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The Air Force Times Interview

Witches, Pagans Cast Aside Shroud Of Secrecy

- By Grant Willis.

Times Staff Writer from The AIR FORCE TIMES,

- October 26, 1987

(Used with Permission.)

WASHINGTON - Military members who practice witchcraft and paganism are emerging from secrecy to demand respect for their civil rights and increased recognition from the armed services.

In interviews with Air Force Times, military witch and pagan activists said they want time off for their major religious holidays. Some said they want dog tags that state "Pagan" or "Wicca" as their religious preference. Other pagans and witches said they need chaplains who understand pre-Christian beliefs and who can help them form worship groups at remote duty locations.

Signs of the new assertiveness appeared this fall in Europe, when some witches and pagans formed a network called the Farwanderer Military Pagan Fellowship. Air Force SSGt Lorie A. Johnson said she placed an announcement in European Stars and Stripes to recruit fellowship members.

"The goal is to let military pagans know they're not alone," Johnson said, and "to show the military that we're not just a bunch of scattered weirdos."

Johnson is assigned to the 601st Tactical Control Wing at Sembach AB, Germany. She said she is a witch, but added that witches prefer to call themselves Wiccans. Their religion is called Wicca.

Wiccans are considered pagans because they worship several nature gods instead of a single god, according to the Army's chaplain handbook. They also believe in phychic powers and hold rituals according to lunar cycle. Other pagan groups include Druids, who base their rituals on solar cycles, and worshippers of the Norse gods, of the ancient Vikings.

Military witches and pagans have tended to practice their religion secretly - so secretly, in fact, that many people outside the pagan subculture are startled to learn that it exists. Some people deny that paganism is a religion find pagan rituals offensive.

But the pagans who were interviewed said their religion is serious and their problems are real. Those problems include choosing whether to keep their beliefs a secret from commanders and co-workers, unwelcome solicitations from people who try to convert them to Christianity, and harassment by those who erroneously regard pagans as devil-worshippers.

No one knows how many of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 pagans in the United States are military members. In a December, 1986 Department of Defense survey, 10,487 military members marked "other religion" as their preference instead of choosing one of the 250 faith groups on the questionnaire. That was less than 1 percent of the 2.1 million who responded.

Officially, the military takes a neutral view of pagan activity in the ranks. "We acknowledge their right to exist," said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) William L. Hugham, a spokesman for the Army chief of chaplains office at the Pentagon.

A 1984 Department of Defense directive allows any religious faith group to apply for recognition as an "ecclesiastical endorsing agent." This status allows a faith to seek chaplain commissions, among other things.

Pagan and Wiccan groups are welcome to apply to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board for endorsing status, said Chaplain (Col.) John Mann (USAF), the board's executive director. However, Wiccans and pagans acknowledge that their groups probably are too loosely organized to meet DoD criteria.

Even without official recognition, Mann said, military pagans are entitled to support from more than 3,400 active-duty Catholic, Protestant or Jewish chaplains. "The military chaplaincy exists to provide for the free exercise of religion," he said.

But as long as the armed services don't count pagans, separately, they can continue to ignore pagans' needs, Johnson said. The military also tolerates a climate that makes many pagans afraid to exercise their rights openly, said Sgt LaVern Bentz (USArmy), a Wiccan assigned to the 284th Military Police Company in Frankfurt, Germany. "You have these commanders who don't want to rock the boat," Bentz said. "So they tend to look at (paganism) as not part of the norm - is not uniform."

"Then your assignments start getting changed. They put you on the back burner somewhere in a nice little office...To me, this is very wrong."

Bentz, a four-year Army veteran, said he started getting "rotten" job assignments after he revealed his beliefs to his previous unit commander. Then enlisted soldiers stopped listening to what Bentz said, or jokingly asked if he could cast a good-weather spell for their next field exercise, he said.

Despite the problems, Bentz said, he managed to get transferred to a unit where no one cares that he is a witch. he has since joined the Farwander Fellowship and hopes that other pagans will follow.

"Most of them are finally coming out of the closet and saying: The military is the pinnacle of what we believe in - freedom of religion - so why are we afraid to reveal our beliefs?" Bentz said.

But other pagans have chosen to keep a low profile. Jack (not his real name), a Navy hospital corpsman second class stationed in the Deep South, said secrecy protects his family.

"If I were a civilian and things got hot, I could always pick up and leave," he said. "Being in the Navy, I can't do that."

Jack said he might consider practicing Wicca openly if he were stationed on a ship, because everyone aboard would be subject to Navy discipline and regulations that protect freedom of religion. On shore, however, Jack said he feels intimidated by vocal Christian fundamentalists on and off base. The Klu Klux Klan is still active in the civilian community, he added.

Jack and his wife did attend a workshop for military pagans last summer at Barneveld, Wis. The worship had about eight participants and was sponsored by Circle Sanctuary, a 10-year old Wiccan church that claims 15,000 members.

Some pagans find that their religious implements are banned in barracks, said J. Gordon Melton, a professor who heads the University of California at Santa Barbara's Institute for the Study of American Religion.

For example, Melton said, some bases ban incense because it is sometimes used to cover the smell of marijuana. Candles may be considered a fire hazard. And the Wiccan ritual knife, the atheme, may be considered an unauthorized weapon.

The estimate of 30,000 to 40,000 pagans in the United States comes from Melton's research.

Wiccans and pagans don't try to convert others to their religion, but many feel harassed by the well-intentioned efforts of some Christians to "save" them from sin, said Kim Rayworth, the wife of an Air Force major at Incirlik AB, Turkey. Rayworth said she and her husband have been Wiccans since 1970.

Last summer, Rayworth said, she woke up one morning to find a large wooden cross planted in the front yard of her on-base home. She could have made a formal complaint to the base commander but chose to ignore the incident, she said.

A neighbor also tried to hang crosses around Rayworth's daughter's neck, Rayworth said.

"At the age of 7, she had accumulated nine crosses from (the) neighbor," Rayworth said. "I finally told her, 'I don't need your crosses. Please don't push your religion on my daughter."

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