Ten-year battle ends with Wiccan victory.
The two sides reached an agreement April 23 and the decision was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. Americans United had brought suit in November against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs charging that denying a pentacle, a five-pointed star within a circle, to deceased Wiccan service personnel, while granting religious symbols to those of other traditions, violated the U.S. Constitution.
“This settlement has forced the Bush Administration into acknowledging that there are no second class religions in America, including among our nation’s veterans,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, in a press release. “It is a proud day for religious freedom in the United States.” Inclusion of the pentacle brings the number of symbols approved by the VA to 39.
The Rev. Jerrie Hildebrand, an officer for the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, and an ordained minister with Circle Sanctuary, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said that Pagans had been petitioning the VA for at least ten years. In the meantime, the VA approved the symbols of six other religions and belief systems. "This is an affirmation that all religions are equal in the eyes of the law,” Hildebrand said. “What the government had been saying is that ours was not a real religion. This makes us equal.”
Wicca is a nature-based religion grounded in pre-Christian beliefs. It honors the divine as both mother and father, encompasses love and respect of nature, celebrates the cycles of sun and moon, and encourages adherents to live in harmony with other humans and the greater circle of life.
Hildebrand said hundreds of Wiccan families have been waiting for this approval. She said there are at least 1,800 Wiccans in the Army and Air Force. Numbers are indefinite for the other branches. “This will ultimately impact thousands of people, some of whom have not publicly identified themselves as Wiccan,” she said.
She noted that 20 percent of UUs consider themselves earth-centered in some way. The chalice symbol of Unitarian Universalism has been approved by the VA for grave markers for many years.
In the lawsuit, Americans United represented Roberta Stewart, whose husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in Afghanistan in 2005; Karen DePolito, whose husband, Jerome Birnbaum, is a veteran of the Korean War who died last year; Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan congregation; Jill Medicine Heart Combs, whose husband is severely ill; and the Isis Invicta Military Mission, a Wiccan and Pagan congregation serving military personnel.
Under the terms of the Circle Sanctuary v. Nicholson settlement, the federal government will recognize the right of Wiccans to have the pentacle made available as an emblem of belief for inscription on headstones, grave markers, and memorial plaques. The VA had, as of Tuesday, already added the symbol to its list of available emblems of belief on its website.
In addition, the VA will make markers bearing the pentacle—an encircled, intertwined five-pointed star—available to the families of Stewart, Birnbaum, and others who request them.
VA-issued headstones, markers, and plaques can be used in any cemetery, whether it is a national one or a private burial ground.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.