Soldier Killed in Iraq Denied Wiccan Symbol on Memorial

Sergeant Patrick Stewart has no marker at the VA cemetary in his hometown because the government does not permit Wiccan symbols on its markers.

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.

Quite bizarre. I’m with Mustang Bobby on this one: If the government is going to be in the religious symbols business, then it has to be inclusive. The Establishment Clause and all that.

Indeed, I had no idea that there were 38 symbols available; the only ones I’ve ever seen are the Christian cross and Star of David. But, surely, if they are going to have multiple variants of the cross and even recognize the Bahai, then a pentacle isn’t too much to ask for.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. John Burgess says:

    The US military gives official recognition of Wicca as a religion. Thus, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to deny symbolic recognition at a grave site.

    This sounds like another instance of left and right hands not being well coordinated.

  2. B. Minich says:

    My first reaction upon seeing the name was hearing a deep voice saying the word “Engage”. But that’s the geek in me.

    I agree that they should put the symbol on his grave. While as a Christian, I disagree with his religion, I see no reason to deny him his headstone preference. Its not like denying him the headstone he wants will suddenly make him a Christian or something.

  3. Cernig says:

    Hi James,

    I blogged this just over a month ago (Memorial Day weekend) when it first hit the newswires. I’m a pagan myself and this story horrified me. My mesage to the VA would be simple – “can we please start honoring ALL our fallen heroes in the way they would wish instead of insulting them and their religion?”

    NINE years and they still can’t grant approval for these grave markers and memorials? When the religious groups that are approved include The Aaronic Order, The Native American Church, Baha’i, Konko-Kyo, Sufism, Tenrikyo, Seicho-no-ie, The Church of World Messianity, the Moravian Church and Enkankar? I think the WaPo may be correct when it says the VA is afraid of upsetting extremist Christians.

    I wonder if Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., have any comment to make for the public record? Tim Tetz, executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services, has been trying to get them to pressure the VA. I see from the WaPo article that Nevada’s congressional delegation, including Reid, are supporting Stewart’s family but there are no actual statements from the politicos. A bit more bloggy buzz would certainly help.

    Anyone who wishes to personally register their wish for this hero and others to have an appropriate memorial could always let the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs know too.

    House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
    335 Cannon House Office Building
    Washington, D.C. 20515

    or call:

    (202) 225-3527

    Regards, Cernig @ Newshog

  4. McGehee says:

    The US military gives official recognition of Wicca as a religion. Thus, it doesn�t make a lot of sense to deny symbolic recognition at a grave site.

    I couldn’t agree more.

  5. chris says:

    if the guy wanted the picture of johnny cash giving people the finger on his gravestone it wouldn’t bother me much. the dude served and now he’s dead. give him whatever he would’ve wanted.