Americans United Warns Va To Recognize Wiccans' Rights Or Face Litigation

AU's Lynn Says Department of Veterans Affairs Must Recognize Religious-Liberty Rights Of All Veterans

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today warned the Department of Veterans Affairs that litigation will become unavoidable if it continues to discriminate against Wiccans by denying the right to include the Pentacle, the Wiccan emblem of belief, on government-furnished headstones, plaques, and other memorials for fallen veterans. In a letter issued today, Americans United gave the VA fourteen days to approve the Pentacle or face litigation.

Americans United represents Circle Sanctuary, a prominent Wiccan congregation, and two of its members, Roberta Stewart and Karen DePolito. Stewart’s husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in action a year ago in the War on Terror in Afghanistan. DePolito’s husband, Jerome Birnbaum, is a Korean War veteran who died last year.

On June 7, Americans United sent a letter to the VA insisting that the agency allow the Pentacle to be included on Sgt. Stewart’s memorial plaque at the Northern Veterans Memorial Cemetery near Fernley, Nev. Circle Sanctuary also filed applications in 2005 and earlier this year on behalf of DePolito requesting that the Pentacle be added to the list of approved emblems. On July 27, the VA responded to Americans United, claiming that the VA could not issue a decision on the Wiccan symbol because it was preparing new regulations on the process of approving emblems of belief.

Although the Nevada Office of Veterans Services announced in September that the Wiccan symbol would be inscribed on Sgt. Stewart’s plaque, the VA has remained obstinate in its refusal to recognize the Pentacle.

“It’s unconscionable that the VA refuses to recognize religious liberty for all the nation’s veterans,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “When the VA selectively honors only some religions, while ignoring Wiccans, it is an affront to equal justice and an insult to religious pluralism.”

In a five-page letter sent today to Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson and Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs William F. Tuerk, Americans United Litigation Counsel Aram A. Schvey wrote that the VA’s continued refusal to recognize the Wiccan symbol violates the Constitution, noting that many other emblems of faith have been allowed on government-issued markers, headstones and plaques.

“The VA has pursued a path of discriminatory delay for the past nine years, refusing to add the Pentacle while simultaneously adding the symbols of other faiths, in plain violation of the Constitution, well-established administrative law, and common decency,” wrote Schvey.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Web site lists approved emblems, including ones for Buddhists, Atheists, and Hindus. In addition the VA has approved emblems for smaller groups, such as the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii, Soka Gakkai International-USA, and the Eckankar faith.

“More than nine years after the first Wiccan congregation applied to have the Pentacle added to the list of approved emblems of belief, the VA continues to claim that it needs additional time to approve new regulations.” Schvey continued, “In the interim, it has approved the emblems of six other religions and belief systems.”

In light of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Schvey wrote, “it would be utterly inequitable and morally disgraceful to force grieving widows and widowers to wait indefinitely to lay their loved ones to rest while the VA claims to engage in yet more rulemaking.”

Schvey concluded that the VA’s continued violation of constitutional rights of veterans must not be allowed to continue. Litigation, Schvey wrote, is unavoidable if the VA continues to exclude the Wiccan symbol from its list of approved emblems.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.