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Pagans find home in service

Though a small percentage of total force, pagans find way to worship

Although there is no pagan denomination listed by the Active Duty Personnel Inventory File, more than 2,500 servicemembers identify themselves as Wiccan. Of the identified Wiccans, 407 were Army and 1,417 Air Force. /Courtesy

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What faith Americans adhere to, or chose not to adhere to, is a right given to them by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, which states (in part), "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." 

This distinction of separation of church and state often creates a conundrum - especially for those in military. As Government Issue, servicemembers are technically part of "the state." So how, if the government neither establishes nor prohibits "the free exercise" of religion, do servicemembers, especially those in the minority like pagans, find the religious support they need?

"The Department of Defense does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services," said Eileen M. Lainez, Defense Press Office, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) in an e-mail. "The Department respects (and supports by its policy) the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs."

Thus, military chaplains and chapels exist to support servicemembers in the freedom of their own religion, not to promote one religion over another. "One of the jobs of chaplains is to provide a religious community," said Chap. (Maj.) Jeffery Van Ness, Officer in Charge of the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Main Post Chapel and sponsor of the post's Wiccan group, New Moon. "It's not up to us to decide what is a valid form of worship."

Information culled from the Active Duty Personnel Inventory File dated Sept. 30 provided by the Department of Defense lists 109 different religious preferences. Some are well-known, such as Buddhist and Hindu, some not so well known, such as Plymouth Brethren and Schwenkfelder. Of the denomination options, 93 are Christian. Of the more than 1.5 million servicemembers surveyed, nearly 286,000 selected no preference and about 89,000 were unknown. More than 7,000 selected atheist.

More than 2,500 servicemembers identified themselves as Wiccan. This number is only slightly less than those who identified as Muslim (3,664), Jewish (4,771) and Buddhist (5,624). Though there is no pagan denomination listed, there is Magick and Spiritualist (71). Of the identified Wiccans, 407 were Army and 1,417 Air Force.

On post options

JBLM is home to several religious denominations and offers a variety of services, including Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Jewish, Latter Day Saints, Orthodox Divine Liturgy and Wiccan. The Army's first Buddhist Chaplain, Capt. Somya Malasri, who works with the 57th Transportation Battalion, 593rd Sustainment Brigade, came to JBLM just a few weeks ago.

"This part of the country is (more) religiously tolerant," Van Ness said, which "aids in the ability to have religious diversity."

But what about servicemembers affiliated with religions that do not have a chaplain available or, as in the case of Wiccans, don't have a military chaplain at all? In those cases, lay leaders known as Distinguished Faith Group Leaders, or DFGLs, are needed. A DFGL is sponsored both by a church in the faith's denomination and a chaplain on the installation (including Forward Operating Bases and other bases downrange) and must be recertified each year.

However, there's nothing in the chaplaincy that "fine tunes the responsibility of the DFGL," said Eric Cooper, a retired JBLM soldier and founder of the non-profit Forest Moon Grove pagan church in Mount Vernon, Wash.  "It depends on the chaplain, so (support) varies widely."

The JBLM Wiccan Church, New Moon, was founded in 1998 and is affiliated with Sacred Well, a Wiccan congregation in Texas. Van Ness, who sponsored a Wiccan group at Fort Benning as well, is the group's sponsor. New Moon's DFGL is Sheldon Hill, an Army retiree and Wiccan High Priest who currently works with the JBLM Directorate of Logistics. New Moon has about 40 active members, Hill said, and the group offers a weekly open circle as well as a study group meeting for Wiccans as well as other pagans, he said.

Cooper started his church, which is not part of JBLM, while serving in Iraq in 2004. Now medically retired, Cooper works with Forest Moon Grove to support pagan troops both stateside and overseas as well as the local pagan community.  The church recently organized a packing event at the Mystic Shoppe in Lakewood to ensure pagans downrange have the supplies they need, such as herbs, candles and incense. Forest Moon Grove now has nearly 1,000 members - many of them military - around the world.

On being pagan, and military

Though Wiccans are pagan, not all pagans are Wiccan. "Pagan" is not actually a religion itself, but rather a term for a variety of faiths, including Wicca, Druid, Asatru (or Odinist), Hellenistic (Greek), Kemetic (Egyptian) and more, that share similar tenets of revering and respecting the natural world and honoring sacred cycles and seasons.

One of the biggest misconceptions about pagans, Cooper said, is that they are devil worshippers. But the devil is a Christian deity, he said, and therefore not recognized by pagans. On the contrary, pagans respect all life and do not condone blood or animal sacrifice. The Wiccan Rede, a guideline for Wiccan behavior, is, "An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will."

"My belief is if you are Catholic, Christian, Pagan or whatever, and trying to be a good person, it shouldn't matter what you believe," said Telia Czeczeluk, a former JBLM soldier who attended Cooper's pagan circle in Iraq and helps run The Mystic Shoppe. Czeczeluk says the biggest misconception about pagans is simply misunderstanding. "If people understood what we were," he said, "they wouldn't fear us."

Though pagans have gained some acceptance in society and in the military (the Web site lists 65 pagan military groups) the term "pagan" is still often used in the pejorative, and many pagans continue to feel ostracized and ridiculed for their beliefs.

And though there may not be persecution per se, there can be discrimination.  But "it's the same as any (minority) religion," Hill said. "Probably overseas, (being) Muslim is more difficult right now."

New Moon meets on JBLM Sundays at 3 p.m. and Tuesdays for a study group at 7 p.m. in building T-6195. For more information call Sheldon Hill at 253-861-3590 or e-mail Forest Moon Grove Pagan church is based in Mount Vernon, Wash. For more information about upcoming troop support events, visit or e-mail

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