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For Gods and Country

Larsen gathers with fellow Sacred Well Congregation members Ron and Brenda Schaefer, left, and Collette and Joel Fritsche (partially obscured).
Larsen gathers with fellow Sacred Well Congregation members Ron and Brenda Schaefer, left, and Collette and Joel Fritsche (partially obscured). (J. Michael Short - Special To The Washington Post)

The Sacred Well Congregation, which has about 950 members across the country, prides itself on being an intellectual group. Ron Schaefer, a retired lieutenant colonel who flew F-4s and F-16s during a 26-year Air Force career, says Wicca "meshes perfectly with string theory." Dea Mikeworth, wife of an Army sergeant wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq, says it reflects "archetypes in the collective unconscious."

But Larsen is unabashed about the faith's central appeal.

"You can't intellectually talk about witchcraft. You gotta show up," he says. "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."

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.

For Wiccans seeking public acceptance, obtaining a military chaplain is the next major goal. 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.

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.

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