The VA allows use of 38 other emblems of faith, but not the pentacle. After nearly 10 years of efforts, lawsuit takes the issue to federal court.
Pete Pathfinder Davis has been fighting for nearly a decade to have the emblem of his faith engraved on the headstones of veterans buried in federal cemeteries.
But the application he filed in 1997 with the Department of Veterans Affairs for use of the pentacle — a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle — is still pending.
Davis and other Wiccans, who sometimes describe themselves as pagans or witches, say it is time for the VA to recognize their religion, which worships nature and employs the practice of “magick.”
The battle over grave markers gained a higher profile recently with a dispute over a Wiccan serviceman’s headstone in Nevada and a lawsuit filed Sept. 29 on behalf of two churches and three Wiccans. The federal suit seeks to compel the VA to provide Wiccans the same recognition it affords 38 other groups, including atheists, who can have symbols of their beliefs sandblasted onto headstones.
The lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., by the American Civil Liberties Union against Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson and the VA’s burial and memorial unit says that, by one survey, there are 1,800 Wiccans in the military.
The military has long embraced religious diversity, as long as a practice does not interfere with duties or harm others. Wicca is mentioned in military chaplains’ manuals, and the Department of Defense for decades has allowed soldiers to list Wicca on their dog tags.
Denying Wiccans the long-held tradition of professing faith on grave markers “greatly burdens the free exercise of religion of veterans and their families,” according to the lawsuit.
“All those who served and died for their country should be treated with the same dignity and respect,” said Daniel Mach, an ACLU attorney. “And the government should not be in the business of deciding which veterans’ faiths get honored.”
VA spokeswoman Jo Schuda was unable to fully explain the delays, which she said may have been caused by VA regulation changes and the Wiccan religion’s lack of a national headquarters.
“There are a lot of mysteries within bureaucracies, and maybe this is one of them,” she said. “The as-yet unanswerable might come out in the course of litigation.”
The symbols allowed by the VA include various styles of Christian crosses, the Jewish Star of David and emblems for Buddhism, Islam and the Native American Church of North America, which uses the hallucinogenic peyote plant in its rituals. Atheists’ symbol is a basic atomic structure.
In the Wiccan pentacle, the circle symbolizes eternity, and the five points of the star represent earth, air, fire, water and the unifying spirit. Modern Wicca is a reconstruction of ancient pagan religions that existed in Europe. It bows to many gods and goddesses, celebrates solar and lunar cycles and stresses the avoidance of harm to others.
The name Wicca in Old English meant witch, and the religion relies on witchcraft, called magick, in hopes of influencing human affairs and natural events. Numbers are elusive, because there is no central Wiccan church, but scholars estimate there are 134,000 self-identified Wiccans in the United States.
Plaintiffs in the ACLU suit include Patricia Darlene Howell Corneilson, mother of Army Pfc. James A. Price, who was killed in action in Iraq on Sept. 18, 2004; Kathleen Egbert, the surviving daughter of World War II Army veteran Abraham Kooiman, who was interred in Arlington National Cemetery in May 2003; and retired disabled Navy veteran Scott Stearns, who served in the Persian Gulf War and was honorably discharged in 1997.
Egbert, 59, a management program analyst with the Department of Homeland Security and Laurel, Md., resident, reflected on the pending application with the VA. “Everyone is saying it’s too bad and a shame that when my mother died this year, we buried her next to my father, and this problem was still not resolved,” she said.
The other plaintiffs are Correllian Nativist Church International Inc., in Albany, N.Y., and the Aquarian Tabernacle Church in Index, Wash., which is led by Wiccan Archpriest Davis.
Of particular concern to the plaintiffs was the VA’s rapid processing of at least six similar headstone applications filed over the last nine years by other faiths, including the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii, a Shinto sect, and the Buddhist group Soka Gakkai International USA.
“The VA doesn’t perceive those groups as evil, just odd,” said Davis, whose 22-year-old son recently returned from Navy medic duty in Iraq. “They see us as evil, which is ridiculous. Our religious services are just as boring as any other religion’s.”
The VA hasn’t spelled out its objections, but Wiccans theorize that VA officials are confusing Wicca with Satanism. Wiccans are neither Satanists nor devil worshipers and they “strenuously reject the forces of evil,” according to the lawsuit. Although Satanism also uses a five-pointed star, it points down, not up.
The Wiccan case is being closely watched by supportive groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“Anyone who serves their country honorably in uniform should have their religious symbol on their headstone, regardless of their religion,” said VFW spokesman Joe Davis.
In a separate case, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn determined in September that he had the discretion to honor a request by Roberta Stewart to have a pentacle placed on her husband’s plaque at the State Veterans Memorial Wall in Fernley, east of Reno.
Her husband, Army National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 25, 2005.
Stewart had unsuccessfully asked the VA for the pentacle.
“It’s a sad example of the government giving preference to many religions and ignoring this one,” said Barry Lynn, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing Stewart in her ongoing fight with the VA. “That’s an indefensible constitutional position.”
Not surprisingly, the case has become a cause celebre for Wiccans and pagans nationwide.
“The founding fathers set up the country to avoid favoring any denomination,” said Diana Paxon, an ordained pagan priestess in Berkeley. “But as long as we keep having wars, people of all faiths will keep dying in them, and they are going to need headstones.”