Despite his friendly demeanor and charming smile, Dr. David Oringderff speaks with a gravelly and authoritative bass that betrays his background in the military and civilian law enforcement. His southern drawl gives a clear indication as to which country he served. At the age of 65, he is a twenty-seven year veteran of the U.S. Army. In addition to qualifications as a Texas Peace Officer, a Police Instructor and a Deputy Sheriff, he also holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology1. Reclining in his office chair with cigarette in hand, he jokingly explains, “ I tried enjoying retirement for a couple years and it didn’t work.”2
Almost 16 years ago, Dr. Oringderff was even busier than now. At that time, he was directing the nascent Sacred Well Congregation (SWC), a newly-formed Wiccan church chartered in Texas. SWC was founded in 1994 to “provide the legal and ecclesiastical recognition and protection” for Wiccans that was lacking; at that time, there were no other comparable organizations in the country.3
In December of 1996, Dr. Oringderff received a phone call from a woman by the name of Deirdre Robinson. A Staff Sergeant stationed at Fort Hood, Robinson had been leading a small Wiccan study group there for a little over a year. Desiring official recognition as a faith group, they had reached out to numerous Wiccan organizations to ask for sponsorship. None of the groups Robinson approached had met the criteria: military regulations require a federally-recognized organization to support a faith group. SWC met the standards to be federally recognized as a Denominational Sponsor.
The Study Group
In 1994, a small group of 13 Wiccans had begun meeting privately on Fort Hood. Without official recognition, they gathered in cramped living rooms to hold study groups and small rituals.
Frustrated with non-ideal meeting space and wanting to expand their services, they sought to be recognized as a Distinctive Faith Group (DFG). With recognition as a DFG, they would receive a meeting room, acknowledgment by the Chaplains Corps, and an outside circle in which to hold rituals4. To be recognized, they would need a Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL), a supporting chaplain, and a sponsoring organization.5
Dr. Oringderff was wary at first. As he explained, “all religions have their fringe elements, but ours seems to have a larger fringe than most.” He knew he wanted to try to help the study group, but first, he wanted to know more precisely “who I’m dealing with.” Dr. Oringderff called Robinson and asked for her to come down to San Antonio to meet with SWC.6
Alongside Robinson were Ron and Marie Smith, a married couple in the study group. Retired now, at the time, they were working as nurses in the Army Medical Corps. Dr. Oringderff’s first impressions were promising. Robinson was “intelligent” with a background in practice, and Ron and Marie were both experienced Lt. Colonels. Dr. Oringderff thought, “Okay, these people are credible.”7
After SWC ensured they met all military regulations, Ron and Marie went to the Chief of Chaplains to ask for recognition.
A Military Precedent
The study group was the first Wiccan group to seek official recognition in the U.S. Military. However, the military was prepared. Requests for new groups were handled in accordance with Army Regulation 165-1. Chapter 5, Section 5 required an “application with the approval and sponsorship of a local Chaplain” for all DFGL’s.8 The handling of requests for a Distinctive Faith Group were informed by an Army book publication entitled Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains. Known simply as the Chaplain’s Handbook, it contained basic beliefs, hierarchies, and practices of numerous faiths. Religions considered “Other” in the handbook included Wicca, Temple of Set, Church of Satan, and Black Judaism, all with the potential to become recognized on a case-by-case basis.9
In the eyes of the Army, the Wiccan request was nothing out of the ordinary. The first bullet point in the mission statement of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board of the Department of Defense, which oversees military chaplaincy, is to ensure the “protection of the free exercise of religion on military bases.10 Their role is not to “evaluate or judge the merits of specific faiths.”11 Ron and Marie were worried that being a non-standard group might jeopardize their chances. The military, however, recognized their need for spiritual care, and assigned them a chaplain to oversee their faith group.
The Fort Hood Open Circle
With recognition and sponsorship, the study group, known from then on as the Fort Hood Open Circle (FHOC), began practicing as a DFG on August 1st, 1997 with little fanfare. As part of their recognition, the FHOC was given access to Camp Finlayson, a local campground at which they could hold rituals.
The only concession the Open Circle made was agreeing not to practice ’skyclad’, that is, in the nude, as it violated military policy.
Deirdre Robinson received orders for a permanent change of base in 1998, so a young woman named Marcy Palmer assumed the role of High Priestess, and Ron Smith stepped up as High Priest. After receiving recognition, “we probably had about maybe eight months of calmness,” reflects Marie Smith. In that time, it was just a “change of location” and “increasing numbers of people coming out.”12
Enter Kim Sue Lia Perkes
In the very beginning of 1999, Dr. Oringderff received a phone call from the Austin-American Statesman. For two years, their religion correspondent, Kim Sue Lia Perkes, had been asking to do a human interest piece on the Fort Hood Open Circle.
Dr. Oringderff had “serious reservations.”13 Knowing that the story would receive public attention, he feared that there was “liable to be some blowback on both us and the chaplains.”14 It was a conversation with Chaplain Gunter, executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, that changed his mind. Gunter told him, “’Dr. Oringderff, if a reporter wants a story, they’re gonna get a story. And if you don’t give it to them, they’re gonna get it anyway, and you may not like what they get.’”15 Dr. Oringderff’s decision was made.
Perkes was directed to speak to Ron and Marie, as they “pretty much ran the circle” at Fort Hood.16 They were wary at first, but eventually gave Perkes their permission as well. Before she was allowed to visit, however, she had to go through a vetting process with SWC. Dr. Oringderff sat down with her for a whole afternoon explaining the technical stipulations regarding her visit. A Public Affairs Officer would be present and listening to any conversations she had, and her photographer would need permission from everyone before publishing any photographs. Most importantly, he impressed upon her that “It’s a ritual; it’s not a production for you.”17
With the terms laid out clearly, Perkes agreed and scheduled her visit. The spring equinox, Ostara, was approaching. She was invited to come observe the equinox ceremony, which Marcy Palmer would lead and at which Ron and Marie, Dr. Oringderff, a Public Affairs Officer, and more than 40 witches would be present.
The Story Breaks
On May 11, Perkes’s article, entitled “Practicing Their Old-Time Religion,” was published in the Austin American-Statesman. Perkes had spent three days with the Wiccan community at Fort Hood, and her article included a picture of Marcy Palmer and Dr. Oringderff jumping the ceremonial fire at the ritual. Perkes evocatively described the ceremony:
The robed high priestess turned her back to the fire, faced a makeshift outdoor altar and blessed the essentials of life: water, bread and salt.
“Great goddess Freya, bless this creature of the Earth to your service,” she recited, after placing the shiny blade of her dagger over a small bowl of salt. “May we always honor the blessed Earth, its many forms and beings.”
The congregation, holding hands in a circle around the fire, replied in refrain: “Great Freya be you adored.”18
The piece was well-received within the FHOC. “It was an excellent article,” admits Dr. Oringderff. In fact, the article was so well-written that it was soon picked up by the Associated Press and began to be reprinted in newspapers nationwide.
“All hell broke loose.”19
Local (and not-so-local) Reactions
Perkes’s article was reprinted across the country; however, many publications perverted her story, and incorrect versions were printed indiscriminately. Articles in American and British tabloids reprinted the photograph of Marcy Palmer and Dr. Oringderff jumping the ceremonial fire. Many of these publications spread rumors and false information about the FHOC.
The central figure in local outcry was Reverend Jack Harvey of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Killeen, TX. “The leaders of our country are going to give account to God with how they deal with witchcraft...it’s evil!” cried Reverend Harvey, pounding his church podium.20 His sermon quoted Exodus 22:18, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” encouraging his congregation to write letters and protest.21 He also cited 112 verses in the Bible that declare witchcraft an abomination. He compared Fort Hood to Sodom and Gomorrah and declared Wiccans “liars...dirty, filthy,” and intent on deceiving the public.22
“Everyone thinks they’re such sweet, lovely people,” posited Rev. Harvey.23 But in his view, these people are demonic. We don’t say they might be.24 “ In addition to acerbic comments on Wiccans, Marie Smith recalls that he reinforced many stereotypes of witches as wart-ridden, broom-bearing old women. He claimed to possess the ability to identify a witch by such features. “He could smell a witch a mile away; he said so himself.”25
Strong reactions to the FHOC were not limited only to the Fort Hood community. Indeed, on June 23, then-Governor George W. Bush appeared on ABC News as part of his media campaign during his bid for President. On air, he stated, “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion. I wish the military would rethink this decision.”26
In addition to “persistent threats” via phone and email, Ron and Marie Smith were subjected to vicious and hurtful personal attacks.27 One news story claimed that Ron had abused his daughters: the only problem was that Ron and Marie had no children. Another story claimed that bones found in a Camp Finlayson fire pit — remnants from a Boy Scout cookout — were the remains of a sacrificed baby. Cows grazed out on West Fort Hood, and from time to time, they would get hit by a range vehicle. A cow was killed, and even though you could “see the tracks of the tank on the cow,” newspapers accused the Open Circle of sacrificially killing it.
Even 16 years later, Ron becomes visibly upset recounting the personal attacks levied against him and his wife. Because he and his wife are both Registered Nurses, they were accused by a Dallas church of impregnating 12-14 year-old girls, aborting their pregnancies and using the fetuses for rituals. Growing choked up, he asks, “How do you respond to that?”28
Marie fills in his needed moment of silence: “we had to write letters, you know. Say, ’This is not happening.’”29
On the Front Lines
The volume and vitriol of public prejudices necessitated a firm response. The lion’s share of this responsibility fell on Dr. Oringderff’s shoulders. As the executive director of the sponsoring organization, he was charged with “fielding questions” and “keeping the heat off of [Fort Hood].” He received calls from local papers, national journalists, even the “damn German news service.”30
Ron and Marie took it upon themselves to deal with Rev. Harvey. Both attended one of his services at the Tabernacle Baptist Church. Rev. Harvey had asked the congregation to bring guns to church to “ward off the witches” and to stop them from kidnapping children for sacrifices. Harvey had even stationed ’witchfinders’ at the door to identify any infiltrating witches and do who-knows-what with them. Reflecting on how he passed easily through the doors, Ron smirks and remarks, “His witchfinders didn’t work very well.”
Ron and Marie Smith recall a (near) face-to-face encounter with Rev. Harvey during Labor Day weekend. Rev. Harvey and 200 members of his congregation had planned a two-mile march through Copperas Cove to protest the grand opening of a pagan store. A group of over 400 Wiccans — from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico — had assembled to counter-protest. When Rev. Harvey’s protestors saw the Wiccans, they refused to get off their buses. It was over 100°F that day, so as an act of good will, the Wiccans brought cases of water for Rev. Harvey and his followers. He would not allow anyone to leave the bus, because he told them the water was poisoned. “That’s the kind of radical idealism we were dealing with.”
For Ron and Marie, the response to Rev. Harvey was obvious: when the press wanted an interview, “we would send them to speak with Reverend Harvey first.” Their clever rationale: “he made us look sane and simple.”31
Despite their tactics, Ron and Marie were nonetheless inundated by requests for interviews: in the month following, Dr. Oringderff and the Smith’s telephone bills both totaled over $1,000.32
The Army Response
The Army was bombarded by criticism from all sides. In addition to public outcry, the Armed Forces Chaplains Board was also targeted by politicians. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond — a one-star retired General — called in the spokesman for the Chiefs of Chaplains, a two-star general. He told him, “General, I don’t want these damn Wiccans in my army.” Emboldened, perhaps, by his higher rank, the General replied, “General, it’s not your army,” and left the room.33
Despite pressures, the Army promulgated a coordinated and composed response to the controversy. “As far as we are concerned, they are a religious organization providing for the spiritual needs of our soldiers,” replied Fort Hood spokesperson Lt. Col. Benjamin Sanders in a newspaper statement. General Gaylord Gunhus, Deputy Chief of Chaplains, sent out a letter that read, in part:
All faiths are seen as equal under the Constitution of the United States with the mandate of “separation of church and state.” This idea is further reinforced by the provision of the First Amendment rights of citizens to engage in the free exercise of religion, as defined by the practitioners of respective faiths, not by the government...I must thus consequently draw a distinction between my personal faith [as a Christian], and the public trust and responsibility I must uphold.34
This coordinated response was not accidental: “There was a lot of high level stuff going on within the Defense Department” well before the controversy erupted. Chaplain Gunter told SWC and the Open Circle, “’we’ll be ready for it up here,’” and it was this organizational preparedness that allowed everything to be answered “responsibly.”35
Other non-Wiccan chaplains showed their support as well. Military chaplains each have an endorser who employs them: “Military chaplains have less job security than migrant workers,” quips Dr. Oringderff, as their job is contingent on one person’s signature.36 Prior to the story breaking, “virtually every command chaplain” spoke to his endorsing agency to express his support for religious pluralism. “These chaplains literally risked their careers in support of freedom of religion in the military”; if their endorser was so moved, they could immediately fire him.37 Encouragingly, all of their endorsing agencies responded positively.
Overall, the Wiccan community at Fort Hood felt completely protected: “the Army, from the day [it] said that we have a right to practice, supported us 100%.”38
1. [”David L. Oringderff.” Cherry Hill Seminary Faculty. Cherry Hill Seminary, 6 Feb. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.]↩
2. [David L. Oringderff. Skype Interview with author. 15 April 2015.]↩
3. [”History of the Congregation.” History and Organization of Sacred Well Congregation. Sacred Well Congregation. n.d. Web. 30 April 2015.]↩
4. [David Oringderff, interview.]↩
5. [SWCVideoLibrary’s channel. ”How to become a DFGL.” Youtube 15 Nov. 2011. Web. 29 April 2015.]↩
6. [David Orinderff, interview.]↩
8. [United States. Department of the Army Headquarters. ”Army Regulation 165-1.” Army Chaplain Corps Activities. 3 December 2009, effective 3 January 2010. http://www.usachcs.army.mil/pdf/activities.pdf]]↩
9. [U.S. Department of the Army. ”Religious Requirements and Practices: a Handbook for Chaplains.” GoogleBooks. Web. 1 May 2015.]↩
10. [”Armed Forces Chaplains Board.” Office of the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness. United States Department of Defense. Web. 5 May 2015.]↩
11. [Unnamed Department of Defense Official quoted in Holley, Joe. ”A Genuine Witch Hunt.” U.S. News 14 June 1999. Web. 29 March 2015.]↩
12. [Marie Smith, interview.]↩
13. [”History and Incidents, FHOC (SWC).” Personal Memorandum, 21 June 2001, shared with author by Dr. Oringderff. Page 2.]↩
14. [David Oringderff, interview.]↩
16. [Ron Smith, interview.]↩
17. [David Oringderff, interview.]↩
18. [Perkes, Kim Sue Lia. ”Practicing Their Old-Time Religion.” Austin American-Statesman 11 May 1999. Web. 20 March 2015.]↩
19. [Ron Smith, interview.]↩
20. [News clip: ”USA: Texas: Wicca Beliefs & The US Army.” AP Archive. 24 June 1999. Web. 23 March 2015.]↩
21. [Drago, Mike. ”Witches in Army Raise Ire of Congressman.” Tyrone Daily Herald 19 June 1999. Print. Page 7.]↩
22. [Radio interview with Rick Wiles. America’s Hope 30 June 1999. Accessed via YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=1973&v=Ftp1ZYARAGY]↩
23. [Rosin, Hanna. ”Toil, Trouble for Wiccans at Army Base in Texas.” Los Angeles Times 8 June 1999. Web. 7 April 2015.]↩
24. [ Holmes, S. Cecile. ”Wiccans Retreating From Spotlight of Public Scrutiny.” Houston Chronicle 3 Sep. 1999. Web. 10 April 2015.]↩
25. [Marie Smith, interview.]↩
26. [Matthews, Carol S. New Religions. New York: Infobase Publishing. GoogleBooks. Page 126.]↩
27. [Gwyne, S.C. ”I Saluted a Witch.” Time 27 June 1999. Web. 17 April 2015.]↩
28. [Ron Smith, interview]↩
30. [David Oringderff, interview.]↩
31. [All quotes from Ron and Marie Smith, interview. ]↩
32. [David Oringderff interview]↩
34. [Gunhus, Gaylord T. Letter to Reverend Overgaard, 2 June 1999. Sacred Well Congregation. Web. 28 April 2015.]↩
35. [David Oringderff, interview.]↩
37. [”History and Incidents, FHOC (SWC).” Personal Memorandum, 21 June 2001, shared with author by Dr. Oringderff. Page 3.]↩
38. [Ron Smith, interview.]↩