First Wiccan plaque to be dedicated at Nevada veterans cemetery

RENO, Nev. — Friends and family of a Nevada soldier killed in Afghanistan more than a year ago plan to gather at a veterans cemetery Saturday to dedicate what they say is the first government-issued memorial plaque in the country to include a symbol of the Wiccan faith.

The multicultural, interfaith service for Sgt. Patrick Stewart of Fernley will include blessings by American Indians, Jews, Christians and Wiccans, said the Rev. Selena Fox, one of the Wiccan organizers of the memorial.

‘‘There’s quite a diversity of people who are going to be there,’’ Fox said Friday before leaving her home in Wisconsin for the trip to northern Nevada.

‘‘People are flying in from across the country to attend the dedication,’’ she said.

Stewart’s plaque was installed last week on the Veterans Memorial Wall at the Northern Nevada Veterans Cemetery in Fernley, about 30 miles east of Reno.

The Nevada Army National Guardsmen and four other soldiers died Sept. 25, 2005, when their Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.

Since then, Stewart’s widow, Roberta, has been fighting to make the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognize the Wiccan pentacle — a five-pointed star enclosed in a circle — for plaques and headstones at veterans’ cemeteries.

Citing its jurisdiction over maintenance of the state cemetery, the Nevada Office of Veteran Services issued the plaque in September while Stewart’s family and others continue a legal battle with the VA.

VA rules recognize more than 30 symbols, including the Star of David, more than a dozen variations of the Christian cross and even the atomic whirl used by atheists, but not the pentacle.

VA officials have said they are rewriting rules and procedures for approving emblems, a process which also requires a public comment period.

Last month, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit on the Wiccans’ behalf claiming the VA’s actions amount to constitutional violations of free speech, freedom of religion and due process.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, the group’s executive director, said Stewart is fortunate to have lived in a state in which the governor is so ‘‘accommodating of religious freedom.’’

‘‘I appreciate the decisiveness of Gov. Kenny Guinn,’’ he said in a statement to be read at Saturday’s dedication.

‘‘But the governor should not have had to take that action, as welcome as it is. Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs should have granted approval for the use of the pentacle long ago. This fight was unnecessary,’’ he said.

Wiccans, who worship the earth, say the pentacle represents earth, air, fire, water and spirit. Most believe they must contribute to the community, and some consider themselves good witches, pagans or neo-pagans.

Fox said she’s especially pleased that the ceremony will include a blessing from an American Indian from the Reno area, Mato Witko, who is part Commanche and part Irish and serves as a pipe-carrier and intertribal sweatlodge leader in the Lakota tradition.

‘‘Sgt. Stewart, while he was Wiccan, had a very strong affinity for Native American ways, too,’’ Fox said.

‘‘There will be a blessing in the Christian tradition and a Jewish prayer and blessing and I’ll do a Wiccan thanksgiving and blessing of the plaque,’’ she said.

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