A genuine witch hunt

Georgia congressman Bob Barr targets the Army's approval of pagan religious groups

US News & World Report/June 14, 1999
By Joe Holley

When fire-breathing Rep. Bob Barr called for President Clinton's impeachment before anyone had even heard of Monica Lewinsky, critics called it a witch hunt. But this time Barr's targets really are witches.

The Republican congressman from Georgia is incensed at the Pentagon for allowing pagan rituals to be practiced on U.S. military bases. And he's determined to put the kibosh on it.

In August 1997, Fort Hood near Austin, Texas, became the first military outpost to sanction the practice of the Wicca religion. Since then, at least five other installations have followed suit. Among them: Fort Polk, La., Fort Wainwright, Ark., and Kedena Base in Okinawa.

Fort Hood's Wicca group-called Open Circle-is sponsored by the San Antonio-based Sacred Well Congregation of Texas. Although the mention of Wicca, the largest of the neopagan sects, conjures up images of black-clad crones chanting magical incantations, members consider themselves practitioners of a nature-based, positive religion that seeks to capture the spirit of ancient beliefs. The Fort Hood witches-whose numbers range from 40 to 200-conduct their monthly rituals at a Boy Scout camp on base.

For today's heterogeneous U.S. Army, the practice is basically business as usual. "As far as we are concerned, they are a religious organization providing for the spiritual needs of our soldiers," says Lt. Col. Benjamin Santos, Fort Hood spokesman, explaining the Army's decision to sanction the practice on bases.

A Defense Department official says that it would be unconstitutional for the DOD to "evaluate or judge the merits of specific faiths." The only ground rules: that all religious services adhere to health and safety standards and maintain "good order and discipline."

But Barr begs to differ. "This move sets a dangerous precedent that could easily result in the practice of all sorts of bizarre practices being supported by the military under the rubric of 'religion,'" he wrote in a letter to military officials and congressional leaders last month. "What's next? 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?"

Now, says Barr, he "intends to pursue this issue legislatively."

He recently tried to amend a de-fense authorization bill to prohibit the practice of Wicca or any other form of witchcraft at Defense Department facilities. The measure was nixed on procedural grounds.

But Barr says he'll try again-and again. That's the sort of spell that only a congressman can cast.

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