A Wiccan Symbol on a VA Memorial?
The Military Christian’s Response
Updated April 2007. See bottom of page for most recent updates to this story.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) is now representing Mrs. Roberta Stewart, the widow of fallen soldier SGT Patrick Stewart, in her dealings with the Veterans’ Administration (VA). Mrs. Stewart is a Wiccan and desires to have a Wiccan symbol (a “pentacle,” an encircled five pointed star) placed on a VA-funded memorial plaque. (Her efforts have also been reported in the Washington Post.) To be clear, Mrs. Stewart is not seeking a headstone to place on an unmarked grave, as she has scattered her husband’s ashes elsewhere. The plaque she seeks would be placed on a “Wall of Heroes” memorial at a veterans’ cemetery near Fernley, Nevada. When notified that her pentacle was not authorized, the VA offered to produce a plaque with no emblem, but Mrs. Stewart declined. The request for a pentacle was made in January of this year. In June, the AU corresponded with the Veterans’ Administration on her behalf and demanded a response within 30 days to “avoid litigation.”
The Veterans’ Administration provides headstones, markers, or memorial plaques free of charge to veterans. The eligibility rules are strict and the content of the markers is restricted to authorized text. For example, only certain decorations (the Purple Heart and Bronze Star) can be annotated on the marker, and explicit proof that the veteran received those awards is required. If desired, an “emblem of belief” may be placed on the marker; one of 38 approved emblems may be selected. Otherwise, “no graphics, emblems or pictures are permitted except…the Medal of Honor and the Southern Cross of Honor for Civil War Confederate Veterans.” The Wiccan pentacle is not one of the 38 approved emblems. (The list of approved symbols can be viewed on the VA Website.) [The list was updated on 23 April 2007 in response to the lawsuit settlement which added the pentacle to the list.]
Wiccans appear to feel that their symbol is not authorized because of a discriminatory attitude that does not recognize them as a religion. As repeated on a plethora of Wiccan websites, in 1999 then-Texas Governor George W. Bush was recorded telling ABC News that he did not believe Wicca was a religion. Some Wiccan internet sites apparently believe that the President’s beliefs are in part responsible for the VA ‘dragging its feet’ in authorizing their symbol. The first Wiccan request reportedly occurred 9 years ago (notably, during the Clinton administration), but a religious body once had to list a central organizational office—which Wiccans did not have—in order to be included. That requirement was supposedly eliminated in 2005, opening up the possibility that the Wiccan symbol would be added (as reported in the Washington Post).
The approach of Americans United has been somewhat more general. The AU maintains that “there is absolutely no legal support for the Administration’s practice of maintaining a list of officially-approved religious symbols.” The AU asserts that the VA, as a government entity, does not have the Constitutional authority to decide what is or is not a legitimate religion—a role it assumes when it provides some organizations with an emblem but denies one to others.
The results of potential litigation are unpredictable, as even the AU is unclear on precisely what it seeks. In an email exchange with Christian Fighter Pilot.com, the AU stated that they “are seeking equal treatment for all religions and what would be considered equivalent non-theistic life philosophies (atheism, humanism, etc.).” By the same token, the “VA would not have to allow [a marker that did not] signify a religious belief (or its equivalent philosophy).” On one hand it says the VA should not have the authority to decide who gets a symbol, but on the other it says the VA is entitled to discretion on what is placed on the markers.
If the AU sues and wins, there are two potential outcomes. First, the VA might lose the discretionary authority it has over what is placed on the markers. The VA would then be forced to allow any symbol—or it might choose to prohibit all of them. The “all or none” extreme would deter accusations that the VA was an arbiter of religion, though undoubtedly the decision would be displeasing to any number of groups. The only “positive” is that it would be equally offensive to everyone.
The second possible result is that the VA would be forced to accept the Wiccan pentacle as an “approved symbol.” If it lost the lawsuit and was told to create a new list of 39 symbols, the VA would also most likely be required to pay the AU’s legal fees. With the monetary and public relations costs involved (particularly given the current public relations deficit the VA has after the recent loss of veterans’ personal data), the VA might be inclined to alter its policies rather than continue to face more lawsuits in the future from every group that wanted its symbol included. The VA might choose to preempt further suits by, again, unilaterally allowing or banning all symbols.
A less likely outcome is that a court could issue a narrowly-worded decision that would force the VA to accept a Wiccan symbol but might discourage future lawsuits. Unless that occurs, it is likely that the current litigation will result in a universal decree from the VA that will either allow or prevent any emblem. From a religious point of view, either course (all or none) is disheartening. The original intent of a symbol on a headstone was an acknowledgement of a person’s religion. Removing the religious aspect of a burial marker distances religion from death itself, which is counter to virtually any religious worldview. This would be yet one more way in which religion is being removed (or at least de-emphasized) in modern American society. From a secular democratic point of view, the Constitution does guarantee the freedom of an American to worship the deity he chooses in the manner he chooses (within legislated reason). While an emblem on a headstone marker could hardly be classified as worship, it is a reasonable accoutrement to religion (as end of life and afterlife beliefs are often central to religions).
A Christian Response
A Wiccan cannot obtain a memorial plaque with a pentacle on it, though a Christian can obtain one with a cross. What is the right response?
Why does it matter to a Christian if a Wiccan can’t get a symbol on a VA memorial, especially when many recent events have focused on the restriction of Christian expression? Christians must remember that when they fight restrictions on their religious expression, their “victory” means freedom for all religions (and cults, if the law does not distinguish the two). When Christian high school groups were demanding the right to use school classrooms a few years ago (the court cases continue today), some voices quietly cautioned that if Christians won that freedom, so would other groups—like Wiccans, Freethinkers, Satanists, and others. Christians in the military should continue to oppose those that would restrict their legitimate religious expression; they must remember, though, that the Constitutional freedoms they secure for themselves are also available to any other “religion.”
A Christian may also feel it is necessary to resist the Wiccan request because failing to oppose them may be viewed as tacitly supporting them. A Christian may find their views evil or offensive or may feel that allowing them expression may contribute to the religious ‘decay of society.’ However, it is unlikely that such opposition will cause another person to question, weaken, or alter their faith system; in fact, it may publicize and strengthen it. Ultimately, a Christian gains nothing from denying another religion, philosophy, or cult the freedoms he himself enjoys. Under the religious freedom provided by the Constitution, Christians cannot fight for freedom for themselves and attempt to deny those same freedoms to others. While some people believe the US should ‘ante up’ and call itself a Christian nation, it seems many Christians are satisfied with a protected freedom of religion, even if it means that “religions” that are hostile or distasteful to a Christian gain the same freedoms.
This does not mean that Christians should support the advancement of religions counter to Christianity. Nor does it means Christians should support the elimination of religious expression, which is the general political objective of the AU. This perspective supports the equal freedom of religious expression—not the silencing of groups that might be disagreeable. The latter view is the current trend in religious expression court cases today, particularly against Christians. Finally, this does not mean that Christians should themselves accept the tenets of another belief system; they only need respect another person’s Constitutional freedom to be wrong, even on an eternal scale.
The loss of any soldier is heartbreaking, and SGT Stewart’s willingness to lay his life down for his country is admirable. It is tragic that he died a Wiccan and will spend eternity separated from God as a result. Still, a pentacle on his marker will not change his eternal state. Christian fighter pilots have sworn to protect and defend the rights of fellow citizens to worship as they please—even if it is displeasing or offensive to them. As has been famously quoted, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Voltaire). It is difficult to conceive a moral reason to deny the Stewarts their requested Wiccan symbol.
Ultimately, Mrs. Stewart will probably be successful in obtaining a pentacle on the memorial plaque. Hopefully those who would support her cause (including the AU) would see the irony in her victory: Just as a Wiccan will be able to express her beliefs even if others disagree or are offended, so too should Christians be allowed to exercise those same Constitutional rights—even if they are offensive to others. The current trend in the United States has been to quell religious expression in order to avoid offense or the appearance of “establishment.” The Constitution, though, guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from it. Just as Mrs. Stewart does not have to hide her symbol of belief even if someone is offended by it, neither does a Christian—like the Mount Soledad cross that the AU would like to see removed.
Update 15 September 2006
The Nevada Office of Veterans’ Affairs has decided to give Mrs. Stewart a plaque for a VA memorial with a Wiccan symbol even though the federal VA has yet to produce one. News Release (pdf). This is consistent with the previous VA assertion that they have no control over state cemeteries.
Update 13 November 2006
The AU has chosen to sue the VA for failing to respond to their requests. There are actually two lawsuits now pending; one to get force the VA to add the pentacle to their list, one to declare that the list itself is unconstitutional.
Update 23 April 2007
Multiple press releases announced the settlement of the lawsuit against the Veterans’ Administration that sought to add the pentacle to the list of “approved” symbols of faith. Under the terms of the settlement, the VA will add the symbol to the list. The VA must also replace headstones previously provided to Wiccans with no marker. Ironically, the AU has claimed ‘victory,’ though this agreement did not meet the AU’s previous request that the “unconstitutional” list of emblems be abandoned.