Soldiers' widows sue for pagan symbols on headstones
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The widows of two combat veterans sued the government Monday for not allowing Wiccan symbols on their husbands' military headstones.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs allows military families to choose any of 38 authorized headstone images. The list includes commonly recognized symbols for Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, as well as those for smaller religions such as Sufism Reoriented, Eckiankar and the Japanese faith Seicho-No-Ie.
The Wiccan pentacle, a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle, is not on the list, an omission that the widows say is unconstitutional.
The lawsuit was filed by Roberta Stewart, whose husband, Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in combat in Afghanistan last year, and Karen DePolito, whose husband, Jerome Birnbaum, is a Korean War veteran who died last year.
Wiccans worship the Earth and believe they must give to the community. Some consider themselves "white" or good witches, pagans or neo-pagans. Approximately 1,800 active-duty service members identify themselves as Wiccans, according to 2005 Defense Department statistics.
Attorneys for Americans United, a group advocating separation of church and state, argued in legal papers that it makes no sense for Wiccans to be excluded. The Army allows Wiccan soldiers to list their faith on dog tags, Wiccan organizations are allowed to hold services on military installations and the Army Chaplains Handbook includes an explanation of the religion, attorneys said.
Stewart, whose husband was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, has sought federal government approval to affix the pentacle to the Veterans' Memorial Wall in Nevada. Veterans officials denied the request but Nevada officials said they would erect a plaque with the symbol.
In memos and letters cited by the lawsuit, Lindee L. Lenox, director of memorial programs for the veterans agency, said the government was reviewing the process for evaluating and approving new emblems and would not accept new applications until the review was complete.
Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church located in Barneveld, Wisconsin, is also suing, saying Wiccans have been trying for years to get the religion recognized.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Western Wisconsin.