It was one of those stories that began with an enterprising reporter in the provinces. On May 11, the Austin American-Statesman published religion reporter Kim Sue Lia Perkes's article on the three-year-old practice of Wicca at Fort Hood, the huge Army base in Killeen, Texas. The main story took readers to the celebration of this year's vernal equinox by 40 female and male witches (mostly active-duty soldiers); explained the nature of Wicca ("a reconstruction of nature worship from tribal Europe and other parts of the world"); and traced its growth in America and its acceptance as a religion by the U.S. military.

Perkes reported that Army brass were touchy about discussing their accommodation of neo-paganism, and that at Fort Hood it had elicited an ongoing protest from members of a local conservative Baptist church. There were also sidebars on Wiccan beliefs and on how the stereotype of witches arose in early modern Europe.

Sensationalistic the story wasn't. Intriguing it was.

At first, the outside world took little notice. In Washington, correspondents for the Times of London and the London Daily Telegraph knocked out articles on the U.S. Army's witches, while in New York, Bill O'Reilly (on Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor") called the Army's recognition of "white witchcraft" as a religion "the most ridiculous item of the day," quipping that there was no truth to the rumor that the Army was developing a "Bradley fighting broomstick."

Then, on May 18, Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia and Clinton impeachment fame announced that he had written letters to the Secretary of the Army and Fort Hood's commander demanding that the Army cease sanctioning Wiccan practices. The scene shifted to Atlanta, where the Journal and Constitution reported on protests by the local Wiccan community. At a May 29 "town meeting" filled largely with supportive constituents, Barr declared that elected leaders should decide which religions could be practiced in the military. To that end, he attempted unsuccessfully to amend the Defense appropriations bill to ban the practice of witchcraft on Army bases

In letter, press release, column, and interview, Barr, a former U.S. Attorney, distinguished between civilian and military religious rights. Wicca and other unconventional religious practices would, he said, undermine military effectiveness: "[W]ill armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for satanic rituals? Will Rastifarians [sic] demand the inclusion of ritualistic marijuana cigarettes in the rations?" But such prospects seemed to bother him less than the symbolism of a non-Judeo-Christian military. "The fact of the matter is--and witches won't like this--our country was founded on a basic belief in God," he told the Journal and Constitution's Gayle White.

The saga's next chapter--possibly occasioned by Hanna Rosin's report on the Fort Hood Wiccans in the June 8 Washington Post--began with a June 9 announcement by conservative activist Paul Weyrich that his Free Congress Foundation and 12 other conservative groups were calling for Christians to stop joining or re-enlisting in the Army until it prohibited witchcraft rituals on posts.

"What is it going to take, you believers in God?" he cried in an op-ed piece distributed by Knight-Ridder and published in Austin, Fort Worth, Omaha, and Salt Lake. "Do we just accept what is happening as normal? Or do we believers finally say we've had it? We are not going to let pagans claim an equal footing with God. Institutions that go that route are institutions that will just have to function without young people."

The free exercise of religion is in fact a more limited right in the armed forces than in civilian society. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that a Jewish officer did not have the right to wear a yarmulke while on duty. But restricting specific practices--Fort Hood refuses to permit naked Wiccan rituals, for example--is a far cry from drawing the kind of invidious distinctions among religions that Barr and Weyrich proposed.

In Katcoff v. Marsh (1985), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the government's practice of hiring military chaplains did not violate the First Amendment's ban on religious establishments because of the need to support military personnel in the free exercise of their religion. The court indicated that the military's religious program should be "neutral," should limit competition among religious groups, and should leave the practice of religion solely to the individual soldier, "who is free to worship or not as he chooses, without fear of any discipline or stigma."

Under the circumstances, spokesmen for the military insisted at every point that they were under an obligation to accommodate whatever religious services their personnel desired, consistent (as the chief chaplain at Fort Hood told National Public Radio) "with maintaining good order and discipline." As Louisiana State University history professor Anne Loveland points out in American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993, it was only a generation ago that evangelical Protestant organizations battled with the military to assure the free-exercise rights of evangelical military personnel.

Meanwhile, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who presumably had followed the story from the beginning in his hometown paper, told ABC's Good Morning America, "I don't think witchcraft is a religion and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it."

Within two months, Wicca in the military had achieved the status of a full-fledged minor national news item.

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