19 December 2013

Freedom of Religion - It means all religions



Several years ago, right after 9/11 in fact, I decided to enlist in the United States Navy.  I enlisted because I firmly believe in the freedoms that the people of our nation have.  I appreciate the freedom I have to vote, do any job that I wish, to be an educated woman, and most especially, freedom to worship as I see fit.  These are liberties that some religious radicals find so shocking and abhorrent, that they flew airplanes into a few of our most iconic buildings in protest.  I felt it was not enough to just acknowledge these rights.  I realized that I absolutely had to stand up and take an oath to defend them, as a member of our military.
          The Constitution of the United States says: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  These are words that mean so much, that I was willing to lay down my life, if need be, to protect this ideal.  So imagine my shock and dismay when I realized that, all too often, they didn't mean me or my religion.  You see, I am a Wiccan and the military is still, very much, a Judeo-Christian institution.
          I noticed this while I was going through in-processing at boot camp, as they got all the paperwork prepared for my official military record.
          “What's your religion?” asked the clerk who was filling out the paperwork for my dog tags.
          “Wicca”, I replied.
          The clerk sighed heavily, rolled his eyes, looked irritated and barked “We don't have that!  I'm marking down No Religious Preference.”
          Ouch.  No religious preference?  I had a very strong preference!  I'm not just a practitioner of my faith,  I'm also member of its clergy.  It was quite a blow to have my beliefs dismissed as if they didn't exist.  I couldn't believe it.  There I was, in basic training for the Navy.  I was on the road to end my life as a civilian and forever be a part of our armed forces.  I gave up my comfortable, sedate lifestyle in favor of strict rules, regulations, and codes of behaviour.  I did it willingly, because I felt so strongly about the rights afforded to us.  And in this very place, at that very moment, as I stood on the precipice between my old life as a civilian and my new life as a sailor, one of our most cherished rights was being ripped away from me.
          I endured basic training, even excelled in many ways.  However, I still felt disenchanted and disillusioned.  Other recruits were going to Church on Sunday, but my religion didn't count.  The closest they came to even acknowledging that it existed was a “meditation hour”, which we were allowed to share with Buddhists, Hindus, and various faiths that fell into the category of “other”.  All these people were equally part of the military, equally sacrificing, and equally willing to pay the ultimate price.  Yet, we were all relegated to the position of second class citizens.   The Judeo-Christian sects and beliefs had a massive, echoing chapel in which to worship.  We had a small, windowless room.  They had Chaplains to whom they could talk, or seek counsel.  They had benedictions at graduation.  We bowed our heads and whispered our own prayers, silently.
          After boot camp, I ended up stationed in California.  I decided to do a little research and I found out that my religion is mentioned in the Chaplain’s Handbook.  The handbook was the “be all, end all” of religious information and practices that are recognized by the US Armed Forces.  This meant that I was supposed to be afforded all rights that all other recognized faiths had.  While I now knew I had my rights, it wasn't easy to make sure that I was able to enjoy them as readily as those of the major faiths.
          I was inexperienced and suffered due to this.  I was not appraised of my rights, nor did I have support from my command so that I could find them out.  There was no Chaplain, with whom I could speak or ask questions.  There was no one who could, or would direct me to places where I could find answers.
          When I tendered a request form, so that I could observe one of my major religious holidays, my request was met with derision.  Worse, I was publicly mocked by several of my superiors.  My religion was now a matter of public record and, as such, open for debate, discussion, and dissection by everyone in my department.  I was subjected to jeering and constant attempts by people of other faiths, to convert me to their religion. 
          Members of other faiths were given time off to worship, but not I.  Not unless I asked and I knew better than to do that again.  I learned it was far better for me to keep my mouth shut and never mention my religion.  I worshiped when I could and worked almost every holy day on my calendar.  It was my first command.  I hoped it would get better at my next.
          My second command was Diego Garcia, a remote island thousands of miles from anywhere.  Since it was so small, obviously the lone chaplain couldn't tend to everyone's needs.  He was a kind man, but he was Roman Catholic and very uncomfortable discussing a Pagan faith.  So, again, my needs were not met.  I wasn't mocked, but I was left in a spiritual lurch, save for my own private prayers.
          There were services for other faiths, groups where they could get together, and even social events geared toward spiritual sharing and enlightenment.  I had no way to reach out to members of my own faith.  As far as I knew, I was the only Wiccan on the whole island.  I was growing frustrated. 
          Finally, I was sent to Okinawa, Japan and everything changed.  I met another Wiccan who told me that there was a group for us.  Finally, I would be able to practice like people of other religions.  I would have a community.
          Unfortunately, my job was such that I was always scheduled to work when the group met.  So, again, I was left out.  I expressed my frustration to my friend, who showed me what I always knew existed, but was never before shown to me: military regulations regarding religious worship.  I had rights!  According to the regulations, all service members' “Worship practices, holy days, and Sabbath or similar religious observance requests shall be accommodated, except when precluded by military necessity.”  This covered all recognized religions.
          He also introduced me to an organization called Sacred Well Congregation.  Sacred Well Congregation is a Wiccan church that specifically works to make sure that Wiccan and Pagan service members' right to worship is neither hindered or disregarded in any way.  They sponsor groups around the world and act as a liaison when a service member is getting trouble from their superiors, about their practice.
          I learned that, not only did I have the right to attend services but that, unless the mission could not support it, I had the right to observe my holy days.  I learned that my faith was not up for debate, that my beliefs were just as valid as everyone else's, and that I deserved to be treated with the same respect and dignity.  As a bonus, I also found out that “Wicca” is on the list of accepted religions to be placed on my dog tag.
          Finally, I was able to practice just as everyone else did.  I had the resources to protect my rights and passed those on to others, so that they wouldn't have to face the same challenges that I did.  Freedom of religion meant me, too.
          Oh, and I fixed my dog tags.  They now say “Wicca”.

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