Don Larsen was, by all reports, an excellent Army Chaplain. When he was a Pentecostal Christian, that is. His superior while he was in Iraq, Chaplain Kevin L. McGhee, called Larsen "the best" out of the 26 chaplains he supervised. But then Larsen applied to change his religious affiliation to Wicca, and the Army railroaded him out of Iraq and out of the Army.
The whole sordid story is extensively detailed in a recent article in the Washington Post which (though long) is well worth reading for anyone interested in the subject.
Here are some excerpts from the article:
On July 6, he applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. armed forces, setting off an extraordinary chain of events. By year's end, his superiors not only denied his request but also withdrew him from Iraq and removed him from the chaplain corps, despite an unblemished service record.
Adherents of Wicca, one of the nation's fastest-growing religions, contend that Larsen is a victim of unconstitutional discrimination. They say that Wicca, though recognized as a religion by federal courts and the Internal Revenue Service, is often falsely equated with devil worship.
. . .
"I could go on and on about how well he preached, the care he gave," McGhee says. "What happened to Chaplain Larsen -- to be honest, I think it's political. A lot of people think Wiccans are un-American, because they are ignorant about what Wiccans do."
. . .
Something about Wicca clearly fills a niche. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, a widely respected tally, the number of Wiccans in the United States rose 17-fold -- from 8,000 to 134,000 -- between 1990 and 2001.
By the Pentagon's count, there are now 1,511 self-identified Wiccans in the Air Force and 354 in the Marines. No figures are available for the much larger Army and Navy. Wiccan groups estimate they have at least 4,000 followers in uniform, but they say many active-duty Wiccans hide their beliefs to avoid ridicule and discrimination. Two incidents may bear them out.
When a Texas newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, reported in 1999 that a circle of Wiccans was meeting regularly at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, then-Gov. George W. Bush told ABC's "Good Morning America": "I don't think witchcraft is a religion, and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it."
Eight years later, the circle at Lackland is still going strong, and the military permits Wiccans to worship on U.S. bases around the world. But when Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2005, the Department of Veterans' Affairs refused to allow a Wiccan pentacle, a five-pointed star inside a circle, to be inscribed on his memorial at the Fernley, Nev., veterans' cemetery. Ultimately, Nevada officials approved the pentacle anyway.
. . .
Once chaplains are accepted into the military, they are paid, trained and deployed by the government. But they remain subservient to their endorsers, who can cancel their endorsements at any time.
That is what happened to Larsen, according to unclassified military e-mail messages obtained by The Washington Post.
When the Sacred Well Congregation applied on July 31 to become Larsen's new endorser, the Army initially cited a minor bureaucratic obstacle: It could not find a copy of his previous endorsement from the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, a Dallas-based association of Pentecostal churches.
The following day, a senior Army chaplain telephoned the Full Gospel Churches to ask for the form and, in the process, disclosed Larsen's plan to join Sacred Well.
Within hours, the Pentecostal group sent Larsen an urgent e-mail saying it had received a "strange call" from the Army Chief of Chaplains office. The caller "mentioned that a Donald M. Larsen . . . was requesting a change-over . . . to Wiccans," the e-mail said. "Please communicate with this office, as we do not believe it is you."
Larsen pleaded in his reply for the Full Gospel Churches not to cancel his endorsement until he could complete the switch. "Being here in Iraq has caused me to reflect on a great many things. However, as long as CFCG holds my endorsement, I teach and practice nothing contrary to your faith and practice," he wrote, adding: "It is all about the soldiers, please help me to continue to minister to them during this transition."
The Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches immediately severed its ties to Larsen. The Sacred Well Congregation could not renew his papers, because it was not yet an official endorser. Lacking an ecclesiastical endorsement, Larsen was ordered to cease functioning immediately as a chaplain, and the Pentagon quickly pulled him out of Iraq.
. . .
Richardson says there are simply too few Wiccans in the military to justify a full-time chaplain.
According to Pentagon figures, however, some faiths with similarly small numbers in the ranks do have chaplains. Among the nearly 2,900 clergy on active duty are 41 Mormon chaplains for 17,513 Mormons in uniform, 22 rabbis for 4,038 Jews, 11 imams for 3,386 Muslims, six teachers for 636 Christian Scientists, and one Buddhist chaplain for 4,546 Buddhists.
[Sorry for such a short and obviously derivative column this week, but I've been on the sick list with a high fever for the last few days, and this is all I could muster. The whole thing is outrageous, but I just don't have the strength to adequately present my opinion of how disgustingly unconstitutional the entire situation is. My apologies, and I promise next week I'll be back to full strength with a full column.]