FORT HOOD, Texas (AP) — Marcy Palmer paces in the shade of a post oak tree. Two dozen people listen as she teaches the tenets of an ancient religion

"We believe in the divinity of all things."
"We believe that we are all of one life force."
"We believe that we are one with nature."
"Know thyself."

Scenes like this have rankled one congressman and triggered a debate about religious freedom within the military.

That's because Ms. Palmer is a witch, the high priestess of a group that practices Wicca at Fort Hood with the knowledge and approval of the U.S. Army. Most in her group are active-duty soldiers.

Critics, including some Christian groups and Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., say the Army's decision to permit Wiccan services at Fort Hood and four other posts is wrong. Barr tried unsuccessfully to attach a witchcraft-banning amendment to a Defense Department authorization bill last month.

"I think it brings disrepute to the military and ought not to be allowed as something on par with the Judeo-Christian beliefs on which our country was founded," Barr told The Associated Press. "If in fact people want to practice this in their personal lives, that's one thing. But to allow it as a sanctified practice on military bases ... is nonsense."

Such sentiments are rooted in fear and false notions that witches worship Satan or sacrifice animals, said David Oringderff, head of the San Antonio-based pagan group that sponsors Ms. Palmer's Fort Hood Open Circle.

"There's no accounting for fear and bigotry," Oringderff said.

An estimated 50,000 Americans practice Wicca, a form of polytheistic nature worship. Its core ethical statement, the "Wiccan Rede," states that if "it harm none, do what you will."

The Open Circle has been meeting at Fort Hood for about two years. Lt. Col. Benjamin Santos, Fort Hood's spokesman, said witches who were members of the Army submitted their request for a meeting place in mid-1997. It was approved by the chaplain's office at U.S. Army Forces Command headquarters in Atlanta.

The military has since sanctioned similar groups at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, Fort Wainwright in Alaska, Fort Polk in Louisiana and Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa.

Santos said the Army's stance is simple: Identify soldiers' needs and serve them. That applies to spiritual needs as well as temporal needs served by six elementary schools, two commissaries and a bowling alley for the post's 71,500 residents, he said.

The post has nine chapels, but, Santos said, "For us it's not a religious issue. It's a quality-of-life issue."

There are 92 chaplains among the 42,000 Fort Hood soldiers. The inch-thick chaplain handbook includes a five-page primer on Wicca, described as "a reconstruction of the Nature worship of tribal Europe." It is sometimes referred to as druidism, paganism and witchcraft.

Lt. Col. Donald Troyer is the chaplain assigned as a liaison to the witches and to ensure the group complies with regulations. A Seventh-day Adventist, he has championed the group's right to exist, telling The Austin American-Statesman that "we're responding to the First Amendment ... and we're glad to do it."

The witches of Fort Hood meet at Camp Finlayson, a remote, hilly campground teeming with squirrels and birds. Despite the frequent rumble of low-flying Apache attack helicopters on training runs, the site feels peaceful.

They gather for ritual holidays, such as the summer solstice, and two evenings a week for "classes" led by Ms. Palmer.

On this 90-degree Monday night, about 30 people attend. Three-fourths are in the Army, but only one - a sergeant in an airborne unit - is in uniform. Some wear pentagram necklaces. There are former Catholics, Mormons, Baptists and Presbyterians.

Sean, a 30-year-old former soldier who served in an artillery unit deployed to Kuwait several years ago, said witches were in the Army long before they were sanctioned.

"In my particular unit we had several witches and we would all congregate in one room and discuss things," said Sean, who declined to give his last name. "It helped us."

Sean, a deacon in the Open Circle, said the Army is ahead of society in its religious tolerance.

"My first sergeant was very much for it," he said of his faith. "So was my chaplain... He even came out here a couple times to the circle and gave classes about his religion so we could all learn about it."

Ms. Palmer, a former military policewoman who now is a civilian Army hospital nurse, drills the class on Wiccan principles. She talks about the fine points of summoning spirits and how to design rituals. She discusses casting spells, by which Wiccans mean enlisting "psychic energy" to heal, protect or aid members in various endeavors.

Such practices are forbidden by the Bible, according to those who want the Fort Hood covens curtailed.

"There are 112 verses where God calls this not just sin but ... abomination," said the Rev. Jack Harvey, pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Killeen, just outside Fort Hood.

One verse he cites is Exodus 22:18: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

"God detests this," Harvey said. "This is like homosexuality, which God also says is an abomination."

Earlier this month, 13 conservative religious groups, including the Christian Coalition with 2.1 million members, called on Christians to boycott joining or re-enlisting in the Army until witchcraft is banned on posts.

In the Open Circle, some soldiers groaned at such criticism. Others called it an opportunity for witches to come out of hiding and to defend the rights of all religions.

"If they deny our right to worship... then everybody loses," Ms. Palmer said.