Witch trials and tribulations in the land of the free

Sunday, April 1, 2007

People accused of witchcraft in America aren’t executed anymore (we are 300 years and a First Amendment away from Puritan Massachusetts). These days they just lose their jobs.

Don Larsen discovered this the hard way. A year ago, Larsen was a Pentecostal Christian minister serving as an Army chaplain in Iraq. But then he converted to Wicca, whose members are self-described witches, and applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. armed forces.

Today Larsen is a former Army chaplain back home in Idaho. As reported last month in The Washington Post, the Army not only denied his request to change religious affiliation, but also removed him from the chaplain corps (despite an outstanding record) and sent him packing.

The Army denies any discrimination against Wiccans and cites a maze of Catch-22 bureaucratic reasons for Larsen’s dismissal. But earlier attempts by Wiccan groups to obtain a military chaplain have also failed — in spite of there being more than 130 other religious groups on the approved list.

True, Wiccans make up only a small percentage of military personnel (around 1,900 by the Pentagon’s count, though the real numbers are likely much higher). But other religious groups with similarly small numbers already have chaplains.

This isn’t the only example of unfair treatment of Wiccans in the military. After nine years of “reviewing the process,” the Department of Veterans Affairs still hasn’t approved the pentacle — a five-pointed star that symbolizes Wiccan faith — as an “emblem of belief” that can be placed on government headstones of Wiccan soldiers.

Despite the fact that the 38 approved emblems include religions of every stripe (and atheism), the VA will not add the pentacle. Does this mean Wiccan soldiers are good enough to die abroad, but not good enough to be buried with respect at home?

The military’s stubborn refusal to recognize Wicca may have something to do with the firestorm of criticism that greeted news stories of Wiccan meetings on a Texas military base about eight years ago. Then-Gov. George W. Bush wanted the military to bar Wiccan ceremonies, saying, “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion.” Some outraged Christian conservative leaders called on Christians not to enlist or re-enlist as long as Wiccans were permitted to worship on U.S. bases.

Although military officials have continued to allow Wiccan worship (under the First Amendment, they have no choice), they are undoubtedly reluctant to stir that pot again. After all, the governor is now the president.

Antipathy towards Wicca isn’t confined to the armed forces. Fear of witches, it seems, is popping up everywhere.

Last year a group of Georgia parents accused their local schools of promoting Wicca by having Harry Potter books in the school libraries (just the latest battle in the ongoing anti-Harry campaign). In December, the State Board of Education ruled that the books could stay.

In February, a Delaware judge upheld a finding of religious discrimination against a department store that dropped a course taught by Wiccans in the store’s “campus of classes” program.

And this month a former teacher on Long Island, N.Y., testified in court that she was fired after public school officials accused her of being a witch. According to the teacher, who says she doesn’t practice witchcraft, the principal was angry because she taught about the Salem witch trials and wouldn’t participate in Christian activities that he promoted.

As Wicca grows — and it’s one of the fastest-growing religions in America — so will conflicts over witches. That’s because most of what people think they know about witches and Wicca is wrong. Contrary to popular myth, Wiccans have nothing to do with the “evil arts” or Satanism. Nor do Wiccans conform to the stereotypes rooted in fantasies from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.”

If it isn’t what many people think it is, then what is Wicca? Although no religion is easily summed up in a sentence, most Wiccans would probably agree that Wicca is a nature-based religion rooted in a conviction that the Divine permeates all life. For a fuller explanation, Wicca Demystified by Bryan Lankford is a good place to start.

For First Amendment purposes, however, it doesn’t matter what military officers or school principals or other government officials think about Wicca: It is their constitutional duty to protect the religious freedom of all Americans, including witches.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.