Department of Defense adds Heathen and Pagan religions to recognized faith groups

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UNITED STATES – The Department of Defense (DoD) has added several Heathen and Pagans religions to its recognized faith groups list after a multi-year effort by Heathen and Pagan religious organizations and individuals. The DoD added or updated just under 100 religions to its document: Faith and Belief Codes for Reporting Personnel Data of Service Members. Being listed on this document allows Pagan and Heathen military members to accurately communicate their religious preference, rather than being designated “Other,” and grants them associated benefits and protections.

[Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Harry Brexel]

[Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Harry Brexel]

Four of the religions added to the document include Heathenry, Asatru, Seax Wicca, and Druidry. The Army had already recognized The Troth, while the Air Force had already recognized Heathenry and Asatru. All military branches recognize Wicca or Earth-Based Spirituality as a recognized Faith Group.

In addition to listing various religions, the Faith and Belief Codes spells out things such as religious observance dates, religious tools, and have dedicated places of worship.

The recent DoD document update came as a surprise to the organizations and individuals who had been working with the individual service branches for recognition.

Gaining recognition
In January 2015, The Open Halls Project thought its six year battle for recognition of Heathenry and Asatru in the US Army was over and approval had been granted. That victory was short-lived.

Josh Heath, co-director of the Open Halls Project, first started working toward Heathen faith group recognition in 2009 after he and his wife Cat joined The Troth. Heath was on active duty with U.S. Army and wanted to see both Heathen and Asatru added to the religious preference list. As that application required the backing of a 501c3 organization, he asked the Troth for help, which they gave. Unfortunately, the Army thought The Troth was a religion, not a religious organization, and added that to its list instead of Heathenry or Asatru.

Heath began the process over again, this time looking 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.

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. That article inspired Msgt. Matt Walters to seek out the Open Halls Project for help in getting Asatru and Heathen added to the Air Force religious preference list. That effort was successful. The two terms were added to the list in 2014.

In Spring 2015, the Army notified The Open Halls Project that approval for Heathenry and Asatru had been put on hold. The Army Times reported that “The Army sidelined all such requests, pending the findings of a Defense Department working group investigating how to create a single set of faith group codes across the service.”

While The Open Halls Project was advocating for Heathens, Ellen Evert Holman, ArchDruid of Tribe of the Oak, was working toward recognition for Druids.

In 2007, Ms. Hopman, sent a list of Druid characteristics to the US Army for possible inclusion in the Military Chaplain’s Handbook. It included holidays, symbols, modes of worship, and religious tools. Hopman was also involved in the effort, started in 2004, to include the Awen as an approved Veterans Affairs symbol for Druid veterans’ headstones.

Hopman says that she comes from a military family and this influenced her involvement in gaining official recognition from the various military entities, and in gaining protection for Druid military members.”Even though I myself am a pacifist, I have quite a bit of sympathy for soldiers who actually see action,” she explains, “I feel they need all the spiritual support they can get.”

Her efforts over the past 13 years culminated in the successful addition of Druidry to the DoD Faith and Belief Codes.

Benefits to recognition
While being added to the Faiths and Belief Codes is purely administrative, the benefits can be far reaching in the experiences of a Pagan or Heathen soldier, and in the education of military officials.

Heath says, “On official records you can now be known as a Heathen, Asatru, Druid, Troth, Seax Wiccan. That does not limit discrimination per se, but it does provide service members a significant element of support for certain cases of discrimination that might occur.”

Heath says that Heathen soldiers, for example, may now be allowed a drinking horn in their barracks. Or a Marine that is Asatru can now request to attend a Midsummer event that is outside the normal distance limit for a four day pass.

He explains that this also helps to build a solid census of the numbers of Heathens and Pagans in the military and could lead to having a Pagan or Heathen Chaplain. “This is also a preliminary step to having Chaplains and will allow for an easier time of establishing Distinctive Faith Groups/Lay Leadership on military installations. We do not anticipate having a Heathen Chaplain in the near future, but this addition of faith codes helps.”

Heath adds that while these codes can help in combating religious discrimination, they only work if the command structure is willing to follow the guidance they were created to provide. Looking at the history of Pagan religious rights in the military, that is up in the air.

Military’s mixed history with Paganism
On of the most famous examples of Pagans fighting for religious rights within the military system was the Pentacle Quest.

The Pentacle Quest began in 1997 when Aquarian Tabernacle Church’s Archpriest Rev. Pete Pathfinder Davis applied to have the pentacle added to the Veterans Affairs list of religious symbols available for use on memorial markers. Over the years, other persons and groups would also send in applications and a lawsuit would be launched by Circle Sanctuary.

Sgt. Stewart Pentacle Marker

In 2007, ten years after it began, Americans United, who had joined in support of the lawsuit, announced, “The Bush administration has conceded that Wiccans are entitled to have the pentacle, the symbol of their faith, inscribed on government-issued memorial markers for deceased veterans.”

That decision ended the lawsuit and the long wait for many Pagans veterans and their families.

This April marks the 10th anniversary of Veteran Pentacle Quest victory, one that paved the way for the inclusion of other Pagan and Heathen emblems including Thor’s hammer and, more recently, the Awen.

In 2007, the Air Force Academy made news in a string of articles showcasing the institution as the focal point for an evangelical Christian takeover of the military. In a 2011 interview, Col Dan Brantingham, then AFA Cadet Wing Chaplain, explained the climate of Evangelicalism appears to have come about due to an over-correction to the sexual assault cases that shocked the campus a few years earlier.

“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.”

Starting in 2007, the Academy took steps to renew its focus on freedom of religion. In 2008 and again in 2010, the Academy hosted the Conference on Religious Respect. Out of the 2008 conference, the Cadet Interfaith Council was formed, the Religious Respect Training program was launched, and support was increased for the Spiritual Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE).

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. It includes in-depth training on the First Amendment, and the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Free Speech clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

The most visible result of the renewed commitment to free exercise of religion is the creation of Colorado-based Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle. While Falcon Circle is open to any cadet, Pagan cadets in the Earth-Based Spirituality Distinctive Faith Group have priority in its use.

Another open circle serving military personnel is located further south in Texas. Fort Hood Open Circle is a non-denominational Pagan group that has been meeting on the military base since 1997.

Michele Morris, the Distinctive Religious Group Leader, 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.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

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

What precipitated sharing these feelings on Facebook was being locked out of the stone circle which 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.

Effect on religious discrimination
While Heath sees the inclusion of more Heathen and Pagan faiths as a victory, he doesn’t see this update of the codes as a magic bullet to end religious discrimination.

“To be honest, the US military in general is run by a large proportion of Christian leaders of one form or another. Some are mission focused and they know that being accepted gets their primary missions completed,” he explains. “Some are not and are fighting tooth and nail against allowing for a more inclusive environment in the Department of Defense at large. Discrimination will continue to be a problem.”

Heath encourages current service members to change their religious preference from “other” to a preference that more closely fits them.

He also has this advice for how Pagans and Heathens can change the culture in the military to one more accepting of minority religions, “Excel at your jobs. Wear the sharpest uniform, outperform your peers, throw yourself 100% into everything you do in the military. You will win wordfame through your deeds, and that will honor your ancestors, your living kin, and will earn you the respect you deserve.”