They say Pentagon denies equal treatment
Hindus and Sufis and Buddhists got the OK. So did Mormons, Muslims and Christians. Even atheist veterans have their symbol engraved free on military headstones.
Why, wonders Scott Stearns, can’t he?
“I would hope when I pass away that both my status as a vet and my religious belief would be on my marker,” said Stearns, who medically retired from the Navy after a diagnosis of leukemia in 1996.
The quiet father of two, who lives in Kent and works at the Seattle office of the Department of Veterans Affairs, is Wiccan, a pagan form of worship that celebrates nature and the elements.
It was officially recognized by the Defense Department as a religion in 1996, and has growing groups of followers in all military branches.
But the National Cemetery Administration of the Veterans Affairs Department has yet to approve use of its symbol — the stars-and-circle pentacle — despite years of requests from Wiccan veterans.
Some complain that they have been stonewalled with letters that go unanswered, or endless responses that policies are “under revision.”
“It seems like there’s a bias. ‘Discrimination’ might be too strong a word, but it definitely seems like there might be a bias,” said Stearns, 37, who met with state representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union over the weekend to discuss possible legal actions.
Doug Honig, an ACLU spokesman, said Monday that the organization has agreed to help in Stearns’ fight, focusing on the issue of religious freedom.
“The government over the years has accepted many small religious groups that are not considered mainstream,” Honig said. “We haven’t heard any reason why the Wiccans shouldn’t be allowed to have their emblems on their headstones, too.”
The VA, which has been paying for inscriptions on gravestones since 1997, will add the word “W-I-C-C-A-N” or “P-E-N-T-A-C-L-E” to a headstone on request, but not the symbol, not until it is approved, said Anissa Alford, director of communications for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration.
Stearns, who has the symbol tattooed on his left upper arm, suspects that the hang-up may be Hollywood images that wrongly associate the pentacle with demonic cults and rituals.
It’s a perception that many Wiccans in the military have battled. “It is sad that we have to fight for what should be freely granted us,” Air Force veteran Elaine Kozanitis said. She reported that she once had to swear in a first sergeant’s office that she was not a “devil worshipper.”
Stearns has vowed to push the gravestone issue until he gets an answer. If it’s no, that opens the door to a legal appeal. Since April, he has fired off multiple letters to the state’s U.S. senators and representatives and gathered dozens of signatures.
“Working for the VA has taught me that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I have no intention of going away,” said Stearns, who spent the weekend poring over cemetery administration documents obtained through a freedom-of-information request.
The papers, he said, show the Wiccan requests date to 1996, with multiple groups applying. None was approved.
During the same years, Stearns said, several other groups saw their emblems added to the list, including the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii, the Soka Gakkai Buddhists and the American Humanist Association. More than 35 “emblems of faith” have the VA’s approval.
Alford, with the National Cemetery Administration, said no emblems are being approved currently, because policies are being updated. Groups, including the Wiccans, will have to reapply under new guidelines, to be announced soon. “We want people to prove that there is a viable organization. … We’re not going to willy-nilly approve emblems until there is a need.”
Asked about the long years of requests, she said the Wiccan groups started out with “a very scattered writing campaign. … They never sent in an application from the head of the organization speaking for the Wiccans.”
Stearns argued that Wiccans have no official head of the organization. “I want to know who the ‘head’ of the atheists is? Or even who is the head of the Hebrew faith or the head of Christian faith? How about the head of the Muslim faith?” he wrote.
But he said the archpriest of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, Pete Davis, did provide the cemetery administration with complete information about the emblem, the organization, and its members.
The Aquarian Tabernacle Church, based on the banks of the Skykomish River in Index, draws on a mailing list of about 2,500 in Western Washington. Ceremonies can draw up to 700 to “The Tab,” which includes fire pits, a drum circle and goddess shrine.
“I’m sure somebody at the VA thinks we eat babies or curse cattle. That’s nonsense,” said Davis, who sent off a letter Monday to the VA’s Office of General Counsel describing the cemetery administration’s actions as a violation of constitutional rights.
“When you study comparative religions, it’s amazing to see the similarities, see we all do the same thing: Give homage to our maker.
“We just do it differently.”
Davis, also a veteran, said the headstone issue has come into sharp focus for him in the past few years because his son is serving as a supervising medic in Iraq. “He has been concerned about his identity as a Wiccan since he was a kid, when he made a fuss in school because they wouldn’t let him wear the pentacle around his neck,” the church leader said. “I know he would want the symbol on his headstone should anything happen to him over there.”