Do the American military services "recognize" Wicca? How do I start a Circle on my installation? How do Pagans practice our religion in the Military? Is military service really compatible with the spiritual values of Wicca? Why do we need a Chaplain? How can I become a Wiccan/Pagan Chaplain in the U.S. Military?

I am the director of military affairs for the Sacred Well Congregation, a large international Universalist Wiccan Church. In that capacity; I answer at least one of these questions every day; over the past decade, the presence and visibility of non-Christian religious groups within the American Military has grown very rapidly.

How many Pagans are there
in the armed services?

The exact number of Pagans is difficult to assess, complicated by (current) imprecise personnel reporting techniques. Until very recently; all military Pagans were forced to list themselves inaccurately as members of other religions or as having "no religious preference" in official documents. Some Pagans were reluctant to come out at all. Still, surveys of varying fidelity place our number at somewhere between three to eight thousand people.1 That means that there are now more Pagan service members than there are Jews or Muslims.

The military needs more specific data on religious affiliation in order to provide better service, facilities, manpower and supplies to support all faith groups. Lt. Col. Anthony Gatlin of the Military Pagan Network (www.milpagan.org) has convinced the Department of Defense to adopt more accurate reporting techniques. Now military Pagans can list ourselves as Gardnerian Wicca, Dianic Wicca, Seax Wicca, Wicca, Druid, Shaman or Pagan.

The U.S. Air Force recently released new data indicating that they have nearly 1,000 officially registered Pagan members - more than Muslims or Jews within that service. This data was only recently collected because the Air Force only recently implemented the new reporting techniques. The U. S. Army and Navy intend to follow in the near future.

Does the U. S. Military
recognize Wicca?

The short answer is "No," but then they don't actually "recognize" any religion. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respect-ing an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The free exercise of religion is a Constitutional right for all United States citizens, including members of the Military.

It is illegal for the Department of Defense (DoD) to "recognize" a religion or to prevent the practice of a religion. The Armed Forces Chaplaincy is not a religious institution per se. It was established by Congress to protect and ensure that the free exercise of religion is maintained inviolate for all members of the United States Armed Forces.2

(Only one federal agency has the authority to "recognize" a religion the Internal Revenue Service. An organization desiring to be recognized as a "church" can petition the IRS for a letter of determination granting "church status" under title 5Ol(c)3 to the petitioning organization.8)

The legal mandate of the Armed Forces Chaplaincy. is translated into practical guidance by DoD regulation 1300.17. There are over 1200 pages of regulations in the DOD3. I'll summarize their content in one (take a deep breath) sentence. "Constitutional law and military regulations mandate the U.S. military must guarantee the right of every member to freely practice their religion within the confines of good order, discipline, and mission accomplishment, free from discrimination or harassment." In our experience, the corps of military chaplains does an outstanding job of promoting religious pluralism and set an example for society as a whole.

In 1999, when former Congressman, Bob Barr, called for the prohibition of the practice of Wicca on military installations, many high-ranking officers literally put their careers on the line to stand up for religious pluralism.4 Several wrote papers quoting legal precedents such as the Dettmer v; Landon decision, which found Wicca fully "qualified" as a religion within the confines of that cases. Others, such as Major Gen Dendinger, wrote strong endorsements stating that a failure to support Wiccans would, in fact, jeopardize the practice of all faiths in the service.6

Stereotypes notwithstanding, the U.S. military has been on the leading edge of social experimentation since its inception. George Washington personally established the Chaplains Corps as a pluralistic entity over two hundred years ago; blacks were fully integrated in the U.S. military when "white only" signs were still posted on public transportation; women have been serving in combat missions for over twenty years.7

How do military Pagans practice?

The short answer is that it depends on the group and its leadership. We'll cover some specifics a little later. First, it may be helpful to discuss two unique challenges facing military Pagans as they practice their faith: transience and diversity.

A soldier can expect to move every two to three years. This makes it difficult for military Pagan groups to bond quite as closely as civilian groups. Both group leaders and chaplains also move frequently; All distinctive faith groups need to re-certify their denominational support every time either the chaplain or the faith group leader changes. I once issued three letters of denominational support from our organization to the same Circle in a six-month period.

Another unique challenge for military Pagans is that of practicing while deployed away from their assigned station. This is further complicated when a member deploys to a duty location away from the supporting chaplain with whom they've built a modicum of trust and/or the DFGL. (Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL) or Designated Service Leader (DSL) — see box below for definitions of these terms.) If a DFGL is deploying and s/he will be responsible for a group at the deployed locale, our group tries to offer a denominational support letter for him/her.

Five Steps to Starting a Circle on Your Base

Currently there are no Wiccan or Pagan chaplains in the DOD. The groups who practice on military installations are led by people called either a Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL) or Designated Service Leader (DSL).

Most installation chaplains require a group's leader to present a letter of denominational sponsorship from a federally recognized 501(c)3 Church.

The process and requirements vary from base to base but generally go something like the following:

  1. Determine whether your group has the desire to meet regularly and is large enough to merit use of government facilities and supplies. I've seen groups of three to three hundred, but in the Army the current "magic number" seems to be fifteen.

  2. Get sponsorship from a federally recognized church. There are several federally recognized church organizations with experience sponsoring military Circles and Groves. included in the resources section at the end of this article. Usually, the organization you are asking for help will request a resume and an interview; they may also require you to enroll in a familiarization program for their tradition, or otherwise demonstrate basic competency in the faith you profess. Sponsoring organizations often get involved with the installation chaplain to help facilitate the process.

  3. Approach the installation chaplain. Make an appointment and show up on time. Dress and act professionally --remember, you want the chaplain to recognize you as a fellow clergy. This is not the time for the five inch pentacle, pierced eyebrow, and black lipstick. The chaplain may be completely unfamiliar with your path and may as for more information. Be as helpful as you can. Never confuse ignorance with hostility. Oh and don't forget It's impossible, even absurd, to ask for permission to meet as an official group on base and still be "in the broom closet." That door doesn't swing both ways.

  4. Once you've been approved by your sponsoring organization and have presented any information requested by your chaplain, your request will be forwarded to headquarters, sometimes as high as the major command of the installation. The process takes about a month; keep track to ensure your package is flowing through channels and not doing " hard time" in someone's in box. If you haven't heard anything about your paper work in a few weeks, don't assume discrimination the system simply may not share your sense of urgency. Stay engaged, and remain professional and cordial in all contacts.

  5. Once you get your Circle approved, gather your congregation and practice to your heart's content using government provided facilities and equipment. A few pointers on conduct: cooperate with your sponsoring chaplain's directives. He may ask you to keep attendance records, post schedules of services, provide contact information, and account for the disposition of resources given to your group by the USG. It's also critical to stay in touch with your sponsoring organization to keep them informed of your activities.

A word to the wise: Don't joke about practicing skyclad, performing the Great Rite or sacrificing small animals around non pagans- you can't do those things on military installations. It is a good idea to invite the chaplain to visit your group. When you do, make sure you have a well rehearsed, professionally presented lesson or ritual planned, one that clearly emphasized a religious focus. It's also a good practice for your group to engage in interfaith groups and participate in community service projects.

A word about Pagan diversity

Military Pagan groups reflect the full range of Pagan diversity. Most of the military Circles sponsored by Sacred Well are about 60% Wiccan. The other 40% is comprised of members of other Pagan faiths: Druids, Asatruar, etc. We encourage intrafaith discussion and practice.

That said, Sacred Well is a Traditional Wiccan organization. We sponsor specifically Wiccan DFGLs and expect them to conduct Wiccan rituals for the benefit of the majority; Other Pagan denominational support groups such as The Circle of the Fold (www.circleofthefold.net) are more eclectic in their orientation.

It is even more essential for Pagans to have venues for worship and fellowship within the military than for members of other religions. Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim members may find a welcome at a local church, mosque, or temple "downtown," but local Pagan groups are often harder to find. Even well established local groups are far less likely to accept transient military personnel as regular members, even if they welcome them to open events. Some groups openly oppose Pagan military service, and are not shy about sharing their opinions.

Pagan DFGLs conduct rituals, provide religious education, and minister to military Pagans. These DFGLs rely heavily on the good graces of military chaplains who are of decidedly different religious orientations. Although DFGLs are not legally recognized as clergy within the military, they serve the Old Gods and their people well.


The author climbs aboard his F-16, named "The Hexen Besen" (The Witch_ Broom), stationed in Saudi Arabia for a mission over Iraq during United Nations Operation Southern Watch.

Some military groups are very active, gathering weekly for classes, twice monthly for Esbats, celebrating all the Sabbats, and participating heavily in interfaith activities. Some even engage in hospital and prison ministries.

Depending on the experience of the DFGL/DSL, their program may include intense meditations, magical workings, and highly structured, tradition-based study groups. Other groups provide more casual fellowship.

Most sponsoring organizations will not dictate a group's practice in detail. The Sacred Well is fairly "hands off," but we do require our DFGLs to conduct the four greater Sabbats as Open Circles in a "manner commensurate with the practice of Traditional Craft Wicca." The rituals need not be highly choreographed galas, but should promote active participation for as many congregants as possible and provide a meaningful religious experience. We leave the specific detailed planning of the rite up to the group leaders.

Why do we need a Chaplain?

In a religion with no dogma, holy book or formal hierarchy? This is a fair question. Nothing in our religion requires us to have "standardization" or alignment of autonomous groups as some other faiths. Still, there are pragmatic benefits to having a "formal" representative of the Pagan faith serving as a DoD chaplain.

A Pagan who is known to have met the stringent qualifications for DoD chaplaincy would be a credible and visible emissary of our faith. His or her visible presence would help secure our right to freedom of religious practice on an equal footing with other faith groups. It would also prevent our faith from being marginalized, and counter the efforts of special interest groups and religious fanatics who might attempt to repress our public practice. A chaplain could effectively represent our community to Washington on issues ranging from spiritual philosophy to funding and facilities. The person would be a "voice in Washington" and in the media and could promote credibility and understanding with other faith groups.

A chaplain could also serve as advisor and consultant to Pagan DFGLs, and help educate them about regulations and laws affecting their practice. The chaplain could also assist denominational sponsors in networking and reach out to seekers and local Pagan groups. Some agencies require denominational credentials to participate in hospital/prison ministries. A chaplain could facilitate a program to train and sponsor people for this kind of institutional ministry; Dr. David Oringderff of the Sacred Well Congregation recently summed up most succinctly:

"If we had a full time [or even reserve] Chaplain who is a Wiccan, that person would provide a recognized and official point of contact for service members of our faith [or related faith groups] and would greatly enhance the Sacred Well Congregation's ability to provide support to the various and dispersed lay-led groups that we sponsor. Such a Chaplain would, of the 19th and early 20th centuries."9

Could I become a military Chaplain?

Military chaplains serve two masters - their military branch and the sponsoring denomination which ordained them. In their military capacity, chaplains must first and foremost ensure that all soldiers in his or her pastoral care have access to practice their faith, regardless of religion. If, as has happened, the chaplain is part of an evangelical denomination of a proselytizing faith, serious conflicts of interest can arise. The denominational responsibility of the chaplain is to minister to those of his/her own faith. Finally the chaplain must be trained in pastoral counseling for a wide range of faiths (secular training) and be a spiritual mentor to those of his or her own faith.

If you are considering becoming a chaplain, ask yourself: Can you, while standing strong in your own faith, offer not just logistical support, but solace and counsel to people whose beliefs are very different from yours?

If the answer to that question is "yes," then there are some more specific requirements.16 A candidate for the military chaplaincy must:

  1. Be a graduate of a Seminary recognized by the AFCB (Armed Forces Chaplains Board) or possess a Master of Divinity or a Master's Degree in Religious Studies, Theology, Pastoral counseling, or a "closely related field of study" from an accredited institution. This degree must consist of at least seventy-two graduate hours.

  2. Be commissionable in the Armed forces.

  3. Meet physical standards.

  4. Be younger than age forty-two for the Air Force, forty for the other branches of service.

  5. Be qualified and recognized as clergy by an Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agency (more about this below).

The immediate obstacle before any candidate is that no Pagan or Wiccan organization has yet been recognized as an Ecclesiastical Endorsing Agency.

The Sacred Well Congregation and Circle Sanctuary currently have petitions at the AFCB to gain approval as EEAs. Both organizations' credentials and reputation far exceed minimum requirements. The catch is that an application for EEA status must include at least one application from a "perfect" candidate for chaplain. Later on, when an organization is recognized as an EEA, they can nominate candidates who may require a waiver to certain requirement such as age or height, but the first candidate must completely fulfill every requirement. We have some excellent candidates, but none so far has been "perfect."

If anyone reading this is interested in the Chaplaincy and meets all the requirements and would like to apply please contact us. We'll be happy to consider your application and to help you in every way we can.

Military Service and the Ethics of Paganism

Can Pagans ethically serve in the military? In my opinion, the answer to this questions is a resounding "YES!" Wicca is first and foremost a religion of "high choice." This means each of us is responsible for seeking and defining our own relationship to the Gods and our own way of allowing Their wisdom and guidance to direct our lives.

In my understanding, the highest ideal of Wicca is living a centered life, living in balance and facilitating balance. Kerr Cuhulain in his book, The Wiccan Warrior speaks of his concept of balance:

The law of balance states quite simply that if you wish to survive, let alone become powerful, you must keep all aspects of your universe in balance. We arn't going to save the world by randomly sending out energy with only a vague aim of healing. We're going to save it by changing people's perceptions of the world. We'll save it by wining hearts and minds with the idea that we can all be unique and this is all right. We need to bring people to the realization that power is power with, not power over. We need to make mankind realize that the Earth is not ours, we are of the Earth. We start this process by changing ourselves. We set the example.1

From the perspective of the Wiccan Rede and the Law of Three, warrior service falls squarely within the mandate of "do what you will." In this context, "will" takes on the higher meaning of doing what you have to do in order to survive- to protect home and hearth, community and culture. It is the inherent right and responsibility of all creatures to act in self-defense.

Will means doing what you may dread to do in order to minimize harm or to restore balance, while using the minimum force required...and taking no pleasure in it. More imporantly, the Pagan warrior stands ready to accept responsibility for his/her actions and to repair unintended harm.

Kerr Cahulain refers to what I have just explained as "Right Action." Essentially, right action is the result of thinking before acting but acting with honor. Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines honor as a "sense of what is right, just and true; dignified respect for character, springing from probity, principle, and moral rectitude." A Wiccan accesses the Warrior archetype by accepting reality and making a thorough self-examination. Right action is accepting the Rede and the self-discipline and responsibility that it evokes. It's about earning respect and facing fears.

In her book, Spiritual Mentoring, Judy Harrow speaks of "Congruence." Briefly, this means ones' personal behavior matches ones' spiritual philosophy. More simply stated, Pagans should "walk the talk" or our beliefs. Many a pagan warrior feels well grounded in Pagan spiritual philosophy, historical precedent, mythology, and lore. In short, we believe that our military vocation is certainly congruent with ancient teachings and spiritual practices.

Readers interested in pursuing the argument on the compatibility of martial service by Wiccans should read the erudite essay entitled Wiccans and the Military: Often Cought in the middle by Dr. David oringderff. This very inclusive and thorough treatise on the subject cites the challenges of discrimination and misunderstanding against Wiccans in the military not only by non-Pagans but Pagans as well.

1. Kerr Cuhulain, The Wiccan Warrior, St. Paul, MN, Llewellyn Publications, 2000, p.7.
2. Ibid, p.16.
3. Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, quoted in Cuhulain, The Wiccan Warrior, p.16.
4. Judy Harrow, Spirtual Mentoring: A Pagan Guide, ECW Press, Toronto, Canada, 2002, p.248.
5. David l Oringderff, Ph.D., "Wiccans and the Military: Often Caught in the Middle."

Military Pagans: Our Time is Here

There has been prolific growth in Earth-based, neo-Pagan religions in the past ten years. No where has that trend been more evident than in that culturally diverse and unexpectedly pluralistic ranks of the U. S. military; This martial environment is also one of the most fertile venues for the growth of a religion that promotes religious tolerance, peace and harmony with nature - a religion deeply needed in these days.

The growing numbers of Pagan faithful in the military need better and more visible support. We need denominational sponsorship, Pagan religious education for all of us, professional training and support for our group leaders, liaison with military authorities. We need a Pagan chaplain to be there for us. With the help of our Gods and the will of our people, I believe that a new time for all military Pagans is at hand.


Lt Col. Ron Schaefer is a 1978 Graduate of Texas A&M University and holds a Masters of Aeronautical Technology from Arizona State University. He is a combat veteran fighter pilot with worldwide tactical experience. He has been an instructor and educator, both in the military and in the civil sector for over twenty-four years. He has traveled extensively in Europel Asial Central Americal and the Middle East immersing himself in the religious beliefs of those countries. An avid student of comparative religionl he has read and studied extensively on the subject and is pursuing a Ph.D. in International Affairs with a focus on regional cultures and religion.

Schaefer is a High Priest of the Greencraft Tradition of Wicca and a graduate of the Sacred Well Deaconry Training program. He has led two overseas military Circles and is the author of numerous articles and pamphlets including "The Spiritual Philosophy and Practice on Wicca in the U.S. Military."11 He is active in promoting religious pluralism in the military, interfacing often with members of the Armed Forces Chaplains Boardl Chaplain Recruitersl and line Chaplains. He has given numerous lectures on the various aspects of Wicca to a wide range of groups and is routinely consulted by military leaders installations.

Backnotes

1 Air Force Personnel Center Website, citation taken 4/1/03. DOD-wide numbers are extrapolated from DFGL reports, official records, comparison of data from sister groups, unaffiliated groups and solitary practitioners. www.afpc.randolph.af.mil/demographics.

2 David Oringderff, Ph.D. and Lt. Co!. Ronald Schaefer, USAF, "Spiritual Philosophy and Practice of Wicca in the U.S. Military" on Sacred Well Congregation Website, 2001, p. 40.

3 Ibid, p. 42.

4 Lilith McClellend, Out of the Shadows: Myths and Truths of Modern Wicca, Kensington Press, New York, N_ 2002, pp. 166-168.

5 617 F Supp 592 (1985).

6 Oringderff and Schaefer, "Spiritual Philosophy and Practice of Wicca in the U.S. Military," p. 46.

7 Ibid, p. 41.

8 McClellend, Out of the Shadows, pp. 173-179.

9 Personal email correspondence from Dr. David Oringderff, April 15, 2003.

10 Oringderff and Schaefer, "Spiritual Philosophy and Practice of Wicca in the U.S. Military," p. 46.

11 USAF Chaplain Service page on Air Force Recruiting Service, no author or copyright date listed, www.usafhc.af.mil.

Websites
Cherry Hill Seminary: www.cherryhillseminary.org
Circle of the Fold: www.circleofthefold.org
Circle Sanctuary: www.circlesanctuary.org
Military Pagan Network: www.milpagan.org
Project A.R.E.S.: www.bompagan.com/ares
Sacred Well Congregation: www.sacredwell.org
Pangaia: A Pagan Journal for Thinking People: www.pangaia.com