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V.A. resists use of pentacle on tombstones

New lawsuit demands equality for Wiccan and Pagan veterans.
By Donald E. Skinner

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The pentacle is a Wiccan symbol that is not allowed on military gravestones.

The pentacle, a symbol with meaning for many Unitarian Universalist pagans, is the cause of a lawsuit brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over the VA’s refusal to include the Wiccan symbol on its official list of emblems for headstones and other grave markers.

Americans United filed suit November 13 on behalf of Roberta Stewart, whose husband was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2005; Karen DePolito, whose husband served in the Korean war and died last year; and two Wiccan congregations, Circle Sanctuary near Madison, Wisc., and the Isis Invicta Military Mission, a Wiccan and Pagan congregation based in Geyserville, Calif., that serves military personnel.

“For far too long, the VA has discriminated against service members of the Wiccan faith,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, at a press conference in Washington, D.C. “After asking the VA on a number of occasions to stop its unfair treatment of Wiccans in the military, we have no alternative but to seek justice in the courts.”

Circle Sanctuary and Stewart have repeatedly called on the VA to include the pentacle on its official list, but have been refused. The VA’s list of 38 approved symbols for government gravestones, markers, and plaques includes emblems for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the United Moravian Church, Eckankar, and the United Church of Religious Science. Also included are the Unitarian Universalist flaming chalice and symbols for atheists and humanists.

The first Wiccan request to the VA came almost a decade ago. Since that time, the VA has approved the symbols of six other religions and belief systems.

The Americans United suit is the second against the VA. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a similar lawsuit against the VA in September on behalf of different individuals.

The pentacle, an encircled five-pointed star, has long been a symbol of faith for Wicca, a nature-based religion grounded in pre-Christian beliefs. Wicca honors the divine as both mother and father, encompasses love and respect of nature, celebrates the cycles of the sun and moon, and encourages adherents to live in harmony with other humans and the larger environment. According to the Rev. Jerrie Hildebrand, a former board member of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans who was ordained by Circle Sanctuary and is now a member of First Universalist Society in Salem, Mass., “some 20 percent of UUs consider themselves earth-centered in some way.”

Hildebrand encouraged all UUs to support the inclusion of the pentacle as a gravestone symbol. “It’s really simple,” she said. “These are veterans who are fighting alongside everyone else. They deserve their symbol if freedom of religion is to mean anything.”

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