The controversy over a cross left at a pagan worship area at the Air Force Academy last month shined a spotlight on a little-known corner of the academy’s spiritual geography.
According to administrators, the traditions that some dismiss as “witchcraft” are nothing new at the Colorado Springs military academy.
Wiccans, pagans and other followers of Earth-centered religions have been active on campus for at least a decade, and are now among 14 religious groups recognized under a program that sets aside time for cadets to worship on their own, said cadet wing chaplain Lt. Col. William Ziegler III.
“We’re here to serve as caretakers to support every cadet’s religious freedoms,” Ziegler said of Special Programs in Religious Education, or SPIRE.
Until recently, the pagan group met at a brick-and-tile worship area in Jack’s Valley, a sprawling, wooded training area to the north of the academy’s cadet area. About a dozen cadets belong, the academy said, and an additional 30 service members in Colorado Springs identify themselves as pagans.
The group’s path to prominence began last summer, after an inspection determined the aging site was no longer “structurally sound,” Ziegler said.
The group’s lay leader, Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, asked permission in August to establish a new worship area, and the academy reviewed his request and agreed that an outdoor worship area was in fact a “religious requirement” for the Earth-centered spiritualists. They settled on a hilltop location near the Air Force Academy visitor center that overlooks the cadet area.
“It’s a lot closer than having to go to Jack’s Valley all the time,” said academy spokesman Meade Warthington.
The new worship area — informally established in December — makes use of large boulders that had to be moved from a hillside because they were at risk of falling, said John Van Winkle, another spokesman. Longcrier’s group contributed materials for a propane-fueled fire pit that anchors the site.
There has been no additional taxpayer expense thus far, Van Winkle said.
News of the worship site initially earned notice as a sign of an improved religious climate in the wake of a 2004 flap alleging an institutional bias toward evangelical Christianity. That changed when someone propped two railroad ties in the shape of a cross against a boulder at the worship area.
Longcrier charged the academy downplayed his Jan. 17 complaint about the incident, which he called a hate crime.
Academy officials have defended their handling of the incident. A top official told cadets Tuesday that religious discrimination “will not be tolerated” and pledged to discipline any cadets who may have been involved.
Worship circles aren’t uncommon on federal land, including Fort Hood, Tex., but they appear to be rare at service academies. Spokesmen for the Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., said they do not have pagan groups and had never received a request for a similar worship area.
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