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Religious Freedom and Serving in the U.S. Military

There is a battle currently being fought right here on American soil. It isn't with guns or ships or planes, but with people and power dynamics. The current situation at the Great Lakes Naval Training facility is an indicator of this struggle--how and when does the U.S. military allow for the accommodation of religious freedom and expression for its service members.

On April 3, 2015 the commander of Naval Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Ill enacted a decision to cancel religious services being provided by civilian volunteer clergy on the installation. This decision affected seven minority religious groups, effectively dismantling a web of emotional and spiritual support for the trainees that walk through those gates. The decision was justified and cited to be in line with the naval instruction regulating the use of personnel for religious support by the commander of RTC: “In March of 2014 the RTC Command Religious Program (CRP) began a review of how best to respond to the religious needs of recruits at RTC and whether the command was following the guidance contained in U.S. Navy regulations, which sets a hierarchy for which spiritual leaders should be utilized: command chaplains, accredited uniformed volunteers, contract clergy, and then civilian volunteer, if needed.”[1]

A link to the Navy Times report on this can be found here: 

Several official responses to this decision have already been sent, including a letter from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL), claiming the violation of religious liberty rights on behalf of the trainees at RTC.

There is no argument that this decision is in fact a violation of religious liberty rights, but many are asking why the Navy would go to such lengths to deny minority faith groups the resources already in place for expression of their faith. I believe we are on a speeding train heading toward a cliff on this particular issue, and if it is not addressed quickly we will see very ugly consequences.

First and foremost, a discussion needs to be had on the purpose of military chaplains in uniform. I would like to borrow a statement from Ed Waggoner as it concerns a growing trend in chaplain dynamics: “U.S. military chaplaincies are at a crossroad. The bedrock rationale for the existence of chaplaincies is to provide for the free exercise of religion by rank-and-file military personnel. For the first time in their history, a significant contingent of endorsers and chaplains has recanted its professional responsibility to care for all personnel. Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are entitled to all military benefits, including services provided through the chaplaincies. Chaplains volunteer for military careers of just such service. Unfortunately, some theologically and socially conservative Christian groups now cast themselves as victims of coercion and invert pastoral priorities: they insist that the military protect their religiously motivated refusal to serve all personnel. The chaplaincies are at serious risk of becoming strongholds of religiously defended discrimination rather than generous religious and moral service.”[2]  

Let’s dissect that statement for a moment. Military chaplaincy has been a centrally authorized function since 1775. It can be argued that the socially acceptable form of religious expression was overwhelmingly Abrahamic in nature, and Christian in particular. But as we have seen in the last half a century, alternative forms of spirituality and religious expression have become more mainstream and the U.S. military is a volunteer force of individuals pulled from American society. I feel Mr. Waggoner’s statement is apt (though a bit limited in scope) that the chaplain’s primary function is the support of all military personnel and their emotional and spiritual needs. Now, execution is an entirely different matter. In the civilian world, if your primary care specialist deems you need to see an orthopedist for example, they refer you to someone who deals with that. They don’t tell you you’re wrong for needing orthopedic treatment and try to convince you there is something else going on. This is how chaplaincy is also supposed to work. If a chaplain cannot meet the spiritual needs of a military service member, it falls on that chaplain to make the proper referral to someone who can. Hence, the introduction of civilian lay leaders and volunteers. These programs are essential for complimenting the spiritual outreach and effectiveness of the chaplain corps and actually work against the very argument most chaplains have about performing spiritual practices that are in direct violation of their personal beliefs. Cancelling the services at RTC is not only a clear violation of religious liberties for the trainees, but it puts undue stress on the staff to provide additional support they are either not comfortable or knowledgeable enough to provide. Additionally, we are setting the stage for a rise in possible suicide cases as well as drop outs due to stress and lack of emotional support. I cannot stand by the decision made by RTC, and as of now I do not see a functional reason for why it was made. 

For the resources I used in this post and additional material on military chaplaincy: 


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PaganNewsBeagle Watery Wednesday Community News August 20

Today's Watery Wednesday emphasizes community news from all over our wonderful movement of Pagans, Heathens, Witches, Wiccans, and polytheists. Lots of things moving and shaking today!

On the Norse Mythology blog, we hear from Master Sergeant (MSgt) Matt Walters, who led the campaign to convince the US Air Force to include Ásatrú and Heathenry as options in its religious preference list.

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PaganNewsBeagle: Watery Wednesday Community News August 6

Lots of community news in our Watery Wednesday post: Heathenism recognized by the US Air Force, two book announcements, remembering Margot Adler and the spiritual experience of surfing. Enjoy your Wednesday!

Literata Hurley announces a call for submissions for "Columbia: A Devotional for the Spirits of America."

Josh Hunt reports on progress made with the US Air Force to include Heathenism and Asatru to list of religious preferences for its servicemen and women.

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Watery Wednesday Community News

It's Watery Wednesday at the Pagan News Beagle: the day we share stories of our many communities.

The Wild Hunt offers a report from this year's PaganSpiritGathering (Circle Sanctuary.)

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  • Ivo Dominguez Jr
    Ivo Dominguez Jr says #
    Thanks for boosting the signal about the New Alexandrian Library project. Blessings, Ivo

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
What is your greatest hope for 2014?

As 2013 draws to a close, there’s a good deal to reflect upon. Many members of our Community have passed on, relationships have changed and babies have been born. Within the military, quite a few changes have occurred as well. In February, the retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta extended gay benefits to service members and their families as best he could due to DOMA still being on the books at the time. And when DOMA was repealed in June, the Pentagon was able to use the words marriage and spouse with the inclusion of gay and lesbian couples. Sadly, it took until last month overseas  military installations were open for things such as ration privileges due to where they were stationed, such as in South Korea. And too, while many more states, even Utah, are now marriage equality states, it is still not enough to make marriage equality federally recognized as the law of the land (read: Constitutional amendment).

Also, I would be amiss if I failed to mention other forms of equality within the military, especially pertaining to women. Not only are women open to train for full-fledged combat positions (though we won’t see women in direct Infantry until probably 2016), but also, rape and assaults within the military are finally being taken seriously. Men and women who have been attacked are reporting at an all-time high, which may actually be a good thing for a couple of reasons: For one thing, victims feel justice will actually be served instead wrapped in red tape, so they are reporting them. And for another, the reports that do occur are actually making it onto official ledgers to be counted.

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Posted by on in Paths Blogs
Give a moment to our Military Dead

Today, heading to school, I caught a glimpse of the most heart-stopping sky: it was a sea of roiling clouds, a dark cantata of a dozen shades of grey, spewing forth streams of silver reminding me, as I shivered in the chill air, surrounded by the riotous crimsons and golds of leaves in their death throws, that the time of the Wild Hunt is upon us. 

With November comes the cold, the first promise of winter. With November comes Odin, for to many of us who venerate Him, this is His month, and with Odin comes the Wild Hunt. With November also comes Veterans Day and hard on the heels of the ancestor festivals of late October, it's a good reminder to take a moment to honor our military dead. 

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  • Theresa Wymer
    Theresa Wymer says #
    "Anthem for Doomed Youth" by Wilfred Owen What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the g

Posted by on in Paths Blogs
Asatru and the Art of Nuclear Physics

Let's talk about zeal.

Though I am a member of several online forums, I rarely post to them- more frequently I use them to shamelessly raid the knowledge others have worked so hard to amass and then posted for the world to see.  I am not an archeologist, but I love reading the recent reviews of newfound Viking era settlements.  I am no theologian (despite short forays into the field), but the people with advanced degrees in religious study who can break down the Eddas and Sagas from both a historal and spiritual way are of endless fascination to me, as are their conclusions.  Like an Average Joe reading Psychology Today or Popular Mechanics, it is a great chance to get a wee bit smarter and maybe even find something applicable to my daily life.

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