Honoring Sgt. Stewart: Wiccans are Americans too

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The current flap involving Wiccans in the military is a conflict that should never have happened. But years of foot-dragging by the Department of Veterans Affairs has turned an easy case into a major controversy complete with charges of discrimination and threats of lawsuits.

All the VA need do is announce that the pentacle — a five-pointed star that symbolizes the Wiccan faith — has been added to the list of 38 “emblems of belief” approved for placement on government headstones and memorials. No big deal, end of story.

Instead, the VA keeps saying that it is “reviewing the process” — and will make a decision at some indeterminate time in the future.

Roberta Stewart has been hearing this bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo for the past eight months. She just wants to honor her husband, Patrick, a member of the Nevada National Guard killed in combat last September in Afghanistan. Sgt. Stewart, who was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, among other honors, was a Wiccan.

But Stewart’s request to have a pentacle engraved on her husband’s memorial plaque has been repeatedly denied pending review of the VA policy. His space on the Northern Nevada Veterans Wall remains blank.

Eventually, the VA will have no choice but to allow the pentacle. Why? Start with the fact that Nevada politicians from both parties as well as advocacy groups from the left and right are demanding the change.

Then there is the small matter of the First Amendment: It’s clearly unconstitutional for the government to deny the Wiccan symbol while permitting symbols of many other religions.

If approval of the pentacle is inevitable, why is the VA taking so long to make a decision?

For Roberta Stewart it has been a long and frustrating eight months. But other Wiccans have been pushing for VA recognition of the pentacle for more than nine years. (According to the Department of Defense, some 1,900 active-duty service members  identify themselves as Wiccans.)

At first blush, the years of VA stonewalling doesn’t make sense. A glance at the 38 approved emblems suggests that any religion can make the list. In addition to all of the world’s major faiths, a number of small, obscure sects are represented, such as Eckankar (a New Age group that espouses out-of-body travel). Even the atheists have a symbol. If the VA is applying some kind of religious test to keep out the Wiccans, it’s hard to fathom what it might be.

Before last fall, the VA blamed the rules. Applicants had to provide documentation from a central authority certifying a symbol as representative of that religion. Since Wiccans have no recognized head or hierarchy, their applications were rejected. Rules are rules.

Bipartisan outrage over Sgt. Stewart’s case inspired a new set of rules. Now applicants are required to provide historic background and documentation of use to get a symbol approved. Roberta Stewart has filled out all of the forms — but she’s still waiting.

So what’s the problem? The VA isn’t talking. But the delay may have to do with the fact that Roberta Stewart went public. Putting atheists on the list when no one is paying attention is one thing, but announcing recognition of the Wiccan pentacle in the glare of the media spotlight is another.

Few people have even heard of Eckankar, but almost everyone has an opinion about Wiccans. Unfortunately, most of what people think they know about Wicca is false. Although Wiccans have nothing to do with black magic or satanic worship (Wicca is a nature-based religion centered on a belief that the divine permeates all life), try explaining that to a misinformed public.

The VA is probably remembering the last time Wiccans in the military made headlines. About six years ago, news reports of Wiccan ceremonies at Fort Hood and other bases provoked some conservative Christian groups to call on Christians not to enlist or re-enlist in the Army.

Under the First Amendment, the Army had no choice then, just as the VA has no choice now, but to accommodate Wiccans in the same way it accommodates other religious groups. But any “acceptance” of witches — who have long been demonized in Christian history — is certain to stir up trouble for the military.

It’s also possible that VA lawyers are beginning to realize that any guidelines for government-sanctioned “emblems of belief,” however carefully crafted, are unworkable. In a nation where people are completely free to choose in matters of faith, the government should stop trying to figure out which symbols are “acceptable” and instead allow each family to choose whatever symbol best represents their convictions.

In other words, cut through all of the bureaucratic red tape and jettison the “emblems of belief” list entirely.

Meanwhile, however, the VA should act immediately to honor Roberta Stewart’s request and fill in the blank space reserved for Sgt. Stewart. After all, if we can’t live up to religious freedom at home, we have no business asking soldiers to die for religious freedom abroad.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

Tags: , , ,