Nov 13, 2006

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed litigation against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) over its refusal to include the Wiccan symbol of faith on its official list of emblems for government headstones and markers.

Americans United is representing Roberta Stewart, whose husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2005; Karen DePolito, whose husband, Jerome Birnbaum, is a veteran of the Korean War who died last year; Circle Sanctuary, a prominent Wiccan church; and the Isis Invicta Military Mission, a Wiccan and Pagan congregation serving military personnel.

The filing of the litigation was announced this afternoon at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., by the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director; Roberta Stewart; the Rev. Selena Fox, Circle Sanctuary’s senior minister; and Americans United Assistant Legal Director Richard Katskee.

“For far too long, the VA has discriminated against service members of the Wiccan faith,” said Americans United’s Lynn. “After asking the VA on a number of occasions to stop its unfair treatment of Wiccans in the military, we have no alternative but to seek justice in the courts.”

Circle Sanctuary and Stewart have repeatedly called on the VA to include the pentacle an encircled, intertwined five-pointed star on its official list, but have been rebuffed.

The VA’s list of 38 approved symbols for government gravestones, markers and plaques includes emblems for Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Hindus, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the United Moravian Church, Humanists, Eckankar and the United Church of Religious Science.

The first Wiccan request to the VA came almost a decade ago. Since that time, the VA has approved the symbols of six other religions and belief systems. The VA also approved the Sikh emblem in just a few weeks.

Wicca is a nature-based religion grounded in pre-Christian beliefs. Circle Sanctuary says the Wiccan religion honors the Divine as both Mother and Father, encompasses love and respect of Nature, celebrates the cycles of Sun and Moon, and encourages adherents to live in harmony with other humans and the greater Circle of Life.

Stewart, a Nevada citizen, is awaiting a memorial plaque for her late husband on the Wall of Heroes at the Northern Veterans Memorial Cemetery near Fernley. Following his death, Sgt. Stewart was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. Sgt. Stewart and his crew perished when their Chinook helicopter was destroyed by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The Nevada Office of Veterans Services has informed Stewart that the cemetery is on state land and that it will provide a pentacle-inscribed plaque for her husband since the VA has refused.

Stewart, however, remains committed to ensuring that the VA includes the pentacle on its list of approved emblems of belief, so other Wiccan service members and their families will be able to honor their loved ones in accordance with their beliefs.

“I won’t rest until the VA recognizes the pentacle as an emblem of belief,” Stewart said. “I will continue to fight the department’s discriminatory policy on behalf of other Wiccan service members and their families.”

Fox, a Wiccan high priestess and longtime advocate of religious liberty, also criticized the VA for its callous disregard of the civil liberties of so many.

“The VA should equally honor all our nation’s soldiers and their families,” Fox said. “Religious liberty is a fundamental American value that the VA should not need a court order to respect.”

Americans United has twice written to VA officials urging them to stop discriminating against Wiccan service members.

AU attorney Katskee said that it has become apparent that litigation is the only course.

“This case is about bolstering religious freedom in this country,” Katskee said. “The VA’s cramped view of religious freedom has done great harm to Wiccan service members, veterans and their families. The litigation is about forcing the VA to start recognizing religious freedom for all its veterans, not just those who adhere to more mainstream or well-known religions.”

Katskee and AU Litigation Counsel Aram Schvey are litigating the case against the VA. The lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.