Saluting Diversity: Remember Religious Pluralism In The Armed Forces On Veterans Day

When soldiers take up arms on behalf of the United States, they don’t just fight for some people – they fight for everyone.

Today, Veterans Day is being observed. We should take this opportunity to remember that the U.S. Armed Forces are made up of a highly diverse group of people – and that includes a wide range of religions.

Unfortunately it is necessary to remind people of this because Americans sometimes fail to recognize the many faiths (or lack thereof) among our military ranks.  

Take the case of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, a Wiccan who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005. The federal government refused to allow his government-issued memorial to be marked by a Wiccan pentacle, which eventually led to a lawsuit by Americans United on behalf of Stewart’s widow and several others.

Americans United charged that denying a pentacle to deceased Wiccan service personnel, while granting religious symbols to those of other traditions, violated the U.S. Constitution. AU’s attorneys uncovered evidence that the Veterans Administration’s refusal to recognize the Pentacle was motivated by bias toward the Wiccan faith, and eventually the George W. Bush administration acknowledged in 2007 that Wiccans are entitled to have the pentacle inscribed on government-issued memorial markers for deceased veterans.

But Stewart’s case was far from the only example of religious bias toward veterans by government.

Americans United recently filed suit against the city of King, N.C., which is accused of exploiting the memory of U.S. soldiers in order to promote Christianity at a veterans’ memorial. AU represents Steven Hewett, a resident of King who won the Combat Action Badge and Bronze Star during his service with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Hewett complained because the city is displaying a Christian flag and a statue of a soldier kneeling before a cross at the memorial, which stands in King’s central park.

After an initial complaint from Americans United, the city council voted in September 2010 to temporarily remove the Christian flag. In November 2010, however, the city created a “limited public forum” in which a flagpole at the veterans’ memorial was reserved for a certain pre-approved flags. The city conducted a lottery and selected 52 flag applications, one for each week of the year.

The result of the lottery was that the Christian flag flew at the memorial for 47 weeks in 2011 and will have flown for 47 weeks by the end of 2012. AU attorneys have called this forum a sham.

In a statement, Hewett said: “I proudly served alongside a diverse group of soldiers with a variety of different religious beliefs. The City of King should be honoring everyone who served our country, not using their service as an excuse to promote a single religion.”

Let’s heed Mr. Hewett’s words and remember to acknowledge all the brave veterans who died for our freedom, not just those who happen to subscribe to one particular faith.

After all, when soldiers take up arms on behalf of the United States, they don’t just fight for some people – they fight for everyone.