policy concerning grave markers
Info. request; Government response,
stonewall & policy; lawsuit averted
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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:
|A written request from the recognized head of the religious group,|
|A list of national officers, and|
|A 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:
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:
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'
" '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."
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."
Roberta Stewart, the widow of Patrick Stewart, said: "I'm honored and
ecstatic. I've been waiting a year for this."
- Randy Myers, "Wiccans in the military seek more understanding,
tolerance," SunHerald.com (Mississippi), 2004-AUG-18, at:
- Leo Shane III, "Wiccan widow threatens to sue over memorial plaque,"
Stars and Stripes, Pacific Edition, 2006-MAY-18, at:
- Scott Sonner, "Wiccan sign allowed on soldier's plaque," Associated
Press, 2006-SEP-13, at:
Copyright © 2002 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2002-JAN-13
Latest update: 2009-OCT-24
Author: B.A. Robinson