Air Force Academy Defends Pagan Circle

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 6, 2012 — 27 Comments

Ever since the Air Force Academy in Colorado unveiled the Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle, an outdoor space dedicated primarily for use by cadets and staff who follow Pagan, Native American, and Earth-based religious traditions, its been dogged by controversy. The circle, which was created in response to a genuine need among Pagan cadets, was vandalized shortly after it first received press attention in 2010. Then, after its official dedication in May of last year, a wave of criticism and ignorant opinion pieces could be found from the usual corners. Things seemed to die down after that, but comment and controversy were stirred up once again after the LA Times wrote about Falcon Circle in November, noting its $80,000 dollar price tag.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy. Photo by: Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

“Still, the academy this year dedicated an $80,000 outdoor worship center — a small Stonehenge-like circle of boulders with propane fire pit — high on a hill for the handful of current or future cadets whose religions fall under the broad category of “Earth-based.” Those include pagans, Wiccans, druids, witches and followers of Native American faiths.”

That spurred a new wave of commentary about government waste and political correctness gone amuck, which prompted the Air Force Academy to defend the cost, and their commitment to religious plurality.

Rev. Dr. David Oringderff speaks with Lt. Gen. Mike Gould during a dedication ceremony for the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle May 3, 2011. Oringderff is the executive director of the Sacred Well Congregation and represented the Earth-Centered Spirituality community during a religious respect conference at the Academy in November 2010. Gould is the Academy superintendent. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Rev. Dr. David Oringderff speaks with Lt. Gen. Mike Gould during a dedication ceremony for the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle May 3, 2011. Oringderff is the executive director of the Sacred Well Congregation and represented the Earth-Centered Spirituality community during a religious respect conference at the Academy in November 2010. Gould is the Academy superintendent. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

“The LA Times got the $80,000 figure from the Academy’s Cadet Chapel fact sheet. But the numbers on the fact sheet at the time were too high because they mistakenly included $26,500 that was spent to control erosion on the east side of the hill on which Falcon Circle is now situated. [...]  The scope of work in the $51,484 Falcon Circle contract included removing screws and nails from the inside of the circle and installing 1,225 square feet of flagstone. The boulders were moved in 2009 from the east side of the hill, where erosion threatened to send them crashing into the Visitors Center, where more than 500,000 people per year learn about the national treasure that is the Academy. By way of comparison, the Cadet Chapel that now houses Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist worship areas cost $3.5 million to build — in 1959. That would be more than $25 million in today’s dollars, or enough to build 500 Falcon Circles.”

That commentary by Don Branum, published on December 27th, movingly recounts the struggles of Pagans in the military, and declares that building Falcon Circle was “the right thing to do.” Branum’s defense trickled into the mainstream media yesterday via The Denver Post, who did note that the circle is available to all cadets, not just Pagans, and that the initially reported cost estimates are deceptively high. Whether these clarifications reach the critics who were quick to condemn Falcon Circle, or manage to change the minds of those who believe the Air Force Academy is being overrun by unholy forces is an open question.  Whatever the outcome from the latest round of publicity, this defense of Falcon Circle by the AFA is a welcome sign, and part of an ongoing initiative to create a culture of religious respect.

“You don’t have to be scared about sharing your religion or think you need to stay in the broom closet about it,” Cadet Johnson says. “People are very understanding. We have officers in charge of us who are very understanding, the Chaplains are very understanding so it’s very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy.”

Here’s hoping that it continues to be “very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy, “ and that Pagan cadets can get back to focusing on their lessons instead of being put under a microscope by those looking to prove some ideological point.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://backbooth.thesane.net/ Eli Effinger-Weintraub

    Unfortunately, no matter how far corrections spread, they may not help. Research increasingly shows that information, once lodged in the brain, is incredibly hard to remove or overwrite–even if the initial information is subsequently shown to have been false. Even if every single person who read about the $80,000 price tag reads the corrected figures, most will retain the original, incorrect figure.

    • kenneth

      Even the original figure is couch-cushion change on the scale of defense spending. Not even loose change. The lint balls BELOW the loose pennies and dimes. We spent a TRILLION dollars on the Iraq war, which had NO benefit to our national security that anyone has ever been able to articulate. We’re in line to spend another trillion for ONE fighter jet program, the F-35. That too has no reasonable justification in real-world defense needs.

      They want to talk “government waste”? Just these two highly questionable expenditures, relatively small pieces of the defense budget, represent the cost of 25 MILLION Falcon Circles at $80,0000 apiece! Enough outdoor pagan worship spaces to accommodate several hundred star systems worth of military bases in a well-occupied and predominantly pagan galaxy!

  • Cerarienh

    I thought that this was really interesting . . . partly because of where it is . . . CO is pretty conservative . . . and also because I am kinda giddy at how comfortable this younger generation is at being openly Pagan. When I was a kid (yeah I know saying that makes me old!) it was like a major social issue to do that. I remember being bullied and spit on in elementary school because I was “different.” I can’t imagine how I would have been treated by my peers if I can come out called my self a witch or a pagan. I was also saddened by the continued ignorance of others.

    • Darren

      Ya know what I say sometimes. It’s usually catholics and christians that critsize pagan beliefs. By the way , I was raised a catholic. I am also Native American. I do not follow the catholic religion now. I ask them; “How are catholics and christians any different from HITLER?” Hitler persecuted and tortured the Jews, the catholics and christians persecuted and tortured wiccans. What’s the difference? I am in no way racist or a nazi. I respect all other peoples beliefs. My beliefs are mixed within the Native American and Wiccan beliefs. Take Care. ;0)~~~PeAcE

    • Msmanders

      Actually a lot of friends and family friends have told me that Colorado is a rather Pagan friendly place, especially the Denver area.

      • http://www.craftandconjure.com/ Priestess Najah

        Denver is a great Pagan area. I know because I live here! I’ve commented on this before and I’ll say it again, I’m just tickeled happy that the AFA built the Falcon Circle and that it is garnering so much attention. The AFA is in Colorado Springs, which is a very conservative town. Case in point, its the home of Focus on the Family. I’m glad to see the military moving in this direction. My son just graduated from Fort Benning and they had a Wiccan Circle on Sundays, along with a Buddhist service and Islamic service for the soldiers. Progress. Blessed Be!

  • Gitana

    $51,484? One month’s salary to a private contractor in Iraq. ;)

    • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

      It might not even cover some contractors, depending on their job.

  • rick church

    I think that is so cool, and just because they are not part of a church community they are being looked down on. Well is not right, the earth has far too many judges and we don’t need any more. So what some of these people are who they are, who are you to judge any one. They defend our lives and our freedoms and i am glad to see pagans and other earth based religions being supported and i am a witch and i support them as well.

  • http://twitter.com/Will_Dees Will Dees

    “…or manage to change the minds of those who believe the Air Force Academy is being overrun by unholy forces is an open question.”

    The answer is no, it won’t. People who believe they are fighting the unholy forces of darkness aren’t going to suddenly change their minds, because a moral and spiritual holy war isn’t swayed by silly little things like facts or reason.

  • kenneth

    So here’s a re-post from something I wrote a while ago engaging the assinine suggestion that $80,000 represents “runaway spending.”:

    Attempts to spin the construction of the outdoor worship space at the Air Force Academy as “runaway political correctness” ignore the facts of the case and the most basic principles of our Constitution.

    Chaplain Maj. Darren Duncan, branch chief of cadet faith communities at the academy, understands that the military has a tradition and duty to respect and accommodate the faith traditions of its members. Duncan summed it up perfectly. If the military is to defend the Constitution, it should also be upholding its guarantee of religious freedom.

    That was his statement just prior to his direct quote “We think we are setting a standard” as reported by the LA Times Nov. 26. The Constitutions promises and freedoms were created for ALL Americans, even those whose beliefs put them in a minority or who are considered “fringe” by some.

    Further, we should put that $80,000 in some context before we treat it as some sort of runaway spending. Much of that money was used for erosion control on a hillside which needed to be done whether or not a pagan circle was built. Most of that worship space is built with nothing more than boulders which would have otherwise been trucked off site at greater cost. The only “fancy” touch is a propane-fueled fire pit and some security cameras which were needed to combat vandalism by those who don’t respect the Constitution.

    Those who think Christians are somehow getting shortchanged in the deal should look at the Academy’s chapel. It’s more of a cathedral, really, a magnificent piece of architecture built in 1963 for $3.5 million, which is about $25 million in today’s dollars. That doesn’t count decades worth of maintenance and upgrades. Christians have a space with Italian marble, anodized aluminum and stained glass (and central heating) and they’re going to begrudge others a few dozen native boulders on a hill? Really?
    We should also consider what $80,000 really amounts to on the scale of military spending in this country. At $2 billion a week, the current cost of the Afghanistan war, $80,000 represents 24 seconds of spending.

  • Pitch313

    Construction costs for a couple lighted multi-use outdoor sports fields appropriate to college play could easy top $80,000. So could a nice park facility with a pleasant view. So could a church, temple, or chapel.

    If it’s going to be all about the money, then let’s make it all about the money straight across the board. Critics of public projects gotta put their financial statements and detail their revenue streams and show us their expenditures before they get to talk, let alone squawk. Then we’d know whose wasting what, where, and how come.

  • http://quakerpagan.org/ Cat C-B

    Great article; I really like the way you put the unfolding story into its full context. (Also the picture of David Oringderff–I don’t know that I’ve seen one before.)

    It’s especially heartening that the Air Force is working to improve its track record in this area given the importance of Air Force personnel in the early years of Wicca in the United States. It’s perhaps odd to reflect on it now, given how many Wiccans have been attracted to the counterculture, peace movement, and generally left-leaning ideas since the 70’s, but a large number of the first generation of Wiccans in the U.S. had military ties, as I recall, and their travels on duty were part of how the religion was disseminated at one time.

    History is complex.

    • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

      A large number of oldline Pagans, and blue-collar neo-Pagans, are members of the military. Warrior Blessing rituals at Pagan events are very well attended. Circles and groups within the military are growing.

      • http://quakerpagan.org/ Quakerpagan

        *smiling* Right.

        Mind you, as a pacifist, I have mixed feelings about that! However, there are important historical ties between Paganism and the military, and I think it’s good to do the truth of that relationship justice, whatever our individual political and ethical perspectives may be.

  • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    Like most conservatives, I get hosed by unnecessary government spending. However, these improvements to the Air Force Academy were quite necessary. These brave men and women will be fighting the war on terror, keeping America safe.

    The outdoor chapel can not only be used by all cadets, but by family members and visitors for many reasons — worship services, picnics, weddings, memorial services, discussions, quiet reflections. Same as any other outdoor facility, such as a pavilion or garden, on any other base or military training area.

    Aside from the cost of building the chapel for mainstream religions, we might take a look at the overall grounds-keeping budget for the entire academy — watering the grass, raking, cutting bushes, maintaining the land. I bet that’s over eighty large — yet every public building has these costs. It’s all part of keeping morale up, same as any rec facility or religious chapel.

    If it’s like any other military installation, the outdoor circle will be “policed”, or kept clean, by the cadets themselves, as a way of learning discipline and as an ordinary work duty. On many bases, the cadets think that “policing the grounds” is a desirable job.

    We must cut our budget — but cutting military spending is not the answer. This includes training cadets who can and must face our enemies with confidence.

    • Lonespark

      The problem with identifying “unnecesary” spending is that you need a lot of information to evaluate whether it’s necessary, and even then a lot of people are going to disagree.

  • Elfincatfarm

    I was very happy to read this article. It’s good to know some parts of the military are finally giving their members what they need.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Cosimano/613012064 Charles Cosimano

    Still a lot of money for a pile of rocks. Couldn’t they have made something nice with lots of glass?

  • DONNA BRAEMER

    Wiccian is a religion-the constitution gives us the right to our religion. People have a problem with it because their minds are stuck in the 1800’s with the Salem Witch trials & horror movies that show Wiccians as witches that cast spells & have orgies in the woods with animals. Last time I looked their were Wiccians living normal everyday lives just like so called “normal” people & you don’t even know that they are Wiccians

  • http://aokc.net/ Filip Norman

    I am also Native American. I do not follow the catholic religion now. I ask them How are catholics and christians any different from HITLER?

  • Veracity

    It sounds to me like this circle was built with Earth-based religious thought at the forefront – starting with the erosion-prevention project that would have been done with or without the circle being built, recycling those boulders into a positive worship place rather than unnecessarily hauling them off to some place where they would probably take up space rather than serving a useful purpose, to building a facility that not only cost comparatively little up front but will also cost little maintain and do little to interrupt or damage the environment around it. I would be interested to see how much the maintenance costs of the mainstream chapel runs versus how much the maintenance of the Falcon Circle runs; heating and cooling costs alone drop to zero for an outdoor versus an indoor facility. I appreciate all of these factors in creating a space for Earth-based servicemen and women to worship.

  • http://www.facebook.com/donna.abell1 Donna Abell

    Sorry I do not believe in Pagan or any other kind of circles or cross burning, first two commandments plainly state…..
    1.You shall have no other gods before me.

    2.You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Luckily, you don’t have to believe in it, you simply have to accept the fact that other religions have the same rights in our secular government as yours.

    • Jack Heron

      Not commandments found in paganism, Donna. That’s like arguing that people in France shouldn’t do things that are against German law (sure, you might think the German laws better, but ‘better’ is not the same as ‘applicable’). We can’t expect others to follow our laws however much we might believe them divinely inspired.

    • Harmonyfb

      Donna, for those of us who do not worship the god of Abraham, quoting from the Christian bible is meaningless. I do not follow those rules, I do not worship that deity, and that book is irrelevant to my life and my worship.

      As Jason says, you don’t have to ‘believe in’ our worship. You must, however, recognize that we have a legal right to worship as we please, and that we are entitled to the same rights extended to Christians.

  • http://ladyimbriumsholocron.wordpress.com/ ladyimbrium

    I was glad to see this article. I generally spend most of my day dealing with the least pleasant members of society, so things like this give me some hope for the future. Way to set a great example of acceptance!