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The U.S. Army has finally added Asatru and Heathen to its religious preference list after a five year effort led by the Open Halls Project. The Army is now the second branch of the U.S Military to include these two religious options. The Air Force led the way in July 2014. With these changes made, Heathen soldiers serving, or having served, in either of these two branches can accurately communicate their religious preference and, by doing so, earn a host of benefits and protections.

[Photo Credit: Ian Britton/]

[Photo Credit: Ian Britton/]

“This is a first step into showing how deeply integrated with serving our country Heathens are. We represent a significant minority of the world, but the large majority of Heathens have served their countries in some form or another. Taking care of our community is a Heathen worldview trait, serving in the military is one way to serve those communities. I hope that this recognition helps to encourage more Heathens to serve their communities in all ways,” said Josh Heath, co-founder of the Open Halls Project in an interview with The Wild Hunt.

It is currently estimated that there are around 500 Heathens serving in the U.S. Army alone. That number is purely speculative based on Open Hall Project registrations. Heath said, “I’m hoping that getting the religious preference added will allow us to eventually ask the military to do an official census.”

Heath’s quest began in 2009 after he and his wife Cat joined The Troth. At that time, Heath was on Active Duty with U.S. Army, and wanted to see both Heathen and Asatru added to the religious preference list. Since that application required the backing of a 501c3 organization, he asked the Troth for help, which they gave. Unfortunately, the Army made an error and put The Troth on the list, rather than Heathen or Asatru.

As a result, Heath had to begin the process all over again. This time, however, he looked for support from a group whose name contained the word Asatru, as advised by Army officials. With the help of Vince Enland of the Asatru Alliance and Patricia Lafayllve of The Troth, he submitted a second application in 2010.  This was also the year that he and Cat formally established the Open Halls Project.

Open Halls Project
A year went by with little to no response. In 2011, the team decided to submit a third application. This one contained a petition with the signatures of over 30 soldiers. But, once again, they were simply told that the application was being reviewed.

After two years of waiting, the Army had still made no decisions, and the team was faced with two new challenges. Heath said, “In 2012, we were told by the Chaplains Corp that a new system to request Rel Prefs was being developed and would take some time to get anything new approved.” Additionally, Heath himself was no longer on Active Duty. Therefore, they “would need to get someone [else] who [could] reprocess the whole request.”

Over the next two years, they put the project on “the back burner.” They periodically checked in with Chaplain Bryan Walker, personnel director of the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains. They also worked to garner more support and allies for the mission.

By 2013, momentum began to build in the form of both interest and corresponding actions. In terms of earning increased support, Josh Heath credits a 2013 interview with Dr. Karl Seigfried, published on the Norse Mythology blog.  While the article is predominantly about the couple’s personal history and religion, it does mention the Open Halls Project and its deep involvement “in American Heathenry and … the struggle for its recognition as a religion in the U.S. military.” In fact, that very interview is what inspired Msgt. Matt Walters, the Air Force NCO, to seek out the Open Halls Project for help in getting Asatru and Heathen added to the Air Force religious preference list.

While support increased, other serendipitous events began to happen. In spring 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs added the Mjöllnir, (the Hammer) to its list of symbols available for gravestones and markers. Then, in early 2014, the Army added Humanism to its religious preference list, and the Air Force added Heathen and Asatru.

Thor's Hammer Emblem.

Thor’s Hammer Emblem.

In a recent interview with Dr. Karl Seigfried, Heath admitted that the adding of Humanism, “riled him up!” He said, “I’d been working on this issue for Heathens for five years, and they still hadn’t approved us! I threatened a lawsuit, politely, and even contacted the ACLU and the humanists that won their campaign to ask for some guidance on how to proceed.”

Due the increase in support from the Heathen community, Heath was able to find four new Active Duty soldiers willing to work on the project. The team consisted of Christopher Gibat, Omar Bailey, Andrew Turner and Daniel Head, who would became the new principle point of contact. In a recent interview, Head told Dr. Seigfried that after some “back and forth” and questioning the chaplains signed off. Asatru and Heathen were added to the list.

While this designation is purely administrative, the benefits can be far reaching in the experiences of a Heathen soldier, and in the education of military officials. Heath said:

Some Heathens will still have a hard time getting the right to worship, but having their religious preference added will mean the Chaplains Corp, MUST, assist them within the regulation requirements. That is a huge advocacy pool, even a chaplain that doesn’t really want to help will have to or face disciplinary action for failing to uphold their oath. I think this will help, when good soldiers, are seen as good soldiers, and then someone finds out they are a Heathen, this will hopefully show that we are good for our units, good for the Army and good for our country.

He also noted that Heathen Veterans can apply to make a change to their religious preference. Doing so will help with any official census taken, as well as supporting Heathen specific needs for funerals and other religious-based services.

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

After the announcement was made, Open Halls members were asked for reactions and thoughts. Heath shared some of those responses:

I have [had] to choose ‘other’ as my religious preference, that makes me and many others feel excluded. I will no longer have to worry, “Will there be someone who understands what I believe, and to speak for me, if the worse were to happen.” – Daron Regan

It is a great feeling not to be marginalized as “that weird guy that believes in comic book characters.” – Andrew Turner

I am thankful for those that have stayed the course, it seems to have paid off and brought honor to us all.- Omar Bailey

This is the seed from which something great may grow. Whether it be something as simple as full recognition or a full chaplain representation. Our deed will feed the well that feeds the seed.- Joshua Spencer

A few members were skeptical on how much this will really affect their day-to-day experience, but most reactions were celebratory and focused on the next chapter of the project. Heath said, “We are planning on pursuing the Navy and Marines next, as they use the same system for Chaplains, a win there will affect both branches at the same time. I seriously doubt they would add the preferences themselves without prodding, but I do not think it would be hard for personnel to make those requests now.”

For more extensive detail on the entire process and experience, turn to the recent interview with Daniel Head and Josh and Cat Heath at the Norse Mythology Blog

Now that the season has turned and we are nearing the end of the calendar year, we look back, one last time, to review the year. What happened? What didn’t happen? What events shaped our collective thoughts and guided our actions? In our worlds, both big and small, what were the major discussions? What were the high points and low?


public domain

The year 2014 kicked off with several debates already simmering. Early in January, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart’s quest to capitalize Pagan, which had begun in the fall of 2013, came to an end as the coalition mailed its petition to various style guide editors.  Although the immediate response was less than encouraging, The Associated Press did eventually revise its style guide to include Wicca. Whether the coalition’s work influenced that change is unknown. However, its letter may have triggered some level of awareness leading to that addition.

Another conversation brewing in those early months culminated in a packed PantheaCon session hosted in the CoG/NWC/NROOGD suite. The debate over “Wiccan Privilege,” which began with a single article in the November 2013, inspired or incited a four-month blog-based debate. If nothing else, those conversations showcased the diversity and breadth of religious practices that, not only fall under the Pagan umbrella, but also run alongside it and near it; and often intersect with it.

Over the remainder of the year, many of these non-Wiccan based traditions and practices continued to demonstrate growth and forward momentum. For example, in September, was successfully launched and, more recently, Many Gods West, a new Polytheist conference, was announced. In August, the U.S. Air Force added Heathen and Asatru to its religious preference list.

Open Halls Project
As winter thawed into the brightness of spring, our collective communities were rocked with the news of Kenny Klein’s arrest. It served as almost a “wake-up” call, unearthing buried concerns, personal pain and collective traumas. Eventually the difficult conversations led to action. In May, the Council of the Phoenix was born, created by Green Egg Magazine editor Ariel Monserrat. In August, the Covenant of the Goddess established its own internal abuse advisory committee led by professional social workers and a psychotherapist. More recently, Lydia Crabtree established Pagan Pro, a project that proposes to qualify leaders. While time eventually gave way to other concerns, Klein’s arrest and the ensuing conversations brought to light serious problems that lurk in the shadows of many communities – not just Pagan or religious ones.

By late spring and early summer, attention had turned to the national and international news arena. In May, SCOTUS ruled on legislative prayer, “upholding the right of legislators to offer sectarian prayer before conducting business.” In June, SCOTUS ruled on the Hobby Lobby case, concluding that “some for-profit employers with religious objections do not need to provide contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).”

During that same period, Middle East violence began to heat up, drawing our attention to a world in crisis. ISIS, ISIL and now the IS became a household name, as the militant organization continued its assault on Middle Eastern territories and peoples. In addition, the Israeli and the Palestinian conflict escalated into a new round of military action. Israeli Pagans, reporting from within the war-torn region, called out for compassion and peace.

Inside an Israeli Pagan store, The White Wood Shop. [Courtesy Photo]

Inside an Israeli Pagan store, The White Wood Shop. [Courtesy Photo]

Throughout 2014, we covered other big stories originating from or affecting international Pagan communities, like the one in Israel. For example, the U.K.’s Centre for Pagan Studies, together with the Doreen Valiente Foundation, commemorated Gerald Gardner with a Blue Heritage Plaque. In South Africa, we spoke with SAPRA’s Damon Leff about the continued use of Witchcraft as a political weapon.  And, in Italy, the new Unione Comunità Neopagane was born.

As the wheel turned and summer came to an end, Pagan Pride Day and other harvest events were in full swing worldwide. For many people, it was “festival-as-usual,” but not for the Wisconsin-based Circle Sanctuary. Samhain 2014 marked the organization’s 40th anniversary, which it celebrated with month-long podcasts culminating in a single big birthday celebration.

At the same time, a uniquely modern problem emerged. First publicized by Sister Roma and other members of the drag queen community, Facebook’s “real name” policy became a thorn in many Pagans’ sides. Some of those affected included Silver Ravenwolf, Storm Faerywolf and Raven Grimassi.

Ironically, as many Witches struggled with Facebook over use of their Craft names, many of these chosen names were being featured in the mainstream news media. October is the month to interview a witch.

Outside of the festivities, celebrations and Halloween hullabaloo, this Samhain had a particularly pronounced sobering affect. We marked the passing of many Pagan loved ones, elders and leaders. As listed in our Wild Hunt Samhain post, those lost in 2014 included Margot Adler, Morning Glory Zell-Ravenhart, Jeff Rosenbaum, Lady Loreon Vigne, Sparky T. Rabbit, Apolinario Chile Pixtun, Peter Paddon, Brian Dragon, Donald Michael Kraig, Judy Harrow, Stanley Modrzyk, Colin Wilson, Jonas Trinkūnas, Eduardo Manuel Gutierrez (Hyperion), Randy David Jeffers (Randy Sapp), Chris Keith and Olivia Robertson. Since that Samhain article was published, Pete Pathfinder Davis and Niklas Gander have also passed, along with many others who are not named here.

Mother Tongue Singing at  Margot Adler's Memorial Oct. 31 [Courtesy Photo]

Mother Tongue Singing at Margot Adler’s Memorial Oct. 31 [Courtesy Photo]

In addition to the loss, the fall brought good news for two very public religious freedom cases. The Huntsville Alabama’s City Council invited Wiccan Priest Blake Kirk back to offer a pre-meeting invocation despite the citizen complaints. And, perhaps even more uplifting, the Maetreum of Cybele won its expensive and lengthly legal battle for property tax exemption.

These were not the year’s only triumphs. In Aug., Wiccan Janie Felix won her legal challange to Bloomingfield, New Mexico’s erection of a Ten Commandments monument. In Virginia, Priestess Maya White Sparks led the successful quest to remove antiquated anti-Tarot codes from the Town of Front Royal’s books. We also saw two Georgia college students defy the odds and form a campus-based “Old Faith Community” in their highly conservative school environment. And, finally, the New Alexandrian Library earned a certificate of occupancy and began the slow process of unpacking.

To add to that positive momentum, 2014 saw four openly Pagan or Heathen political candidates, including Cara Schulz in Minnesota, Kathryn Jones of Pennsylvania, Robert Rudachyk, in Canada’s Saskatoon West, and Ireland’s Deirdre Wadding, who won a seat on her local council.

As the final days of 2014 approached, holiday celebrations were once again tempered by national events. Just before Thanksgiving, our attention was drawn to a new place – Ferguson, Missouri. Since that day, the United States has not been the same. Frustration, pain, confusion and feelings of helplessness mingle with daily protests and pure rage. Over the past month, many people have donated time and money; spoken words of solidarity in many forms; have grieved; and have looked for ways to be part of a solution. This is story yet to be fully written.

Courtney Weber of the Pagan Environmental Coalition of New York

Courtney Weber of the Pagan Environmental Coalition of New York at #ClimateMarch

Above are only a fraction of the many stories, reports and events that have touched our lives over the past year. There are so many others – ones that we reported on and even more that we didn’t. If we could sum the year up in one phrase or term, it might simply be #2014. The hashtag has become an increasingly useful rallying point, external to its Twitter origins, for many of the events and actions that have occurred throughout the year, from #PantheaCon, #PACO and #PaganPride to #MyNameIs, #ClimateMarch, and #blacklivesmatter.

As the final days of 2014 tick to a close, we say goodbye to what has been, and now ready ourselves for what is to come. #Bringon2015

[The following is a guest post from Josh Heath. Josh Heath is the Co-Director of The Open Halls Project, a military Heathen outreach and advocacy program, with his wife Cat. Both are world travelers and highly invested in the Heathen community at large. Josh is a few weeks away from beginning a Master’s program in International Peace and Conflict resolution at American University in Washington, D.C.]

“He was a very moral man… but not what you’d call a spiritual person,” Master Sergeant (Msgt) Matt Walters said, referring to his father during our discussion about the additions of Asatru and Heathen to the religious preference list for the US Air Force. Msgt Walters and I talked for nearly an hour about his pathway to Heathenry, and the complex process he had to dredge through to update the Air Force system.

usaf-logo-2004According to Msgt Walters, the Air Force used to have an automated system to add new religious preferences through their Virtual Military Personnel File (the central online paperwork system for Airmen). However, at some point that system became defunct and no new system was put in place to make updates. Msgt Walters placement as a high ranking Non-Commissioned Officer in the Pacific Command for the Air Force meant he was perfectly located to help kickstart everything needed to recreate the system.

Msgt Walters grew up in a mixed Buddhist Vietnamese and German-American family. He joined the US Air Force 20 years ago this coming January. Describing himself, and his father as largely irreligious, Msgt Walters mentioned several key moments in their lives that helped bring him down the path toward Heathenry. On a trip traveling through Germany, his father looked over his shoulder to see the Black Forest at his side. His ancestors were standing there like a beacon letting him know that he would one day return to them, like a scene out of the Icelandic Sagas.

His father’s journey ended, or began depending on how you see it, with his death a few years ago. This former enlisted veteran from WWII and Vietnam was on his deathbed with his son by his side. Having waited for his son to arrive, Msgt Walter helped his father find his way to the halls of his ancestors. “I knew some day we’d share a glass of beer again,” he said. With that impetus, he began a journey to find a connection to his ancestors and found a faith that made sense to him, Heathenry.

open_halls_squareHis journey took him through several resources, including the Havamal, which he described as, “that’s my father, those are the kinds of things he would say.” He finally came upon the Norse Mythology blog written by Dr. Karl E.H. Seigfried. From there, he found an interview about The Open Halls Project and military Heathens between Seigfried and Cat . Msgt Walters quickly became a member of the OHP, and learned about the movement to have Asatru and Heathen added to the US Army’s Religious Preference list. As an aggressive and dedicated leader, he decided to see what he could do to add that preference to the Air Force lists as well.

Using the fact that Humanism was recently added to the combined list of DoD preferences via ACLU lawsuit, he focused on the hope that our request could be completed without needing such heavy handed tactics. He utilized allies throughout the Air Force command structure to recreate a process to have new preferences added. A graphic below describes the process.



I don’t think it’s any surprise that this system is arcane. Even to the trained military eye it is hard to follow and elicits a quick response of, “Why is it this hard to do this;” especially considering that there are dozens, if not a few hundred individuals involved along the way for such a request to be completed. Msgt. Walters had to assist the Air Force in finding the applicable regulations to add religious preferences, which had been lost and forgotten. Once the system was in place once more, the request was made, and finally, approved on July 29th 2014.

“This is an awesome victory for us, and one that has required a lot of awareness raising and a lot of paperwork. We want to officially thank Msgt Walters for making this happen for the Air Force. Now all our Airmen need to go change their Religious Preference!!!”The Open Halls Project

The fight is not over, the Army still does not recognize Asatru or Heathen as religious preferences officially. Nor does the Navy, the Marines, or even the Coast Guard. However, requests are nearing completion in the Army as this is being written and a request will soon be prepared for the Navy and the Marines. The Open Halls Project was started to help military Heathens find community wherever they are. We have been committed to advocating for the needs of all military heathens or Asatruar wherever they are, regardless of service, regardless of any other issues. Our small faith community has a large amount of folks who have dedicated themselves to serving their country. It really is a small thing we can do to help support them, but it’s a small thing that means a lot!

Msgt Walters would like all Air Force Heathens to know they can access a portal to connect with others, here. More information about the Open Halls Project can be found, here, here, and here.

The First Pantheistic Center of the Antelope Valley features an article from Lisa Morgenstern about a new first for modern Pagans in the military: Edwards Air Force Base in California hosted a Wiccan service for the 20 Airmen fallen in 2013.

Altar from the Edwards Air Force Base Wiccan service.

Altar from the Edwards Air Force Base Wiccan service.

“The circle keened the names of the fallen in Celtic tradition, calling their names loudly. Amy, a member of Dragon’s Weyr Circle, a Covenant of the Goddess Member coven, stated, “Thursday night as I started to set up the sacred space the wind started to whirl around. The sky looked as if there was a storm brewing, The Celts would say that it was the Sidhe showing their knowledge of the events …..when the circle was done so was the whirling and swirling winds.” The altar held patches of all the squadrons of the men and women lost.

The circle members called in Badb, and the Horned God, and invited the fallen Airmen to join them and be honored. Then they raised healing energy “to send back through their threads of life/energy to help those which are a part of their tapestries of life.” Several traditional poems were read, and as Captain Victoria Ann Pinckney, the local Palmdale High School Graduate and pilot, was a WASP and a tanker pilot, the poem Vectors to the Tanker, along with a WASP memorial poem for female pilots. The Heathens in attendance spoke of the honor accorded to fallen warriors and that those slain in battle are collected by Freyja and Odin and brought to their halls, Sessrumir and Valhalla. They shared mead and lemon cookies on an altar with red roses. The lemon and red roses are military traditions when honoring those lost.”

Edwards Air Force Base has been hosting regular Wiccan services since April, when Elder Priestess Amy Watson, a Covenant of the Goddess member, and wife of an Air Force Captain, first approached the Wing Chaplain.

“When I approached the Wing Chaplain to have services scheduled, he insisted that we schedule weekly services,” said Watson, “just like all the other denominations have.”

With all the talk lately about proselytizing in the military, and the influence of conservative Christianity, I think it’s important to note when important and largely unheralded forward steps are taken. This first, along with other Pagan services on military bases, and the recent approval of the Thor’s Hammer for veteran headstones and grave markers, points to a slow but building new reality within military culture. A pluralistic and multi-religious “post-Christian” future in which a balance must be struck so that all may find within America’s armed forces. I send out my congratulations to Priestess Amy Watson, and to the Pagans and Wiccans at Edwards Air Force Base. I have no doubt the gods heard you in your honoring of the fallen Airmen.

Yesterday, and in less than a week, The Wild Hunt’s Fall Fund Drive met, and then surpassed, its $6000 dollar goal. While I was always confident that this campaign would eventually meet its goal, I had no idea it would do so with such alacrity. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of my readers, my community, in helping The Wild Hunt go independent once again. To fund a new vision for the site, and Pagan news. So thank you, whether you donated $5, $50, or $500 dollars, you all made this happen. The campaign will stay up through November, and any donation above the $600 goal number will go towards a travel and a materials stipend for our reporters, and perhaps even towards paying additional contributors. So once again, thank you, thank you, thank you. The links lists, Fall Funders list, new underwriting affiliates, and supporter graphics will be going up soon (honestly, I had no idea I would make my goal this fast).

Fall fund large

Now that I’ve shared that happy news, let’s have a few news links, shall we?

  • You may have seen a wire story about a pagan rock carving in Morocco being destroyed by ultra-orthodox Salafi Muslims. Turns out that the report of the sun-divinity’s image being destroyed may have been greatly exaggerated. Quote: “The Moroccan government has denied that an 8,000-year-old rock engraving depicting the Sun as a divinity has been destroyed in the south of the country in an attack residents had blamed on ultra-orthodox Salafi Muslims. Communications Minister Mustafa el-Khalfi took journalists to the site of the pagan engraving in the Toukbal National Park to demonstrate that reports of its destruction were untrue.” So, I guess the lesson here is “pics or it didn’t happen.”
A not-destroyed petroglyph inToukbal National Park.

A not-destroyed petroglyph inToukbal National Park.

That’s all for now, have a great day, and thank you for supporting The Wild Hunt!

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Bull of Heaven publication party. (photo: Christopher Gregory/The New York Times)

Bull of Heaven publication party. (photo: Christopher Gregory/The New York Times)

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

“Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.” – John B. Finch, 1882

If you follow religion news these days, you can’t help but be inundated with the current debate over what, exactly, “religious freedom” means, and what its limits are. The most popular manifestation concerns Catholic opposition to new contraception guidelines set forth by the Dept. of Health and Human Services (a topic I’ve covered before), but a large number of enterprising souls have taken this proverbial football and are running as far as they can with it. The most recent effort to “protect” religious freedom comes from a consortium of 66 Republican lawmakers who have written a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asking for an investigation into “a series of steps signaling hostility towards religious freedom” by the Air Force.

The lawmakers outlined several instances where they had problems with Air Force policy, particularly a memo last year from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, which said that “chaplains, not commanders” should notify airmen about chaplains’ religious programs. The lawmakers wrote the memo was “suggesting that the mere mention of these programs is impermissible.” They also took issue with the suspension of a briefing that discussed Bible references, the changing of a Latin office motto that included God and removing Bibles from Air Force Inn checklists. They wrote the policy of “complete separation” between church and state is having a “chilling effect” down the chain of command.

An Air Force spokesperson responded by saying that “Airmen are free to exercise their Constitutional right to practice their religion—in a manner that is respectful of other individuals’ rights to follow their own belief systems.” Indeed, these instances the 66 Republican lawmakers are concerned about aren’t initiatives to limit religious freedom, but to instead avoid showing favoritism for any particular faith.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz

“The Air Force’s top officer has issued a stern reminder to leaders about religion and their jobs: Don’t proselytize or show favoritism toward a particular faith. Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz sent a servicewide memo Sept. 1 cautioning leaders at all levels to balance the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom and the prohibition on government intrusion. “We have seen instances where well-meaning commanders and senior noncommissioned officers appeared to advance a particular religious view among their subordinates, calling into question their impartiality and objectivity. We can learn from these instances,” said Lt. Col. Sam Highley, Schwartz’s spokesman.”

We should also remember that these corrections aren’t happening in a vacuum, and were prompted by a culture of evangelical Christian takeover within the Air Force Academy, where blatant religious favoritism was in full and open display.

…my son’s orientation became an opportunity for the academy to aggressively proselytize this next crop of cadets. Maj. Warren Watties led a group of 10 young, exclusively evangelical chaplains who stood shoulder to shoulder.  He proudly stated that half of the cadets attended Bible studies on Monday nights in the dormitories and he hoped to increase this number from those in his audience who were about to join their ranks.  This “invitation” was followed with hallelujahs and amens by the evangelical clergy.  I later learned from Air Force Academy chaplain MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran who was forced to observe from the choir loft, that no priest, rabbi or mainline Protestant had been permitted to participate.”

This was a major scandal for the Air Force, which, like all government bodies, isn’t supposed to favor any particular faith, and to maintain separation between Church and State. They’ve since made major efforts to make their branch of the military a place where all faiths are respected, including the building of a Pagan/Nature Religions worship area at the Air Force Academy.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

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

Sadly, these worthy efforts towards making the Air Force a place that respects all manifestations of faith is being framed as an attack on “religious freedom” by these lawmakers. For them, religious freedom means freedom for Christians to swing their theological “arms” without any regard to whose nose might be struck. When U.S. Representatives Diane Black of Tennessee, Randy Forbes of Virginia and Todd Akin of Missouri assert that “the combination of events mentioned above raises concerns that the Air Force is developing a culture that is hostile towards religion” what they mean is hostile toward unfettered Christian expression, and little else. I cannot imagine that any of the 66 lawmakers gave one thought as to what things were like for religious minorities before the recent shift in policy and tone. Religious freedom, for them, begins and ends with their conception of America as a “Judeo-Christian” nation that exists under a single, monotheistic, God.

As I’ve said before, to these Christians, government-enforced secularism isn’t a neutral ethos, but a method of attacking their faith and limiting their free expression. In the minds of these Christians “religious freedom” means, in this time of demographic dominance, the right to let the majority dictate the religious norms of a society. Any deviance from that, in limiting prayer in schools, or sectarian prayer at government meetings, is a persecution of their church. We are increasingly caught in Christianity’s own crisis over its role and purpose in a post-Christian pluralistic society, and the results aren’t always pretty. This crisis will only escalate as religious minorities continue to stand up for real equality, for their voices to be heard in the public square, and as litigation starts to reevaluate what the standards for inclusion are in government-backed religious initiatives.

Whatever valid concerns Catholics, Evangelicals, and other conservative Christians might have over religious freedom in the United States, they are continually tempered by their insistence on being the sole definer of where that concept begins and ends. No one is asking Buddhists, Pagans, Hindus, or practitioners of Native religions for their input, and in many cases the same Christian leaders and lawmakers who cry persecution are the very same who ignore our concerns, or are outright dismissive of non-Christian religious expressions.

“I don’t care what the naysayers say. This nation was founded as a Christian nation. The god of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. There is only one God. There is only one God, and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words. I’m tired of people telling us as Christians that we can’t voice our beliefs or we can’t no longer pray in public. Listen to me. If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, get out! […] We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

To me, the Catholic Bishops and Evangelical leaders who claim to be baking the bread of freedom, produce only the taste of ashes in my mouth. Have we really forgotten that Christian Republican lawmakers as recently as 1999 tried to get the practice of Wicca banned from the military? That the Catholic Church, openly hostile to non-Christian faiths, has proposed a grand coalition of the dominant monotheisms to quash the rights of faiths and traditions who want to perform legal same-sex marriages? To my mind these are not the defenders of my religious freedom, to say the least.

If religious freedom as a concept is going to mean anything, if isn’t going to just be hollow rhetoric, then it needs to apply equally to everyone. That means creating a level playing field in the realm of government, it means not privileging the Christian majority simply because it’s a politically expedient thing to do. Sometimes it even means rolling back privileges that some have mistaken for “rights.” The problem is that far too many Christians in America have grown over fond of having no limits on their arm-swinging, and every judicial decision or law that tells them that certain noses are off-limits enrages them, and feeds into an ugly persecution complex (to the point where the majority assumes the mantle of the persecuted minority). Real religious freedom starts when groups stop twisting the concept to privilege themselves at the expense of others.

Pagan Community Notes is a companion to my usual Pagan News of Note series, more focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. I want to reinforce the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So lets get started!

Cherry Hill Seminary Names Two New Department Chairs: Pagan learning institution Cherry Hill Seminary has announced the appointment of chairs for its Community Education and Pastoral Counseling departments.

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)

“Cherry Hill Seminary is pleased to announce two new academic appointments.  Valentine McKay-Riddell, Ph.D., is the new chair of Pagan Community Education, and David Oringderff, Ph.D., is the new chair of the Department of Pagan Pastoral Counseling.

A long-time professor for the department, Oringderff is well known for his role in the founding of Sacred Well Congregation, as well as many years of advocacy on behalf of Pagans in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Oringderff is a graduate of Dallas Baptist University, and holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Bowie State University (Maryland) and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from The Union Institute School of Professional Psychology in Cincinnati, Ohio. […] The second new appointment is that of Valentine McKay-Riddell, Ph.D., as Chair of Pagan Community Education (PCE).  McKay-Riddell is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and a member of the adjunct faculty at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, CA, where she earned a Masters in Counseling Psychology and a Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology.”

Academic Dean Wendy Griffin, Ph.D., noted that Oringderff’s “combination of broad life experience and professional background are what our students need as they prepare to serve in the real world. As more and more individuals serving in the military turn to Cherry Hill Seminary for training for ministry, Dr. Oringderff’s extensive network will be a tremendous asset.” Our congratulations to both Valentine McKay-Riddell and David Oringderff on their new roles within CHS. You can read more about these appointments, and CHS, here.

An Interview With Langley Air Force Base’s New Wiccan Representative: While we’re on the subject of pastoral duties to Pagans in the military, Dead Hour Radio will be featuring an interview with Langley Air Force Base’s new Wiccan representative this Sunday. The host of the show, Carrie Lynn, is an Air Force veteran who started the very first Wicca group at Langley in 2000.

“This Sunday at 10pm EST, on our show we are hosting Langley AFB NEW Wiccan representative to talk about military pagan issues today and the Wiccan faith.”

You can read more about Pagans in the Air Force, here. You can read a piece written by Carrie back in 2000, here. It should be an interesting and enlightening show!

PaganSpace Moving to Member-Owned and Run Model: The Pagan social networking site PaganSpace is moving to a member-owned and run model. In a message to members, outgoing owner Starrfire Price explains the reasons for the change, and how the transition process will work.

“Following a recent announcement regarding the desire to sell PaganSpace I came to the conclusion that the best way to assure the future of PaganSpace is to basically sell it back to the community thus allowing PaganSpace to be placed into the hands of the community who helped bring it to where it is today.

I’ll still be on the site daily and retain admin privileges, I’ll also be training all the new people who step into their positions. I will also be remaining on the board of directors at 10%, under a newly formed corporation (PaganSpace, Inc) that will be formed once the polling ends and board members are elected. I’ll also retain the network site and the domain names for at least the first year (those things will be placed into the corporation name but I know no one will have the means to harm the site with it remaining in my hands). So, I’m not technically going anywhere but I will be freeing up time to complete the many goals and tasks that are in front of me.”

A FAQ has been up for contributors, and those who’d like to have a hand in running the site. PaganSpace is one the few survivors of the DIY social networking boom from a few years ago, a time that saw many Pagan-themed social networking hubs emerge. It will be interesting to see how they progress under this new model, and I wish them luck.

Other Community Notes:

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

In yesterday’s link roundup I mentioned that the LA Times did a feature on Pagans in the Air Force Academy, I thought it was merely OK, but it turns out that the piece had been edited from a far more mocking tone according to Star Foster at Patheos.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

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

“Because I’m an idiot, I didn’t take a screenshot of the article, which has now been edited for tone. (I will always take screenshots going forward, just in case.) Her previously snarky piece is now much calmer, yet still complains that the Air Force is spending money to be inclusive of non-Christians. While I’m glad they removed some of the cheap jokes, I don’t think you should edit an article that much after publication without an editor’s note explaining the change.”

Lest you think the alleged earlier version was simply in Star’s imagination, Mark Thompson at Time’s Battleland blog also picked up on the LA Time’s anti-Pagan snark and calls them out on it.

“The Air Force then earnestly tries to deal with – and encourage – religious diversity, and they get stung by stories like this in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times […] It’s tough walking that careful line in don’t-offend-me America. If you hew too closely to one religion, you’re criticized; if you welcome all, you’re zinged for that, as well.”

On a more positive note, if you click that link on the word “welcome” from the Battleland blog, you’ll notice it heads to part one of the two-part PNC-Minnesota story on Pagans in the Air Force and Air Force Academy. That piece, which was reprinted here at The Wild Hunt, and was written by Cara Schulz at PNC-Minnesota, deserves that attention its getting, and I’m glad Time’s Battleland blog linked to it. While I’m not going to jump to some of the conclusions that Star did, I do think that the Pagan Newswire Collective’s piece did act in some small way to jump-start the current rush of coverage on this story, now running at places like The Telegraph in England. So kudos to Cara, and here’s to Pagan media influencing the narrative!

[This is part two of a two-part story by Cara Schulz from PNC-Minnesota. Part one, dealing with Pagans in basic training at Lackland Air Force base can be found, here.]

One of the Gateways to the Air Force for future officers is the United States Air Force academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While earning their bachelor’s degree, military cadets participate in a rigorous athletic program and are instructed in how to lead others as an officer in the Air Force. In part 1 of our series, Pagans receive warm welcome at the ‘Gateways to the Air Force,’ we looked at Lackland AFB, where enlisted trainees attend Basic Military Training. In part 2, we take a closer look at the Air Force Academy (AFA) through interviews with Pagan faith group leaders, an Academy Chaplain, and a current Pagan Academy cadet.

When Pagans think about the AFA, what often comes to mind are the string of articles in 2007 showcasing the institution as the focal point for an evangelical Christian takeover of the military.  It’s a view that appears to have come about due to an over-correction to the sexual assault cases shocked the campus a few years earlier. Lt Col Dan Brantingham, AFA Cadet Wing Chaplain, explains, “In the aftermath of the sexual assault cases in 2004-5, some leaders looked to religion to assist cadets in living honorable lives. In doing so, the leaders unintentionally promoted a particular flavor of religion as the solution.”

The accounts of aggressive proselytizing of cadets by Evangelicals at the Academy worried civil rights activists as this influences the next crop of officers, planting the seeds to change the culture of the Air Force to a more repressive atmosphere.

Since 2007, the Academy has taken meaningful steps to renew its focus on freedom of religion and religious neutrality in its policies. Brantingham says he supports the current Academy policy of religious neutrality, “As an Air Force Chaplain my responsibility is to ensure the free exercise of religion for all cadets to include the minority faith group cadets. When I protect and advocate the freedom of religious conscience for all cadets, I fulfill my oath and because of the brilliance of the First Amendment, I safe-guard my own freedom of religion as well.”

"Four Freedoms" by Norman Rockwell hangs in Brantingham's office with the quote,“Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

"Four Freedoms" by Norman Rockwell hangs in Brantingham's office with the quote,“Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

Cadet Nicole Johnson, a senior at the AFA, has experienced the willingness of AFA Chaplains to help cadets of any religion, “The Chaplains are wonderful. You can go to them with any problem. It can be just an every day problem or a spiritual problem and they are more than willing to help you out with it or connect you to the right people.”

Creating a culture of religious respect
How did the Academy change from being a perceived bastion of aggressive Evangelicalism to the open and inclusive institution Cadet Johnson is experiencing? A major step was taken when the Academy hosted the Conference on Religious Respect in 2008 and again in 2010. The conference examines how the Academy can create a climate of religious respect and equip its future officers with the skills needed to ensure religious beliefs are respected and accommodated. Out of the 2008 conference the Cadet Interfaith Council was formed, the Religious Respect Cadet Training program was launched, and support was increased for the Spiritual Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE).

SPIRE is time blocked off each Monday evening for cadets to meet and discuss spirituality. In addition to SPIRE time, Earth-Centered Spirituality cadets also celebrate the Sabbats, go on a Freshman retreat, and enjoy an annual Spring retreat.

The Cadet Interfaith Council meets once per semester and the faith of any requesting cadet is included. The Council assists the Chaplain Corps in monitoring the religious respect climate on the campus. Chaplain Brantingham says the Council, “has expressed frustration the press does not report on what they see and experience day in and day out, a climate of religious respect, and continues to unquestioningly keep slapping the Academy with the 2005 story-line.”

The third initiative to come out of the 2008 conference is what the Academy calls its “cornerstone religious diversity program,” the Religious Respect Training program for cadets, faculty and staff. The program is unique to the Air Force Academy as no other military academy or university has a program quite like it. It includes in-depth training on the First Amendment, and the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Free Speech clauses of the US Constitution. The program is modular and cadets have six hours of scenario and mission focused training on religious respect during their four years at the Academy. The Academy hopes this program assists future officers in creating a climate where airmen under their command feel free to request religious accommodation.

The Conference on Religious Respect in 2010 continued to examine and refine those initiatives. Sixteen national religious leaders were invited as panelists including Rev. David Oringderff, PhD, head of Sacred Well Congregation and sponsoring organization for the Earth-Centered Spirituality group at the Academy. In a message to the San Antonio Military Open Circle Yahoo group, Rev. Oringderff said he was impressed by the emphasis on ways to promote respect, not merely religious tolerance. He quoted Chaplain Brantingham remarks during the opening of the conference, “I don’t want to be tolerated; I want to be respected—and everyone else is entitled to that same right.”

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle
The most visible result of the renewed commitment to free exercise of religion is the creation of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle. Falcon Circle, which sits on a hill, came into existence through the efforts of a former cadet wing chaplain, Chap. William Ziegler and former Earth-Centered Spirituality Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL), Tech Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, who is currently deployed in Afghanistan.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

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

In 2006 Tech Sgt. Longcrier and Reserve Major Kelly Ihme started a Wiccan circle at the Air Force Academy. They were able to instruct cadets because of two organizations – Sacred Well Congregation and the Air Force Academy’s SPIRE program. SPIRE was created in the early 1990’s to provide religious accommodation to faith groups not served by a chaplain of their faith. Longcrier contacted Sacred Well Congregation, which was already the Denominational Sponsor for other Pagan military faith groups, to sponsor him as a Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL) for the Academy. Sacred Well Congregation agreed and the request was approved by the Command Chaplain at the AFA. Longcrier and Ihme could now form a faith group on campus.

The faith group went through a few name changes before they settled on Earth-Centered Spirituality. Originally called a Wiccan group, they later changed it to Pagan. Major Ihme, a mental health nurse and current DFGL at the Academy, says there’s a good reason for their present name, “[Earth-Centered Spirituality] is less threatening, especially to civilians living in the Colorado Springs area. We’re also want to be inclusive of Native American religions.” Nearby Ft. Carson has a sweat lodge and Ihme like to cooperate with them, but they’re just beginning to explore the possibility.

The Earth-Centered Spirituality group met in an engineering classroom for worship before construction of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle began in early 2010. The circle drew world wide notice when it was dedicated in Spring of this year. Some of the news articles and editorials were good, much of it was not. It also resulted in the resignation of Longcrier as DFGL at the Academy, “The Wing Chaplain and I had some very heated discussions about the name of the Circle. He kept wanting to call the Earth-Centered Circle a Chapel and also wanted anyone to be able to use it. To me, this was taking away something that belonged to us.”

Chaplain Brantingham says the decision on the name and the use of the circle was a joint decision between the Academy and Sacred Well Congregation, “I worked very closely with TSgt Longcrier’s national DFGL certifier at the time, Dr David L. Oringderff of Sacred Well Congregation. After extensive consultation with Dr Oringderff, TSgt Longcrier and Maj Kelly Ihme, USAF Reserves, I decided the best long-term solution for promoting religious respect and economy of resources was to dedicate the outdoor worship space as the Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle with the Circle being available to all cadet faith communities and the Earth-Centered Spirituality cadet community having scheduling priority. Dr Oringderff and the Academy’s current Earth-Center Spirituality DFGL, Maj Kelly Ihme, agreed.”

What brought matters to a head was the date of Falcon Circle’s dedication“The straw that broke the camel’s back was when they set a date for the dedication of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle on a date when I would be deployed. I put my blood, sweat, and tears into the program and getting the Circle approved and built and they thought that it would be ok to dedicate it without me being there? I resigned after that, but left the group in very good and capable hands.”

Longcrier also said he was concerned over incidents of religious harassment at Falcon Circle, “We already had incidents where Christians would go up there to pray for our sins and that isn’t what I wanted to be happening up at our sacred space.”

Ihme said that although there were early incidents at Falcon Circle, that is no longer the case, “At first there was some problems with Christians praying for our sins and some acts of vandalism [at the Circle] but no one besides us goes up there now. The site is very secure now with cameras running 24/7.” Ihme said the Circle is a peaceful place that seems far more remote than the short walk up the hill should feel.

Rev. Oringderff had the opportunity to visit Falcon Circle while attending the 2010 Conference on Religious Respect, “The site is situated on the hill just above the Cadet Chapel and you immediately sense the spirit and sacredness of the place.”

Cadet Johnson describes Falcon Circle as a needed oasis of tranquility, “I go there during the day sometimes. It’s very stressful here so getting away from the academy is important. I can go and center myself and get more in touch with nature.” Johnson says in the four years she’s been at the Academy she’s never experienced a problem with religious discrimination or harassment.

Not every Pagan has had a military career free of harassment, but many have remarked that the military is generally ahead of the curve in accepting minority groups. Carlee, who left a comment on PNC-Minnesota’s article on Pagans at Lackland AFB, wrote, “Despite what people think, the military usually leads in the acceptance of minorities when the rest of the population still treats them as pariahs. Note the integration of blacks, the acceptance of women (I watched this one from 1979-1999 as more and more opportunities opened to me) and now the acceptance of gays. I am proud to have served in the nation’s military and to be one of the very few who has.”

Major Ihme wants Pagans considering applying to the Air Force Academy to feel reassured, “You don’t have to be nervous or afraid because every belief system is OK at the Academy. We will back you up.”

“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.”