After a decade of battle over the issue, Wiccan soldiers will be allowed to have their gravestones and memorials marked with the symbol of their faith – the pentacle – when they are buried in veterans’ cemeteries around the country.
The drawn-out effort by Wiccans ultimately involved a lawsuit against the current secretary of Veterans’ Affairs – a former Republican National Committee Chairman with longtime Colorado ties.
But, at least so far, no soldier in Colorado has requested to be buried with their grave marked with the pentacle. And, at least two cemetery directors in Colorado suggest that, when it comes to veterans, their religion matters not one whit; what counts, ultimately, is a soldier’s sacrifice and service to their country.
Examples of approved religious symbols include, the Christian Cross, Wiccan Pentacle, Jewish Star of David, Mormon Angel, and Tenrikyo Church.
Three weeks ago the Veterans Administration agreed to settle a lawsuit, filed last year by the Washington-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Previously, the VA formally recognized 38 religious symbols displayed on the gravestones and memorials of soldiers buried in VA cemeteries around the country. The symbols range from Christian to Bahai to Muslim to Hindu to Jewish to the Konkyo-Kyo Faith, Community of Christ, Sufism Reoriented and the United Moravian Church (see full list below).
But for years, the VA balked when it came to recognizing Wicca, the ancient religion that is sometimes called witchcraft, and which some fundamentalist Christians believes is the worship of Satan – a claim rejected by most practicing Wiccans.
In a letter last year to the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Jim Nicholson, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State noted the VA’s policy “plainly violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
“…The courts have long recognized that Wicca is a religion entitled to the same legal status and constitutional protection as any other faith…” the letter noted, and suggested the VA was engaging in “intentional, invidious religious discrimination against Wiccans.”
Colorado has one federally-maintained veterans cemetery, Fort Logan, which is in Denver, as well as the state Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado in Grand Junction and the Colorado State Veterans center and cemetery in the San Luis Valley.
And in Colorado, at least so far, VA cemetery officials report they haven’t had any requests for the pentacle. Nor do they seem to think it’s much of an issue.
“That’s someone’s faith, and I don’t have an opinion on peoples’ faith,” said O’Neal Hughes, a staff assistant at Fort Logan.
The majority of the religious symbols on the headstones at Fort Carson, Hughes said, contain the Christian cross. There is a representative sampling of nearly all of the other 38 recognized religious symbols, though Hughes said he is unaware of any headstone with the symbol of the Khanda Sikh).
More than 88,000 veterans, spouses and their dependents are buried at Fort Logan, which saw its first burial in 1889. Hughes said 29 active duty veterans who have died during the Iraq War time frame are currently buried at the national cemetery.
And so far at the Grand Junction cemetery, director Dick Gigliotti says that he’s not gotten any directives about the newly-approved Wiccan symbol, though he’s read stories about the controversy in national newspapers. The cemetery will be five years old in September and, as of today – May 18 – exactly 839 veterans, 199 of their spouses and one dependent are buried there. Of that number, one soldier was killed in action in Iraq, Gigliotti said.
“The most common [religious symbol], of course, is the Christian cross,” he said. Also represented are symbols of Atheists, Mormons, the Jewish Star of David, a symbol representing the Japanese-based faith Tenrikyo and, “We just got a request for a Greek Cross.”
“To each his own,” Gigliotti said. “The veterans’ service is what’s being honored – they don’t have to be my religion to be honored, the honor is their service to their country.”
At the state veterans’ cemetery in the San Luis Valley, director Mark Odell said to the best of his knowledge, all 1,400 headstones at the cemetery are marked with a Christian cross.
Some 200 of the graves belong to Civil War veterans, dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Two soldiers killed in Iraq are buried there, Odell said.
As for the federal lawsuit, in a release issued after the settlement was reached, Americans United claimed its attorneys had “uncovered evidence that the VA’s refusal to recognize the Pentacle was motivated by bias toward the Wiccan faith.” Specifically, the group noted, 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 – and his “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 Barry Lynn, president of Americans United. “I did not want to believe that bias toward Wiccans was the reason, but that appears to have been the case. That’s discouraging, but I’m pleased we were able to put a stop to it.”
The defendant named in the lawsuit, “Circle Sanctuary v. Nicholson,” is Jim Nicholson, the former Chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1997 through the 2000 elections. Bush subsequently appointed Nicholson the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, and was knighted by Pope John Paul II in October 2003. He has headed the Veterans’ Administration since 2005.
Nicholson, a West Point graduate who was decorated for his service in VietNam, got his law degree from the University of Denver and, during the 1970s and 1980s was an attorney in Denver, practicing real estate – and eventually becoming a land developer.
The Veterans Administration’s list of available symbols for gravemarkers and headstones include: