A group of 40 military personnel who claim to be members of a Wiccan group are practicing their rituals at Fort Hood—the country's largest military installation—in Killeen, Texas.

The witches, male and female, attracted attention during a March 20 celebration of the vernal equinox, in which participants burned a fire in front of an altar on which they placed water, bread, and salt.

"Great goddess Freya, bless this creature of the Earth to your service," one Wiccan priestess urged, according to the Austin American-Statesman. "May we always honor the blessed Earth, its many forms and beings."

The group, the Fort Hood Open Circle, followed standard military procedure to gain recognition, including sponsorship of an off-base church.

In a letter to Fort Hood commanding officer Lt. Gen. Leon LaPorte, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) said neopagan rites have no place in the armed forces.

"The military, however, does not operate under the same restrictions as society in general, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to make the case that encouraging the practice of bizarre rituals makes a positive contribution to combat readiness," Barr said.

But John Machate, director of the Military Pagan Network, a nonprofit group in Columbia, Maryland, disagrees. "These practices in no way interfere with the mission of the military," he says. Four other military facilities also have Wiccan circles.

Craig Conrad, executive director of the Christian Military Fellowship, says, "if we oppose these practices [on base], we stand a very good chance of shooting ourselves in the foot and [being] given the boot ourselves. A military chapel is not a church, but a place where we facilitate the exercise of religious liberty."

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