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Barr's Witch Project: Lawmaker Wants to Ban Witches from the Military


November 1, 1999
Web posted at: 11:30 EDT (1530 GMT)

From the investigation into President Clinton's sexual improprieties to the exposure of his Republican opponents' own sexual dalliances, witch hunts have of late become fairly commonplace in politics. Rep. Bob Barr (R, Ga.) has played both sides, as both the hunter and hunted in Washington's cat-and-mouse games. But Barr has also been waging a little-noticed witch-hunt against real-life witches--members of the Wicca religion.

Wicca, or the "Craft," is the modern name of a pagan, nature-worshipping religion that traces its roots to ancient times. While Wiccans are known as "witches" and their rituals are called "witchcraft," they bear little resemblance to the wart-nosed hags we all know from Grimm's tales or the Wizard of Oz . Wicca, which might be described as an eclectic mix of feminism, environmentalism, new age spirituality and "do-no-harm" ethical principles, has attracted between 50,000 and one million followers, according to various estimates. It is considered one of the fastest growing religions in the country, drawing everyone from teenage girls to retired businessmen.

But not everyone is happy with Wicca's growing popularity. Controversy began brewing in August 1997, when a Wicca group known as the Foot Hood Open Circle received permission from the U.S. Army to hold meetings and outdoor rituals on the grounds of the Foot Hood army base near Austin, Texas. The group, composed of a few dozen members, including many enlisted personnel, had stirred little controversy until a local paper took pictures of its outdoor worship services. Soon after the pictures appeared, local fundamentalist Christians began demanding that the Army abolish what appeared to them to be federal support of Satanism.

When Barr heard the news, he fired off an angry letter of protest to military leaders. "What's next?" demanded Barr. "Will armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for Satanic rituals? Will Rastafarians demand the inclusion of ritualistic marijuana cigarettes in their rations?"

Ironically, it's much easier to find a Christian who believes in Satan than to find a witch who does. Despite their reputation, practicing witches do not conjure evil, although they do practice magic, which they consider to be way of harnessing nature's energy.

But to Barr, Wicca is a dangerous cult, not a religion, and he doesn't believe that it should be treated on par with traditional religions such as Judaism and Christianity as far as the military is concerned. In June, he tried to attach an amendment to a $290 billion defense bill that would have banned Wicca groups from all military bases.

Although his campaign wasn't successful, Barr has continued to excoriate military bases that permit Wicca ceremonies or allow Wiccan recruits to form witch groups, traditionally known as covens. Since the original flap over the group at Fort Hood, at least five other bases have sanctioned the practice of Wicca among their recruits.

What began as a protest letter from Barr has boiled over into a much larger First Amendment battle between the right-wing and witches. Barr has been joined in his crusade by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R, S.C.), as well as nearly a dozen religious and conservative groups, including the Free Congress Foundation and the Traditional Values Coalition. They have mounted a boycott of the armed services, vowing not to support military enlistment efforts until the services cease to recognize Wicca.

Members of Wicca and other "neopagan" groups, meanwhile, have been galvanized by the emerging threat. Outspoken Wiccan priests and priestess have made pleas to President Clinton (D) and others to stand up to what they consider religious persecution--a problem that has dogged witches in America since the notorious Salem trials in the 17th century.



Can Witches Be Banned from the Military?

Barr and his fellow witch hunters say that Wicca has no place in the military since it's not, in their view, a valid religion. Yet their views stand in contrast to a long line of court rulings since the 1980s that have given legal recognition to the faith. In the most influential case, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1986 that Wicca, despite its differences from mainstream faiths, is a religion deserving of First Amendment protection. Since then, Wicca has received recognition from the Internal Revenue Service as a bona fide religion for tax-exempt purposes as well.

What is the military's view of Wicca? Apparently, the answer is acceptance. Wicca has been recognized by the military for at least two decades. Under the heading "Individually Distinctive Groups" in the 1993 edition of the military chaplain's handbook, Wicca is described as "a reconstruction of the Nature worship of tribal Europe." The handbook goes on to describe the "Old Religion" at great lengths to help chaplains understand its beliefs, rituals and origin, and to explain any special things they should know when dealing with a Wiccan recruit.

Since Wicca is a religion in the eyes of the courts, it enjoys the protection of the First Amendment : "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The court has interpreted the amendment to mean that regulations issued by federal institutions must be general enough that they do not single out any particular religion for censure or favor. Like other military bases, Fort Hood keeps in line with the court's rulings by offering the use of its lands to groups without regard to religious beliefs. The Wicca Circle holds its ceremonies near the same camp used by the Boy Scouts, and secular organizations use the land as well.

Barr is on much safer constitutional ground when he argues that the military should be able to ban the practice of witchcraft for reasons of military readiness. To bolster his case, Barr cited the Supreme Court's ruling in Goldman v. Weinberger (1986), in which the court defended the military's right not to allow an orthodox Jewish officer to wear a yarmulke while on duty. The court ruled that because of the military's unique interests and goals, it is not under the same obligation to guarantee freedom of religious practice.

The military, wrote Justice William Rehnquist in the majority opinion, is a "specialized society" that "need not encourage debate or tolerate protest to the extent that such tolerance is required of the civilian state by the First Amendment; to accomplish its mission, the military must foster instinctive obedience, unity, commitment, and esprit de corps."

Two appeals courts have used similar reasoning to uphold the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibits homosexuals from serving openly in the military. In the most recent ruling, handed down in September 1998, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that because of the military's unique environment and goals, the policy does not violate homosexuals' constitutional guarantees of free speech and due process. The ruling seemed to vindicate the views of military officials who had warned that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would disrupt troop morale and weaken unit cohesion. "Courts are ill-suited to second-guess military judgments that bear upon military capability or readiness," the court's majority wrote.

If the military judges the practice of Wicca to be dangerous to military capability or readiness, could it similarly ban the religion from its bases? According to Col. Robert Maginnis, director of the military preparedness program at the Family Research Council, the answer is "Yes." Maginnis argues that the basic beliefs of Wicca are so out of tune with mainstream religion that allowing recruits to express or practice the faith would harm morale.

"Wicca will undermine readiness factors such as military values, adherence to norms, willingness to kill, and recruitment and retention among the majority who hold a generally theistic worldview and regard witchcraft as an abomination," he maintains.

Noting that the overwhelming majority of U.S. troops identify as Christian, Maginnis points out that the Bible repeatedly condemns witchcraft and sorcery. Allowing witches to serve when most of their fellow service members would regard them as an "abomination" would therefore "cause unit friction, undermine morale, and impair recruitment and retention," he says.

Maginnis adds that Wiccan beliefs tend to be antithetical to military service because they are based on pacifism. He notes that the core Wiccan rule, known as the Rede, states: "An' [if] it harm none, do what ye will." He construes this rule--an ethical guide comparable to the Golden Rule followed by Christians--to mean that members of Wicca are by nature nonviolent. "A 'Wiccan warrior' is an oxymoron," said Maginnis.

Some witches would doubtless be heartened that Maginnis portrays Wicca as a nonviolent religion. The Wiccan Anti-Defamation League (WADL) and other pagan-rights groups have been trying for years to challenge traditional stereotypes of witches as evil old hags who snatch, slaughter and eat children and perpetrate other evil deeds. Ironically, Maginnis is arguing that Wiccans are dangerous for the military because they are not threatening enough. Whereas witches were once vilified for their perceived readiness to kill, they are now vilified for their perceived reluctance to do so.

Would Maginnis have a strong case in court? The likely answer is no since he paints with too large a brush. Not all members of Wicca share the same beliefs or follow the same practices; nor are they all pacifists. The different branches of Wicca are comparable to the different branches of Christianity; each follows its own rituals and interpretations of scripture. Someone who has an earnest and fundamental belief in Jesus's dictum to turn the other cheek to one's enemies probably would not, in Maginnis' view, make a very good soldier either. But he would likely not declare all Christians pacifists because there are a few who are. Regardless, enlisted Wiccans persumably have already found a way to reconcile their beliefs with the requirements of military service or they wouldn't have enlisted.

Unlike Maginnis, the military itself doesn't regard Wicca to be a danger or, for that matter, a threat to readiness. As the chaplain's handbook makes clear, Wicca does not necessarily stand in opposition to traditional religions. "It is very important to be aware that Wiccans do not in any way worship or believe in 'Satan,' the 'Devil,' or any similar entities," the handbook states, adding: "Wiccans do not revile the Bible. They simply regard it as one among many of the world's mythic systems, less applicable than some to their core values, but still deserving just as much respect as any of the others."

But the strongest argument against a ban on Wicca is still rooted in the First Amendment. Despite their deference to the military with regard to maintaining readiness, courts have sought to ensure that religions are not singled out for either special censure or favor. Even in the Goldman case cited by Barr, the Supreme Court stressed that regulations affecting religious practices are acceptable only when they do not target any particular religion. The ban on wearing yarmulkes was permitted, the court wrote, because "the regulations challenged here reasonably and evenhandedly regulate dress in the interest of the military's perceived need for uniformity."

Justice John Paul Stevens stressed the point in a concurring opinion: "As the Court demonstrates, the rule that is challenged in this case is based on a neutral, completely objective standard - visibility. It was not motivated by hostility against, or any special respect for, any religious faith."

Moreover, the Goldman case applied only to the dress or practices of troops while they are on active duty. The case does not prohibit enlistees from practicing their religion--whether that means wearing a yarmulke, taking communion, bowing in prayer or conducting Wiccan earth rituals--while they are off duty.

Consequently, officials would likely be unable to ban Wicca in the military unless they were also willing to curb the practice of other religions as well. That would be unpopular, given that there are more than 200 different religious denominations represented in the services. Despite outsiders such as Barr, the multi-religious character of the military seems to have caused little friction among recruits. Selectively banning Wicca or any other religion that a particular politician doesn't like would probably only create tensions between sanctioned and unsanctioned religions. That is probably why the Christian Coalition has retracted its support for a boycott of the military over the Wicca debacle; Pat Robertson recognizes that it does not make sense to risk the religious freedoms of everyone to target a few Wiccans exercising their religious rights.

At Fort Hood, military leaders appear to be committed to allowing Wiccans and any other religious group to use the base, as long as no health or safety violations occur. The military base is virtually a small town, a mix of secular, religious and military institutions, including more than 90 chapels, six elementary schools and a bowling alley. It would be odd--and likely unconstitutional--if the military were to give greater rights to bowling leagues than to Wicca.


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