Like many Pagans, I’ve wondered for quite some time why the federal Department of Veterans Affairs has, for 10 years, fought against placing the pentacle, a symbol of the Wicca faith, on the grave markers of Wiccan soldiers buried in government cemeteries. One would think that if a soldier dies in combat, and is a follower of a religion which is officially recognized by the U.S. military, that placing the symbol of that soldier’s faith upon his or her marker would not be an issue.
Except we live in a country in which the president of the United States does not believe these soldiers have such a right, in spite of the fact that they died fighting for their country in a war which he himself initiated. In a 1999 appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, then-Texas Gov. Bush responded to questions about a controversy which was raging at the time over Wiccan soldiers being allowed to hold services at the Fort Hood army installation in Texas. “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion,” he said. “I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made.”
While there is no proof that the White House has been directly involved in the issue concerning the pentacle on the grave markers of Wiccan soldiers, Bush has not wavered from his belief that Wicca is not a religion, and has never apologized for his remarks. His beliefs in regards to Wicca has apparently been echoed by the Veterans Administration, and led to their long, protracted struggle to keep the Wiccan pentacle out of government cemeteries.
Well, last Monday the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced a settlement that would allow the Wiccan pentacle to be added to the list of emblems allowed in national cemeteries and on goverment-issued headstones of fallen soldiers. The settlement calls for the pentacle, whose five points represent earth, air, fire, water and spirit, to be placed on grave markers within 14 days for those who have pending requests with the VA.
Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the settlement in Circle Sanctuary v. Nicholson “a proud day for religious freedom in the United States.” But he noted that VA documents the plaintiffs’ attorneys reviewed appeared to reveal that government officials had intentionally dragged their feet on approving the symbol for fear that it would upset religious conservatives.
“Many people have asked me why the federal government was so stubborn about recognizing the Wiccan symbol,” Lynn said. “I did not want to believe that bias toward Wiccans was the reason, but that appears to have been the case. That’s discouraging, but I’m pleased we were able to put a stop to it.” He also noted, “This settlement has forced the Bush Administration into acknowledging that there are no second class religions in America, including among our nation’s veterans.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said the agreement also settles a similar lawsuit it filed last year against the VA. In that case, the ACLU represented two other Wiccan churches and three individuals.
Eleven families nationwide are waiting for grave markers with the pentacle, said Selena Fox, a Wiccan high priestess with Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wis., a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“I am glad this has ended in success in time to get markers for Memorial Day,” Fox said.
The VA stated that they sought the settlement in the interest of the families involved and to save taxpayers the expense of further litigation. This according to VA spokesman Matt Burns. The agency also agreed to pay $225,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.
The pentacle has been added to 38 symbols the VA already permits on gravestones. They include commonly recognized symbols for Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, as well as those for smaller religions such as Sufism Reoriented, Eckiankar and the Japanese faith Seicho-No-Ie.
VA-issued headstones, markers and plaques can be used in any cemetery, whether it is a national one such as Arlington or a private burial ground like that on Circle Sanctuary’s property.
And just in case anyone hasn’t picked up on it yet, Wiccans would probably like to once again remind people that Wicca is a nature-based religion based on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons. Variations of the pentacle have long been used in horror movies as a sign of the devil, and is perhaps the primary reason many Americans wrongly associate Wicca and Paganism with Satan-worship.