This Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of one of Americans United’s most important religious freedom victories. AU represented Roberta Stewart, a Nevada woman whose husband, Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart, had been killed in action in Afghanistan in September of 2005 but who was denied the right to be memorialized in a way that was meaningful for his family.
The Stewarts were Wiccans, and Roberta wanted to honor her husband’s faith by putting the pentacle, the symbol of the Wiccan religion, on a memorial marker at the Wall of Heroes at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery near Fernley.
But there was a problem: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) argued that the pentacle was not on its list of “approved” symbols and refused to allow it.
Memorial markers and headstones for fallen service personnel routinely include religious symbols such as crosses, stars of David and the Muslim crescent and star. The VA’s list included 38 symbols, and not all of them religious – symbols for atheism and humanism are available. But because the pentacle was not on the VA’s list, officials said it could not appear on Stewart’s marker.
Americans United explained to VA officials that this policy was clearly discriminatory, but they wouldn’t budge. Left with no other options, on Nov. 13, 2006, AU filed suit against the VA in a federal court. AU brought the legal action on behalf of two Wiccan groups, Circle Sanctuary and Isis Invicta Military Mission, as well as Roberta Stewart and two other plaintiffs.
The lawsuit got the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which contacted AU and asked about settling the case. Negotiations began, and on April 23, 2007, AU held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to announce the settlement: The pentacle was approved for use.
During the press conference, Roberta Stewart spoke movingly.
“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,” Stewart 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. Then, I realized my husband would want me to stand strong and fight for those freedoms; after all, he died for them. So as hard as it was, I did.”
The Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary later remarked, “Americans need to know that just because the Constitution is a foundation document for the U.S., it does not mean it is fully implemented for everyone. We must work together to keep our freedoms healthy and strong.”
I’m proud of AU’s work in this case. Even 15 years later, I’m still struck by the blatant violation of religious freedom that occurred. The government treated Wiccans differently, like second-class citizens, because some people don’t like their faith or considered it illegitimate.
We often hear Christian nationalists these days claim violations of “religious freedom” because their secular business isn’t allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ people, they are expected to tolerate the presence of birth control in an employee health care plan or they’re not permitted to use the power of the government to force their faith on others. (Or a public school football coach is told to stop pressuring students to pray.)
These are not real violations of religious freedom – they’re simply people seeking to abuse that principle as an instrument to discriminate against others, subject them to harms or take away their rights. It is discouraging to see a treasured American right pressed into such shabby service.
There are plenty of real violations of religious freedom out there. If you want to know what they look like, I’d recommend you talk to Roberta Stewart.