In Colorado Springs, Colo., the U.S. Air Force Academy has dedicated an $80,000 outdoor worship center to followers of alternative religions, some of whom are current or future cadets. These include pagans, Wiccans, druids, witches, and followers of similar belief systems that value nature, reports the LA Times.
The worship center is a hill-topped, Stonehenge-like circle of boulders around a fire pit. It will serve as a place of comfort and equality for those who have committed themselves to ancient and widely misunderstood religions.
At this time of year, pagans and others are preparing for holiday festivities, with the arrival of the winter solstice. For them, this new center is a sacred place that arrives just in time.
According to the academy's enrollment records, a mere three out of 4,300 cadets are pagans, while witches and druids are absent from the group altogether this year. Chaplain Maj. Darren Duncan - branch chief of cadet faith communities at the academy - said that despite this, he's already heard all the broomstick jokes directed at potential Air Force witches.
The point, he said, is that "we're here to accommodate all religions, period. We think we are setting the standard."
In addition to providing a place for alternative worship, new policy says that all cadets must take courses in understanding the beliefs of those who could someday fall under their command.
And this sign of progress hasn't been confined to the Air Force alone.
According to World Wide Religious News, in 2004, Britain's Armed Forces enlisted their first-ever Satanist - a naval technician serving on a frigate. Chris Cranmer is a LaVeyan Satanist, and follows the tenets of the Church of Satan. His religion is a peaceful one that discourages occultist concepts and supports progressive ideas of indulgence and self-fulfillment.
Cranmer was granted permission to practice his beliefs at sea, and - should he be killed in action - allowed to have a funeral carried out by the Church of Satan.
Today in the U.S., the allowance for paganism and Wicca would seem a pleasant surprise, particularly at a time when the Christian faith dominates America, often at the expense of other faiths and cultures. Evidence for this was present during 2005 - when the Air Force was accused in a lawsuit of allowing aggressive proselytizing toward non-Christians.
Michael Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the Air Force Academy, criticized Pentagon policies on religion and alleged that a New Mexico Air Force recruiter was "using Jesus Christ as a recruiting tool."
Weinstein, who is Jewish, said he has received hundreds of complaints from cadets who feel pressure from others to profess Christian belief against their wishes. Their own views, he suggested, have been disrespected to such an extent that in 2010, a cross was left at a previous earth-based worship area. Though the Air Force agreed the incident was offensive, it was never learned who was responsible for it.
"It is absolutely horrifying that the Air Force has been trying to force its recruiters to use the gospel of Jesus Christ as a recruiting tool," Weinstein said. "There's no wall left between Church and State in the Air Force."
Taking a step back and respectfully allowing alternative religious followers to openly embrace their own creeds may be just what's needed to erect that wall once again. There have been no reported incidents of pagans or witches proselytizing in the Air Force.
"It is very nice to have our own space," said Cadet First Class Nicole Johnson. Hailing from Florida, she is 21 and became a pagan after entering the academy.
Johnson said that her beliefs are often misunderstood. However, she claimed not to have been the subject of any serious grief or harassment at the hands of other cadets, save for a few mild jokes, one of which asked whether she could cast a spell on commanding officers. She replied that even if she could, she wouldn't.