Why building Falcon Circle was 'right thing to do'

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Why did the Air Force Academy build an "outdoor Stonehenge" worship area for just a handful of cadets?

That's the question some have asked Air Force Academy officials after the Los Angeles Times' Nov. 26 article citing an $80,000 price tag for the Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle: an outdoor worship area used primarily for the observance of Earth-Centered Spirituality, i.e., Wicca and Paganism.


The LA Times got the $80,000 figure from the Academy's Cadet Chapel fact sheet. But the numbers on the fact sheet at the time were too high because they mistakenly included $26,500 that was spent to control erosion on the east side of the hill on which Falcon Circle is now situated.

The erosion-control requirement was identified in January of 2010, explained Gregory Long, chief of the 10th Civil Engineer Squadron's Asset Management Division. The request for work to build Falcon Circle came from the Cadet Chaplain Corps three months later.

The scope of work in the $51,484 Falcon Circle contract included removing screws and nails from the inside of the circle and installing 1,225 square feet of flagstone. The boulders were moved in 2009 from the east side of the hill, where erosion threatened to send them crashing into the Visitors Center, where more than 500,000 people per year learn about the national treasure that is the Academy.

By way of comparison, the Cadet Chapel that now houses Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist worship areas cost $3.5 million to build -- in 1959. That would be more than $25 million in today's dollars, or enough to build 500 Falcon Circles.

Recurring maintenance costs for Falcon Circle are likewise expected to be minimal: $381.49 per year for semiannual herbicide treatment and once-a-week policing. That's less than the cost of two months' utility bills for the average Colorado Springs resident. And like the main Cadet Chapel facility, Falcon Circle will be used by cadets and able-bodied Academy personnel for generations to come.

Opponents of the circle argue that even $50,000 is a lot to spend for such a small congregation. But Falcon Circle is not exclusively for Earth-Centered worship ceremonies: Although the Academy's Earth-Centered Spirituality group receives scheduling preference, any religious ceremonies can be held there, from Easter sunrise services to the Buddhist celebration of Bodhi Day to Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan. The only stipulation is that the area be treated with the same respect as any of the Academy's other chapels.

But let's say the small group of cadets -- three who have identified themselves as Pagan in the Academy's personnel database as of the Fall 2011 semester in addition to a few who are agnostic or don't publicly disclose their faith -- are the only ones ever to use Falcon Circle. Is $50,000 a waste of money then? No, said Chaplain (Col.) Robert Bruno, the Academy's senior chaplain.

"The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion does not just apply to the mainstream faith groups, e.g., Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox (or) Muslim," Bruno said. "It also applies to atheists, secularists, freethinkers and those whose belief systems are usually classified under the umbrella term of 'Earth-Centered Spirituality.' As a government institution ... our constitutional charter in this matter is obligatory. A denial of constitutional rights to one threatens the constitutional rights of all."

This is where we get to the root of the matter: How much should we pay to guarantee religious freedom? Because Falcon Circle is more than just a worship area -- it is also a symbol. And as a symbol, it carries with it the rocky history of Pagans who have sacrificed through their service to the United States.


Military Pagans found themselves thrust into the spotlight after a series of stories on the Fort Hood Open Circle, which was established at the Texas post in August 1997. The American-Statesman ran a feature story in May 1999, and national attention followed.

Fort Hood's chain of command stood behind their decision, much as the Air Force Academy's leaders have done here. But then-Congressman Bob Barr (R-Ga.) asked the Defense Department, "Will armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for satanic rituals?" And then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush said, "I don't believe witchcraft is a religion, and I think the military should re-examine its decision." More on those words in a moment.

The circle was desecrated Oct. 28, 2000 -- just three days before Samhain, one of the most important holidays on the Pagan calendar. Vandals armed with sledgehammers destroyed the four-foot limestone altar that the circle had bought with its own money. In a Nov. 3, 2000 email, Sacred Well Congregation director Rev. Dr. David Oringderff wrote, "One of the broken pieces left near the altar had a blue cross crudely marked upon it." It was not the first incident, Oringderff noted, but it was by far the most serious.


Pagan groups first lobbied the Veterans Administration to have the pentacle, a Pagan equivalent to the Christian cross or Jewish Star of David, added to the VA's approved list of religious symbols for tombstones at about the same time that Sacred Well set up the Fort Hood circle.

VA made no decision on the requests even after Army Sgt. Patrick Stewart, a practicing Wiccan, died in combat in Afghanistan Sept. 25, 2005. Only when civil liberties groups threatened to take the case to court did the VA approve the request, settling the case in April 2007.

Why the delay? Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said his organization's attorneys had found that Bush's comments in 1999 had influenced decisions on whether to approve the pentacle.

"One of the saddest things is to learn that this wasn't just a bureaucratic nightmare; there was a certain amount of bigotry," said Rev. Barry Lynn, AU's executive director, in a Washington Post article published April 24, 2007. "The president's wishes were interpreted at a pretty high level ... It became a political judgment, not a constitutional judgment."


While the VA case was ongoing, the Air Force Academy made headlines over allegations that its senior leaders had allowed a culture of religious intolerance to develop.

"If we have one problem of religious disrespect, it's a problem, and I need to solve that," then-Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Rosa said in a July 4, 2005, Air Force Times report.

The solutions haven't come overnight. In January 2010, about a week after I wrote a story on what would later be Falcon Circle, Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, the Earth-Centered Spirituality group's lay leader at the time, found someone had placed two railroad ties that were on the hilltop in the shape of a cross.

Academy officials investigated but could not determine the motive for the display. Was it intentional or accidental? The facts aren't clear, but to Longcrier and others, the image evoked memories of more serious incidents like the destruction of Fort Hood's circle.

There are promising signs, however. In the wake of the January incident, Vice Commandant of Cadets Col. Richard Williams told the 4,000-member Cadet Wing that the incident showed "complete lack of respect" and would not be tolerated. No further incidents have been reported.

In addition, the Academy invited representatives from Jewish, Christian, atheist and Pagan organizations to attend a conference on religious respect in November 2010. Falcon Circle was officially dedicated in May of this year, in a ceremony that Oringderff attended.

"Through Longcrier's dedication and commitment and the help and support of the U.S. Air Force, cadets of our faith group and kindred souls have a place to worship and commune with the divine in this beautiful, natural setting," he said.

After the destruction of the Fort Hood Open Circle altar in 2000, one of the group's members wrote, "Is it too much to ask that our country's service men and women be given the opportunity, respect and facilities to worship as they see fit, provided their doing so causes no harm to others?"

So let's revisit the original question: Why did the Air Force Academy build an "outdoor Stonehenge" for just a handful of cadets?

The Air Force Academy did it because it's the right thing to do. The Academy did it because those cadets will spend years of their lives putting service to their country before themselves. The Academy did it because those cadets asked for nothing more than what some 80 percent of Americans take for granted: the freedom, as illustrated in Norman Rockwell's "Freedom of Religion" war bonds painting, to worship "each according to the dictates of his own conscience." And the Academy did it because they may one day be asked, as Army Sgt. Patrick Stewart was asked, to give the last full measure of devotion.