By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 4, 2006
At the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in the small town of Fernley, Nev., there is a wall of brass plaques for local heroes. But one space is blank. There is no memorial for Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart.
That’s because Stewart was a Wiccan, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has refused to allow a symbol of the Wicca religion — a five-pointed star within a circle, called a pentacle — to be inscribed on U.S. military memorials or grave markers.
The department has approved the symbols of 38 other faiths; about half of are versions of the Christian cross. It also allows the Jewish Star of David, the Muslim crescent, the Buddhist wheel, the Mormon angel, the nine-pointed star of Bahai and something that looks like an atomic symbol for atheists.
Stewart, 34, is believed to be the first Wiccan killed in combat. He was serving in the Nevada National Guard when the helicopter in which he was riding was shot down in Afghanistan last September. He previously had served in the Army in Korea and Operation Desert Storm. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
His widow, Roberta Stewart, scattered his ashes in the hills above Reno and would like him to have a permanent memorial.
She said the veterans cemetery in Fernley offered to install a plaque with his name and no religious symbol. She refused.
“Once they do that, they’ll forget me. They don’t like having a hole in the wall,” she said. “I feel very strongly that my husband fought for the Constitution of the United States, he was proud of his spirituality and of being a Wiccan, and he was proud of being an American.”
Wicca is one of the fastest-growing faiths in the country. Its adherents have increased almost 17-fold from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. The Pentagon says that more than 1,800 Wiccans are on active duty in the armed forces.
Wiccans still suffer, however, from the misconception that they are devil worshipers. Some Wiccans call themselves witches, pagans or neopagans. Most of their rituals revolve around the cycles of nature, such as equinoxes and phases of the moon. Wiccans often pick and choose among religious traditions, blending belief in reincarnation and feminine gods with ritual dancing, chanting and herbal medicine.
Federal courts have recognized Wicca as a religion since 1986. Prisons across the country treat it as a legitimate faith, as do the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. military, which allows Wiccan ceremonies on its bases.
“My husband’s dog tags said ‘Wiccan’ on them,” Stewart noted.
But applications from Wiccan groups and individuals to VA for use of the pentacle on grave markers have been pending for nine years, during which time the symbols of 11 other faiths have been approved.
Department spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said VA turned down Wiccans in the past because religious groups used to be required to list a headquarters or central authority, which Wicca does not have. But that requirement was eliminated last year, she noted.
“I really have no idea why it has taken so long” for the Wiccan symbol to gain approval, Schuda said.
The department declined repeated requests from The Washington Post to speak to higher-ranking officials about the issue.
Retired Army Chaplain William Chrystal, a United Church of Christ minister who was chaplain of Stewart’s National Guard unit, has strongly backed Roberta Stewart’s request.
“It’s such a clear First Amendment issue, I can’t even conceive of why they are not granting it, except for political reasons,” he said. “I think the powers that be are afraid they’ll alienate conservative Christians if they approve a symbol that connotes witches and warlocks casting spells and brewing potions.”
Nevada’s congressional delegation, including Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D), also has supported Roberta Stewart.
But letters printed by Nevada newspapers indicate how much hostility Wiccans face. “I don’t see how anything that supports witchcraft and satanism can legitimately be called a religion,” one reader wrote to the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Stewart said that she is trying to educate people about Wicca, as well as to fulfill her husband’s wishes. “Until he is laid to rest,” she said, “I cannot rest.”