Jun 08, 2006

The Department of Veterans Affairs must recognize religious diversity by allowing a Wiccan symbol on the memorial marker of a soldier who died in Afghanistan, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a June 7 letter to R. James Nicholson, secretary of Veterans Affairs, and William F. Tuerk, under secretary for Memorial Affairs, AU requests that the widow of Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart be permitted to place a Wiccan pentacle on his marker and that the department extend that same right to other Wiccan families.

Stewart, a Wiccan, was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 25, 2005. The Nevada resident was a highly decorated Army soldier who was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and other honors. His widow, Roberta Stewart, has repeatedly sought to have the Wiccan pentacle placed on his marker, but Veterans Affairs officials have not responded.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, called the situation outrageous.

“A brave man died in service to his country,” Lynn said. “The federal government has a duty to allow his widow to honor his chosen faith.

“Aside from the constitutional issues raised, this is a simple matter of justice and common decency,” Lynn continued. “I am hopeful the Veterans Affairs Department will do the right thing and extend full recognition to Wiccans and their families.”

Wiccans have been trying for at least nine years to persuade the National Cemetery Administration to add the pentacle to its list of approved emblems for government headstones, markers, and plaques. Most recently, the Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin filed an application in January 2006, but the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Cemetery Administration have failed to act on it. A department official refused to even provide a time-frame for issuing a decision.

“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,” wrote Aram A. Schvey, AU litigation counsel, in the letter to Nicholson and Tuerk. “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.”

Schvey added, “Sergeant Stewart gave his life fulfilling his oath to protect and defend the Constitution, including the First Amendment protections that have allowed him and his family the freedom to worship as they choose. It is a cruel irony that the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Cemetery Administration, rather than extending the thanks of a grateful nation to the family of a fallen soldier, are undermining the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom for which Sgt. Stewart fought and died.”

The letter requests that the Department of Veterans Affairs respond within 30 days to avoid litigation.

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.