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Religious discrimination by the U.S. Government

Religious bigotry in the
U.S. Armed Forces' Chaplain Service

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Don Larsen had a religious conversion while on duty as a Pentecostal chaplain in the Freedom Chapel at Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. support base in Iraq. A crisis had been brewing for some time in Larsen's mind as he tried to harmonize his faith's exclusive claims to salvation and his belief in universal salvation. The bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, Iraq on 2006-FEB-22 was the trigger. He said:

"I realized so many innocent people are dying again in the name of God. When you think back over the Catholic-Protestant conflict, how the Jews have suffered, how some Christians justified slavery, the Crusades, and now the fighting between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, I just decided I'm done. ... I will not be part of any church that unleashes its clergy to preach that particular individuals or faith groups are damned. ... In Iraq, I saw what was happening in the name of Allah and I thought, 'This has got to stop.' ... The common core of all religions, we're saying the same stuff. I just decided that the rest of my life I will encourage people to seek out the light however they see fit, through the Bhagavad-Gita, the Torah, the writings of prophets and sages -- whatever path propels them to be good and honorable and upright."

Commenting on Wicca, he said:

"You can't intellectually talk about witchcraft. You gotta show up, What Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and a lot of us universalists think is, people need the magical side, the mythological side, of religion. We don't need more Calvinist rationalizing. We need mystery. We need horizons. We need journeys."

He first learned about Wicca, an Earth-centered, Neopagan religion, during a Chaplain's Basic Training Course at Fort Jackson, SC, in 2005. Chaplains are required to have some knowledge of many different religions because they will have to meet the spiritual needs of soldiers from diverse faiths. Larsen converted to Wicca.

He said:

"In Iraq, I saw what was happening in the name of Allah and I thought: 'This has got to stop.' ... The common core of all religions, we're saying the same stuff. I just decided that the rest of my life I will encourage people to seek out the light however they see fit, through the Bhagavad-Gita, the Torah, the writings of prophets and sages -- whatever path propels them to be good and honorable and upright."

On 2006-JUL-06, he applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces. Switching religious allegiances is a routine request among chaplains, but it is normally from one Christian denomination to another. In this case, he asked to be registered under a different religion.

By the end of the year, in spite of an unblemished service record:

bullet His request was denied.
bullet He was withdrawn from Iraq, and
bullet He was removed from the chaplain corps.

Some Wiccans feel that his dismissal was ultimately cause by a misunderstanding of the nature of their religion. Many Christians still believe the religious propaganda that has been circulated groups within the Christian Church since the burning times (late 15th century to late 18th century) when religious minorities were accused of Witchcraft and Satanism -- the worship of Satan and either burned at the stake or hung. In reality, Wicca is a benign religion whose followers believe in a deity with male and female aspects. They do not believe in Satan or any other all-evil quasi-deity.

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Reactions to Larsen's dismissal:

bullet David L. Oringderff, a retired Army intelligence officer and an elder in the Sacred Well Congregation, Larsen's Texas-based coven, said: "Institutionalized bigotry and discriminatory actions ... have crossed the line this time."
bullet Kevin L. McGhee, Larsen's superior at Camp Anaconda, and a Methodist chaplain, believes a "grave injustice" was done. He said:

"I could go on and on about how well he preached, the care he gave. 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."

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Wiccans in the military:

The total number of Wiccans in the U.S. is unknown. It is an almost completely decentralized religion and no central authority counts the membership. In 2001, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, conducted a massive survey of over 50,000 American adults between 2001-FEB and APR. It is called the ""American Religious Identification Survey." 2 They reported the following weighted estimates:

bullet Wiccans: 134,000 (A rise from 8,000 in 1990!)
bullet Pagans: 140,000 (This probably contains a large number of Wiccans who prefer to identify themselves as Pagans
bullet Druids: 33,000.

These estimates probably represent only a fraction of the actual number of Wiccans in the U.S. Many Neopagans are quite reluctant to admit their faith to a stranger over the telephone.

In 2006-MAY, the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported that: "According to 2005 Defense Department statistics, more than 1,800 active-duty service members identified themselves as Wiccans." 3 This is probably a partial count, because in 2007-FEB, the Washington Post lists Pentagon data as including 1,511 Wiccans in the Air Force and 354 in the Marines -- for a total of 1,865. 1 Data for two larger branches of the military, the Army and Navy, is not included. Some Wiccans estimate that there are at least 4,000 of their members in uniform. However, many are reluctant to reveal their religion because of ridicule, harassment, and discrimination.

The Washington Post reports that:

"More than 130 religious groups have endorsed, or certified, chaplains to serve in uniform. But efforts by Wiccan organizations to join the list have repeatedly been denied by the Pentagon."

"Lt. Col. Randall C. Dolinger, spokesman for the Army's Chief of Chaplains office, said the Sacred Well Congregation has met all the requirements to become an endorser, except one: It has not presented a 'viable candidate.' The group's previous nominee was turned away because his eyesight was not correctable to 20-20.

It is unclear why a chaplain, in a non-combat role, must have perfect eyesight. The Post continues:

"When Larsen came along last spring, Sacred Well's leaders thought they finally had someone the military could not possibly reject: a physically fit 6-foot-4 clergyman originally ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, who holds a master's degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Moreover, Larsen had spent 10 years as an officer in the National Guard, finished near the top of his class in chaplain's training and was already serving as a chaplain in Iraq.

But Oringderff said that his group, like Larsen, underestimated the institutional resistance. 'Each time we advance to a scoring position, they change the rules,' he said.

Chaplains cannot serve unless they are endorsed by a recognized faith group. The Sacred Well Congregation applied on 2006-JUL-31 to endorse In Larsen's case the military. But the Army could not find a copy of his previous endorsement from the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches. After the Army contacted the Full Gospel Churches they acted quickly to cancel Larsen's endorsement. Since the Sacred Well Congregation was not yet an official endorser, Larsen was without an ecclesiastical endorsement. He was ordered to cease functioning immediately as a chaplain. He was quickly relocated from Iraq.

Dolinger stated that no discrimination was involved. He said:

"What you're really dealing with is more of a personal drama, what one person has been through and the choices he's made. Plus, the fact that the military does have Catch-22s."

Jim Ammerman, founder of the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches noted that there is a longstanding agreement that ecclesiastical endorsers do not terminate the papers of a chaplain who wants to make a valid switch. He said:

"But if it's not a valid thing, all bets are off,. ... [Wiccans] run around naked in the woods" [and] "draw blood with a dagger [in their ceremonies]. You can't do that in the military. It's against good order and discipline."

Brig. Gen. Cecil Richardson, the Air Force's deputy chief of chaplains responded:

"He's right, we can't have that in the military, but I don't think we've had any of that in the military."

Ammerman appears to misunderstand the religion of Wicca. Wiccans do use a sword or athame (a double edged knife) at their rituals. However, they never use either for cutting or drawing blood. Wiccans in their rituals don't cut anything higher on the evolutionary scale than an apple or orange. The Sacred Well Congregation does not practice skyclad (ritually nude).

Richardson said that there are too few Wiccans in the military to justify a full-time chaplain. However, the Washington Post quotes Pentagon figures to show that this is an invalid claim:

Religion Number of soldiers Number of chaplains Soldiers per chaplain
LDS (Mormons) 17,513 41 427
Buddhism 4,546 1 4,546
Judaism 4,038 22 184
Islam 3,386 11 308
Christian Science 636 6 106

And for the 1,865 known Wiccans and the approximately 2,000 unidentified Wiccans there are zero chaplains. The number of Wiccans in the military is probably between the number of Jews and Muslims. Thus one could argue that there should be something between 11 and 22 Wiccan priests in the Chaplain Service.

It is impossible to prove that the Larsen case is one of simply religious bigotry. However, some aspects of the case match the Veterans' Administration and its refusal to provide Wiccan symbols on tombstones, even as it supplies them free to followers of a vast selection of religions.

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  1. Alan Cooperman, "For Gods and Country: The Army Chaplain Who Wanted to Switch to Wicca? Transfer Denied," Washington Post, 2007-FEB-19, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
  2. "American Religious Identification Survey," by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, at:" http://www.gc.cuny.edu/studies/
  3. Leo Shane III, "Wiccan widow threatens to sue over memorial plaque," Stars and Stripes, Pacific Edition, 2006-MAY-18, at: http://www.stripes.com/

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Copyright 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-FEB-22
Latest update: 2007-FEB-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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