Pagan Rituals on Army Base Cast Controversial Spell

ABCNEWS' Peggy Wehmeyer reports that a constitutional protection of religion for some means condemnation from others. (ABCNEWS)

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

FORT HOOD, Texas, June 23 - At the U.S. Army's largest military base, soldiers train by day for combat in enemy territory. But late at night, some of them meet under a moonlit sky here in central Texas to cast spells and invoke pagan goddesses.

They are the Fort Hood Witches, a group that includes active and retired Army personnel who are devotees of Wicca, a pagan religion.

Wiccans believe there is divine power in nature and that they can harness and direct that power through chanting and magic rituals.

Pagans Draw Ire of Local Clergy

But some local pastors, who consider witchcraft part of satanic worship, are outraged the Army is making room for witches. And conservative Christian groups are telling young men and women not to join the Army until the witches are banned.

"The leaders of our country," shouts the Rev. Jack Harvey from his pulpit at the Tabernacle Baptist Church, "are going to give count to God with how they deal with witchcraft because our precious single soldiers are going to be involved in it if they allow it on military forts."

The pagan ceremonies are allowed at Fort Hood because several years ago, the Army brass here recognized Wicca as a legitimate religion. Since then, a handful of other U.S. military installations have sanctioned pagan rituals.

Pentagon Defends Religious Freedom

Pentagon officials say it's their duty under the First Amendment to allow soldiers to practice their religion, whatever it may be.

"Federal courts and statutes decreed that they are an organized religion and thus they fall under the protection of the Constitution," says Maj. Gen. Bill Dendiger, chairman of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board.

But the Army does insist that the Wiccans not perform their rituals in the nude.

Marcy Palmer, a six-year veteran of the military police and the Wiccans' high priestess, considers the Army supportive. "They think it's good that everybody is allowed to express their own spirituality," she says.

The Wiccans say their critics misunderstand them. Witches don't sacrifice animals, worship the devil or cast evil spells, they say.

"Parsley, sage, rosemary, fennel," they chanted during a recent ceremony. "On the heat of these flames we hope that these herbs will carry our message to the rest of the world for understanding, tolerance, peace, harmony and love."

The Fort Hood witches say that despite their unusual rituals, they deserve the same respect and are entitled to the same rights as the followers of any other religion on the base. And the Army seems to agree.