Some things should be easy. Some injustices ought to be resolved under notions of common sense and basic decency.
That is the case with a request from Roberta Stewart of Fernley, Nev. Roberta’s husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in action when his helicopter was shot down on Sept. 25, 2005, over Afghanistan. Sgt. Stewart had served with the military in a variety of capacities for 16 years. He had returned to the Middle East in 2005 after serving earlier in Operation Desert Storm, and he was a decorated soldier.
His widow, following his wishes, wanted to put a symbol of his religion on a military memorial plaque in Nevada that commemorates local veterans. She was told that it was not presently an option.
At this point, some readers might be thinking that the powers and bureaucrats that be were just deciding not to raise any religious issues on these markers. The Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for such decisions, however, crossed that river a long time ago. Thirty-eight icons and symbols have been approved by the VA for use on government-provided headstones, markers and plaques. If you are a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu or a follower of Eckankar, there is a symbol for you. Indeed, if you are a Secular Humanist or an Atheist, there is a symbol for you, too.
Sgt. Stewart, however, was a Wiccan, who, along with his wife Roberta, followed a nature-centered spirituality, and the VA has not approved any symbol for that belief system.
It is not as though the VA hasn’t had time to think about this. Indeed, there have been Wiccan applications pending for recognizing the pentacle, an interlaced five-pointed star inside a circle, since 1997.
New symbols for six other groups, including Sikhs, Soka Gakkai and Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii, were added, but the Wiccan applications lay dormant – so dormant that the VA didn’t turn them down, it just ignored them.
Enter Roberta Stewart. Her situation came to a head when she was told that she could only have a plaque for her husband at the Nevada military memorial without a pentacle. She refused, and there is currently only a blank spot on the Wall of Heroes where Patrick’s plaque should be.
I met Roberta on Independence Day at a religious rights rally near the VA headquarters and the White House. A crowd of Pagans, Wiccans and those of other faith perspectives had gathered to hear speakers discuss the need for the “free exercise of religion” to include all religions and those who choose no belief in spirituality.
I was honored to be asked to give the keynote speech. I discussed the religious liberty disputes that I had worked on with Wiccans for over two decades. I recalled then-U.S. Senator Jesse Helms’s attempt in 1985 to remove the tax exemption of all Wiccan groups and former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr’s effort in 1999 to prevent Wiccans from holding religious meetings on military bases. These and other discriminatory attacks were ultimately unsuccessful, but required organized opposition from religious liberty advocates.
Roberta spoke shortly thereafter with power, conviction and eloquence about her struggle with the VA and other officials.
When I talked with Roberta, it was clear that this was a matter of justice for her husband and for other Wiccan military personnel past and future. It is reported that Wicca is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States, so this is neither a small nor theoretical problem.
Roberta and the Senior Minister of her church, Circle Sanctuary, the Rev. Selena Fox, came to my house that afternoon (where we were having a barbecue to talk about the forthcoming First Freedom First project – www.firstfreedomfirst.org). We met the following day in the AU office to discuss their imminent meetings with congressional staff and with the Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs at the VA.
From the VA, they heard again that their requests were not being “turned down,” but that this time the agency was concerned that the current regulations may have been improperly adopted in 2005. The VA is looking into that. The VA apparently looks into everything for a very long time these days. On the other hand, the veterans they serve reported for duty immediately.
After several more weeks of inertia, Ms. Stewart and the Rev. Fox decided to have AU represent them in the pursuit of their goal of fair and equal treatment. We will work with Congress; we will work with VA regulators and officials; we will appeal within the VA; we will file a lawsuit if necessary.
But why should it come to this? Even most of the Religious Right is on board (or at least silent with no opposition). No one is claiming, as Senator Helms had, that Wiccans are in league with Satan. No one is arguing that Wiccans want special treatment. No one is running for re-election on a “No Pentacle” platform.
Why should Roberta Stewart pass the anniversary of her husband’s death with an empty space on a wall in Nevada?
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.