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Academy chapel to add outdoor circle to worship areas

Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier uses white sage to consecrate a Pagan worship area on the hill overlooking the Cadet Chapel and the Visitor Center at the Air Force Academy just after sunrise on the winter solstice, Dec. 21, 2009. The chapel is scheduled to officially designate the circle as a Pagan chapel during a dedication ceremony in March 2010. Sergeant Longcrier is the Pagan lay leader at the Academy. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier uses white sage to consecrate a Pagan worship area on the hill overlooking the Cadet Chapel and the Visitor Center at the Air Force Academy just after sunrise on the winter solstice, Dec. 21, 2009. The chapel is scheduled to officially designate the circle as a Pagan chapel during a dedication ceremony in March 2010. Sergeant Longcrier is the Pagan lay leader at the Academy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The Air Force Academy chapel will add a worship area for followers of Earth-centered religions during a dedication ceremony, which is tentatively scheduled to be held at the circle March 10.

The circle, located atop the hill overlooking the Cadet Chapel and Visitor Center, will be the latest addition to a collection of worship areas that includes Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist sacred spaces.

Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, NCO in charge of the Academy's Astronautics laboratories, worked with the chapel to create the official worship area for both cadets and other servicemembers in the Colorado Springs area who practice Earth-centered spirituality.

"Feel free to check the site out, but treat it as you would any other religious structure," he said.

The stones that now form the inner and outer rings of the circle once sat near the Visitor Center, where the chance of erosion made the rocks a safety hazard. The 10th Civil Engineer Squadron moved the rocks to the top of the hill in spring and early summer. Once finished, the circle will also include materials from a smaller circle that Sergeant Longcrier briefly set up in Jacks Valley.

"We used the (Jacks Valley) circle during Basic Cadet Training, and it was great," he said. However, the new circle offers significant advantages.

"The circle that we secured in December is much bigger, better and closer to the cadet area," he explained. "This will allow cadets to use the circle anytime they feel the need."

The Academy's chaplains have supported Sergeant Longcrier's efforts every step of the way, the NCO said.

"There really haven't been any obstacles for the new circle," he said. "The chaplain's office has been 100-percent supportive."

"Every servicemember is charged with defending freedom for all Americans, and that includes freedom to practice our religion of choice or, for that matter, not to practice any faith at all," said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) William Ziegler, Cadet Wing chaplain. "Being in the military isn't just a job -- it's a calling. We all take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and that means we've all sworn to protect one another's religious liberties. We all put on our uniforms the same way; we're all Airmen first."

The presence of diverse worship areas reflects a sea change from five years ago, when reports surfaced alleging religious intolerance at the Academy. Sergeant Longcrier became Pagan shortly after arriving at the Academy in 2006 and said he believes the climate has improved dramatically.

"When I first arrived here, Earth-centered cadets didn't have anywhere to call home," he said. "Now, they meet every Monday night, they get to go on retreats, and they have a stone circle. ... We have representation on the Cadet Interfaith Council, and I even meet with the Chaplains at Peterson Air Force Base once a year to discuss religious climate."

Earth-centered spirituality includes traditions such as Wicca, Druidism and several other religious paths that, while relatively new, trace their roots to pre-Christian Europe, Sergeant Longcrier said. Gerald Gardner founded the first Wiccan tradition in England in 1952, with neo-Druidism following in the early 1960s.

Some Earth-centered traditions involve the worship of gods and goddesses, whereas others may involve only one deity or none at all. Reincarnation is a popular concept, as is rebirth and celebrating the cycle of the seasons.

Famous outdoor worship circles include Stonehenge and Avebury in England and Native American sites such as the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming and Cahokia Henge in Missouri. A worship circle at Fort Hood, Texas, became a flashpoint for discussions about Paganism in the U.S. military after it was established by the Sacred Well Congregation in 1999.

The Fort Hood Open Circle was vandalized on four separate occasions from 1999 to 2000, including an incident Oct. 27, 2000, in which the half-ton limestone altar was destroyed outright. In response, a member of the Sacred Well Congregation wrote, "If we speak together, we are a chorus to be heard. If we whisper alone, we are but a sigh in the dead of night."

"We want to create that chorus," Chaplain Ziegler said. "We want to invite the Academy leadership, the Cadet Interfaith Council, the news media and people from every religious background for the dedication ceremony. We want this dedication service to be another example of celebrating the freedom we enjoy as well as the freedom we, as Airmen, have pledged to defend."
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