Soldier's Religious Memorial Denied
Monday, July 10, 2006
WASHINGTON POST NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- 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 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 them 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 in September. He previously had served in the Army in Korea and in 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, Nev., 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," 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.
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 the 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.
"I really have no idea why it has taken so long" for the Wiccan symbol to gain approval, Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said.
Nine years, it has taken, for the pentacle to be approved. Even for the slow-as-molasses government, that is about 8 years and 6 months too long.
I find it disgusting, that in this country where religious freedoms are heralded as one of our greatest achievements, that a person's religious symbols can still be denied him or her.
I hope those in the military take heed: Sgt. Stewart died for this country. He fought and died for those ideals we take such pride in. To deny this hero his own religious freedom, after fighting hard for the freedoms of others, is a travesty.