WITCHES, PAGANS CAST ASIDE SHROUD OF SECRECY By Grant Willis Times Staff Writer from The A
WITCHES, PAGANS CAST ASIDE SHROUD OF SECRECY By Grant Willis Times Staff
Writer from The AIR FORCE TIMES, October 26, 1987
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
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
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
Farwandere 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
The estimate of 30,000 to 40,000 pagans in the United States comes from
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
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,
"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.'"
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank