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Veterans Administration's policy concerning grave markers

New lawsuit launched; VA gives in;
Jan O'Rourke's last wish for equality:

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2006-NOV: New lawsuit launched:

Circle Sanctuary is a 200 acre (80 hectare) nature center in Wisconsin, about 30 miles (45 km) west of Madison. Their Lady Liberty League organized a Veteran Pentacle Quest Team to promote the acceptance by the VA of pentacles for Wiccan veterans and their spouses.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State launched a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of Circle Sanctuary. Their goal was to have grave markers provided by the Department for Wiccans as they are for other religions. At the sanctuary are the graves of a Vietnam veteran from Ohio and Jerome Birnbaum, a Korean war veteran. There is also a memorial to Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005. The widows of Stewart and Birnbaum joined the lawsuit.

Selena Fox, a Wiccan priestess and founder of the Sanctuary points out that the 1978 and later editions of the Army chaplain handbook includes a section on Wiccans. The New York Times reported that about 1,800 active-duty service members identify themselves as Wiccans according to the Department's own data. In reality, the 1,800 number refers only to the Air Force, not to all of the armed forces. The Pentagon did not survey the entire military.

She attributes the lack of acceptance of the pentacle symbol as religious prejudice. She said:

"I didn't want to have to sue the government to try to get the U.S. Constitution upheld. It's discrimination. There's no other explanation I can think of." 7

The VA caves in and follows U.S. Constitution:

An out-of-court settlement was announced on 2007-APR-20. 10 It calls for the Wiccan symbol, a pentacle, to be placed on grave markers within 14 days for all families who have pending requests with the VA. This will provide the symbols in time for Memorial Day. It also requires the VA to pay $225.000 to the plaintiffs to handle their "reasonable costs and attorney's fees." Matt Burns, a VA spokesperson, said that the agency sought the settlement in the interests of the families involved and to save taxpayers the expense of further litigation.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) represented the Wiccans in the lawsuit. Their director, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, said:

"This settlement has forced the Bush Administration into acknowledging that there are no second class religions in America, including among our nation's veterans. ... It is a proud day for religious freedom in the United States. ... Sadly, the refusal of the federal government to recognize the Wiccan pentacle seems to have been built on inexcusable bias, a foundation that has crumbled under the press of this litigation."

AU's web site states that:

"Americans United’s attorneys uncovered evidence that the VA’s refusal to recognize the Pentacle was motivated by bias toward the Wiccan faith. President George W. Bush, when he was governor of Texas, had opposed the right of Wiccans to meet at a military base in that state. Bush’s opinion of Wiccans was taken into consideration when making decisions on whether to approve the Pentacle."

"Many people have asked me why the federal government was so stubborn about recognizing the Wiccan symbol," said AU’s Lynn. "I did not want to believe that bias toward Wiccans was the reason, but that appears to have been the case. That’s discouraging, but I’m pleased we were able to put a stop to it." 9

Ayesha N. Khan, the AU's legal director wrote:

"It is rank hypocrisy for this administration to claim publicly that it cares about religious freedom and equality but then to quietly and deliberately discriminate against a minority faith like Wicca. Until now, this administration’s view has been that Wiccans are good enough to fight for their country, but not good enough to be acknowledged with a proper headstone." 9

The American Civil Liberties Union represented two Wiccan faith groups and three individuals in a similar lawsuit launched in 2006. They said that the agreement also settles their case.

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Jan O'Rourke's last wish:

Jan Denna O'Rourke of Florida, a Wiccan priestess of the Middle Earth tradition, dedicated her life to the service of others and was particularly active in inter-faith work. On 2005-FEB-15, she wrote an email to her friend Rev. Paula Johnson saying: "At this point if I was to die tomorrow I would be eligible for a Wiccan service, just no Pentacle on my headstone. Hopefully this will be changed before my demise." It was not changed; she unexpectedly died eight days later. Jan was buried in Arlington National Cemetery beside her husband Captain William O'Rourke. Their headstone contained a Christian cross on her husband's side, but nothing on Jan's side.

Following the VA's out of court settlement, a replacement headstone engraved with both a pentacle and cross arrived and was installed at Arlington on Beltane, 2007-MAY-01. It was among the first VA-issued markers with a pentacle. The O'Rourke's headstone is the first VA-issued multi-faith headstone in history.

A memorial service and headstone dedication was held on 2007-JUL-04. Paula Johnson wrote:

"Rev. Selena Fox, Senior Minister and High Priestess of Circle Sanctuary will conduct Jan's Independence Day interfaith headstone dedication and memorial service. Joining her will be United Church of Christ minister Rev. Barry Lynn, who also is Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Also assisting will be Margot Adler, Wiccan author and priestess; Marci Drewy, Director of Military Affairs for the Sacred Well Congregation; Michael Akins, Executive Director of Military Pagan Network; and Kathryn Fuller, High Priestess of Circle of the Wildewood and former National First Officer of Covenant of the Goddess. Several members of the Wiccan/Pagan veterans association, the Order of the Pentacle, will be present, including David and Janet Ewing (Virginia), Debby Morris and Suzanne Krall (Maryland , and Captain Richard Briggs and April Brennan (New Jersey). It is my honor to contribute Jan's eulogy." 12

Covenant News, a fundamentalist Christian news service, reported the events objectively, with two exceptions. In their article, they enclosed the word ceremony in quotation marks, presumably because they do not wish to recognize a Wiccan ritual as having any status. They also added a biblical quotation from Exodus 22:18 at the bottom: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Many readers of Covenant News will probably regard that quotation as an advocacy of genocide against Wiccans. 13

The author sent an Email to the editor of Covenant News on 2007-JUL-09 commenting:

"I was startled by the juxtaposition of two items in your JUL-08 Covenant News:

1) Under the title "National Moral Degeneracy" you mention: 'One of the most aggravated sins of moral degeneracy of our nation is that of the unrequited blood of murdered multitudes.' This apparently refers to the embryonic and fetal deaths cause by relatively free abortion access in the U.S.

2) Under the title "Wiccan dedication at Arlington on the 4th of July" you place the biblical quotation from Exodus 22:18 "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." This quotation will probably be interpreted by many of your readers as calling for a genocidal holy war against Wiccans and perhaps followers of other Neopagan traditions."

We do not expect a response, but will post it here if one arrives.

Author's comments:

It is sad that the surviving family members of deceased Wiccan soldiers and veterans had to sue the Federal Government to obtain the same rights automatically enjoyed by followers of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and so many other religions. The VA, an agency of the federal government, had established a list of "acceptable religions" and refused to recognize many minority faiths. They were apparently unable to understand the U.S. Constitution's statement "no law respecting an establishment of religion" precisely means "no law."

It is impossible to prove that this case is one of simply religious bigotry. However, some aspects of the case match the Chaplain Service's refusal to allow Wiccan chaplains in the U.S. Armed Forces. There may be a pattern of religious intolerance and discrimination here.

Still, this case proves that the legal system still works. The Constitution is more powerful than a nameless-faceless foot-dragging bureaucrat and even the entire Veteran's Administration. Almost a decade of polite asking got nowhere. But less than two years of legal activity forced the VA to submit to the Constitution that every soldier has sworn to uphold.

References:

  1. "Application for standard government headstone or marker for installation in a private or state veterans cemetery," Veterans' Administration form 40-1330, at: http://www.cem.va.gov/pdf/401330.pdf
  2. "Self Described Religious Identification of U.S. Adult Population, 1990 - 2001," American Religious Identification Survey, at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/studies/key_findings.htm
  3. Randy Myers, "Wiccans in the military seek more understanding, tolerance," SunHerald.com (Mississippi), 2004-AUG-18, at: http://www.sunherald.com/
  4. "Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers," Burial & Memorial Benefits, Veterans Benefits & Services, at: http://www.cem.va.gov/
  5. Leo Shane III, "Wiccan widow threatens to sue over memorial plaque," Stars and Stripes, Pacific Edition, 2006-MAY-18, at: http://www.stripes.com/
  6. Scott Sonner, "Wiccan sign allowed on soldier's plaque," Associated Press, 2006-SEP-13, at: http://my.earthlink.net/
  7. Scott Bauer, "Wiccan priestess fights over graves," Associated Press, 2006-DEC-21. Published by Toronto Star, DEC-22, Page A23.
  8. Scott Bauer, "VA Allows Wiccan Symbols on Headstones," Associated Press, 2007-APR-23, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
  9. "Bush Administration Agrees To Approve Wiccan Pentacle For Veteran Memorials," Americans United, 2007-APR-23, at: http://www.au.org/
  10. The text of the "Settlement agreement and stipulation of dismissal," is online at: http://www.au.org/
  11. Laurie Goodstein, "Correction Appended: Pagans Sue On Emblem For Graves," New York Times, 2007-MAY-07, at: http://select.nytimes.com/
  12. Paula Johnson, "Dedication," 2007-JUL-01, at: http://community.cnhi.com/
  13. "Wiccan Dedication at Arlington on the 4th of July," Covenant News, 2007-JUL-08, at: http://www.covenantnews.com

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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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