>From the investigation into President Clinton's sexual improprieties to the exposure of his Republican opponents' own sexual dalliances, witch hunts have of late become fairly commonplace in politics. Rep. Bob Barr (R, Ga.) has played both sides, as both the hunter and hunted in Washington's cat-and-mouse games. But Barr has also been waging a little-noticed witch-hunt against real-life witches--members of the Wicca religion. Wicca, or the "Craft," is the modern name of a pagan, nature-worshipping religion that traces its roots to ancient times. While Wiccans are known as "witches" and their rituals are called "witchcraft," they bear little resemblance to the wart-nosed hags we all know from Grimm's tales or the Wizard of Oz . Wicca, which might be described as an eclectic mix of feminism, environmentalism, new age spirituality and "do-no-harm" ethical principles, has attracted between 50,000 and one million followers, according to various estimates. It is considered one of the fastest growing religions in the country, drawing everyone from teenage girls to retired businessmen.
But not everyone is happy with Wicca's growing popularity. Controversy began brewing in August 1997, when a Wicca group known as the Fort Hood Open Circle received permission from the U.S. Army to hold meetings and outdoor rituals on the grounds of the Fort Hood military base near Austin, Texas. The group, composed of a few dozen members, including many enlisted personnel, had stirred little controversy until a local paper took pictures of its outdoor worship services. Soon after the pictures appeared, local fundamentalist Christians began demanding that the Army abolish what appeared to them to be federal support of Satanism.
When Barr heard the news, he fired off an angry letter of protest to military leaders. "What's next?" demanded Barr. "Will armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for Satanic rituals? Will Rastafarians demand the inclusion of ritualistic marijuana cigarettes in their rations?"
Ironically, it's much easier to find a Christian who believes in Satan than to find a witch who does. Despite their reputation, practicing witches do not conjure evil, although they do practice magic, which they consider to be way of harnessing nature's energy.
But to Barr, Wicca is a dangerous cult, not a religion, and he doesn't believe that it should be treated on par with traditional religions such as Judaism and Christianity as far as the military is concerned. In June, he tried to attach an amendment to a $290 billion defense bill that would have banned Wicca groups from all military bases.
Although his campaign wasn't successful, Barr has continued to excoriate military bases that permit Wicca ceremonies or allow Wiccan recruits to form witch groups, traditionally known as covens. Since the original flap over the group at Fort Hood, at least five other bases have sanctioned the practice of Wicca among their recruits.
What began as a protest letter from Barr has boiled over into a much larger First Amendment battle between the right-wing and witches. Barr has been joined in his crusade by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R, S.C.), as well as nearly a dozen religious and conservative groups, including the Free Congress Foundation and the Traditional Values Coalition. They have mounted a boycott of the armed services, vowing not to support military enlistment efforts until the military ceases to recognize Wicca.
Members of Wicca and other "neopagan" groups, meanwhile, have been galvanized by the emerging threat. Outspoken Wiccan priests and priestess have made pleas to President Clinton (D) and others to stand up to what they consider religious persecution--a problem that has dogged witches in America since the notorious Salem trials in the 17th century.
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