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Fort Bragg Soldiers Seek to Practice Wicca

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FORT BRAGG — Some Fort Bragg soldiers say they should have the right to practice Wicca on post.

The Wiccans, who place most of their religious focus on nature, say they're good soldiers and patriotic Americans.

``But we change 'God bless America' to 'goddess bless America,''' said Laurie MacNeill, a former Army sergeant and the coven's high priestess.

A group of 10 calling itself the Coven of the Dragon Warriors, say it's outgrowing its off-post meeting place.

Members say they've submitted a request in writing, but Fort Bragg officials haven't responded.

Military officials say they have never received a written request. The Wiccans say they'll resubmit it.

Area religious leaders say the post risks its relationship with neighboring communities if it condones the religion, which they liken to witchcraft.

``This is not some kind of harmless religion. It is extremely dangerous,'' said Dr. Ralph Richardson, chancellor of Carolina Bible College.

``I would hate to see anything hurt that relationship or tarnish our image,'' said Dr. Bruce Martin, senior pastor of Village Baptist Church, one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in Fayetteville.

The Army has regulations on everything from sideburns and wristwatch style to fingernail length. And Army regulations on Wicca are clear.

``We respect the right of military members to practice their faith consistent with the requirements of good order and discipline, and health and safety standards,'' said Maj. Scott Ross, a Fort Bragg spokesman. ``The military services do not show preference for religious groups or particular religious beliefs.''

The Wicca is a pagan religion whose practitioners say is older than Christianity. But the Coven of the Dragon Warriors, which named itself after the 18th Airborne Corps symbol, the dragon, say they have no place to worship off post. The coven has outgrown its high priestess' small Spring Lake apartment where members meet for lessons, worship and fellowship.

There are about 10,000 pagans in the military and an estimated 200 to 400 at Fort Bragg, according to the Military Pagan Network, an international support group for military pagans that is based in Columbia, Md.

Although Wicca is a religion recognized by federal courts, as well as by the military, Fort Bragg's Wiccans say many worship in hiding, fearing persecution from others and reprimands from their superiors.

``We want to be allowed to worship like anyone else,'' MacNeill said. ``But a lot of people don't want to listen to us.''

The coven, formed in January, is asking for a room to hold classes and a place outside for its ceremonies, which include full-moon festivals and rituals to mark the changing of the seasons.

John Machate, coordinator for the Military Pagan Network, said 11 installations and one Navy ship already allow pagan worship. From staff and wire reports.