In what seems to be a case of genuine religious persecution, a Hindu dental technician working on a contract with the U.S. Air Force says she was fired because of her religious beliefs.
And in a move that has been described as “a literal ‘witch hunt,’” her former co-workers even accused her of practicing witchcraft.
Deborah Schoenfeld was working at Epes Dental Clinic at Fort Meade, Md., until she was terminated on Sept. 2. The Air Force Times reported that the official reason given for Schoenfeld’s firing was her alleged use of profanity toward a co-worker. That was the same day Schoenfeld filed a formal complaint in which she alleged religion-based harassment and discrimination by her colleagues. The timing of her termination was a coincidence, I’m sure.
Schoenfeld’s allegations are alarming, and if true show a pattern of persistent harassment because of her beliefs. In an interview with the Times, Schoenfeld said she was accused of being satanic simply because she practiced yoga and meditation.
Schoenfeld also said one of her former colleagues allegedly told her that she prayed for Schoenfeld to find Jesus and claimed that meditation is a dark art that can summon demons.
A co-worker, Schoenfeld claims, told her that “all the soldiers who are doing meditation and yoga to help their PTSD, they are getting infected also.”
Two of Schoenfeld’s former co-workers admitted to the Times that Schoenfeld’s allegations are accurate. They said other dental technicians were “deeply suspicious” of Hinduism and one said Schoenfeld was referred to as a “Hindu witch.”
In a complaint made this week by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), an Americans United ally, the group said that while Schoenfeld practices Hinduism, she does have some interest in Wicca. As a result, she was accused of “witchcraft” and “bringing demons into the office.”
MRFF also said Schoenfeld was criticized for not sharing the same evangelical Christian views as her superiors, and she was chastised for not participating in Christian rituals and practices. She was scolded for playing music from India in the office because it was “not Christian,” while others were permitted to play Christian music in the clinic.
Schoenfeld was even pressured by superiors to pray against the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent marriage-equality ruling because it is “an abomination to their [Christian] religion,” MRFF said.
MRFF added that these allegations are not based exclusively on Schoenfeld’s version of events, asserting, “We have spoken with witnesses at the clinic… who have universally confirmed that, not only did this horrid harassment take place, but ever since the execution of her punishment for failing the religious test imposed by the leadership of Epes Dental Clinic, a particular offending party has effusively celebrated her replacement by a Catholic woman by saying publicly that ‘It’s good to see we got an angel, since last time we had the devil.’”
It seems at least some of the staff at Epes Dental Clinic would have fit right in at Salem, Mass., circa 1692. It is shocking that Schoenfeld experienced this level of harassment just because she did not practice the predominant faith at the clinic, and if her allegations are true, it seems the entire staff at Epes needs an immersive course in the First Amendment right away. No one working in the U.S. military should ever be pressured to observe a particular faith, nor punished for their beliefs.
Schoenfeld’s experience shows what true religious persecution looks like. The Religious Right whines constantly about the supposed persecution of Christians in the military, yet here we have a woman who was actually fired not only for practicing her faith, but for refusing to participate in Christian activities. No Christian has experienced similar treatment in the armed forces – though many claim (falsely) that they have.
Fundamentalist Christians in all walks of life in the United States need to stop treating everyone who doesn’t think the way they do as a threat. It’s safe to say Schoenfeld never put a spell on anyone and that no one was hurt by practicing yoga with her. These right wingers must learn to tolerate other viewpoints. At the same time, those in positions of authority in the military must understand that minority beliefs deserve protection – not persecution.