Along Maryland Route 5, Wiccans Work Their Magic

Near Leonardtown, Anne Rutherford explains the meaning of Amber Rose on the Route 5 sign.
Near Leonardtown, Anne Rutherford explains the meaning of Amber Rose on the Route 5 sign. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

The three hold different jobs: Amber Russell designs bouquets; Anne Rutherford is a legal secretary; Bonnie Smith works for a landscaper.

But the three Southern Marylanders have this much in common: Each considers herself a witch.

They practice a religion called Wicca, one they say is growing in the area, and one that surfaced -- tangentially, at least -- in a St. Mary's County campaign for the Maryland General Assembly. Just before last month's primary election, House of Delegates candidate Clare Calvert Whitbeck issued a statement denying she was a Wiccan, saying she did so to put a false rumor to rest.

Whitbeck clearly wanted to distance herself from the religion. She lost her challenge to five-term incumbent John F. Wood Jr. in the Democratic primary for District 29A, which includes the northern half of St. Mary's and a small piece of Charles County.

But five Wiccans in all three Southern Maryland counties stressed in interviews that there is nothing to fear from their beliefs. And on that score they have backing from a trio of scholars who studied the broader world of what is known as neopaganism.

"For the most part, these are totally law-abiding people who do not engage in devil-worship and that kind of thing," said Evan A. Leach, coauthor of "Voices From the Pagan Census, a National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States." Leach teaches at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and holds a doctorate in organizational behavior from Yale University.

No one knows how many Wiccans live in Southern Maryland. "I would suggest it's more than people think," Leach said.

Rutherford, 59, and Russell, 57, estimate there are at least several hundred Wiccans in the area practicing their faith alone or in groups, which they call covens.

They generally follow an earth- and nature-based spirituality. They perform rituals linked to seasonal cycles and phases of the moon. Many Wiccans cast spells, a practice they liken to prayer, aiming for everything from physical healing to improved finances.

As for being a witch, many say it's simply about being at peace with the earth, or casting spells. Wiccans say they do not cast bad spells, in part because they believe in threefold returns. Do something good, and the karma comes back to you multiplied by three. Do something bad, and that returns with triple force.

Lots of Wiccans are environmentalists.

There is clear evidence of that in St. Mary's County, on Maryland Route 5. Off the shoulder along the southbound lanes, just north of Leonardtown, is a Maryland Adopt-A-Highway sign for "The Circle of Amber Rose." Rutherford said this is the name of a Wiccan coven. Members turn out four times a year to pick up litter on the side of the highway. Afterward, they generally go to Leonardtown for pizza.

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