Jan 31, 2010

Air Force Greenlights Pagan Temple

A couple of years ago, I was able to report major strides in the acknowledgment of Wiccan service members, when the Veterans Administration finally authorized the use of pentacles on tombstones. It is with no small degree of glee that I am able, now, to report a major development in religious freedom in the armed services. The Air Force is providing a ritual space for Wiccans, and other Pagans, at its Colorado Springs base.

The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado will set aside a worship space for followers of "Earth-centered" religions such as Wicca and Druidism, according to an Air Force news release.

A stone circle atop a hill on the base in Colorado Springs will likely be dedicated in a ceremony March 10, according to the release, and be available to cadets and other service members who live in the area. The base already has worship spaces for Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Buddhist, the release said.

I visited this base and the surrounding area -- including the legendary Garden of the Gods -- some years ago. It's a beautiful place to put what I hope will be only the first of such temples.

I'm glad to see the Air Force taking such a proactive step, not only in the acknowledgment of its Pagan members, but of religious diversity, in general. The armed services, and the Air Force, in particular, have come under sharp scrutiny for religious intolerance and Christian proselytizing.

The subject of religious bias came to the forefront for the Air Force five years ago when non-Christian cadets at the Air Force Academy reported being harassed by Christian counterparts and feeling ostracized because they were not religious.

Last month, the academy superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, issued a positive progress report — endorsed by one of its most vocal critics — citing the creation of a Cadet Interfaith Council, which helps identify upcoming religious holidays so scheduling conflicts can be avoided and meets with chaplains monthly to discuss the religious climate.

“This is the first time we feel positive about things there,” said Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which battled the academy in court over claims that evangelicals at the school were imposing their views on others.

Weinstein's book With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military provided a wake-up call, about the increasingly religious bent of the what is supposed to be a secular, government institution. It is a particularly serious problem as we wage wars in Muslim countries and major political figures bandy about words like "crusade."

I was somewhat surprised to learn that Wicca is well represented in the Air Force. It is, in fact, the largest non-Christian faith, in that branch of the military.

In the Air Force, Wicca — witchcraft — is the largest non-Christian faith, with 1,434 followers. The breakdown of other religious minorities: 1,271 Buddhists, 1,148 Jews, 678 Muslims and 190 Hindus.

So, I guess it's about time they acknowledged the Pagans in their ranks. I suppose one could argue that they, like so many protective forces, already do,  whether they realize it or not.

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