U.S. troops want pentacle on graves
WASHINGTON — Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Ballard says the Department of Veterans Affairs is denying him a right by not permitting him to have the pentacle — his Wiccan faith’s symbol — engraved on his government-issued tombstone when he dies.
“I serve my country and I live my religion and both are very dear to me,” said Ballard, the lay leader for Wiccans at Marine Corps Base in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. “I feel like I should be represented … as an active duty military person and as a Wiccan.”
Roberta Stewart is upset with the VA for not allowing a pentacle — a circle with an inscribed five-pointed star — to be used on a plaque for her husband, Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed in Afghanistan last year.
She was told the symbol was not among the 38 emblems of faith recognized for use on VA headstones and memorials.
“Our pentacle represents our spirit and our soul,” she said. “It’s my eternal connection to my husband.”
Wiccans have been fighting nine years for VA recognition of their nature-worshipping faith.
The VA recognizes symbols for Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, Sikhs and atheists. In 2003, the VA approved the American Humanist Association’s emblem of spirit, a stylized human figure with arms stretched upward.
The problem, Wiccans say, is misinformation accusing Wiccans of practicing witchcraft and worshipping Satan. Part of the problem: Satan-worshipers use an upside-down pentacle as one of their symbols.
Sharona Angel, a teacher of Wicca in Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, and other Wicca followers emphasize that their religion is peaceful and focuses on a central tenant that they must not harm others. They believe in psychic energy and practice their faith through meditations, rituals and other observances.
“It’s really ridiculous prejudice,” Angel said. “Wicca and Native American religions, they are almost identical.”
The IRS has granted religious tax exemptions for Wiccan churches and the federal courts have recognized Wicca as a valid religion, said Pierre Davis, archpriest of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, a Wiccan church in Index, Wash.
The nation’s armed forces have recognized Wiccans for decades and let them practice their faith on base, Davis said. Among the nation’s 1.4 million service members at the end of March, about 1,900 described themselves as Wiccan, according to the Pentagon.
Davis’ group has sought the VA’s approval of the pentacle for use on grave markers since 1997.
“We’re not those things that some of the evangelicals think we are,” he said. “We don’t boil babies down to make salve and we don’t curse the cattle and all that nonsense. Gosh, it’s the 21st Century. Grow up.”
The VA has said requests for the pentacle’s approval are still being considered. Jo Shuda, a VA spokeswoman, said she didn’t know when a decision would be made. The agency said it expects to review new internal rules it issued last year for approving emblems of belief and will accept public comments.