Senate Republican joins call to end military accommodation of Wicca

Tuesday, June 29, 1999

Sen. Strom  Thu...
Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.

The Senate’s oldest member has joined the call, prompted by a socially conservative congressman from Georgia, to bar Wiccan practices on U.S. military bases.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., submitted a statement decrying Wicca, a nature-based faith, as irreligious and saying it should not be accommodated by the military.

“Army soldiers who consider themselves to be members of the Church of Wicca are carrying out their ceremonies at Fort Hood in Texas,” Thurmond wrote. “The Wiccas practice witchcraft. At Fort Hood, they are permitted to build fires on Army property and perform their rituals involving fire, hooded robes, and nine inch daggers. An Army chaplain is even present.”

Thurmond’s letter follows recent congressional attention given to Wiccan worship on military bases. In May, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., sent letters to base leaders at Fort Hood demanding that they cease permitting soldiers to engage in Wiccan celebrations. Barr’s likened Wiccan practices to “Satanic rituals” and said the military needed to stop allowing Wiccan celebrations to occur on bases.

For years, however, military bases such as Fort Hood and ones in Louisiana, Alaska and Florida have permitted soldiers to form groups to honor their goddesses and gods. Moreover, the U.S. Armed Forces Chaplain Handbook contains a section on Wicca and how it can be accommodated. The military handbook states that “the core ethical statement of Wicca, called the ‘Wiccan Rede’ states ‘an it harm none, do what you will.’ The rede fulfills the same function as the ‘Golden Rule’ for Jews and Christians; all other ethical teachings are considered to be elaborations and applications of the rede.

“Social forces generally do not yet allow Witches to publicly declare their religious faith without fear of reprisals such as loss of job, child-custody challenges, ridicule, etc.,” the handbook states. “Prejudice against Wiccans is the result of public confusion between Witchcraft and Satanism. Wiccans in the military, especially those who may be posted in countries perceived to be particularly intolerant, will often have their dogtags read ‘No Religious Preference.’ Concealment is a traditional Wiccan defense against persecution, so non-denominational dogtags should contravene a member’s request for religious services.”

In his letter to the Senate committee, Thurmond called on the military to reverse its accommodation of Wicca.

“I do not dispute that individuals may believe what they wish, and they can practice their religion in private life,” Thurmond told the committee. “However, limits can and should be placed on the exercise of those views, especially in the military. I do not believe that the Armed Forces should accommodate the practice of witchcraft at military facilities. The same applies to the practices of other groups such as Satanists and cultists. For the sake of the honor and prestige of our military, there should be no obligation to permit such activity. This is an example of going too far to accommodate the practice of one’s views in the name of religion.”

Last week George W. Bush, governor of Texas and 2000 GOP presidential frontrunner, was asked by ABC News about Barr’s concerns on Wicca in the military as well as the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

Bush said that he did not believe “witchcraft is a religion,” and he hoped “the military would rethink this decision.” Bush was then asked whether he agreed with the recent U.S. House of Representatives’ vote that said states have the constitutional power to place the Ten Commandments in public buildings, including public schools. He said that he had no problem with the religious codes being placed in every public building.

In 1984 a federal judge in Virginia ruled that Wicca was a religion protected by the First Amendment, saying the faith occupied a place in the lives of its members “parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.”