Georgia lawmaker calls on military to stop Wiccan celebrations

Monday, May 24, 1999

A congressman from Georgia is appalled that some U.S. soldiers practice
Wicca, a benign form of witchcraft, and has demanded that the practice cease on
military bases.

After reading newspaper reports of a Wiccan celebration of the vernal equinox
by soldiers at a base in Texas, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., sent letters to the base’s
top military commanders ordering them not to allow such practices to happen
again.

 

In his letter sent late last week, Barr argued that the Wiccan celebration
“sets a dangerous precedent that could easily result in the practice of all
sorts of bizarre practices being supported by the military under the rubric of
‘religion.’” Barr asked the military officials whether an armed division could
be forced to “travel with sacrificial animals for Satanic rituals,” or whether
Rastafarians could demand “the inclusion of ritualistic marijuana cigarettes in
their rations.”

 

Barr then cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Golman v.
Weinberger
that the military “need not encourage debate or tolerate protest
to the extent that such tolerance is required of the civilian state by the First
Amendment.”

 

The congressman’s letter followed the posting of a press release on his
government Web site that suggested violence among youth is caused by witchcraft
and “adult culture.” Barr stated that: “In today’s news alone, there are reports
that military bases are allowing the practice of witchcraft as a ‘religion’ on
military bases by military personnel, and that ‘secular humanism,’ which shuns
the teaching of religion and refuses to recognize the existence of God, is
making a comeback among our young people on campuses.”

 

The chief executive for the Military Pagan Network, a nonprofit group formed
in 1992 to provide information and resources for soldiers practicing Wicca,
lambasted Barr for making specious claims about Wicca.

 

“This is a direct attack on the Constitution of the United States,” John
Machate, the Military Pagan Network’s chief executive, said in a prepared
statement. “All religions are protected, not just those that Congress, the
President or the Supreme Court determine. All religions are and should be
permitted free practice on military bases, within reasonable limits, to insure
that the service can accomplish its mission. Wicca, also known as witchcraft, in
no way prevents the military from accomplishing its goals. By allowing service
members and dependents to worship on post they are increasing morale of the
troops and families as well as fulfilling their Constitutional obligation.”

 

In 1984 prison officials in Virginia denied an inmate several items,
including a white robe, incense and candles, that he had requested to practice
Wicca. The inmate sued the state in federal court, arguing that its actions
violated his First Amendment right to practice religion. The state argued that
no fundamental right had been violated, because Wicca was not a religion. The
federal district court, however, ruled that Wicca was a religion protected by
the free-exercise clause, stating that Church of Wicca occupied a place in the
lives of its members “parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.”

 

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the federal judge’s
decision in 1986, despite the state’s insistence that Wicca was not a religion
because it was a “conglomeration” of “various aspects of the occult, such as
faith healing, self-hypnosis, tarot card reading, and spell casting, none of
which would be considered religious practices standing alone.”

 

Citing a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the 4th Circuit wrote in
Dettmer v. Landon that “religious beliefs need not be acceptable,
logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First
Amendment protection.”