Kim Sue was among 8 journalists invited to attend this ritual. In addition to ABC News, there were correspondents from der Stern, Time Magazine and Newsweek.

photo: Itarilde and Taniquetil lead a
ritual for Tolerance and Understanding.

KILLEEN -- Witches burning herbs in a black, cast-iron cauldron may seem like something out of folklore, but on Friday night a group of Wiccans did just that in a ritual to promote tolerance for their unconventional religion.

"What's the magic for tonight?" High Priestess Tama Oringderff asked the 16 witches assembled on a farm near Fort Hood. "Tolerance and understanding," the Wiccans replied in unison.

Oringderff, a leader of the Sacred Well Congregation of San Antonio, said the smoke from parsley (for cleansing negative words said about them), sage and rosemary (to create "insightful and loving dialogue from the heart") and fennel (to "soothe the stomach from the pain of destructive deeds") held the energy of tolerance.

"We hope these herbs will carry our message to the world for tolerance, understanding, peace and harmony," Oringderff said as she bent over the burning herbs.

The ritual, the witches said, was an effort to counter intolerance from religious conservatives who are trying to ban their faith from the military.

The Sacred Well sponsors the Fort Hood Open Circle, a collection of active and retired military personnel who practice their faith on the Army post.

Since an Austin American-Statesman article last month about Fort Hood sanctioning Wicca by providing space for witchcraft rituals, a Georgia congressman has demanded that the practice be halted and has proposed legislation to forbid it. Also, several conservative religious groups have called for a nationwide recruitment boycott of the Army until Wiccan rituals are banned from military installations.

"We thought we needed to do something," said High Priest David Oringderff, who founded the Sacred Well.

During the ritual, the retired Army major told the witches, "We should be grateful for the Constitution and grateful for the military that defends it. To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. Army is the first army in history never to have bloodied its sword in the cause of a sectarian religion."

The witches said they hope the ritual, the equivalent of a prayer service, helps bring a change of heart to U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., and the Washington-based Free Congress Foundation that is leading the charge for the Army boycott.

Bill Murray of the Religious Freedom Coalition in Washington, one of the groups supporting the boycott, said there must be limits on the conduct of people in the military.

"Wicca, unlike Christianity and Judaism, prescribes no personal limits of behavior. . . . (It) teaches that each individual must determine his patterns of behavior and may use the gods of Wicca to obtain any personal goal," Murray said. "An Army based on Wicca would be willing to do anything."

Fort Hood sanctioned Wicca -- a nature-based religion with roots in pre-Christian Europe -- three years ago. Wiccan groups now are springing up on military bases worldwide.