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Military Pagans Struggle for Acceptance
Stars and Stripes  |  By Jennifer H. Svan  |  June 12, 2007
They each have a story about how they found their path.

One is a former Catholic who gave the faith up at 21.

Another was raised by strict Southern Baptists.

One had parents who encouraged him to explore many faiths.

For another, a self-described hereditary witch, it’s been a family tradition.

They are Airmen, Sailors and spouses -- and they are Pagans. They are also perhaps part of one of the least understood religious minority groups in the U.S. military.

They wear pentacles (a circled pentagram) instead of crucifixes as a sign of their faith. They do not believe in the devil and they don’t cast vengeful spells. Their rituals don’t involve sacrifice or blood.

At a base that’s 75 percent Christian -- a proportion generally found across the military -- Misawa’s Pagan community is striving to be treated like any other religious group on base.

“I want to get to the point where you can say Pagan or Wicca and not get a bad reaction,” said Staff Sgt. Katie McDaniel, 31, a Wiccan.

The group, which goes by the name Misawa Earth-Based Religions (M-E-R) study group, already has aired its case to the wing chaplain.

“Basically, the only way to find this group is to call the chapel and ask the question: ‘Do you have a group and, if so, give me a phone number.’ Or mess around on the Internet until you happen to come across the Yahoo (Web page) that we have,” McDaniel said.

In a meeting last week they requested with Chaplain Lt. Col. Steven Nicolai, six group members asked for the same base exposure afforded other religious groups to publicize their weekly meetings.

When Kim Whicker, 29, a Navy spouse, arrived at Misawa about two years ago, M-E-R’s meetings were publicized with other religious events on base cable and in the base newspaper, she said. The listings have since disappeared.

On Friday, on Misawa’s Web site, www. misawa.af.mil, a number of religious study groups with meeting times were mentioned -- such as Islamic Study, Catholic Women of the Chapel, and Protestant Women of the Chapel -- but not M-E-R.

The group already has a key to a room in the chapel on Security Hill, where it meets Tuesday evenings to discuss topics ranging from herbalism and ritual basics to tarot-card reading and crystals.

Religious accommodation

Nicolai said the chapel would accommodate most of the group’s requests, including making its literature available at the chapel and to Airmen in deployment processing lines. The chapel also is working on publicizing the group’s meeting times, he said.

“I’m not of their tenet -- I believe in Jesus Christ,” said Nicolai, who’s endorsed by Evangelical Lutheran Church America. “But I want to make sure they’re afforded the same opportunities” for worship.

Nicolai said it’s not his job to judge whether a religious group is valid. It’s Air Force policy to approve requests for religious accommodation, which the service does as long as there’s no effect on readiness, unit cohesion, health, safety, discipline and military duties, he said.

“It all goes back to the First Amendment,” he said. “On the one hand, the government cannot establish a religion. But on the other hand, the government can also not prohibit people from assembling, and they can worship as they please. Just the fact that they walk into my office, say we have a need, we look at it.”

M-E-R has been around for nearly six years, though it’s gone by different names. Its members -- currently there are about 16 -- adhere to a number of faiths that fall under the umbrella term Pagan.

Some of them believe in deities. Some of them don’t. In general, they adhere to an “earth-based spirituality” and share a reverence for nature. Members say they’re open to anyone affiliated with the earth-based religions or anyone interested in learning more about them.

M-E-R, they add, is a study group, not a worship group.

Though their pentacles remain hidden under their military uniforms during the duty day -- as any necklace is supposed to -- they freely wear the symbol of their faith in civilian clothes.

They said they don’t fear discrimination.

“We put ourselves out there,” McDaniel said. “We represent ourselves in a certain way. We wear certain jewelry. We have certain things in our home, and it’s not to be in your face. That’s just the way we choose to live our faith and our path.

“It is obviously going to draw questions. It’s a good thing. If someone wants to know, they’ll ask … and if not, merry part, be on your way.”

Discomfort in public

But for some members, the visibility of their faith off-duty has led to uncomfortable situations in public.

Ashley, a Navy petty officer second class who didn’t want her last name used, recalled the glare from a woman selling brownies at the base exchange for a Christian religious group on base.

Air Force spouse Danielle Lochin, 35, has overheard mothers tell their children “those are bad books to look at” while browsing earth-based religious materials at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service bookstore.

On the job, the awkwardness typically comes at military functions where prayer is offered, M-E-R members said.

At the start of a recent readiness run, a chaplain prayed “in the name of the heavenly father,” they said.

“That’s where it gets awkward with me,” McDaniel said. “We’re at a military function and there are prayers. I don’t mind the words of inspiration, as they call it these days, as long as it’s nondenominational, as long as it doesn’t call on particular deities.”

McDaniel recalled a recent Airman Leadership School ice-breaker.

“All we were doing was standing around, getting to know each other, eating roast beef and pieces of bread” and a commander said a prayer.

Arasin Staubly, 36, a staff sergeant and M-E-R member, said he’s encountering prayer less at military functions than he has in the past.

But that’s not the case with all members of M-E-R.

“I am encountering it more,” McDaniel said.

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