Face-off brewing over Wicca practice at Fort Hood

Under a bright moon Saturday night, the witches of Fort Hood will honor a chaplain for supporting the right of Wiccans to practice their rituals on the Army post.

At the same time in Atlanta, U.S. Rep. Bob Barr will face off with witches there over his demand that Fort Hood immediately stop allowing Wiccans to openly practice their faith on the post.

Fort Hood, the first U.S. military installation to sanction the neo-pagan Wicca religion, became an object of national media attention after an Austin American-Statesman story on the issue earlier this month. Last week, Georgia Republican Barr turned up the heat with a letter to Lt. Gen. Leon S. LaPorte, Fort Hood's commanding officer, demanding that the huge Army post "stop this nonsense now."

Fort Hood officials say the witches stay, and they have the support of U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, whose district includes the military installation.

"As a Christian, I have serious differences with the philosophy and practices of Wicca," said Edwards, D-Waco. "But it would be terrible policy to require each installation commander to define what is a religion and decide which religions can be practiced by American citizens."

Following Fort Hood's lead, other U.S. military bases worldwide now are affording Wiccans the same right as Christians, Jews and Muslims to have services on base.

In his letter to the Fort Hood commander, Barr said that allowing witches to openly practice their faith at the post may win praise from liberals, but "its effect on the combat readiness of your troops may be far less spectacular, to say nothing of its detrimental effects on our society more broadly speaking, which has heretofore looked to our military as epitomizing the American spirit of 'for God and country.' "

David Oringderff, founder and high priest of the Sacred Well Congregation of Texas -- which sponsors the witches on Fort Hood and three other U.S. military bases -- sent Barr a response, asking the congressman to apologize. Oringderff is a retired major who served 22 years in the Army.

"As a psychologist and sociologist, I am painfully aware that, despite constitutional guarantees and protection under law, intellectual and spiritual bigotry is alive and well in this country," Oringderff wrote.

Witches, he told Barr, "are quite accustomed to naive notions and caustic rhetoric from zealots," but they are not used to "such remarks coming from a man of your stature."

The mention of Wicca and its adherents, witches, conjures up Images of women casting evil spells, making human sacrifices and selling their souls to the devil. Those Images, introduced in ancient times by the Roman Catholic Church to describe heretics, have nothing to do with modern witchcraft. Wicca is a reconstruction of nature worship, primarily from tribal Europe; adherents believe in a god and goddess and celebrate cycles of the sun and moon.

Lt. Col. Benjamin Santos, a spokesman for Fort Hood, said the post has no official comment on Barr's letter. "It is inappropriate for us to discuss the contents of private correspondence from a member of Congress," Santos said. However, he added, the military installation has not changed its policy on Wicca.

At home, Barr is in trouble with the local Wiccans. Witches, including active military, plan to confront him Saturday during a previously planned town hall meeting at a public library.

"If anywhere there needs to be the freedom of religion . . . it should be military bases," said the Rev. Candace Lehrman, founder and director of the Ravenwood Church and Seminary of Wicca in Atlanta. "They are there to protect our country."

Saturday night in Killeen, the Fort Hood Open Circle -- the post's Wiccan group -- will honor Lt. Col. Donald Troyer, the chaplain who has defended and supported the witches. "We're responding to the First Amendment . . . and we're glad to do it," Troyer said in an earlier interview.

Barr said sanctioning Wicca on military bases sets a dangerous precedent.

"What's next?" Barr asked in his letter to the Fort Hood commander. "Will Rastafarians demand the inclusion of ritualistic marijuana cigarettes in their rations?"

In order for a religious group to be sanctioned by a military base, it must meet criteria including no participation in illegal activity and sponsorship by a legally incorporated church.

"Minority faith groups have been supported by chaplains for 20 to 30 years, and we follow the same regulations and follow the same rules as Jehovah's Witnesses, Buddhists, Mormons and any other minority faith groups," Oringderff said. "I find it ridiculous that we as a group are singled out for who we are and what we do and that we choose to express our faith in ways other than what the dominate culture chooses to express theirs."