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Editorial: Witches' brouhaha

The Army's Wiccans are not a broomstick brigade

Friday, June 11, 1999

"Men feared witches, and burned women."

- Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, 1927

No one is threatening to burn some U.S. soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, who practice the religion of Wicca. But some scandalized Christians are storming heaven, or at least the Pentagon, with complaints that the witches in uniform are Satanists.

In making that charge, the Wiccans' critics are apparently under the spell of their own prejudices. What is the Wicca religion all about? Could it be Satan? According to The Washington Post, the devil is not in the details of the Wiccans' beliefs. Rather, their faith is a mixture of "pre-Christian paganism and New Age Earth worship."

Actually, even if the Wiccans were devil-worshippers, the Army would be hard put to deny them the right to practice their religion, so long as they did not violate any laws or undermine "good order and discipline."

Historically America has been the home to a dizzying array of religious movements that more established faiths regarded as heretical or worse. Though it has sometimes been honored in the breach, the First Amendment stands for the principle that the government cannot pick and choose between religions.

For the Army, that means a policy of facilitating the worship of enlisted men and women must not take sides. To its credit, the Army has been scrupulously fair to the Fort Hood Open Circle, as the Wiccan group is called, allowing its members the services of a chaplain and providing a campsite for the group's full-moon assemblies. Five other military bases have also conferred recognition on Wicca congregations.

This is too much for Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, who wrote to Fort Hood's commanding officer demanding that the post "stop this nonsense now." Rep. Barr fears that the Army is heading down a slippery slope that will someday require armored divisions to travel with sacrificial animals for satanic rituals. To which the Army's response would be: Not bloody likely.

The only sinister element in this witches' tales is the attempt to restrict religious liberty by people who should know better.

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