London, UK - Druids have been worshipping the sun and earth for thousands of years in Europe, but now they can say they're practicing an officially recognized religion.
The ancient pagan tradition best known for gatherings at Stonehenge every summer solstice has been formally classed as a religion under charity law for the first time in Britain, the national charity regulator said Saturday. That means Druids can receive exemptions from taxes on donations - and now have the same status as such mainstream religions as the Church of England.
The move gives an old practice new validity, said Phil Ryder, the chairman of the 350-member Druid Network.
"It will go a long way to make Druidry a lot more accessible," he said.
Druids have practiced for thousands of years in Britain and in Celtic societies elsewhere in Europe. They worship natural forces such as thunder and the sun, and spirits they believe arise from places such as mountains and rivers. They do not worship a single god or creator, but seek to cultivate a sacred relationship with the natural world.
Although many see them as robed, mysterious people who gather every summer solstice at Stonehenge - which predates the Druids - believers say modern Druidry is chiefly concerned with helping practitioners connect with nature and themselves through rituals, dancing and singing at stone circles and other sites throughout the country believed to be "sacred."
Ancient Druids were known to be religious leaders, judges and sages among the Celts during pre-Christian times, although little evidence about their lives survived. There are now various Druid orders and about 10,000 practitioners in Britain - and believers said the numbers are growing because more people are becoming aware of the importance to preserve the environment.
The Druid Network fought for nearly five years to be recognized under the semi-governmental Charity Commission, which requires proof of cohesive and serious belief in a supreme entity and a moral framework.
After initially rejecting the Druid Network's application, the Charity Commission decided this week that Druidry fit the bill.
"There is sufficient belief in a supreme being or entity to constitute a religion for the purposes of charity law," the commission said.
Adrian Rooke, a Druid who works as a counselor, said Druidry appeals to people who are turning away from monotheistic religions but still long for an aspect of spirituality in their lives.
"It uplifts the spirit," he said. "The world is running out of resources, and in that context it's more important to people now to formulate a relationship with nature."