GREAT LAKES, Illinois – The Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command (RTC), where enlisted Navy recruits go for Basic Training, has stopped religious services for six minority religious designations. This includes “Earth-Centered” worship. In place of the weekly community worship service led by a volunteer civilian faith leader, trainees have been told that they will have an hour of private “contemplation and reflection.” In response, Pagan civil rights group Lady Liberty League is working to change what they, and other religious rights groups, consider a discriminatory practice.
Other trainees affected by the change are those of the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian Science, Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist faiths. Religious services for more mainstream faiths have continued uninterrupted.
Not the first time that the Navy has stopped minority faith services
This is the second time that the Great Lakes Command Chaplain Ted Williams has dismissed civilian volunteers who lead minority faith religious services for recruits. The first time was in May 2014. At that time, the Muslim and Seventh Day Adventists were affected, in addition to the six affected now. The May 2014 decision was rescinded by the Base Commander less than a month later.
Then, in June of the same year, a new Base Commander took command of the training facility. On April 3, 2015, the civilian faith volunteers were again notified the services would no longer be offered by civilian volunteers. Unlike the previous time, the Muslim and Seventh Day Adventist were not included.
“Oh no, not again,” thought John Chantry, the volunteer who lead services for over 100 Earth-Centered recruits each week. “We’ve been through this already,” said Chantry, who describes himself as a Christian Druid. He has led services for Pagan recruits for over four years. He is a member of the Lake Spirit Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and Ár nDraíocht Féin, A Druid Fellowship (ADF).
Chantry said that worshiping with other Pagans is important to trainees. “Trainees have told me they’ve been practicing Wicca or Asatru or Paganism privately because they were afraid to be more public about their faith. This is the first time they’ve been able to worship in community and they said it’s such a joy.”
The Navy said that its new policy is temporary. They will first check to see if there is a Navy Chaplain able to lead those services for recruits. If not, then it would look for a uniformed military member who is certified by their faith to lead the religious services. If those options aren’t available, then the Navy would once again bring in volunteer civilian faith leaders.
The Navy hasn’t given a time estimate of how long this process will take. Until these minority religions have a designated faith leader, trainees cannot meet in a group to practice and do not have a place to practice.
It’s unclear if this policy is being applied across the board as there are unconfirmed reports there is still a civilian faith leader allowed onto base to minister to a smaller Christian denomination. As of publication, Navy Public Affairs has not responded to The Wild Hunt’s requests for comment or clarification.
Chantry said that the Navy believes solo prayer time is equal to the multitude of services led by Christian Chaplains offered in chapels. However He doesn’t see it that way, explaining, “It would be the same as saying to Roman Catholic trainees that praying by yourself for an hour is just as equal as attending a Mass led by a priest in a chapel, taking communion, and going to confession. That isn’t equal.”Pagan leaders work to change policy
Rev. Patrick McCollum, Minority Faith Chair for the American Correctional Chaplains Association and Chaplaincy Liaison for the American Academy of Religion, said that while the main problem is the unequal treatment of minority faith trainees, more troubling is that the Navy doesn’t appear to understand inequity.
McCollum spoke with the Head Chaplain at the Great Lakes facility and, while the conversation was warm and cordial, he said the Navy’s perspective was that “…one trainee having access to a community worship service in chapel lead by a leader of their same faith was the same as a Pagan only allowed to say a prayer by themselves in their own free time.” McCollum said the Chaplain told him that the Navy wants to give their uniformed Chaplains and other uniformed personnel an opportunity to learn to minister to minority faiths.
McCollum said that Williams offered to set up a phone meeting with the Base Commander, but that meeting hasn’t materialized. Since then he’s not had any further contact with Great Lakes officials.
Rev. Selena Fox of Lady Liberty League, a Pagan civil rights group most known for assisting in the VA Pentacle Quest, is one of the organizations working with the Navy to modify the policy to allow all Naval trainees the same ability to practice their religion. They first became involved last May, when the Navy cancelled worship services for minority faith trainees. On Tuesday, Rev. Fox spoke with Chaplain Williams by phone. “We discussed religious accommodation possibilities for supporting recruits of diverse spiritual backgrounds, including Nature religions. We are continuing to be in solution-focused dialogues with individuals and groups,” said Rev. Fox. She added that she is cautiously optimistic that a solution can be found.
Lady Liberty League (LLL) is also asking for help. They are seeking U.S. Navy contacts at Great Lakes Naval Station and in U.S. Navy administration, who may be able to give them further information and support. They’re also looking for partnerships with other religious freedom organizations in resolving this situation.
Listen to this podcast by Circle Talk concerning LLL’s involvement in the Great Lakes situation
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has also offered assistance and is threatening to sue the Navy, saying, “We have never seen a commander authorize such a sweeping abuse of the religious freedoms of those under their leadership.”
ADF also had strong words about the situation. In a statement to The Wild Hunt, ADF Archdruid Rev. Kirk Thomas said:
It is with great apprehension and concern that we in ADF have learned about a new exclusionary religious policy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
Apparently, the policy of allowing civilian minority faith leaders to lead services when no uniformed leaders are available has been discontinued. This has happened even though Navy regulations specifically allow for such activities. These civilian volunteers have been providing religious services for years and now they have come to an end, with only a small room for reflection and contemplation provided to the trainees instead.
We strongly support the US Constitution’s provisions for religious freedom and suspect that the current rule change is based upon an exclusive religious belief. We are concerned that this new interpretation of the regulations will not allow our service men and women to actively practice their faiths, with services now only available for the traditional Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
We call upon the Navy, the Commanding Officer, and the Chaplain at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station to reconsider their actions and allow civilian minority faith leaders to once again provide spiritual and religious support for all those who follow minority faiths.
Chantry said that he doesn’t know what the next steps are, but is hopeful Naval Command will see how harmful this policy is to all recruits at the Great Lakes Naval Training Facility, “Recruits can see the difference in how the minority faiths are being treated as compared to how the Christian faiths are being treated. Before they felt accepted and worthwhile as human beings, now it’s as if their religion is treated as something shameful.”
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See related articles on how the other military services treat minority faiths:
Pagans find warm welcome at “Gateways to the Air Force”
Air Force Academy creates culture of religious respect
US Army adds Heathen and Asatru to religious preference list
UPDATE 5/14/15 2:51 p.m. EST: There are now reports that the Navy center has, in the last 36 hours, modified its policy. We are confirming these reports with our sources at the center and with the various Pagan religious rights activists that have been involved.