policy concerning grave markers
New lawsuit launched; VA gives in;
Jan O'Rourke's last wish for equality:
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 Unitedís attorneys uncovered evidence that the VAís 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. Bushís 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 AUís Lynn. "I did not want to
believe that bias toward Wiccans was the reason, but that appears to have
been the case. Thatís discouraging, but Iím 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 administrationís view has been that Wiccans are good enough to fight
for their country, but not good enough to be acknowledged with a proper
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.
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
A memorial service and headstone dedication was held on 2007-JUL-04. Paula
"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.
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.
"Application for standard government headstone or marker for
installation in a private or state veterans cemetery," Veterans'
Administration form 40-1330, at:
"Self Described Religious Identification of U.S. Adult Population, 1990
- 2001," American Religious Identification Survey, at:
Randy Myers, "Wiccans in the military seek more understanding,
tolerance," SunHerald.com (Mississippi), 2004-AUG-18, at:
"Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and
Markers," Burial & Memorial Benefits,
Veterans Benefits & Services, 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:
- Scott Bauer, "Wiccan priestess fights over graves," Associated Press,
2006-DEC-21. Published by Toronto Star, DEC-22, Page A23.
Scott Bauer, "VA Allows Wiccan Symbols on Headstones," Associated Press,
"Bush Administration Agrees To Approve Wiccan Pentacle For Veteran
Memorials," Americans United, 2007-APR-23, at:
The text of the "Settlement agreement and stipulation of dismissal," is
Laurie Goodstein, "Correction Appended: Pagans Sue On Emblem For Graves,"
New York Times, 2007-MAY-07, at:
Paula Johnson, "Dedication," 2007-JUL-01, at:
"Wiccan Dedication at Arlington on the 4th of July," Covenant News,