Aug 03, 2006

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is stepping up its effort to persuade the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to approve a Wiccan symbol for headstones, plaques and other memorials of deceased veterans.

Americans United is now officially representing Circle Sanctuary, one of America's oldest Wiccan churches, and church member, Roberta Stewart, a Nevada woman whose husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, died in combat in Afghanistan on Sept. 25, 2005. Sgt. Stewart's helicopter was shot down by the Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom. Circle Sanctuary, headquartered near Barneveld, Wisc., has church members throughout the United States and elsewhere.

Circle Sanctuary and Roberta Stewart seek to have the Wiccan emblem of belief, the pentacle, included on the government-issued memorial plaque honoring Sgt. Stewart. His plaque is to go on the Wall of Heroes at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery near Fernley, Nev.

In addition to Roberta Stewart, Circle Sanctuary has other church members who want the pentacle on the VA-issued memorial markers of their deceased veteran husbands, including a Korean War veteran from Utah and a Vietnam War-era veteran from Ohio.

The VA permits only the symbols they have approved and included on their National Cemetery Administration's list of emblems of belief to be used on headstones, plaques and markers. The symbols of 38 groups have been approved, but the Wiccan pentacle is not among them.

Backed by Americans United, Stewart and the Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, are working to convince the Department of Veterans Affairs to approve the use of the pentacle on government-issued markers at public and private gravesites and memorials for Wiccan soldiers. Most recently, Fox filed a request with the VA in January of this year. Officials with the National Cemetery Admistration responded, but refused to tell Fox when they might complete action on Circle Sanctuary's application.

In June, Americans United sent a letter to VA officials, citing case law and asking them to approve use of the symbol. Observed the letter, "The National Cemetery Administration's failure to recognize the Wiccan Pentacle as a valid religious symbol constitutes unconstitutional discrimination against the Wiccan faith and its adherents. Indeed, there is absolutely no legal support for the Administration's practice of maintaining a list of officially-approved religious symbols much less its exclusion of any religious symbol from the officially provided markers for military gravesites."

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, noted that the first application for approval of the pentacle was filed by a Wiccan church nine years ago.

"There is simply no reason for officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs to continue dragging their feet over this matter," Lynn said. "Religious freedom means all religions, and it's time for the department to stop discriminating and institute a policy that respects America's great tradition of religious diversity."

Americans United plans to appeal to the Department of Veterans Affairs again as well as ask Congress to investigate the matter.

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.