Tensions Mount at Fort Hood Open Circle

Terence P Ward —  February 25, 2016 — 25 Comments

FORT HOOD, Texas — The Fort Hood Open Circle, a non-denominational Pagan group that has been meeting on the military base since 1997 and has had a challenging history has been wrestling with problems such as being locked out of their ritual space and having their concerns dismissed by chaplains for a number of years. This past week, its leader had had enough and vented her frustrations on Facebook. Hundreds of shares and a huge outpouring of support followed, along with extensive meetings to address the short-term problems faced by members of the congregation. Solutions to the longer-term, systemic issues will take far more effort.

Fort HoodMichele Morris has served as Distinctive Religious Group Leader, or DRGL in military-speak, for the Fort Hood Open Circle for six years. Over that time, she said, the amount of support her congregation has received has varied considerably. “The last six years that I have had the privilege and responsibility to serve as clergy for Fort Hood Open Circle have been a dizzying roller coaster of harassment and neglect relieved by brief moments of support and underpinned by the soul killer that we proudly call ‘tolerance,'” she wrote in her Facebook post. “Tolerance is a terrible word,” she told The Wild Hunt, because “we tolerate things that we don’t like.” Instead, she feels, “Everyone who is supportive of people they disagree with makes a difference.”

The abuses she lays out in her very public post are not only disheartening, in Morris’ view; they are indicative of problems faced by Pagans serving in the United States military, and living in the country as a whole.

I am regularly told, by government employees that “you people” shouldn’t be “out there.” I have no problem ignoring them as long as they do their job, to each their own. But when it is a chaplain assigned to support our congregation that prefaces every single conversation we have with, “I don’t agree with what you do, but I’ll do my job,” for two years, that is not in fact support. When the religious education coordinator leaves our classes off of the calendar disseminated to all of the units on post and when questioned replies with the assertion that he did this out of his own pocket so he can put on, and leave off of, what he wants, that is not support.

What precipitated sharing these feelings on Facebook was being locked out of the stone circle that congregation members use for their rituals, something that has happened more than once. However, Morris is of the opinion that the issue is not one of access, or even one that is isolated to Fort Hood. “This is a military problem,” she said. “I don’t believe that chaplains are properly trained anymore,” and they fail to understand that they must serve the needs of all military personnel under their care, regardless of religious affiliation. She has found herself forced to serve as both minister and advocate, and unable to fulfill either role fully. “It’s unfair to have to be both for the same group,” she said, adding that she’s certain that other DRGLs are put into exactly the same position.

On an even larger scale, Morris feels that what needs to be discussed is the issue of Christian privilege. “It’s a huge issue, and it’s not being talked about,” she said. Simply trying to take off for one’s religious holidays in this right-to-work state — if they aren’t the standard Christian ones — is completely impractical, she said. “It doesn’t matter what the law says. People need jobs so very badly they can’t afford to walk away; they might not be able to get another one. They have stopped being able to stand up for freedom.”

The Fort Hood Open Circle is, in Morris’ words, the “oldest child” among military Pagan congregations. It is non-denominational by regulation, and in her estimation, “Neither the Army nor Pagans have any idea what to do with us.” That is because there isn’t a clear definition of what “non-denominational” means. Military parlance leans toward precise definitions, and Pagans are in some sense known more for disagreeing over what even the word “Pagan” means than for sharing any particular beliefs or practices. “The model is hard to find,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m writing a book on it.” In practice, one rule she won’t budge on is, “Absolutely no ‘witchier than thou.’ If you’re growing, it’s probably the right path for you. Stop comparing and competing.”

One source of support for many years has been the people of Circle Sanctuary, who Morris describes as “the only non-denominational Pagan group in the outside world.” Circle’s support extends back many years. For example, in 2009, ministers provided support in the wake of the shootings there. More recently, in 2011, Circle Sanctuary became the official endorser of the Fort Hood Open Circle.

Circle Sanctuary’s founder Rev. Selena Fox was quick to respond to Morris’ Facebook note, along with Lady Liberty League (LLL), Circle’s religious freedom advocacy arm. After extensive work behind the scenes, LLL released this statement last night on the current situation at Fort Hood. It reads, in part:

We are deeply troubled that Michele and members of the Fort Hood Open Circle have been denied access to their designated ritual space. We have been part of problem solving on the situation. We are thankful that a short-term solution for access to the ritual space has been reached. We are also part of the process supporting the development of longer-term solutions so that disruptive incidents do not happen again. We are continuing to provide support and monitor this situation.

That work resulted, in part, in a town-hall style meeting last night, during which members of the Fort Hood circle were able to talk about their concerns with base chaplains face-to-face. Three chaplains and many circle members were attended and, while Morris was not available to provide details as of press time, Fox reported that it went well.

1970647_10152116984554285_1633538525_nFox also explained to The Wild Hunt that the access issues were being resolved by obtaining different locks for the gate to the group’s stone circle. According to Morris, the fence was erected due to issues of vandalism. The gate’s lock is controlled by a civilian employee in the Office of Military Morale, Welfare and Recreation, who reportedly believes that the Pagans “should not be out there” and specifically intended to bar that access. That has had profound consequences, as Morris detailed in her note:

Last night a soldier about to deploy did not get to have one last service before he leaves this coming week. There is not a church of his faith where he’s going so it will be at least nine months before he can worship with a group again and that’s only if he’s fortunate enough to be stationed to one of the handful of bases that offer services. Most still do not.

The fact that Morris decided to speak about her frustrations publicly is in itself an indication of how stressful the situation had become. “The military has a PR issue when things don’t stay in-house,” she said, because keeping problems within the organization allows for the message and perceptions to be controlled. Speaking out goes against “everything I was taught as an Army spouse.” The outpouring of support that her note received has been “overwhelming” and “a little intimidating,” she admitted. “I hope I can live up to wherever this is going. I didn’t plan on being the poster child for change.”

Perhaps to be mindful of that military mindset of nothing being dealt with publicly, the statement released by the Lady Liberty League also urges concerned Pagans to contact its offices, or Morris directly. “At this time, we also ask that the wider Pagan community refrains from contacting Fort Hood officials and/or others within the military about this issue, so that the negotiation and understanding-building process may continue. We ask that people continue to send prayers and energy for a positive, long-term solution to this situation.”

Regarding long-term solutions, Morris thinks that they won’t be achieved unless other Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists step up. “I’m far, far out of the broom closet,” she said. “We need to be open about what we do. We don’t create change by living in fear.” She recognizes that more than fear keeps people being public about their practices. There’s an aversion to proselytizing, and answering questions requires being able to articulate those responses. “The difference between education and proselytizing is that you wait for the ask,” she said. Moreover, “Lots of times Pagans don’t bother to have good answers to questions. It’s harder because we have to come up with our own,” rather than drawing upon settled doctrine that can be found in most bookstores.

However, “most spiritual people have more in common than not,” she pointed out, and a meaningful conversation could very well lead to one more person who doesn’t believe that Pagans sacrifice babies, worship the Christian god of evil, or do whatever it is that ignorant people fear.

“Every time there is a news story which misrepresents Pagans, we get upset. There are more of us than people realize, because we stay in our own little bubbles where we’re comfortable. Change happens outside of where we’re comfortable. We’re uncomfortable here in Fort Hood.”

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • Michelle

    Keep on standing your ground. Chaplains are Christian and if they are rejecting Paganism then they are simply under-educated in religion and are not qualified to run any religious practice, in my opinion.

    • mptp

      Not all chaplains are Christian, although a majority likely are.

      And the educational requirements to become a US Army chaplain are fairly high.

      • Matthew M Gildner

        Yes they are. They require that an applicant have a college degree and that they have attended and graduated from some form of religious college with a degree in their prospective theology. Unfortunately Pagan paths are taught through lineage or handed down through apprenticeships. This is definitely a “My religion is better than yours attitude because I have an education” attitude that needs to go. If we are to fair and impartial then we need to accept all forms of religion or beliefs.

        • Jön Upsal’s Gardener

          No. While it is true that the vast majority of US military chaplains are Christian, there are still Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist chaplains as well. Which I think was mptp’s point. See http://militaryatheists.org/demographics/

        • mptp

          Also, the educational requirements have zip to do with keeping unwelcome religions from having chaplains.

          Chaplains, by regulation, are special staff to commanders, and are required to have professional pastoral counseling training in order to serve ALL Soldiers, not just those of their own faith.

  • Govannon Thunorwulf

    I posted Michele’s post on a few different groups on fb myself. I was going to write a letter to the Fort Hood Chaplains myself until I saw that Rev. Selena Fox was on it. Today I read an article, or I should say attack, on a conservative site about the Air Force’s Pagan group. I immediately wrote a letter to the author. I have yet to hear back. It would seem that the Air Force is still providing support fully tho, which is great!

    • Selena Fox

      Our Lady Liberty League Military Affairs Task Force has been providing support to the Air Force Academy Pagan Circle over the years, including dealing with this latest situation. This morning, I have had a series of meetings with its DRGL and with the head of the Sacred Well Congregation, its sponsor and with the head of Living Earth Church. Support to them & to the Air Force Academy chaplains, public affairs officials, & others dealing with recent articles about religious accommodation there.

      • mptp

        Thank you for the support of those serving.

    • David L Oringderff

      The Chaplains at the USAFA have always been and continue to be supportive of religious pluralism in the military, since we established and sponsored the Falcon Circle in 2005. I was the Earth-Centered Spiritualities representative on the Religious Respect Conferences in 2010 and 2012. The result of those conferences is that Religious Respect is part of the curriculum for Cadets during all four years of their training. As Chaplain (Lt.Col.) Dan Brantingham (then Cadet Chaplain at USAFA) was fond of saying: “Tolerance is not the goal; respect is the goal.” The Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle was dedicated on 3 May 2011.

      http://gazette.com/article/117435

      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1383855/Pagans-rejoice-Air-Force-Academy-opens-outdoor-chapel-Wiccans-Druids-earth-centred-worship-groups.html?ito=feeds-newsxml

      The Sacred Well Congregation has been providing Denominational Sponsorship and Endorsement for military circles and their lay-leaders since 1996. By and large, chaplains and commands in all branches of service have supported and accommodated religious pluralism from the beginning. We have had very few issues in all of those years, and most of the issues were not initiated by the chaplains. The chaplains did work with us to quietly and satisfactorily resolve those issues.
      The current “issue” at the Academy is really a non-issue; it is merely more vitriol propaganda promulgated by the FRC. The chaplains, PAO and our DRGL Rochelle Richards-Burks have the situation well in hand. And I will be contacting the source of the propaganda tomorrow.
      I must take a couple of exceptions to statements in this article. Military chaplains are _very_ well trained, and they know what they are required to do to support religious pluralism. Most do it enthusiastically; a few because they have to. The other exception is the statement that the Army doesn’t know what to do with Pagans. The Army (and the other services) know _exactly_ what they must do for Pagans and all other distinctive religious formations in the military. It is articulated in AR 165-1-5.

  • Leigh McCarthy

    Circle Sanctuary is not “the only non-denominational Pagan group in the outside world.” There are dozens.

    • Joshua Dery

      They are one of only two that endorse military DFGLs and Open Circles, however.

    • Crosswind

      That was my thought as well. However, Morris does have a point in that, while there are probably hundreds of groups and movements that fit the description of “non-denominational Pagan group”, very few are willing to do the work or put themselves out there.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I have sent links to the articles and to the FACEBOOK page to
    info@militaryreligiousfreedom.org. Perhaps Mikey can be of help as well. I have heard that Bernie Sanders has been told about it as well. Any possibility of the ACLU or Americans United for Separation of Church and State coming in as well?

  • Lynda Button

    I am surprised and saddened by this post. I have had military family members with very different experiences than this. One, while posted overseas, was given full support by the military They not only designated service time at the base facilities, but found him a mentor to continue his spiritual education.

    They need to request a meeting with the base commander to express their concerns.

    Below is a PDF that states the rights accorded.

    https://firstliberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/RLA_MILITARY.pdf

    • MadGastronomer

      If you’re surprised, then you haven’t been paying attention. The Fort Hood Open Circle has been in and out of the news, both pagan and mainstream, for the entire, what, 18 years of its existence? It’s had constant problems with harassment and lack of support from the military. I’m glad you relative had a better experience, but all the military pagans I’ve known have had ones far more like the Fort Hood group.

      • Lynda Button

        I am surprised that it is still occurring, not that it has occurred. I am aware that ignorance and discrimination occur on military bases, just as they occur in the civilian world. A base commander is charged with upholding federal and military law. If they refuse to perform their duties of upholding them, military legal affairs usually will correct this. I’m surprised that the base commander and military legal affairs has not acted accordingly. My family has been lucky, I guess. I was raised on military bases, and have many military family members. In our experience, base commanders tend to cut through non compliance pretty quickly. Shame this has not occurred in this case is all I was saying.

    • Huxley

      They are in a predominantly Christian state. I am certain that makes a difference. I moved here from Colorado and as a civilian attended an Open Circle at Fort Carson and they do not share these issues. I’m convinced the problems lie within the geographical areas where Christianity is prevalent. Since my move to Texas, I have experienced the witch trials all over again. I have been accused of devil worship, hexing people, and even creating chaos. All because I shared my background as a HP in Traditional Craft Wicca. Thank you for this article. I shall not allow fear of ridicule deter me from spreading light. and being my true self.

    • David L Oringderff

      Thanks for sharing this valuable document, Lynda.

  • Joshua Dery

    This is a problem that is affecting more than just Fort Hood; it’s affecting Pagans in all of the services, everywhere. (See also: Fort Riley Open Circle; Fort Stewart Open Circle; South Korea [where there isn’t one, and given the rules about making one, probably never will be]).

    Michele: we stand with you.

    • David L Oringderff

      Josh give me a shout on my personal mail, or through SWC staff. We can’t fix problems we don’t know are occurring.

      • mptp

        Thanks for supporting all of us. My time on Bagram was made better by the fellowship I found at BPOC.

  • David L Oringderff

    Regarding the Judicial Watch article concerning the US Air Force Academy

    http://www.judicialwatch.org/press-room/press-releases/judicial-watch-air-force-academy-uses-chapel-tithes-and-offering-fund-to-pay-for-cadets-attendance-at-festivals-celebrating-witchcraft-faery-magick-and/

    I have posted the following response:

    The author of this article, who fails to provide a credit line, and apparently Mr. Fitton, and Judicial Watch itself, are clueless about military chaplains activities and responsibilities and do not understand the difference between Appropriated Funds and Non-appropriated Funds (such as CTOF). Non-appropriated funds accounts do not come from tax dollars, they come from other revenue sources. However, once collected, they become government instrumentalities and expenditures from those funds are regulated with oversight to prevent waste, fraud and abuse. I am a retired Army officer and I lead the Sacred Well Congregation which provides Denominational Sponsorship for the Earth-Centered Spirituality group at the Air Force Academy as well as other military circles around the world. I was the Earth-Centered Spiritualities representative on the Religious Respect Conferences in 2010 and 2012. The result of those conferences is that Religious Respect is part of the curriculum for Cadets during all four years of their training. As Chaplain (Lt.Col.) Dan Brantingham (then Cadet Chaplain at USAFA) was fond of saying: “Tolerance is not the goal; respect is the goal.”

    This article is misleading, bigoted and inflammatory.

  • Paul howe

    I am a retired Army Chaplain. In addition to Assigned Chaplains, there are certified lay leaders. All Chaplains are endorsed by a faith group registered to endorse chaplains from the military. The requirements used to be a Bachelors Degree from an accredited college/university and a Masters Degree of at least 72 Semester Hours in required subjects. Some spouses or military members may also feel called to offer a worship experience. They must go to the Post/Base Chapel and present their creditials which include a letter of endorsement from their religious group. The issue is religious supervision. Should an issue arise, say in this case, if a member of Mrs. Morris Pegan Group feels she is not teaching properly. The person to assist in resolving this issue is her Endorser. Each Endorser is responsible to give this supervision. The Post chaplain is responsible to insure Endorsed Lay Leaders, i.e., Mrs Morris does have access to time, facilities, etc., that can be supervised, not the teaching, but did they leave the facility neat and tidy, observe the time slot, etc., usually this system works well, sometimes there are issues to resolve and resolving facility issues for an endorsed lay leader should not be an issue. The correct channel for Mrs. Morris would have been to the chaplain, the post chaplain and if not resolved go to her Endorser to carry the ball for her. Maybe times have changed as I have been retired for 12 years, but this was the procedure.

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