Separation of coven and state? Wait just a minute

OK, let's stop and think about this. The U.S. Supreme Court -- in its "mystery passage" in Planned Parenthood v. Casey -- declared that at the "heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they found under the compulsion of the state.`

So if this is the case, what set of universal standards or laws might U.S. military officials cite in order to limit the religious rights of witches, druids, wizards and other pagan folk? I mean, if tax dollars can fund Episcopal chaplains, why not witches? Hey, why not witches who are also Episcopalians? Wait, that's another story.

I bring this up because reporter Randy Myers of the Contra Costa Times is on to something with his story entitled "Wiccan servicepeople fight for freedom, for foreigners and within the military." I find this especially interesting because of the ongoing struggles within the ranks of military chaplains to limit the free speech of born-again chaplains, Pentecostal chaplains and others who refuse to go along with the many-roads-to-one-god-or-gods approach to faith.

Yes, it's that favorite again -- trying to do fair coverage of free speech that many find offensive. This story is just getting started. Myers sets the scene:

Wiccans represent a small fraction of the military, roughly 1,500 among 1.4 million active personnel, but the Pentagon wants to accommodate their faith. The military trains chaplains to meet the religious needs of all service members without compromising their own religious beliefs, said Col. Richard Hum, executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board at the Defense Department. ...

Wiccans said that some chaplains were trying to convert them and that commanding officers made it difficult to practice. ... Wiccans also have been pressuring the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow a Wiccan emblem, most likely the pentacle, for armed forces burial headstones or markers. Mike Nacincik of Veterans Affairs, said the department authorizes 38 emblems, including one for atheists, but none for Wiccans.

Myers notes that Wiccans serve in nearly all military branches, with their leaders saying that some pagans are reaching the top ranks of the armed services. The Air Force attracts the most pagans in uniform, with 1,552. The Marines have 68. The Navy doesn't report numbers and the Army -- so far -- claims to have no Wiccan soldiers.

The whole scene is very complicated and hard to handle, in terms of public relations.

The Air Force recognized the religious categories of Pagan, Gardnerian Wiccan, Seax Wiccan, Dianic Wiccan, Shaman and Druid in 2000. Many bases now have circles and hold services. Dog tags can also identify a serviceperson as Wiccan. Wiccans had their first chaplain-service in 1997 at the Army's Fort Hood in Texas. ... The department's bureaucratic hurdles include a written request from the recognized head of the organization, a list of national officers and a membership tally.

See the problem? Military officials cannot figure out who is in charge. Pagans are, to put it in historic terms, a very "free church" flock of believers. It's a freelance, free-flowing scene with no set creeds or hierarchies. Look at it this way: Where does the military turn to find trained, licensed Wiccan chaplains? What constitutes orthodoxy?

But it's natural for this story to emerge, since we are in period of explosive growth for alternative forms of "spirituality," as opposed to established, institutionalized religious traditions. It is also impossible for the highest courts -- or even the principalities and powers in Hollywood -- to suggest that one form of superstition is better or worse than another.

As I put it in a column a few years ago about a pagan-parenting leader named Kristin Madden:

In Hollywood, this is the age of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," "Practical Magic," "Charmed" and "The Craft." Oprah Winfrey is leading Middle America in prayers to the spirit of the universe and covens can be found in many liberal Christian seminaries. Pentagon debates about pagan chaplains, naked worship and sacred daggers offer the first glimpses of another constitutional issue -- the separation of coven and state in the age of faith-based initiatives.

Remember this. We're all out there together in uncharted legal territory, trying to define the mystery of the universe. And one more thing, there is only one certainty: Nothing is forbidden except to forbid.

So who is to say that tax-payer funds cannot be used to carve pentangles on grave stones in Arlington National Cemetery and other sacred civil religion sites?

This would make a really interesting question in a presidental debate this fall. You think?

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