George W. Bush Justifies
“I don’t think that witchcraft is a religion. I wish the military would rethink this decision.”
— George W. Bush to ABCNEWS, June, 1999
Senate Republican joins
call to end military
accommodation of Wicca
by Jeremy Leaming
First Amendment Center
June 29, 1999
Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., old-school bigot.The Senate’s oldest member has joined the call, prompted by a socially conservative congressman from Georgia, to bar Wiccan practices on U.S. military bases.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., submitted a statement decrying Wicca, a nature-based faith, as irreligious and saying it should not be accommodated by the military.
“Army soldiers who consider themselves to be members of the Church of Wicca are carrying out their ceremonies at Fort Hood in Texas,” Thurmond wrote. “The Wiccas practice witchcraft. At Fort Hood, they are permitted to build fires on Army property and perform their rituals involving fire, hooded robes, and nine inch daggers. An Army chaplain is even present.”
Thurmond’s letter follows recent congressional attention given to Wiccan worship on military bases. In May, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., sent letters to base leaders at Fort Hood demanding that they cease permitting soldiers to engage in Wiccan celebrations. Barr’s likened Wiccan practices to “Satanic rituals” and said the military needed to stop allowing Wiccan celebrations to occur on bases.
For years, however, military bases such as Fort Hood and ones in Louisiana, Alaska and Florida have permitted soldiers to form groups to honor their goddesses and gods. Moreover, the U.S. Armed Forces Chaplain Handbook contains a section on Wicca and how it can be accommodated. The military handbook states that “the core ethical statement of Wicca, called the ‘Wiccan Rede’ states ‘as it harm none, do what you will.’ The rede fulfills the same function as the ‘Golden Rule’ for Jews and Christians; all other ethical teachings are considered to be elaborations and applications of the rede.
“Social forces generally do not yet allow Witches to publicly declare their religious faith without fear of reprisals such as loss of job, child-custody challenges, ridicule, etc.,” the handbook states. “Prejudice against Wiccans is the result of public confusion between Witchcraft and Satanism. Wiccans in the military, especially those who may be posted in countries perceived to be particularly intolerant, will often have their dogtags read ‘No Religious Preference.’ Concealment is a traditional Wiccan defense against persecution, so non-denominational dogtags should contravene a member’s request for religious services.”
In his letter to the Senate committee, Thurmond called on the military to reverse its accommodation of Wicca.
“I do not dispute that individuals may believe what they wish, and they can practice their religion in private life,” Thurmond told the committee. “However, limits can and should be placed on the exercise of those views, especially in the military. I do not believe that the Armed Forces should accommodate the practice of witchcraft at military facilities. The same applies to the practices of other groups such as Satanists and cultists. For the sake of the honor and prestige of our military, there should be no obligation to permit such activity. This is an example of going too far to accommodate the practice of one’s views in the name of religion.”
Last week George W. Bush, governor of Texas and 2000 GOP presidential frontrunner, was asked by ABC News about Barr’s concerns on Wicca in the military as well as the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings.
Bush said that he did not believe “witchcraft is a religion,” and he hoped “the military would rethink this decision.” Bush was then asked whether he agreed with the recent U.S. House of Representatives’ vote that said states have the constitutional power to place the Ten Commandments in public buildings, including public schools. He said that he had no problem with the religious codes being placed in every public building.
In 1984 a federal judge in Virginia ruled that Wicca was a religion protected by the First Amendment, saying the faith occupied a place in the lives of its members “parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.”
Witches in Combat Boots
by Peggy Wehmeyer
Pagan Rituals on Army Base Cast Controversial Spell
ABCNEWS’ Peggy Wehmeyer reports that a constitutional protection of religion for some means condemnation from others.
FORT HOOD, Texas, June 23 — At the U.S. Army’s largest military base, soldiers train by day for combat in enemy territory. But late at night, some of them meet under a moonlit sky here in central Texas to cast spells and invoke pagan goddesses.
They are the Fort Hood Witches, a group that includes active and retired Army personnel who are devotees of Wicca, a pagan religion.
Wiccans believe there is divine power in nature and that they can harness and direct that power through chanting and magic rituals. Pagans Draw Ire of Local Clergy But some local pastors, who consider witchcraft part of satanic worship, are outraged the Army is making room for witches. And conservative Christian groups are telling young men and women not to join the Army until the witches are banned.
“The leaders of our country,” shouts the Rev. Jack Harvey from his pulpit at the Tabernacle Baptist Church, “are going to give count to God with how they deal with witchcraft because our precious single soldiers are going to be involved in it if they allow it on military forts.”
The pagan ceremonies are allowed at Fort Hood because several years ago, the Army brass here recognized Wicca as a legitimate religion. Since then, a handful of other U.S. military installations have sanctioned pagan rituals. Pentagon Defends Religious Freedom Pentagon officials say it’s their duty under the First Amendment to allow soldiers to practice their religion, whatever it may be.
“Federal courts and statutes decreed that they are an organized religion and thus they fall under the protection of the Constitution,” says Maj. Gen. Bill Dendiger, chairman of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board.
But the Army does insist that the Wiccans not perform their rituals in the nude.
Marcy Palmer, a six-year veteran of the military police and the Wiccans’ high priestess, considers the Army supportive. “They think it’s good that everybody is allowed to express their own spirituality,” she says.
The Wiccans say their critics misunderstand them. Witches don’t sacrifice animals, worship the devil or cast evil spells, they say.
“Parsley, sage, rosemary, fennel,” they chanted during a recent ceremony. “On the heat of these flames we hope that these herbs will carry our message to the rest of the world for understanding, tolerance, peace, harmony and love.”
The Fort Hood witches say that despite their unusual rituals, they deserve the same respect and are entitled to the same rights as the followers of any other religion on the base. And the Army seems to agree.
Lackland trainees spellbound by Wiccan faith service at base
SAN ANTONIO — Atreiyuh Cammen is more than 4,000 miles away from his home in Alaska. He’s a basic military trainee at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. His faith, however, is just a heartbeat away.
Cammen is a witch.
“There’s nothing wrong with Wicca,” he said.
The 19-year-old became a witch five years ago after being a religious wanderer. He said fantasy books and the Harry Potter phenomenon fueled his interest in the Wiccan faith.
“I thought I’d be able to fly around and things like,” he said of his pre-witch days.
But Cammen went deeper. He found a faith fulfilling to him.
“People need to understand that Wicca is not about cackling and casting curses upon people,” Cammen said. “And, certainly, not wishing ill.”
Cammen is among a curious multiplication of Wiccans at Lackland. Hundreds of basic military trainees have chosen to study witchcraft at the base.
“When we come over here on a Sunday, often times, there are 300 to 400 (trainees),” Tony Gatlin said.
Gatlin is the coven’s high priest. His wife is the high priestess. He’s the grandson of a southern baptist preacher who became dissatisfied with his denomination and converted to Wicca. He’s been a witch for more than 12 years.
“I knew I had a spiritual side that needed to be nurtured,” he said. “Just by chance, I met a witch, and it was transformational for me from then on.”
He spent 25 years actively serving in the military as an enlisted U.S. Marine and Air Force officer. Gatlin also worked at the Pentagon. He was even there on Sept. 11. Gatlin now guides military trainees who are interested in witchcraft at Lackland.
“This is the largest weekly Wiccan service in the entire world,” he said. “I mean, nowhere else do you have 400 people sitting in a room listening to a Wiccan service.”
They gather inside of a room inside of Arnold Hall Community Center. On the day, the group prepared to celebrate Halloween with a Samhain ritual. Pentecostal worshipers had just vacated the same space.
Samhain means end of the summer. It’s signals the beginning of a witch’s new year. They honor the dead and the rebirth of their God. Considered their most sacred holiday, some describe it as the time when the veil between the natural world and the spirit world is the thinnest.
However, they are quick to assert that Wiccans are not devil worshipers. Satan, they say, is a creation of another religion.
Wicca is a pagan religion where men and women are called witches. Warlocks are considered breakers of the oath. Calling a male witch by that name is viewed as an insult. So, if not devil-adoring beings with broomsticks, black cats, and pointed hats who have an evil agenda, what are witches?
“All Wiccans are witches but not all witches are Wiccans,” Gatlin explained. “Witchcraft is the means by which we practice our faith of Wicca.”
Witches, he said, believe in a dual divine spirit that’s both male and female. Some practitioners have names like Artemis, Isis and Cerridwen, for the goddess. For the god, names like Aten, Cernunnous and Lugh are recognized.
Wicca is an earth-based faith where the followers are attuned to nature and its elements, especially fire, water, air and earth. They manipulate energy through magic spells to achieve a desired result.
Gatlin said they have a rede: “An it harm none, do as thy will.” It reportedly forbids witches from causing harm on others through their magic. Moreover, spells are supposed to be limited to achieving good because of their law of three-fold return, which states whatever magic cast out returns to the spell caster three-fold.
“The Christian faith may have prayer. The Catholics may pray the Rosary,” he said. “We have things we call spells that are a kin to prayer.”
The Department of Defense, by decree of the U.S. Constitution, provides a meeting space for those who some might consider “military witches.”
“Our job is to make sure that, to the extent that we reasonably can, we accommodate the religious views and free exercise rights these military members have,” said JBSA-Lackland Chaplain Col. Michael Heuer.
Every trainee who attends has not committed to the religion. In fact, Gatlin said only a small number are considered practitioners. Yet, the attendance remains strong.
Trainee Jesse McCrady is also a witch who attends the services. The 19-year-old from North Texas has been a witch since he was 10.
“It’s just me doing what I feel is right,” McCrady said.
He isn’t sure this is the path he’ll follow for his entire life. For now, he remains as faithful to Wicca and its deity as he says Christians are to God.
“How are you certain the lord exists?” he asked. “By faith.”
Atreiyuh Cammen, who is about to graduate from basic training, plans to stick to his choice, as well, despite the baggage it carries.
“This isn’t MacBeth,” he said.