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08 July 2006

the tomb of the [faith redacted] soldier

Roberta Stewart holds Wiccan wreath at the funeral of her husband, US Army Sgt. Patrick Stewart, killed when his helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan.

Letters to the Editor
The Daily Hampshire Gazette
Northampton Massachusetts USA

To the Editor:

It is unseemly and un-American that the Department of Veterans Affairs refuses to allow Army Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who died serving his country in Afghanistan, to display the symbol of his Wiccan faith on a monument to fallen servicemen and servicewomen ("Fallen Soldier gets Bronze Star, but no Wiccan star," 8-9 July).

The Department of Defense acknowledges and protects the right of U.S. military personnel to practice their Wiccan beliefs, and does not discriminate against Wiccan soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel.

The DVA's discrimination reminds us of what life and death were like for the members of an obscure, tiny, misunderstood religion in the Roman Empire in 80 A.D. Christianity was the Faith That Dared Not Speak Its Name, and to this day, the empire that ruled the known world by military force is remembered for its cruel persecution of Jesus and a century of his followers.

Christianity grew from a tiny persecuted cult to one of the world's largest faiths because Roman soldiers in boiling deserts and freezing forests at the edges of empire heard Christian preachers amd became Christians in increasing numbers. By the time Rome made Christianity its official faith, most Roman soldiers had chosen to become Christians.

The DVA believes its persecution of a dead Wiccan soldier and his widow will be popular with Americans. But those for whom Sgt. Stewart gave his life would do well to ask why the DVA approves crosses, crescents, stars of David, and the symbols for 38 other religions, but bans the Wiccan pentangle.

Sgt. Stewart made two choices: to serve in America's military, and to follow the Wiccan faith. In denying his right of freedom of religion, the DVA is not reflecting what America stands for; it is defending what Rome stood for.

Robert Merkin

Specialist-5, US Army 1969-1971
Northampton Massachusetts


Washington Post (Washington DC USA)
pickup in The Boston Globe (Boston Massachusetts USA)
Saturday 8 July 2006

On wall of local heroes,
a name is absent

Widow wants Wicca noted

by Alan Cooperman, Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- At the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in the small town of Fernley, Nevada, there is a wall of brass plaques for local heroes. But one space is blank. There is no memorial for Sergeant Patrick Stewart.

That's because Stewart was a Wiccan, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs has refused to allow a symbol of the Wicca religion -- a five-pointed star within a circle, called a pentacle -- to be inscribed on US military memorials or grave markers.

The department has approved the symbols of 38 other faiths; about half are versions of the Christian cross. It also allows the Jewish Star of David, the Muslim crescent, the Buddhist wheel, the Mormon angel, the nine-pointed star of Bahai, and something that looks like an atomic symbol for atheists.

Stewart, 34, is believed to be the first Wiccan killed in combat. He was serving in the Nevada National Guard when the helicopter in which he was riding was shot down in Afghanistan in September. He previously had served in the Army in Korea and Operation Desert Storm. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

His widow, Roberta Stewart, scattered his ashes in the hills above Reno, Nevada, and would like him to have a permanent memorial.

She said the veterans cemetery in Fernley offered to install a plaque with his name and no religious symbol. She refused.

"I feel very strongly that my husband fought for the Constitution of the United States, he was proud of his spirituality and of being a Wiccan, and he was proud of being an American," she said.

Wicca is one of the fastest-growing faiths in the country.
Its adherents have increased almost 17-fold from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. The Pentagon says that more than 1,800 Wiccans are on active duty in the armed forces.

Wiccans still suffer, however, from the misconception that they are devil worshippers. Some Wiccans call themselves witches, pagans, or neopagans. Most of their rituals revolve around the cycles of nature, such as equinoxes and phases of the moon.

Federal courts have recognized Wicca as a religion since 1986. Prisons across the country treat it as a legitimate faith, as do the Internal Revenue Service and the US military, which allows Wiccan ceremonies on its bases.

But applications from Wiccan groups and individuals to VA for use of the pentacle on grave markers have been pending for nine years, during which time the symbols of 11 other faiths have been approved.

Department spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said the VA turned down Wiccans in the past because religious groups used to be required to list a headquarters or central authority, which Wicca does not have. But that requirement was eliminated last year, she noted. "I really have no idea why it has taken so long" for the Wiccan symbol to gain approval, she said.

Retired Army Chaplain William Chrystal, a United Church of Christ minister who was chaplain of Stewart's National Guard unit, backs Roberta Stewart's request.

"It's such a clear First Amendment issue, I can't even conceive of why they are not granting it, except for political reasons," he said. "I think the powers-that-be are afraid they'll alienate conservative Christians if they approve a symbol that connotes witches and warlocks casting spells and brewing potions."

Nevada's congressional delegation, including Senate minority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, also has supported Roberta Stewart.

But letters printed by Nevada newspapers indicate how much hostility Wiccans face. "I don't see how anything that supports witchcraft and satanism can legitimately be called a religion," one reader wrote to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

- 30 -

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Sgt. Patrick Stewart

Sgt. Patrick Stewart (Born Reno, Nevada 21 October 1970 - 25 September 2005) was a soldier in the United States Army. He died in combat in Afghanistan when his Chinook helicopter was shot down by [an enemy] rocket-propelled grenade while returning to base. Patrick Stewart was a resident of Fernley, Nevada, USA.

After his death, controversy ensued when the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) refused to imprint a Wiccan pentacle on his grave, to the dismay of his widow, Roberta Stewart. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its National Cemetery Administration prohibit graphics on government-furnished headstones or markers other than those they have approved as "emblems of belief," and Wicca is not recognized for use in its cemeteries. [citation needed]

Roberta Stewart commented "... remember that all freedoms are worth fighting for." At an alternate memorial service with Wiccan clergy (the official VA cemetery did not allow them to be present) Roberta Stewart placed a blue wreath with a white pentacle on his gravestone, which was blank aside for the typical name and dates of birth and death.

On May 27, 2006, the Associated Press reported, "Over the years, families have used religious symbols such as the Jewish Star of David, the Christian cross and the Islamic crescent and star to honor their loved ones on headstones and markers. For Sgt. Patrick Stewart's family, the symbol of choice was also from his religion: the Wiccan pentacle. But of all the symbols and faiths recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Wicca and its emblem, a circle around a five-pointed star, are not among them." According to federal guidelines, only approved religious symbols -- of which there are 30 -- can be placed on government headstones or memorial plaques.

The Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister of the Wiccan Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wisconsin, is among those who have been pushing the federal government to adopt the emblem. Fox said "Veterans Affairs has been considering such requests for nearly nine years with no decision. While this stonewalling continues, families of soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice are still waiting for equal rights."

John W. Whitehead, President of the Rutherford Institute wrote in his June 5, 2006, editorial on Christianity Today's website, "Although our country was founded on a Judeo-Christian base, the Framers of the Constitution understood that religious freedom was for everyone, not just Christians. In other words, the only way that freedom can prevail for Christians is for Christians to stand up and fight for the minority beliefs and religions of others."


* USA Today May 27, 2006
* Tom Gardner, Associated Press May 29, 2006
* Christianity Today June 5, 2006

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