Religion and the Military: Take Two

A while back, I wrote about the bru-ha-ha surrounding the request of a soldier’s widow to have a Wiccan symbol used on his gravestone, a right given to numerous other religions.

It appears that the cemetary is not the only problem for Wiccan’s in the military. The Washington Post is reporting the story of a Pentecostal Christian minister at Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. support base in Iraq, who (after witnessing the Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra) applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. armed forces. This set off an extraordinary chain of events, that resulted in (within 6 months of his request) his superiors not only denying his request, but also withdrawing him from Iraq and removing him from the chaplain corps, despite an unblemished service record.

The article notes that Wicca, as a religion, is growing. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, a widely respected tally, the number of Wiccans in the United States rose 17-fold — from 8,000 to 134,000 — between 1990 and 2001. By the Pentagon’s count, there are now 1,511 self-identified Wiccans in the Air Force and 354 in the Marines. No figures are available for the much larger Army and Navy. Wiccan groups estimate they have at least 4,000 followers in uniform, but they say many active-duty Wiccans hide their beliefs to avoid ridicule and discrimination.

They need to, in the military, it seems. When a Texas newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, reported in 1999 that a circle of Wiccans was meeting regularly at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, then-Gov. George W. Bush told ABC’s “Good Morning America”: “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion, and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it.” Eight years later, the circle at Lackland is still going strong, and the military permits Wiccans to worship on U.S. bases around the world. But then there was the incident of the Wiccan pentacle on a memorial… and now this.

To me, it’s just a reminder of how tenuous freedom of religion is in this country, and how important it is that we fight for it, whatever the religion may be.