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Veterans Administration's policy concerning grave markers

Info. request; Government response,
stonewall & policy; lawsuit averted

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Request for information:

We E-mailed an inquiry to The National Cemetery Administration - Public Inquiry Office on 2002-JAN-13 asking:

Re: Religious identifiers on headstone or markers provided by the VA:

"We are impressed with the wide range -- 33 in all -- of religious symbols that you allow to be placed on veterans' headstones and markers."

"Recently, the City College of New York conducted a massive phone survey of people's religious identifications. For the first time, reliable data is available for many of the smaller religions, spiritual groups and ethical systems in the U.S. We find that there are many that are not included among your officially recognized symbols -- three with over 100,000 members."

"I have two questions:

1) How would an individual approach the VA to try to convince it to add a specific faith symbol?
2) Would it be permissible for an individual to obtain a marker or headstone without a faith symbol, and later add their own symbol at their expense? "

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Response From the National Cemetery Administration:

This reply arrived on 2002-FEB-20:

"Thank you for your e-mail requesting inclusion of additional emblems on our list of approved emblems for Government headstones and markers. We are currently in the process of preparing a regulation that will provide guidance to organizations interested in having their emblems placed on Government-furnished headstones and markers. When our proposed regulation has been drafted, it will undergo a comprehensive internal examination by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Once approved within VA, the regulation will be sent to the Office of Management and Budget for coordination. The approved regulation will then be published in the Federal Register to allow organizations and individuals to submit comments. We look forward to any suggestions or comments you may have at that time."

"Yes, you may apply for a Govenment [sic] marker without a religious emblem and have an emblem added later at private expense."

Over a half-decade later, the VA had still not taken any action on their "proposed regulation."

Administration stonewalling:

In 1998, Isis Invicta Military Mission, and the Military Pagan Network (MPN) applied to the Veterans' Administration, asking that a pentagram be added to the list of approved religious symbols for VA grave markers. The VA responded that they were in the middle of upgrading their regulations, and that they could make no decision at the time. Nine years later; the regulations had still not been updated; the application has not been processed. The VA has sent the groups several letter asking that they be patient. Rather than work under the current regulations until new ones take effect, the VA has, for some unknown reason, decided to simply place a hold on all requests.

The author of this essay is not skilled in U.S. constitutional law. However, it would seem that the VA is ruling which religions in the U.S. are legitimate, and which are not. It would seem that the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically forbids this type of action by the government. The clause reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." This is normally interpreted as requiring all Federal, State, and local governments, including the VA, to not promote one religion or faith group over any other. But that appears to have been exactly what they were doing.

Government policy on religious symbols:

In an 2004-AUG article on Wiccans in the military published in Knight Ridder Newspapers, reporter Randy Myers interviewed Mike Nacincik of Veterans Affairs. 1 Nacincik said that the department authorizes 38 emblems, but does not allow one for Wiccans because they don't meet the emblem requirements. The government policy insisted on:

bulletA written request from the recognized head of the religious group,
bulletA list of national officers, and
bulletA membership tally.

None of these are possible, because Wicca, like other Neopagan religions, Native American Spirituality, New Age, Santeria, Vodun, and other decentralized and/or aboriginal religions, has no recognized head, no national officers and no membership lists. The primitive Christian Church circa 40 CE was in a similar position. Chaplain Patrick McCollum of Moraga, CA, an expert on Wicca, commented:

"It doesn't appear to me that the Veterans Affairs has any burning desire to make this happen. The Veterans Administration, above all people, should be fighting for each and every one of these men and women who have given their lives for their country." 1

According to the Stars and Stripes newspaper, until 2005-Fall:

"VA administrators required applicants for new headstone markers to provide documentation from 'the recognized central head or primary contact person' to certify the symbol as representative of that faith. But Wiccans do not have a central governing structure.....that forced them to rebuff earlier attempts to get the pentacle approved."

"...the cemetery administration updated its rules, and now only requires historic information about the religion and other documentation supporting the use of a specific faith symbol." 2

2006-MAY: Potential lawsuit averted:

Almost two years after the above entry. Veterans Affairs were still stuck at 38 symbols. They apparently treasuring red tape more than service to veterans. It is not clear what their motivation is: perhaps they don't care about the people they serve; perhaps they are merely incompetent and are unable to figure out how to change their regulations; perhaps they are religist -- express hatred and contempt of religions other than their own. Perhaps there is some other reason that is not obvious to us.

During 2005-SEP, Patrick Stewart, 34, a member of the Nevada National Guard was killed in Afghanistan when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his helicopter. Four others also died. Stewart was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He was a Wiccan. His widow, Roberta Stewart, asked that a pentacle, --- a five pointed upright star enclosed in a circle --- be engraved on his plaque on the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Wall in Fernely, NV. Veterans Affairs refused, because the symbol was not currently approved by the department. His space on the wall remained blank. It is probably safe to say that the other four who died in the attack were properly recognized.

Ms. Stewart said: "I’m tired of waiting for final approval. It doesn’t take this long to review an application." She has contacted a lawyer who is preparing a discrimination claim.

The Stars and Stripes newspaper reported that:

"Bill Chrystal, a retired Navy chaplain and friend of the Stewarts, said the VA’s continued stonewalling has caused other problems as well. He was scheduled to hold a memorial for fallen Nevada troops later this month, but was told by state Veterans Affairs officials that Roberta could not speak because of the controversy with her application."

"Chrystal, who belongs to the United Church of Christ, has since backed out of the event and will take part in a protest event to highlight the Stewarts' fight'.

" 'What the VA has done is the very thing that the founding fathers were opposed to,' he said. 'It seems to me the whole point of our system is that the government stays out of religion, but here they aren't. It’s not the government’s job to second guess the value of a religion'."

"Stewart said the whole process has been upsetting not just to her but also to members of her husband’s National Guard unit, which returned to Nevada in March. Several of the members were outraged to find out Patrick had not yet been properly honored, and have continued to complain to her as the issue drags on." 2

The matter appears to have been resolved, Nevada state officials obtained a legal opinion from their Attorney General's office that determined that federal officials have no authority over state veterans' cemeteries. They plan to have a plaque manufactured with a Wiccan pentacle.

Tim Tetz, executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services. said:

"The VA still has not determined yet if a Wiccan symbol can go on the headstone. But we have determined we control the state cemetery and that we therefore have the ability to recognize him for his service to his country." 3

Roberta Stewart, the widow of Patrick Stewart, said: "I'm honored and ecstatic. I've been waiting a year for this."

References used:

  1. Randy Myers, "Wiccans in the military seek more understanding, tolerance," SunHerald.com (Mississippi), 2004-AUG-18, at: http://www.sunherald.com/
  2. Leo Shane III, "Wiccan widow threatens to sue over memorial plaque," Stars and Stripes, Pacific Edition, 2006-MAY-18, at: http://www.stripes.com/
  3. Scott Sonner, "Wiccan sign allowed on soldier's plaque," Associated Press, 2006-SEP-13, at: http://my.earthlink.net/

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Copyright © 2002 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-JAN-13
Latest update: 2009-OCT-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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