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Monday, February 08, 2010

Well, that could have gone better.

A while back the Air Force Academy became the subject of an investigation meant to determine if there was a serious and persistent religious bias favoring conservative forms of Christianity. I've mentioned this before as a part of my ongoing concern for religious persecution in the U.S. armed forces. Indeed, thel indications that our armed forces sometimes function as little more than recruiting organizations for one branch of Christianity are more than slightly disquieting. In any case, the investigation of the Air Force Academy concluded that there was no systematic or institutional harassment of non-Christians, but that mistakes were made. So, efforts have been made to get the situation under control.

One of these efforts has been to be more accomodating and accepting of smaller faiths, including Wicca. Wicca, of course, is non-Christian, relatively small in the U.S., and a fairly recent invention as far as religions go. This is not to say that Wicca isn't based on earlier nature-centered belief systems, but only to point out that Wicca- as we know it- is pretty much an invention of the twentieth century.* A manifestation of these efforts to be more accepting has been the creation of a new place of worship for Wiccans attending the air force academy. And it sounds pretty nice:

Wiccan cadets and officers on the Colorado Springs base have been convening for over a decade, but the school will officially dedicate a newly built circle of stones on about March 10, putting the outdoor sanctuary on an equal footing with the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist chapels on the base.

"When I first arrived here, Earth-centered cadets didn't have anywhere to call home," said Sgt. Robert Longcrier, the lay leader of the neo-pagan groups on base.

"Now, they meet every Monday night, they get to go on retreats, and they have a stone circle."

And that's just as it should be. There's interest in a Wicca place of worship, a community that will use it, and we live in a religiously pluralistic society. Honestly, when I found out about this I felt like I should commend the Air Force Academy for making genuine progress. Well, the academy may have made some progress, but clearly problems remain:

The Air Force Academy, stung several years ago by accusations of Christian bias, has built a new outdoor worship area for pagans and other practitioners of Earth-based religions.

But its opening, heralded as a sign of a more tolerant religious climate at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., was marred by the discovery two weeks ago of a large wooden cross placed there.


In 2004, an academy survey found that many cadets felt that evangelical Christians were imposing their views and harassing non-Christians at the school.

The following year, an Air Force task force determined that there was no overt discrimination but the academy had failed to accommodate the religious needs of some cadets. Since then, the academy has worked to change that, Van Winkle said.

And by "large wooden cross" what they mean is "cross built from railroad ties." So, you know, it took some work to put it together and move it. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't find Wicca any more plausible than Christianity. That said, I do think that our men and women in uniform have the right to worship as they see fit- much like those they protect- and, as such, religious bigotry is just unacceptable.** We live in an allegedly secular state, we have a religiously plural society, and for that to work we have to protect minorities. At the very least our religious minorities should be able to trust that members of other faiths won't come into their places of worship and leave what amounts to propaganda laying about. And, as one person mentioned in the above story observes, if the same cross had been left in the facility for Jewish students, I somehow do not think we'd view this as anything less than seriously offensive.

The Air Force Academy seems to be on the right road but, clearly, the problems are a long way from solved.

* I should probably note that I don't consider Wicca's relative youth to have any particular importance for its status as a religion. The presumption that a religion isn't "real" unless it is old is just absurd. If you prefer, just view Wicca as akin to a denomination of some larger nature-centered faith and, while that faith may be truly ancient, my comments pertain only to this most recent branch of it. Please note as well that I decline to use the common term "pagan" when referring to Wicca as I think it has connotations that unfairly advantage "mainstream" faiths like Christianity. Put bluntly: everyone is a Pagan to someone.

** For those who are curious, I don't have a problem with tax dollars supporting religious infrastructure for soldiers for much the same reason that I don't object to campus ministries at public universities: in either case we're talking about semi-totalizing institutions. As such, some public assistance to provide the resources for individual worship seems reasonable to me. Granted, I sure prefer it when religious groups go out for humble places of worship but, hey, I'm just an atheist. Pay me no mind.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010 6:26:00 PM  

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