Veteran Pentacle Quest Makes CNN Worldwide News as Groundswell Support Grows
Author: Charlene Suggs
Posted: July 23rd. 2006
Times Viewed: 10,577
Big news recently: a national/worldwide feature news story produced by a worldwide news organization (CNN) was supportive of Wiccans/Pagans based on freedom of religion. With this increased exposure, our community’s voice is now growing in the national forum of public debate.
On July 10, 2006, CNN televised a story shown worldwide about the quest to get the Pentacle recognized by the VA as a valid emblem of belief. Roberta Stewart, a widow of a Pagan soldier killed in combat, wants a Pentacle included on her husband’s government-issued memorial plaque. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has not yet approved her request. Other applications from Pagan organizations requesting that the Pentacle be approved have been pending for as long as nine years and also remain unapproved.
“WICCAN SOLDIER'S WIDOW FIGHTS VA” (2:29) is the name of the CNN feature story which first aired worldwide on the “American Morning” portion of CNN television broadcasting on July 10, 2006. See the archived footage at: Video Link(RealPlayer required to view this clip)
The CNN coverage is part of a groundswell of growing public consciousness catalyzed by the 4th of July Rally for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. ( Link). This rally featured Roberta Stewart along with various Pagan leaders and musicians and attracted about 300 Pagans, onlookers, and media. The rally and this issue caught the interest of the Washington Post which ran a July 4 story on the struggle ( Link).
The day following the rally, Roberta Stewart and Selena Fox visited the VA in Washington, D.C. to meet with officials about having the Pentacle added to the VA’s approved list of emblems of faith. While in Washington, they were interviewed by Bob Franken, a national correspondent with CNN television.
The story begins with footage of Sgt. Patrick Stewart's coffin being carried by soldiers at his funeral. The camera shows an empty space on the veterans’ wall where Sergeant Stewart’s memorial plaque should be. His spot is still empty because his Wiccan religion and its emblem, the Pentacle, are not yet recognized by the US Department of Veterans Affairs. His widow does not want a plaque placed there unless his emblem of belief placed on it. Patrick Stewart is the first Wiccan solider killed in action during this wartime whose widow is publicly asking for recognition of his faith. As common practice, soldiers of other faiths have their emblems placed into their headstones, memorial markers, and plaques.
In addition to remarks by Stewart, Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary is interviewed by Franken. She has been one of the prominent Pagan leaders supporting this cause and has mobilized the Lady Liberty League to directly take on this issue ( Link). Circle Sanctuary is well-known in the Pagan community as the most prominent front-line networking organization for defending religious freedom issues for over 25 years. Lady Liberty League is an endeavor coordinated by Circle Sanctuary that focuses on religious freedom and religious discrimination issues.
Standing across the street from the VA headquarters, Franken concludes his coverage by stating several times that the Wiccan Pentacle request has been pending for 9 years. Other religious paths have been approved during that time but no one seems to be able to give a satisfactory answer as to why the Pentacle has not yet been accepted as a headstone symbol while others have been approved.
Before the “American Morning” segment was over during the first airing, Pagan lists were circulating the news and writing to CNN about the story. Due to both public feedback and also the quick response of the Pagan community, enough interest was generated to rerun the segment on the CNN Headline News later that day. The expanded format included emails from viewers both pro and con. The segment included a supportive email from Stewart’s friend Jeremy who was his roommate when they served together in “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan.
During the CNN Headline News airing, the news anchors asked viewers to share their views about whether or not the Pentacle should be added to the VA list of approved religious symbols. The debate is still ongoing and the public can send comments to CNN and request more coverage on this issue: Link. (Please remain reasonable and well-mannered in your comments for the most favorable impact.)
History of this Struggle: Waiting for VA
Pagan leaders and organizations have complied with regulations and submitted the proper documentation as set forth by the VA in order to have the Pentacle recognized as the Wiccan emblem of belief.
The first request was made by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church nine years ago. Yet requests have been inexplicably stalled while at least eight other faiths have had their emblems recognized. Now we are being told that no one knows when a decision will be made. No one in the VA has stepped forward to expedite this belated request or take responsibility for the headstone emblem approval process.
On July 5, Roberta Stewart and Selena Fox went to Capitol Hill and met with a legislative aide in Senator Harry Reid's office. Harry Reid is a Democratic senator from Nevada who is actively working on this cause. He is also the minority leader of the US Senate!
Reid’s aide accompanied Roberta and Selena to VA headquarters where they met with Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs William Tuerk and two other VA officials.
Under Secretary Tuerk is the head of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) which maintains the VA's list of authorized emblems of belief for memorial markers for deceased veterans. Tuerk told them that the VA is not approving any emblem of belief addition requests at this time because the VA procedures adopted in October 2005 for adding emblems of belief to the NCA list were not adopted correctly.
Tuerk would give no timeline for the completion of this latest "revising the rules" process. Both Selena and Roberta urged him to add the Pentacle to the NCA list under previous protocols while the VA sorts out its procedural mistakes.
According to a recent statement released by the VA in response to this situation, a final decision will not be made on the Stewart application until the agency again revises its current policies which were revised only last year. This statement does not explain why other symbols were approved while the Pentacle request was ignored during the past nine years. Again, no one in the department has given any definitive explanation for the lengthy delay.
Why should we as a spiritual people care about government headstone regulations? No matter how you feel about this war or any other, there are important bedrock issues at stake with this issue – it is both real and symbolic for all who safeguard and defend religious freedom in this country. It is argued that the non-approval of the Pentacle is a violation of Stewart’s First Amendment rights because she is being denied something given to other religious groups solely on basis of her religion.
Among some Americans is an intensely held view that “biblical law” trumps civil law and that America should function as a Christian nation (theocracy). Those who hold this view are quite willing to blur the lines between separation of church and state to create a future America that wouldn’t be friendly, fair or just for the many millions of Americans who don’t share those specific beliefs.
Some Christian conservatives hold this view but others do not. Some are supporting the quest to get the Pentacle for Sqt. Patrick Stewart on his plaque and are our allies in the quest for religious equality.
With the current administration having deep ties of political indebtedness to this group, more laws, social programs, and policies are being adopted that favor (and often fund) a repressive worldview. An energized, VOTING base stands ready to pass into law whatever their elected representatives put forth.
We must be vigilant and mobilize organizationally to ensure that the First Amendment of our constitution is maintained. If we allow this cornerstone of American freedom to continue to erode, the climate will continue to worsen for anybody who doesn’t agree with the specific tenets of a conservative Christian climate. Ignoring the validity of one religion while preferring another is unacceptable, and in clear violation of the concept of religious freedom as envisioned by our founding fathers.
The first amendment to our constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It is difficult to attribute the VA’s inability to act as anything but reluctance to recognize the Wiccan religion as a valid religion. Other federal branches such as the IRS acknowledge the legitimacy of Pagan religions. Nine years is a long time to wait for such a thing even after factoring in the cumbersome nature of governmental bureaucracy.
Without specific explanations and their refusal to provide satisfactory answers, VA’s inability to act can be interpreted as simply a stall tactic which interferes with our constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms. And in a time when America’s current sociopolitical climate favors the mainstream religion over all others – and a repressive, dominating version of Christianity at that – we cannot wait any longer or continue to be ignored.
If she doesn’t receive an answer soon from her application, Roberta Stewart’s next action will be to exert her rights through the court system which would be a lengthy and expensive undertaking.
An alternative to court proceedings is for public attention to weigh in on this matter so that the VA is given a clear mandate to make a ruling on this matter. This is where the Pagan community can help to make a stand on behalf of ourselves and on behalf of religious freedom for all religions.
Contrary to popular belief, having rights in this country doesn’t always ensure that the specific rights are automatically upheld. Like muscles that have to be used so that they do not atrophy, we have to exert our rights to maintain them.
Allies United on Common Ground: Freedom of Religion
With thousands of American soldiers killed in this controversial war and the death count rising, there is increased public sympathy for mourning families mishandled by government while their loved ones paid the ultimate price for this country.
In a recent story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Roberta Stewart is quoted as saying, “My husband's faith got him through the war in Desert Storm, through life's problems. It is our spirituality," Roberta Stewart, 36, said. "This is who we are as Americans." (Link).
Others dedicated to fairness and justice in our nation align with this view. More articles from around the nation are appearing in newspapers in support of this cause.
In the June 5 edition of Christianity Today On-line, constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead (also a respected voice for American Christian evangelicals), makes the situation clear in his essay Stand Up, Stand Up for Wicca:
“Whatever one's opinion might be about the Wiccan faith, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution provides for religious freedom for all individuals of all faiths—whether they are Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Wiccans and others.”
“ . . .Yet by refusing to place the Wiccan symbol on Sgt. Stewart's memorial plaque, while permitting symbols of other religions and non-religions, the government is clearly engaging in viewpoint discrimination—which is a shoddy way to treat someone who has died in service to his country. ‘
‘Having posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart to Sgt. Stewart, the U.S. government intends that he should be remembered for his bravery and sacrifice. Yet what his widow, Roberta Stewart, will remember is the fact that her husband died defending the country that is denying him the right to express his religious freedom.”
He goes on to state: "... The only way that freedom can prevail for Christians is for Christians to stand up and fight for the minority beliefs and religions of others." (Link)
Roberta Stewart’s request is not an isolated anomaly. According to statistics, ~1800 active-duty Air Force personnel are carrying dogtags that say “Wiccan.” (There are no statistics available for the number of Pagans in the other branches of military service.) And of course, many of those Pagan service people have wives, husbands, and dependents -- many who are also Pagan.
While we hope for their safe return, some of the families of those killed in combat will want this comfort and recognition of the faith that sustained their warriors. Will their families also be told to wait until some indeterminate time when the VA decides to act upon this long overdue request?
This issue is not just for wartime but also for the future. A government-issued headstone is available to all soldiers upon their deaths whenever and however their deaths occur. Many Pagan veterans who have served in previous wars are watching the outcome of this to see how they will be treated by the country they served.
At the recent Pagan Spirit Gathering in June, the Veteran Pentacle quest was a recurring theme discussed among the community throughout the week. The then-upcoming 4th of July Freedom Rally was promoted there and singer/songwriter Celia first debuted the song “Symbol” dedicated to Roberta’s Stewart’s struggle to have the Pentacle recognized as an emblem of faith.
In the opening meeting, veterans from all branches of service were asked to stand up if they would want a Pentacle on their headstone. Seventeen stood up proudly and immediately.
Ways to Support this Growing Cause!
Educate yourself and follow this story. The Witches’ Voice (www.witchvox.com) is an excellent source of information updated regularly about this issue -- search the site for the many recent postings. Check “Wren’s Nest News” often to receive the latest news postings.
To learn more via the web in general, search the web with search terms such as “war widow”, “VA headstone”, “Roberta Stewart,” etc. for the growing list of news stories popping up all over the nation about this issue. Forward stories as appropriate to your newsgroups and organizations.
There are sites specifically devoted to this issue. Circle Sanctuary archives media links, e-bulletins, press releases, and includes photos, articles, and other info: Link. (join mailing list to keep informed on developments and news articles). There’s also a blog dedicated to this issue: Link.
Network with Pagan organizations who are dedicated to this cause. The Lady Liberty League sponsored by Circle Sanctuary has organized an intensive, inter-organizational national effort to support and network on this cause. There is power in organized collective action! To learn how you can be specifically be of help, write email@example.com.
Donate money. Lady Liberty League (LLL) is also sponsoring some fundraisers to help with the very real costs of successfully coordinating this nationwide effort. At this year’s Pagan Spirit Gathering, a high-quality recording of bonfire drumming was produced as a fundraiser to benefit Lady Liberty League and proceeds benefit LLL. The CD is available through the publisher at: www.todd-alan.net.
Also, Celia’s song “Symbol” can be downloaded through her site. Proceeds from sales benefit the Lady Liberty League’s continuing efforts: Link. You can also make tax-deductible donations directly to Circle/Lady Liberty League at: Link
Speak out. Write letters to the editor and to blog sites to express your support for the Pentacle being added to the NCA list. Call the VA to uphold religious freedom. Express appreciation for good media coverage. Write words of support in comments sections which accompany news reports on-line.
Cultivate Allies. The Quest needs more allies: religious leaders of other religions, veterans’ organizations, Senators & members of congress, religious freedom activists, and others. Please contact possible allies you know and forward them information about this Quest. Ask them to write letters of support to the VA & media. If you want to share these letters, send copies to Lady Liberty League via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or fax (608 924 5961).
Rituals. Please send blessings of strength and support to those working on this Quest. Envision success for the Veteran Pentacle Quest. Join with others in invoking the Goddess Liberty (Libertas) and other Divine forces for success and support. More info about Libertas and how to work with Her is on-line: Link. Clear focused intent always helps with any concern. Prayers need feet to walk –- add a supporting level of physical action to buttress your prayers and meditations.
Whose Freedom Are We Fighting For? For over nine years, various Pagan organizations have been patiently waiting for the Department of Veteran Affairs to recognize the Pentacle as an acceptable emblem of belief to place on the headstone of deceased Pagan veterans. Yet, there is now a soldier’s wife who wants to honor his life with a Pentacle on his headstone marker but she cannot. His place remains empty while his wife’s life remains suspended with no closure in sight for her beloved husband. It’s time for our gathering voice to be heard and our request honored so that Pagans may be buried in a way that respects how they lived.
Photo credits from Top to bottom...
1. Military funeral service for Stewart with military pallbearers (from CNN's American Morning).
2. CNN national news correspondent Bob Franken reports from the VA building (from CNN's American Morning).
3. Memorial service for Sqt. Patrick Stewart with empty space for his memorial plaque (from CNN's American Morning).
4.Roberta Stewart and Selena Fox walk together in Washington, DC (from CNN's American Morning).