Witches test our religious tolerance

Sunday, June 27, 1999

Most Americans are all for religious liberty — at least until it protects a religion they don't like. Then all bets are off.

The latest test of popular support for the First Amendment is the controversy following news reports of Wiccan celebrations at Foot Hood, Texas, our largest Army post. In recent years, Army officials at Ft. Hood and other bases have accommodated requests by Wiccans for space to hold their ceremonies.

Some conservative Christian groups are so angry about Wiccan practices on bases that they have called on Christians not to enlist or reenlist in the Army.

Wicca provokes outrage and controversy because it involves witches and witchcraft, long associated with “evil spells” and “demons” in Christian history. Persecution of witches — or those thought to be witches — was common in medieval Europe. And, as every schoolchild learns, we had our own chapter of persecution in colonial Salem.

Actually, the witches of Wicca (most, but not all, Wiccans are witches) have nothing to do with casting evil spells. Nor are Wiccans “Satanists.” In fact, Wiccans don't even believe in the existence of Satan.

Wicca might best be described as a contemporary version of ancient Pagan religions. A core concept is “reverence for Earth,” based on a belief that the divine permeates all people and everything in nature.

Understanding what Wicca is really about won't make it more acceptable to most Christians, but it might reduce some of the fear about what Wiccans are doing down at Ft. Hood.

Most opponents of Wiccan ceremonies on Army bases aren't denying that people have the right to be Wiccans. But they don't understand why the Army provides space for their celebrations and rituals.

Most constitutional experts would answer that the Army has no choice. Under the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the government may not decide what is or isn't an “acceptable” or legitimate religion. As long as the group doesn't break the law, its members have as much right to practice their faith as members of any other religious group in the United States.

But does that include the right to hold Wiccan celebrations on an Army base? Probably so. If the Army allows some groups to practice their religion on the base, then they can't close the base to others. This isn't a question of being “tolerant” or nice toward Wiccans; it's a matter of equal treatment under the First Amendment.

Why can't the Army simply forbid all religious meetings on military bases? That would be difficult — and probably unconstitutional. Under the First Amendment's free-exercise clause, soldiers stationed far from home or on foreign soil should have the freedom to practice their faith.

In fact, the need to accommodate the religious needs of soldiers has long been the rationale for the military chaplaincy program. The federal government actually pays the military chaplains, who serve as officers in all branches of the armed forces.

As our population grows increasingly diverse, the chaplaincy program is under growing pressure to address a bewildering variety of religious practices and convictions. Although most chaplains continue to be Christian or Jewish, they must now be prepared to work with soldiers from many other religions, including those they may find offensive.

Upholding the First Amendment isn't always easy. But if we want full religious liberty for ourselves, then we must be willing to guarantee it for others.

The controversy at Ft. Hood is a reminder that freedom of religion isn't a privilege granted by the majority, it's an inalienable right of all human beings. In the words of the Williamsburg Charter: “A society is only as just and free as it is respectful of this right for its smallest minorities and least popular communities.”