A Nevada woman whose husband was killed in combat in Afghanistan has received a memorial plaque for him bearing the pentacle, a symbol of the Wiccan faith.
Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, attended a ceremony unveiling the marker Dec. 2. The event took place after Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn (R) ordered the installation of the plaque. Sgt. Stewart’s memorial is in the Northern Nevada Memorial Cemetery in Fernley, Nev., which is a federal institution, but Guinn said Nevada officials had a right to intervene.
Stewart and other Wiccans have petitioned the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to approve the pentacle for use on government-issued headstones and memorial plaques. The VA has approved 38 other symbols but has refused to add the pentacle, a five-pointed star in a circle.
On Nov. 13, Americans United filed legal action on behalf of Stewart and Karen DePolito, a Wiccan whose husband, Jerome Birnbaum, is a Korean War veteran who died last year. Also listed on the lawsuit are a Wiccan group, Circle Sanctuary, and the Isis Invicta Military Mission, a congregation serving Wiccans and other Pagans.
The installation of the memorial marker for Sgt. Stewart will not affect the litigation. Attorneys at Americans United said while they appreciate Guinn’s action, it is still imperative that the VA adopt even-handed policies at the federal level.
Officials at the VA have had plenty of time to consider the Wiccans’ request. An application seeking approval for the pentacle was filed 10 years ago. VA officials never acted on it, but in the interim, the symbols of several other faiths were approved. (See “Pentacle Quest,” December 2006 Church & State.)
AU went to court only after repeated attempts to persuade the VA to approve the pentacle. AU says the VA’s refusal to act is puzzling. Wiccan members of the military are accommodated in other instances. They have Wiccan identifications on their dog tags, and handbooks for military chaplains discuss the Wiccan faith and its rituals.
During the memorial ceremony, Stewart spoke about her frustration over the long-running battle.
“It is ridiculous, and I will continue the fight so no widow has to go through what I did,” Stewart said. “The government didn’t honor my husband after he gave his life to his country. They gave me a blank spot on his plaque for more than a year.”
The Associated Press reported that about 50 family members and friends attended the service.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn sent a special message, promising to press on with the lawsuit.
“The recognition Sgt. Stewart receives today is long overdue,” Lynn’s statement read. “I offer my condolences to his entire family. We pause today to remember him, and we make this vow: in his memory and in the memory of those who believed as he did, we will continue to press forward until we have achieved victory. Sgt. Stewart never gave up, and neither will we. His memory demands nothing less.”
Sgt. Stewart and four other soldiers died on Sept. 25, 2005, when their Chinook helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.