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24 April 2007

vets' Wiccan symbol accepted on military graves

There's No Faith, there's Big Famous Faith, and there's Small Obscure Faith. Sometimes Big Government thinks its job is to help Big Faith stay Big, and keep Small Faith out of places like cemeteries for military veterans.

President George W. Bush seems to have cast his shadow on this business when he was governor of Texas. For the record, he was raised in the Episcopal Church, and after his marriage joined the United Methodist Church.

Once a member of the military dies or leaves active duty, his or her relationship to the military is transfered to the federal agency once known as the Veterans Administration (VA), but changed a decade ago to the cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA). "DVA" has yet to catch on in vet usage, and most vets and their families still think of this large bureaucracy as "the VA."

Historically, the agency has been particularly prone to political and corruption scandals. Its high moment in serving veterans was probably immediately after World War Two, when President Truman named 5-star General of the Army Omar Bradley to be the VA's postwar chief. At more ordinary moments, VA chiefs tend to be picked from the leadership of the large national vets organizations like the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

I don't know how many member of the U.S. military are Wiccans. According to his widow, US Army Sergeant Patrick Stewart listed "Wiccan" as his religion on his dogtags. The Roman state religion/pantheon did not forbid other beliefs, and many Roman soldiers were followers of the god Mithras. Later a small, obscure faith, Christianity, became popular with Roman soldiers, and eventually this influenced the Emperor Constantine's decision to make Christianity the Empire's official religion.

For what it's worth, when I've wandered through large military cemeteries, I like to see different faith symbols. The more different faith symbols I see, the more it seems to reflect America, and what the sailors and soldiers and fliers thought they served for.

Petty faith squabbling is the business of the living, and the business of bureaucrats, and has no business in a cemetery. What the DVA had been doing was an invisible desecration, but just as ugly as any other desecration of a grave.


The Associated Press
pickup in The Las Vegas (Nevada) Sun
Monday 23 April 2007

Veterans agency, Wiccans
settle grave symbol suit

by SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press Writer

MADISON, Wisconsin -- A nearly 10-year quest by Wiccans to have their religious symbol added to the list of emblems allowed in national cemeteries and on government-issued headstones of fallen soldiers ended Monday with a lawsuit settlement.

The agreement was reached between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Wiccans, including a Fernley, Nev., woman, who sued to include the five-pointed star in the list of "emblems of belief" allowed on VA grave markers.

Eleven families nationwide are waiting for grave markers with the pentacle, said Selena Fox, a Wiccan high priestess with Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The settlement calls for the pentacle, whose five points represent earth, air, fire, water and spirit, to be placed on grave markers within 14 days for those who have pending requests with the VA.

"I am glad this has ended in success in time to get markers for Memorial Day," Fox said.

The pentacle joins 38 symbols the VA already permits on gravestones. They include commonly recognized symbols for Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, as well as those for smaller religions such as Sufism Reoriented, Eckankar and the Japanese faith Seicho-No-Ie.

"This settlement has forced the Bush Administration into acknowledging that there are no second class religions in America, including among our nation's veterans," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which brought the lawsuit on the Wiccans' behalf.

The VA sought the settlement in the interest of the families involved and to save taxpayers the expense of further litigation, VA spokesman Matt Burns said. The agency also agreed to pay $225,000 in attorneys' fees and costs.

At a news conference in Washington, Lynn said federal documents uncovered during the litigation showed that President Bush's personal beliefs influenced the VA's refusal to allow the pentacle on grave markers. In a 1999 ABC News "Good Morning America" segment about Wiccan ceremonies at Fort Hood in Texas, Bush, then the state's governor, said, "I don't think witchcraft is a religion. I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made."

"This then shows up in documents in this administration, noting that any decision will be -- in one word used -- political," Lynn said. "It's clear to us that there were political, not constitutional considerations."

VA officials did not immediately return phone messages left Monday on Lynn's comments.

Wicca is a nature-based religion based on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons. Variations of the pentacle not accepted by Wiccans have been used in horror movies as a sign of the devil.

The agreement settles a lawsuit filed in November by veterans' widows and others alleging that the VA made "excuse after excuse" over nearly 10 years for not recognizing the pentacle.

VA-issued headstones, markers and plaques can be used in any cemetery, whether it is a national one such as Arlington or a private burial ground like that on Circle Sanctuary's property.

The lawsuit was filed by Circle Sanctuary, Isis Invicta Military Mission -- a Wiccan and Pagan congregation serving military personnel based in Geyserville, Calif. -- Jill Medicine Heart Combs, whose veteran husband is severely ill, and two members of Circle Sanctuary whose husbands were veterans -- Roberta Stewart of Nevada and Karen DePolito of Utah.

At the Washington news conference announcing the settlement, Stewart said the fight for recognition was long, but now it was time to celebrate.

"I was in shock the day I ordered my husband's memorial plaque and was told I could not put our emblem of faith, the pentacle, on that plaque," she said. "I cried for days. I never thought my own government would take the freedoms my husband and I held so dear away from us."

The American Civil Liberties Union said the agreement also settles a similar lawsuit it filed last year against the VA. In that case, the ACLU represented two other Wiccan churches and three individuals.

- 30 -

Associated Press writer Fred Frommer contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

VA approved religious emblems

Circle Sanctuary

1 comment:

Jim Olson said...

Just a note of interest, Barry Lynn is actually The Rev. Barry Lynn, ordained United Church of Christ pastor. Go Barry!