Chaplain Norris Burkes

Chaplain Norris Burkes. Photo by Wade Spees. June 6, 2014.

As a chaplain, I find no greater meaning for Independence Day than in our constitutional right to freedom of worship.

I had firsthand experience observing this right challenged during my 2009 deployment as a U.S. Air Force Protestant chaplain in Balad, Iraq.

One afternoon the senior chaplain, Richard Hartwell, invited me to his office to introduce me to a chapel visitor. The man, a sergeant in his mid-30s, said he and his friends were being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

He explained how vandals had recently scribbled inflammatory words on the wall of their meeting place.

Now, the sergeant said, they needed to find a new and secretive place of worship.

“Why not meet in our chapel?” I asked.

My boss nodded at the sergeant, inviting full disclosure.

“We are a small circle of Wiccans,” the sergeant said.

In case you’re wondering, some Wiccans, but not all, are witches. Honestly, they are known as a peaceful bunch and are recognized as a legitimate religion.

They take their traditions from pre-Christian history, but became a religion as recently as the mid-1900s. They practice so-called “white magic” and recognize male and female deities. They aren’t devil worshipers, as the vandals likely believed them to be. Wiccans don’t even believe in the devil.

If you question why Protestant chaplains should come to the aid of a pagan group, you wouldn’t be alone. After all, Wiccans are a far cry from my Baptist brand or my boss’ Methodist practice. Hartwell and I shared reasonable tension over the idea of helping Wiccans.

But we also shared a pledge called the oath of office. During the 28 years I served as a chaplain, I solemnly swore at least five times to “… support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

“Defend the Constitution?” you may ask. Exactly how does a chaplain defend the Constitution when the Geneva Convention prohibits him from carrying a gun?

I find the answer in the constitutional amendment that kicked off this whole land-of-the-free stuff: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“Yes, sergeant,” my commander promised. “We will help you find a place, a conference room perhaps, or a large office. We want you to be safe.”

In our next staff meeting, Hartwell elicited suggestions from his 20-person chapel staff regarding a place for the Wiccans. He made it clear that if we exclude room for any faith, we exclude room for all faiths.

He challenged his commissioned officers to “faithfully discharge the duties of the office …” by safeguarding the Wiccan’s first amendment right to freely exercise their religion.

Our boss told us that chaplains must defend the Constitution by protecting the religious rights of all, even those we disagree with. We would stand with the Wiccans, he promised. We would support the atheist. And, according to Geneva Convention, we would even allow an enemy combatant his place of worship.

“Had Hartwell been bewitched?” you ask. Why stand with those whose faith practice is so drastically different than ours? Because at the end of the day if we refuse to stand with them, we will most surely stand alone in future days.

By the way, our chaplains came up with an easy solution for the Wiccans. We found an understanding commander who allowed the group to meet inside his conference room during off-duty hours.

Simple solution. No magic to it.

Contact Norris Burkes at comment@thechaplain.net or @chaplain or 843-608-9715.