anyone else. The state was right to recognize it.