Ever since the Air Force Academy in Colorado unveiled the Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle, an outdoor space dedicated primarily for use by cadets and staff who follow Pagan, Native American, and Earth-based religious traditions, its been dogged by controversy. The circle, which was created in response to a genuine need among Pagan cadets, was vandalized shortly after it first received press attention in 2010. Then, after its official dedication in May of last year, a wave of criticism and ignorant opinion pieces could be found from the usual corners. Things seemed to die down after that, but comment and controversy were stirred up once again after the LA Times wrote about Falcon Circle in November, noting its $80,000 dollar price tag.
“Still, the academy this year dedicated an $80,000 outdoor worship center — a small Stonehenge-like circle of boulders with propane fire pit — high on a hill for the handful of current or future cadets whose religions fall under the broad category of “Earth-based.” Those include pagans, Wiccans, druids, witches and followers of Native American faiths.”
That spurred a new wave of commentary about government waste and political correctness gone amuck, which prompted the Air Force Academy to defend the cost, and their commitment to religious plurality.
“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 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.”
That commentary by Don Branum, published on December 27th, movingly recounts the struggles of Pagans in the military, and declares that building Falcon Circle was “the right thing to do.” Branum’s defense trickled into the mainstream media yesterday via The Denver Post, who did note that the circle is available to all cadets, not just Pagans, and that the initially reported cost estimates are deceptively high. Whether these clarifications reach the critics who were quick to condemn Falcon Circle, or manage to change the minds of those who believe the Air Force Academy is being overrun by unholy forces is an open question. Whatever the outcome from the latest round of publicity, this defense of Falcon Circle by the AFA is a welcome sign, and part of an ongoing initiative to create a culture of religious respect.
“You don’t have to be scared about sharing your religion or think you need to stay in the broom closet about it,” Cadet Johnson says. “People are very understanding. We have officers in charge of us who are very understanding, the Chaplains are very understanding so it’s very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy.”
Here’s hoping that it continues to be “very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy, “ and that Pagan cadets can get back to focusing on their lessons instead of being put under a microscope by those looking to prove some ideological point.