TO ALL MEMBERS OF THE UNIT MINISTRY TEAM
All of you have been following the wave of media interest and hype that has focused on the Wicca coven that meets at Fort Hood. The support, in which the Fort Hood Commander has been providing for the soldiers who choose to follow the practices of the Wicca, is appropriate and in compliance with Department of Defense and the Department of the Army policy on the accommodation of religious practices.
The initial article that was published in the Austin American Statesmen concerning the Wicca meetings at Fort Hood was somewhat accurate. Subsequent media releases, however, in newspapers, tabloid, magazines, on radio and television were filled with inaccuracies and false information, at times sensational and completely bogus.
Seeing what the media was, I began to wonder what the leadership of my church was thinking, knowing they were reading the newspapers and viewing and listening to what was being said on television and radio. I decided to write to my church's leadership to dispel any misunderstanding or false notions, which they might have gathered from what they heard or read through the media. I called the president of my church synod and told him I was sending him the letter (see below). He asked if it would be releasable to our churches publications. I received clearance from the Department of the Army Chief of Public Affairs Office. The letter was subsequently published in one of our church's national publications. Since that time the feedback I have received from my church's constituency for what we do in support of the religious practices of soldiers has been with understanding, supportive and positive.
I share this letter, particularly with you chaplains, with the recommendation that you take a similar approach with the religious community that has endorsed you to ministry as an Army Chaplain.
June 2, 1999
Reverend Robert M. Overgaard, Sr.
Church of the Lutheran Brethren
1020 Alcott Avenue West
Fergus Falls, MN 56538-0655
Dear Reverend Overgaard:
During the last several weeks there has been a wave of media hype on the Wicca religion and the coven that meets at Fort Hood, Texas. Most of what has been written or produced has been sensationalized and/or inaccurate. I thought it would be helpful for you if I sent you the Army's position on this and, accordingly, give you an idea of where I am in all of it. As you can imagine, this issue has been a very sensitive subject for this Office of the Chief of Army Chaplains and me.
This issue, however, is not a new one. The United States Army Chaplain Corps has been accommodating the diverse religious needs of military people for years. 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. The mistaken notion, fostered by a newspaper article in Texas, and circulated by other media, that the Army somehow has "recognized" Wicca, as a legitimate religion is both inaccurate and misleading. The government has no more recognized the Wiccan faith than it has, for example, the Church of the Lutheran Brethren, the Roman Catholic Church, Judaism, or for that matter, atheism. Even now, Congress is working to establish a law entitled "The Freedom of Religion Protection Act." This is not a freedom of "some", but of all, religions. We live in a diverse and pluralistic nation. We are not asked to accept any or all religions, merely to respect their right to expression and the exercise of their faith.
Therefore, I believe this issue is about how we understand and accommodate religious rights and strongly held beliefs, albeit differing, rather than one of recognition. Our nation prides itself and owes its existence and prosperity to its respect for individual liberties-- specifically religious freedoms. The great strength and witness of our nation to the rest of the world is to defend individual freedoms, especially on those occasions when we personally disagree with differing viewpoints of faith expression.
I must consequently draw a distinction between my personal faith, and the public trust and responsibility I must uphold.
While I am completely and compellingly committed to the tenets of the Christian faith as expressed within our church, I am also a public official with the responsibility to uphold the First Amendment rights of all our citizens. I do not find my Christian faith in conflict with my public responsibilities. The First Amendment has made America the richest ground for the promotion of the Christian faith in all of human history. Whether I personally agree or not with a particular faith expression, I am still bound by my oath, sworn before God, to provide for and protect the freedom of religious expression for all citizens. This same Constitution provides me with the freedom to practice my Christian faith and ministry to the fullest of my calling.
Allow me to address the practical concerns of free exercise in the Army. The Army policy, consistent with public law and Department of Defense policy, is to accommodate free exercise of religion for its members. This is a command responsibility and is executed by the Chaplain Corps. The consistent accommodation of free exercise of religion, within the Army, ensures that readiness, mission, and good order and discipline are enhanced.
While it is true that military commanders and chaplains are responding positively, these days, to legitimate accommodation requests from service members belonging to "non-traditional" religious groups, it does not mean the military has "legitimized" any of these groups. As we all know, American culture today, and accordingly the Army, is a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, and inclusive society. The day is past when one could assume that most Americans practice the Christian or Jewish faith with a few agnostics and atheists thrown in for good measure. "Traditional" religions, along with Middle eastern religions, mystery religions, earth religions, nondenominational groups, interdenominational groups, splinter groups and groups going by names largely unfamiliar to us, are represented in America and, by extension, in the military.
Take the case of the Wiccans at Fort Hood. The commander is responsible to provide for demonstrated religious needs. Under Army regulation, the commander must detail a chaplain as "sponsor" to assure that the group conducts itself appropriately within Department of Defense directives, Service regulations and public law. The "sponsoring" chaplain is certainly not required to participate in their activities or to defend their religious beliefs. The commander, working through the chaplain, is required only to provide the opportunity for the Wiccans to express their beliefs in rituals and activities that are in accordance with the law of the land.
Paul Harvey, The London Telegraph, etc., have asserted that we are trying to recruit Wiccan chaplains. This is not true. No Wiccan group, at present, has received ecclesiastical endorsement authority from the Armed Forces Chaplains' Board (AFCB). This would be the first step in the endorsement process. Even if granted such authority by the AFCB, the Army sees no need at present to access a Wiccan Chaplain.
I am proud of my church, of my country, and of the United States Army Chaplain Corps. I am grateful for the call that has been extended to me to serve the Lord as an Army Chaplain. I am grateful for the prayers, support, and encouragement given me from the members of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren during my 32 years of ministry as an Army Chaplain. You may rest assured that the spiritual health and welfare of soldiers and family members are in the good hands of committed chaplains and chaplain assistants who are stationed all over the world and often in harm's way. Through them, Christian soldiers are extended the freedom to worship Our Lord Jesus with genuineness and fervor. Jewish chaplains lead Jewish soldiers in their worship of God openly and freely. Muslim chaplains lead Muslim soldiers in their prayers to Allah with out fear of reprisal. Soldiers of other faiths and religions, including Wiccan soldiers, have the freedom to follow the spiritual path they have chosen. I thank God for the Constitution of the United States of America that allows me to proclaim the message of grace and forgiveness through Christ our Lord. I will continue to do so as long as I serve as an Army chaplain. While I do this, I will assure that soldiers are allowed the opportunity to freely practice their religion. If they lose their right of religious freedom, I lose mine.
I hope this has helped you with understanding these critical issues that we work with every day. As always I am aware of your prayers and support. I am grateful for both and thank you for them.
God bless you and have a great day!
Gaylord T. Gunhus
Chaplain (Brigadier General)
United States Army
Deputy Chief of Chaplains
We place a high value on the 1st Amendment rights of our soldiers. It is the principle of our Constitution that enables us to be as diverse as we are in the Army Chaplaincy; individually, we remain faithful to the tenets of our own religious faith group, and, at the same time, we accommodate the religious practices of all soldiers.
In that regard I ask you to do two things: First, daily reaffirm and renew your personal faith and your calling to serve as a representative of your faith group. Second, understand the Army Policy on Accommodations of Religious Practices in order to appropriately advise your commander and accommodate your soldiers religious practices.
As always you are in my prayers
Pro Deo et Patria
GAYLORD T. GUNHUS
Chaplain (Major General) USA
Chief of Chaplains