Pagan symbol battle gets political

pentacleNews coverage of the Veterans Affairs Department’s decision to include the Wiccan pentacle on a list of approved religious symbols that can be engraved on the headstones of veterans has been high on the politics and low on the religion. The story comes down to a classic case of religious freedom. Unfortunately, the story has been swept up by politics when it is not clear that it was directly related to politics.

The New York TimesNeela Banerjee reported that attorneys for Americans United had evidence that the VA’s decision was based on comments President Bush made while he was governor of Texas:

The settlement, which was reached on Friday, was announced on Monday by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which represented the plaintiffs in the case.

Though it has many forms, Wicca is a type of pre-Christian belief that reveres nature and its cycles. Its symbol is the pentacle, a five-pointed star, inside a circle.

Until now, the Veterans Affairs department had approved 38 symbols to indicate the faith of deceased service members on memorials. It normally takes a few months for a petition by a faith group to win the department’s approval, but the effort on behalf of the Wiccan symbol took about 10 years and a lawsuit, said Richard B. Katskee, assistant legal director for Americans United.

There seems to be good second-hand evidence that the VA’s decision was indeed influenced by statements made by President Bush. But the terms of the settlement with the VA kept those documents from coming out. Call me a skeptic (because I am about most things), but as a reporter I would not be satisfied with that answer. Even the folks at Americans United decline to say that Bush’s White House did not affect the decision.

I also wonder why the Times’ piece did not mention religious liberty even once as a logical reason for the settlement. Americans United proclaimed its victory as a “proud day for religious freedom in the United States.”

Mark Oppenheimer, who holds a Ph.D. in American religious history from Yale University, writes over at The Huffington Post that Banerjee makes a mistake in writing that Wicca is a pre-Christian belief “that reveres nature and its cycles.” Oppenheimer says that “Wicca is a 19th- and 20th-century invention with a creative backstory invented to lend it historical legitimacy.”

First, this myth is tied closely to what the scholar Cynthia Eller calls “the myth of matriarchal prehistory,” the notion that thousands of years ago the world was ruled by peaceful, matriarchal goddess cults (from whom many Wiccans claim spiritual descent). Would that it were true, but it’s not, and too many well-meaning history teachers have bought into this bad, biased history in the interests of multiculturalism and progressivism.

Second, the prevalence of the ancient-Wicca myth is testament in part to the decline of religion journalism. Although religion has never been the most intelligently covered of subjects, matters are getting worse. Newspapers are cutting religion jobs: The Wall Street Journal no longer has a religion writer and The Hartford Courant used my departure from the religion job in 2001 as a chance to cut a job by attrition.

This shrinking of the religion-writer guild has coincided precisely with a time in our culture when we need more and better religion writing: 9/11, the second Intifada, the priest scandals in the Roman Catholic church, and the war in Iraq all cry out for intelligent religion coverage. Some newspapers have responded with excellent coverage — the Times’ Pulitzer-winning series about an imam in New York being a being a good example — but there has also been an uptick in credulousness: trying to be sensitive to, say, Wiccans, a reporter might fail to question their absurd claims.

Oppenheimer’s post is right up our alley, and he makes a compelling point that taking Wiccans’ claims at face value keeps reporters from looking into the deeper subject of what makes a religion persist throughout the generations.

Those who wish to comment on this post be warned: keep your comments limited to the media’s coverage of this issue. There is plenty of room to discuss the matter within those constraints. Those that go outside those boundaries will be erased punctually.

Editor’s note: This post previously said that Bush’s statements did not affect the VA’s decision. This is incorrect based on the available facts. It was the Bush White House that was said not to affect the decision. It has been updated to reflect this.

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  • Dale

    the VA decided to refuse recognition of the Pentacle was biased based on comments President Bush made while he was governor of Florida

    I think you mean that state on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico. Texas. Yeah, that’s it.

  • Eric

    Sooooo . . . if I was . . . say . . . a Satanist. Could I have the reverse pentagram on my tombstone?

  • BL

    you mean comments Bush made when he was governor of Texas, not Florida. right?

  • Jennifer Emick

    I think another thing they tend to neglect is that most Wiccans/pagans (at least in my experience) don’t believe in ‘ancient origins’ any more than anyone else does, but having no real established ‘experts’on Wiccan belief, most reporters appear to pick the closest one off the streets, which often results in a lot of eye-rollers. I imagine the same would happen if they did the same sort of ‘man on the street’ quizzing of folks from any other religion. (Like my nameless cousin who insisted the story of Pinocchio was biblical)

  • Nathan V

    The suggestion by Oppenheimer, that the Wiccan faith has a creative backstory, could JUST as easily be said about Christianity. When symbols are used to represent stories– Christian, Satanic, Wiccan, Rastafarian or otherwise– the dubious argument boils down to whose stories of unearthly events can be best pinpointed through forensic efforts. However, the forensics don’t validate the STORY; only the details of where, who, and when can be accurately speculated about. The rest is left to belief, end of story.

    The Wiccan symbol should no more a controversy than the inclusion of a Christian cross on soldiers’ tombstones.

  • Linda Smith

    Just an interesting question: do Mormons go with a cross? If so, then I guess that’s why their faith isn’t knocked for being discovered/founded in the 19th century.

  • Jinzang

    Some of the comments make me believe that some people don’t know that Wicca has nothing to do with either Satanism or medieval witchcraft (if it ever existed.) Wicca is a matriarchal gloss applied to Nineteenth Century occultism.

  • eccentric recluse

    Why does the VA stipulate anything that can go on a headstone? If they were truly neutral on this, (and other issues), they would provide the cost of a blank marker with an additional dollar amount for engraving costs, then leave the details to the wishes of the deceased or the surviving family.

  • Jennifer Emick

    Linda, Mormons opt for an image of the angel Moroni, afaik they eschew the cross as an emblem.

  • Alexei


    That is completely ridiculous. Any Orthodox or Catholic clergyman who has been canonically ordained can directly trace this ordination back to the Apostles in a concrete way. There are many arguments about authority, continuity, etc., of course–but those are arguments for those in the Church to discuss. My main point here is that there exists some sort of lineage that can be verified by historical evidence. You don’t have to believe in the laying on of hands to see this; you can be totally indifferent to what it _means_ to be ordained.

    ‘Wiccans’–whoever that means (it seems there is no concrete definition)–have no such equivalent ‘direct line of descent.’

  • Nan


    A Wiccan is one who follows the Wiccan Rede, in it’s simplest form. There are organized groups of Wiccans–British Traditional covens come to mind immediately–and not all Pagans are Wiccans, even though all Wiccans are Pagans. (Think of it like Christianity, ie Catholic and Protestant are both Christian.) But, just to confuse matters, not all Pagan witches are Wiccans. Wicca is a distinct subgroup. And yes, it is a modern religion, but it DOES have some basis–not large, mind you–in old folklore and remedies. While influenced heavily by the Romantic occultists, it also carries many ties to older “herbology” and such. It, however, is not a Reconstructionist religion.

    BritTrad Wiccans can trace their “lineage” to the founders of their group. they keep careful records. But no, no one can trace back generations and generations. It isn’t old enough yet. However, at one point in time, neither was Christianity. You seem to argue that Wicca is less because it is newer. Would you have accepted the same argument thousand or so years ago about Christianity?

  • Jennifer Emick

    No, they can’t. All they have is a CLAIM that they can, just as so many Mormons claim direct descent from Adam and Eve. Any striung of names not set to paper until several hundred years after it happened is not “concrete” by any definition.

  • Jerry

    Some may not be aware of all the symbols that were approved before this: So to me the coverage was of an obvious discrimination against a religious group given that the following were already approved:

    Sufism reoriented
    Tenrikyo church
    The Church of World Messianity
    United Church of Religious Science
    Christian Reformed Church:
    United Moravian Church:
    Christian & Missionary Alliance:
    Ixumo Taishakyo
    Soks Gakkai International

    Some few news stories as the case when on included a number of the approved examples which helped me understand some of the background of the complaint.

  • Dennis Colby

    Sigh. I had high hopes that comments unrelated to the media’s coverage of this issue would be “hastily erased,” but here we are.

    Okay – I think the big problem here with the media coverage is the VA was never particularly forthcoming with why the Wiccan emblem wasn’t on the list of permitted symbols. As Jerry points out, the list of allowed symbols doesn’t just stop at crosses, stars of David, and crescents (atheists even have a symbol). So why were the Wiccans singled out?

    The angle that Bush opposed atheists meeting at a military base in Texas is interesting, but I’d like to see it developed more (it might have been in the Times story, but that isn’t linked to in the post). What exactly did Bush say? Where was this military base? I presume it was a National Guard base, but I’d like some more details about how this seemingly obscure incident from Bush’s tenure as Texas governor was translated into VA policy.

    And I completely agree that Wiccans’ claims shouldn’t be taken at face value, but should rather be qualified, just as the claims of other religions are. Mainstream reporters don’t write “Jesus, the Son of God,” but rather, “Jesus, who Christians revere as the Son of God” or something similar. It’s fine to say that Wiccans (some, not all) claim pre-Christian origins, but it’s ridiculous to say the faith actually started thousands of years ago.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    OK, now I don’t have journalism school training but I am a four-year seminary veteran. I also have a body of work, available on-line, to demonstrate I can be fair in assessing other faiths and beliefs (I review a lot of religious books at, a majority which conflict with my beiefs but do aid in my understanding of the faith and beliefs of others). So, what does it take to get a job as religion beat writer at a newspaper where a credible and fair and somewhat impartial approach can be taken to answer questions the newspaper’s readers might have?

    As for the symbols on tombstones, we do have religious freedom in this country. The Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law” in recognizing or banning any faith. That goes for Christian denominations and it applies to all faiths. If a soldier has given his/her time and/or life in defense of his/her country, the least we can do is honor the faith/belief of that soldier. I may not agree with the tenets of Wicca, or even that group that worships marijuana, but the pentagram and the cannibis plant should be allowed if that was the faith practice of the deceased.

    38 approved symbols–was there a sidebar anywhere that listed the 38 approved symbols?

  • Darrell Grizzle

    It’s interesting to see how some news reporters accept the claim of Wicca’s pre-Christian origins without question. Wicca as it exists today does indeed, as one historian noted, only go back to the 19th century, although it incorporates Pagan beliefs that do pre-date Christianity. Perhaps that’s too nuanced for most reporters. (Of course, you can find beliefs in almost all religions that can be traced back to pre-Christian origins…)

  • Keith

    Linda, the Mormons have a angel which is a VA approved symbol

  • Wellduh

    This article is at least subtle in its fallacy compared to regular media.

    The main argument is based on length of the religion’s existance being less than 100 years. Which is pretty cute considering that the Christianity spent over a 1000 years openly exterminating almost all competition in the Western world and even much of the Orient. “How long must a religion exist before it is considered legitimate”? In fact the age of Wicca directly corresponds to the slow scaling back of Christianity’s more overt campaigns against competition. Yup up to the 1970s, organization like the Ku Klux Klan proved US constitutional protections were largely only for religion related to mainstream Christianity (actually very democratic majority oriented).

    Second Wicca is not the only religion with “gray” historical claims. By secular yardsticks they all have some areas where popular and desirable mythology doesn’t quite match history — to be polite. In fact social sciences point out religions are important for the ideals they try to set rather than their reality of past practice. And according to the US constitution neither government nor the democratic social mob has the right to judge religions based on their complete historical accuracy.

  • Stephen A.

    The fact that other symbols were readily approved while the Wiccans’ symbol was repeatedly denied seemed clearly and transparently discriminatory, as others have said here. Though I have yet to hear the logic and reasoning behind the VA’s foot-dragging spelled out in media reports. I guess that’s what the Wiccans were waiting for, too, and they didn’t get it, perhaps because there was no logical reason.

    As for Wicca itself, as noted by other posters here, taking their claims of ancient origins as true without questioning it is not appropriate for reporters. Noting in news stories that some Wiccans claim ancient origins would be far more appropriate for journalists.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Even the folks at Americans United decline to say that Bush’s statements affected the decision.”

    In The Washington Post coverage of this story, Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United had this to say:

    “Lynn, of Americans United, said references to Bush’s remarks appeared in memos and e-mails within the VA. ‘One of the saddest things is to learn that this wasn’t just a bureaucratic nightmare, there was a certain amount of bigotry,’ he said. ‘The president’s wishes were interpreted at a pretty high level. . . . It became a political judgment, not a constitutional judgment.’”

    Which seems to contradict the statement that AU is “declining” to say Bush’s statements about Wiccans affected the decision.

    As to “ancient origins”, it is really a problem with journalists and the subjects they choose at this point. A goodly majority of Pagan leaders reject such claims to one degree or another. But as Jennifer Emick says, many journalists prefer to grab the easiest or closest one they can find instead of finding someone who is knowledgeable about our faiths (and there are plenty out there). If a major newspaper reported “facts” about Catholics coming from a less-than-knowledgeable adherent without checking with a clergyman you guys would be all over it as a problem with the journalist. So to talk about how “absurd” a “Wiccan’s claims” are without acknowledging this deficit on the reporters part is pure bias.

    Finally, while the new Pagans aren’t “ancient” in the sense of having an unbroken line to the pre-Christian polytheists, that is hardly a measure of worthiness or veracity. Modern Pagans can truthfully claim to be reviving and reconstructing ancient practices and deities, even if the faith itself isn’t “ancient”.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    One last thing:

    Here is the line from the NYT article that caused Oppenheimer to rant about Wicca’s “absurd” claims.

    “Wicca is a type of pre-Christian belief that reveres nature and its cycles.”

    Wicca does indeed incorporate pre-Christian beliefs (along with a lot of other things). Saying “a type of” can give an impression of “ancientness” but it is never overtly said or claimed in the article. Now perhaps “a type of” was the wrong phrasing, maybe “incorporates” or “inspired by” or “aspires to revive” should have been used instead. But the rant by Oppenheimer shows someone with an ax to grind. The practice of polytheism can indeed by classified as a “type of pre-Christian belief” when used in the context of a religion that looks primarily to a pre-Christian Europe for inspiration.

    I’m a bit dismayed that this line (and the interpretation of the meaning behind that line) has so dominated commentary on this case settlement.

  • Dale

    The New York Times article, and much of the discussion surrounding it, doesn’t address the legal aspects of the story.

    The VA controls the appearance of gravestones in military cemeteries in order to maintain an aesthetic of uniformity. If the families of military veterans want other kinds of gravemarkers, they can have the grave located somewhere else. No one is forced to bury his or her relative in a military cemetery. The VA allows graves to have certain, approved religious symbols (I think I’ve seen old military graves with a Star of David) as a matter of tradition.

    However, the VA does not want to let the whole camel follow its nose into the tent. It does not want to include whatever symbol an individual claims as religiously significant, because that would destroy the aesthetic of uniformity and equality; it only wants to include symbols that represent “real” religions–religions that have some continuity and structure.

    The government already has a number of criteria to determine what is a “real” religion. For a brief survey, here’s a link, along with a critique of the current IRS criteria. The IRS has to filter through any number of so-called “churches” that are thinly disguised tax frauds. In another area of law, “conscientious objector” status is only granted to persons who are part of a “bona fide” religion that has pacifist doctrines. It would have helped if one of the reporters had explored the legal criteria set forth in case law to see if there was something that was especially problematic in Wiccan religion and/or symbols. For example, the relative youth of Wicca and the lack of a definable set of beliefs might subject it to more scrutiny.

    Many times, it’s not legally clear whether an organization is or is not a religion. The reporters were too quick to conclude that lack of approval was due to impermissible religious discrimination.

  • dpulliam

    Thanks to all of you who pointed out that I said that George W. Bush was governor of Florida and not Texas. My error has been corrected. Read into my mistake what you will but my carelessness is the result of a long day and a crazy week.

    And thank you Dennis for pointing out that off-point comments weren’t being erased as hastily as promised. Better late than never, right?

  • Lowell

    So what does it matter when the Wiccan faith was founded? It’s irrelevant here. The fact is that several minority faith symbols were approved while this one was held up for no legitimate reason. No faith group should be denied a symbol without just cause (assuming such cause could exist).

  • dpulliam


    It matters because reporters should care about accurately portraying the things they are writing about. I definitely agree with you that this is an issue of religious freedom.

  • Str1977

    The suggestion by Oppenheimer, that the Wiccan faith has a creative backstory, could JUST as easily be said about Christianity. When symbols are used to represent stories— Christian, Satanic, Wiccan, Rastafarian or otherwise— the dubious argument boils down to whose stories of unearthly events can be best pinpointed through forensic efforts. However, the forensics don’t validate the STORY; only the details of where, who, and when can be accurately speculated about. The rest is left to belief, end of story.

    The Wiccan symbol should no more a controversy than the inclusion of a Christian cross on soldiers’ tombstones.


    I think you are misreading Alexei, who was reacting to Nathan V above.

    Oppenheimer speaks about the invented backstory of Wicca, claiming a descent to pre-Christian days centuries ago.

    Nathan complained that the same could be said about Christianity. But this is wrong.

    Of course you, Nan, are right in saying that (BritTrad) Wiccans can trace their “lineage” to the founders of their group. – And Christians can do that to too.

    You hit the nail on its head by saying “no one can trace back generations and generations. It isn’t old enough yet.”

    Wicca isn’t old enough yet. That doesn’t make it less – I don’t think Alexei said that. Wicca is not my cup of tea but there are other reasons for rejecting it than its young age.

    And of course, Christianity was young once too, as was Judaism and Islam and Buddhism.

    The point is, Wicca mythology (or some of it – I don’t want to generalize in this field) does claim an age way greater than the actual age.

    Christianity was prevented from backdating itself by the fact that the historical person of Jesus Christ, his teachins and actions has such a central place in the religion – there is no way of having Christianity before that.

    However, the temptation is there, even for monotheistic religions: Muslims for instance claim that Islam was practiced by Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, making Islam older than it actually is. But then again, Muhammad in Islam has a position nowhere near that of Jesus in Christianity.
    It is different with Islam

  • Str1977

    Since I am not familiar with U.S. military graves and the like, I must ask some questions:

    This is about national cemeteries and head stones “sponsored” by Veteran Association, right? Is a fallen soldier required to be buried there?

    I don’t think this is about “religious liberty” as such or about the 1st ammendment. By sponsoring these carvings, the VA does in a way endorse whatever the carving symbolizes and therefore it must be free to review what they are sponsoring (to ensure that it doesn’t conflict with the principles the soldiers and veterans defend)) – however, ten years is definitely too long for such a review.

    The alternative would be a free-for-all with no review of the symbols. Anybody could carve whatever he wanted. But as long as there is such a list, some body must review it.

    PS. No, I don’t think the age and mythology of Wicca is relevant to the story. But since the reporter mentioned it and got things wrong, it is relevant to this posting and this blog. Though it’s not the main story.

  • BlackPhi

    Is it just me, or is there a big hole in that NY Times story? Just why was this application rejected, when so many other symbols have been accepted without problem? A vague reference to Bush making a negative comment back in 1999 is really not good enough.

    There is a vague reference to “other religious groups” supporting the Wiccans’ case, with a quote from the Rutherford Institute (whoever they are), but no comment at all from the mainstream religions. In particular the reporter apparently has made no attempt to see whether other religious pressure groups – Evangelical Alliance, RC Church, whoever – have been applying pressure to block recognition being given to “witches”; or maybe even applying pressure in support of religious freedom.

    The trouble with accessing such articles online is that I cannot tell whether this is meant to be a ‘fluff’ story – filler with local interest, but not enough to spend any reporter time and effort – or whether it is meant to be serious. If the latter then it seems to me to be incomplete, if the former then I wonder if someone else is looking at this case more seriously, for a proper story to follow?

  • Steve Nicoloso

    In the interests of accurate reporting on the reporters…

    Mark Oppenheimer, … writes over at The Huffington Post that Banerjee makes a mistake in his report when he says that Wicca is a pre-Christian belief

    Neela Banerjee sounds awfully like a woman’s name. If Mark Oppenheimer, or the reporter reporters at GetReligion know otherwise, my apologies.

  • NewTrollObserver

    #27 Black Phi,

    Yes, the hole is mighty big.

    One thing differentiates Wicca from most, if not all, of the other religions on the VA list: Wicca lacks a centralized authority, or centralized hierarchy. Even the atheists have the American Atheists society, with its own website. Wiccans don’t have anything comparable, even though there are many Wiccan churches and online communities.

    The Washington Post did a story just last year, where the reporter interviewed a VA spokesperson, who talked about that, up to 2005, the VA had specific rules for what or who could be considered a religion:

    Department spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said VA turned down Wiccans in the past because religious groups used to be required to list a headquarters or central authority, which Wicca does not have. But that requirement was eliminated last year, she noted

    The requirement was eliminated in 2005, and now it’s 2007, so I would say that the lack of Wiccan organizational centralization was a main, if not the main, factor in the VA not recognizing it as a legitimate religion.

    (George Bush, when governor of Texas, simply said the Wicca was not a religion. Whether he was thinking of its lack of centralization, or whether he was silently equating Wicca with demon-worship, is unclear.)

  • Dale

    There is a vague reference to “other religious groups” supporting the Wiccans’ case, with a quote from the Rutherford Institute (whoever they are)

    The Rutherford Institute is a conservative civil rights organization that often litigates First Amendment free exercise of religion cases representing evangelical Christian churches. The fact that the Rutherford Institute would defend Wiccans is nothing unusual; the Christian Legal Society, an evangelical Christian professional organization and civil liberties group, has also filed amicus curiae briefs advocating for the rights of Santeria (a Brazilian/African religion) priests to perform animal sacrifices, and for the rights of Native Americans to use peyote, an illegal psychedelic drug, in their religious ceremonies.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “The requirement was eliminated in 2005, and now it’s 2007, so I would say that the lack of Wiccan organizational centralization was a main, if not the main, factor in the VA not recognizing it as a legitimate religion.”

    I call bull. Reputable, legally recognized Wiccan religious organizations applied well before 2005 and were stonewalled. The requirement for a “central authority” doesn’t mean that organization must be able to speak for *all* Wiccans. If it did there would only be one Christian cross symbol approved instead of SIXTEEN different cross designs (all approved I might add before 2005) that are approved currently.

    The VA could have easily approved Circle Sanctuary’s pentacle and then approved a slightly different pentacle for the Covenant of the Goddess, and a slightly different one for the Aquarian Tabernacle Church (all legally established religious organizations with a long history). But instead a history of stalling, “lost” paperwork, and an outright dismissive attitude prevailed instead.

  • Dale

    The Washington Post did a story just last year, where the reporter interviewed a VA spokesperson, who talked about that, up to 2005, the VA had specific rules for what or who could be considered a religion:

    The VA is not the only government agency that has a set of criteria to determine whether an organization is religious. Here’s a link to an online article by a law professor briefly describing the problems that the U.S. government has in defining what is or is not a religion without violating the Free Exercise and Nonestablishment clauses of the First Amendment. It’s a sticky issue, especially with the IRS, because tax frauds often use fake religious organizations as a cover. The IRS has criteria to determine whether an organization is religious, but when the criteria are applied to a specific set of facts, the result isn’t always clear. I would imagine the same is true for the VA’s criteria.

    The IRS’ criteria are drawn from common characteristics of long-standing religious traditions. A group like the Wiccans might very well have trouble meeting the criteria.

    Unfortunately, there are always people who will make bogus religious claims in order to further the nonreligious aims of an organization. I had a high school teacher who used a “Wiccan” religious organization as a tax dodge and was very proud of the fact that, for him, the religion was a hoax.

    So the government, whether the VA or the IRS, has grounds to be suspicious of an organization’s claim to be religious. The challenge is to create a set of criteria that is sufficiently broad enough to include new religious groups like Wiccans without allowing fraud or abuse.

    The NYT reporter would have done better if he had given background on the legal difficulties of defining religious organizations in American law.

  • ck

    So, what does it take to get a job as religion beat writer at a newspaper where a credible and fair and somewhat impartial approach can be taken to answer questions the newspaper’s readers might have?

    Mr. Hoh’s question is one I second and would love to see addressed here, in another post. My guess is that there are others curious to see the answer as well.

  • NewTrollObserver

    #30 Jason,

    Sure, the VA could have approved all these different Wiccan organizations’ symbols, and undoubtedly (1) the relative novelty of Wicca compared to Christianity as a whole; and (2) yet-still-growing routinization of Wicca as Wiccans marry, have children, and raised children within Wicca; and (3) common public misperceptions of Wicca, such as it being related to Satanism and demon-worship; contributed to the problems Wiccans had with the VA. But do you see this as ‘merely’ a case of stalling and dismissive attitude on the part of the VA, or was the VA not alone in this, and was also responding to external, political pressure?

  • Jennifer Emick

    “What exactly did Bush say? Where was this military base? I presume it was a National Guard base, but I’d like some more details about how this seemingly obscure incident from Bush’s tenure as Texas governor was translated into VA policy.”

    According to AU, they have documentation, but are barred from releasing it or making other than general references to it. The comment was made during Bush’s campaign on Good Morning America, I forget the date.

  • Jennifer Emick

    “The VA could have easily approved Circle Sanctuary’s pentacle ”

    Exactly…and the ADF’s symbol, if neccessary, or a Thor’s hammer, or what have you. I think that if the excuses given were legitimate, there would certainly be no atheist symbol (what central authority does atheism have?), and we qwouldn’t see symbols for tiny groups like Eck or Sufism reoriented.

  • Dennis Colby

    A couple of thoughts:

    To NewTrollObserver:
    The “centralization” thing seems fishy to me. Who’s the central authority for Jews and Muslims? If the VA does have single organizations in mind that it believes represent all Jews or all Muslims, how do the other Jews and Muslims feel about that?

    To Jennifer Emick:
    “According to AU, they have documentation, but are barred from releasing it or making other than general references to it.”
    I’m more curious than ever. Was this a public comment that an elected official made – on TV? How could they possibly be barred from releasing their documentation? Again, I would have liked to see the Times delve into this a little more.

    It seems to me that virtually everyone – including the courts – thinks this was a grave error on the VA’s part. In that case, the central question for journalists should be: Why did the VA make this decision? Maybe it was Bush’s comment, maybe there was more to it. But it seems like all the stories will be incomplete until that question is answered.

  • Donald

    Baptists claim not to be Protestants because they didn’t break away from the Roman Catholic Church but were formed before Rome took over.

    A hundred years from now no-one will care anyway.

  • Tom

    “Imagine” If we didn’t have to debate what to put or not put on people’s head stones who were killed in war. Regardless of the Religious symbol on the tombstone it will never say anything about who the people beneath them really were 100 years from now.

  • Cerridwyn Morganne

    Wicca is a belief system dating back to the ’50′s and Gerald Gardner, however Witchcraft/Paganism (including Goddess worship of many forms, etc etc etc….) can date much further back – there really is no way to tell and really, who would *want* to?! What’s the point?! When Charles Arnold started with the Pagan Headstone Campaign more than NINE years ago, he was put off and put off by the VA. Yet during those years such “religions” as Eckankar had their symbol approved……(just why doesn’t it have a UFO in it?! It’s a valid tradition and all, but I’ll never quite understand why it doesn’t have a UFO if it’s such an intregal part of the belief system!) Now, if the VA can consider a UFO-focused tradition a Religion but not Wicca, which is a nature-based “harm none” belief system, not Satanism in any way shape or form. I for one would be fascinated to read the memos that have gone back and forth during this obscenely long approval period.
    I have to believe at this point that if this were any other belief system, it would have been approved long before. The VA has shown year after year and again with their condescending statements with this approval that this was a jaded approval. Perhaps it *is* time for the VA Director to have us all take a MUCH closer look at the job he’s doing. Oh wait, perhaps I should say, at the job he hasn’t been doing for quite some time…..ah yes, that’s it.
    Blessed Be; and as for the VA – the headstones are just the start – NOW you get to show our Wiccan troops the RESPECT they deserve – OPENLY!!! There’s a thought!

  • Donald

    Do it the Military way; It’s snowing and someone shows up at formation without a coat; everyone else has to remove their coats.

    If a Wicca symbol can’t be used; No Religious symbol should be on any headstone in any military cemetery.

    These guys and gals died for political reasons so there should be only 3 symbols allowed on all military headstones Elephant, Donkey, or blank for Independants.

  • Camassia

    Comment #39 makes a good point that some radical Protestant groups (such as my own Mennonites) make claims about representing the “ancient church” that are highly disputed by some other groups. Passing along such claims as fact would be taking sides, however unwittingly.

    It seems like the only way a reporter could avoid this whole problem would be to not get into the back story to begin with, but to describe what these groups believe and do now. Of course, their beliefs may include a back story, but describing it as such would place it in its proper context.

  • Neela Banerjee


    Author of the Times article here. I read getreligion, and I find some of your points useful. But I also wonder who is policing your accuracy? Daniel, this what my article said about the link between Bush and the case:

    In reviewing 30,000 pages of documents from Veterans Affairs, Americans United said it found e-mail and memorandums referring to negative comments President Bush made about Wicca in an interview in 1999 with ”Good Morning America,” when he was governor of Texas. The interview had to do with a controversy at the time about Wiccan soldiers being allowed to worship at Fort Hood, Tex.

    ”I don’t think witchcraft is a religion,” Mr. Bush said at the time, according to a transcript. ”I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made.”

    Americans United did not assert that the White House influenced the Veterans Affairs Department. Under the settlement, Americans United had to return the documents and could not copy them, though it could make limited comments about their contents, Mr. Katskee said.

    That is a direct quote from the story.

    This is what you said in your post: Even the folks at Americans United decline to say that Bush’s statements affected the decision.

    Uh, no. They said they found emails referring to the president’s comments as part of the decisionmaking process regarding the symbol. I wanted to make it clear that AU didnt bring up evidence of the White House interfering now. There’s a difference.

    There are many other things to be addressed in your critique which suggest a misreading on your part, but we’ll leave it at this.

    Neela Banerjee

  • Mollie

    I have not been following coverage of this issue very well or this post/thread at all but I thought I might mention that Daniel Pulliam, who authored this post, may be out of pocket intermittently as he’s getting hitched this week.

    I wish I were following it better since the freedom to practice one’s religion without government interference is one of my personal pet issues and this seems like a most momentous occasion.

  • NewTrollObserver

    #38 Dennis,

    To NewTrollObserver:
    The “centralization” thing seems fishy to me. Who’s the central authority for Jews and Muslims? If the VA does have single organizations in mind that it believes represent all Jews or all Muslims, how do the other Jews and Muslims feel about that?

    True, there is no “one” centralized authority for all Jews, or all Muslims, or all Christians. But there is The Episcopal Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and so forth. Of course, there are Wiccan religious organizations, as well.

    Notice the former requirements for a religion in order for its emblem to be recognized by the VA:

    1. A written request from the recognized head of the religious group,
    2. A list of national officers, and
    3. A membership tally.

    A religion like Wicca, even though it does possess some level of organizational structure, is not dependent upon such structure. It is commonly accepted among Wiccans that one can be a Wiccan without joining a coven, or without being initiated by a priestess or priest. In a nation broadly pervaded by Christianity, where Christianity serves as the model of what a real religion entails (community, belief, sacred text, particular ideas of divinity, etc.), Wicca can certainly appear not “really” a religion, as something people just “make up”. And, indeed, there is tremendous potential for Wiccan creativity in the construction of their Book of Shadow and magickal rituals. Within a Christian framework, that’s not “religion” — religion has a defined Deity (preferably masculine), a defined founder (preferably male), a defined doctrine (preferably written in sacred texts and conciliar documents); religion, moreover, does not involve nudity, or sex, or invoking spirits — things Wiccans have been known to include in their rituals.(By contrast, even Scientologists and Eckankarists are not known for engaging in such distinctive behavior!) From a historically Christian perspective, whether Protestant or Catholic, Wicca might be “spiritual”, but it’s not “religious”.

    The definitions that the VA formerly used to define what counts as a religion, originated out of a Christian matrix. I’m not saying that’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just that in 21st-century America, governmental administrations have to be aware of the tendency to judge all religious and spiritual paths, in terms of how much they fit into traditionally Christian notions of organizational and ritual characteristics of what “religion” really is.

    Without having read all 30,000 documents created by the VA, I would just have to strongly suspect that some of the VA decision-making process involved a conscious and unconscious comparison (and not just at the level of centralized organization, I agree!) of Wicca with Christianity and other formally recognized religions, with Wicca coming up with the short end of the stick.

  • Jerry

    Daniel Pulliam, … getting hitched this week.

    May God bless them and grant them a long and happy life together.

  • Maureen

    Has anybody considered the old-fashioned possibility that Eckankar had a congressman or senator persuaded to help them out?

    I mean, if I was a member of a really small religion, I’d find it a lot easier to approach all my representatives _first_ and make nice, than to approach a huge faceless federal agency of any kind and demand a policy change.

  • Jaume

    Wicca cannot be traced back even to the 19th century. It was created by occultist Gerald Gardner in the 1940s or early 50s, as Ronald Hutton has convincingly shown, probably with the help of the infamous Aleister Crowley. Of course they have every right granted by religious freedom, but the myth of the pre-Christian origins of witchcraft is exactly that, a myth.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Can a practitioner of Rastafarianism have a cannibis on his/her tombstone? Personally, I want pepperoni and black olives on my Tombstone. :)

  • Christopher W. Chase

    Actually, Jaume, Hutton’s argument was the exact opposite of yours. As he has detailed in his later books, there were several discourses of paganism already present over hundreds of years in Europe. Altars and hymns to the god Pan were built and written back well into the 19th century, not to mention British folklore and woodcraft chivalry. Hutton’s brilliance lies in his locating all the Wiccan precursor elements, from folklore to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, deep into the 19th century. Combined with Joscelyn Godwin’s historical studies of Renaissance and 18th century paganism, its clear that the Gardner was the catalyst and synthesizer of elements already present in British and European continental culture. Wiccans and other pagans have also deliberately incorporated pre-Christian ritual theurgy into their rites, such as “Drawing Down The Moon.” Some elements of Wicca are ancient. Some are medieval and late antiquity. Some are Renaissance and others Romantic. But no serious scholar of Paganism, least of all Hutton, thinks it was entirely “invented” in the 20th century.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    One wonders whether Mr. Oppenheimer would take the same dismissive attitude towards other Reconstructionist/Restorationist movements. Overall, its unfortunate that this politically irrelevant detail has attracted so much attention. All religions borrow from previous practices, and all religions, at some point, are “new religious movements.” Creating “heritage” or “myth” is perhaps one of the most universal operations, whether concerning American nationalism or Wiccan sacred narrative.

  • sopka

    Wicca is not ancient..but their is no physical proof that jesus ever letter written about him during his supposed incarnation on political record no judicial record and to be honest until the 1980′s no record of chrisitian societies until 90 years after his supposed death.. If we are argueing proof by age there is no birth certificate for christianity..

    Being a Pagan in the VA system I view this Victory a bit sourly..the VA and the Government promises much to soldiers and vets after the flurry of pentacles being placed in 30 years will they still be obliging and if so in 100 years will they still standing time will only tell…

  • Ed Hubbard

    While many consider this a religious issue, and a freedom of religion issue, as well as who and what has a right to form a religion. The fact is that Wiccans have had some central authority structures from the 1970′s, and it could have been approved easily. The Military recognized Wicca as a religion in the 1980′s.

    This is much more a Veteran’s Rights issue. What rights are we going to give to our veteran’s who serve and die to be represented upon their graves, what expression of belief they uphold that gave them the strength to face the bullets of those who would destroy the our fair democracy.

    This is also about a changing American face, and while many Wiccans recognize they are reviving a belief, as well as creating a new religious paradigm that is both frightening and amazing thing to be happening in the 21st Century. Some underlying beliefs Wiccans have include belief in reincarnation, evolutionary science, and all manner of ideas that are match our scientific world as well as our desire for a spiritual side of nature and the natural world. Wicca is among the fastest of growing religions, and they are very likely to become a significant minority.

    For the Bush Administration this must have been a very difficult decision, and as I watched this battle, and reported this as a Wiccan Voice in the media, it was as much about assuring that Christianity would remain the central religion in America. The greatest fear was that Wicca is so attractive to young people that it would cut significantly into Christian Church membership and also into the rising Republican Majorities of the time. This ‘unacceptable’ faith was attracting many members of the military who were exposed to Wicca while at Fort Hood, and therefore joining Wicca and abandoning thier Christian roots. This is was what led Govenor Bush to question this faith proactice during the Fort Hood Incident.

    It is easier to question Wicca’s beliefs and their history than it is ask the far more serious question, “Do Wiccans have a right to be a legally recognized religion when they holds beliefs that are restricted by the Bible and therefore the majority of society, and if yes, then to what degree is the Goverment required to protect and grant equality to a religion that most Christians beleive is wrong and have made illegal for centuries?”.

    Now this decision has been made it expands the rights of Wiccans in many ways, and far beyond just putting symbols of faith on our soldier’s grave. It recognizes that we wont accept the idea that there is a dominant faith in America that should have protected rights and that minority faiths that we disagree with, and in fact, hold beliefs to be the opposite of the majority should not be. This decision says clearly that there are no secondary faiths in America.

    It’s a far more monumental decision then it appears and cuts deeply across all American culture, simultaneously deepening our freedoms and democracy, while allowing a new faith practice to emerge in the United States, that the majority and dominant faith feel free to discriminate against. This decision says that no we are not a Christian Society at all but a society that actually accepts the concept of Religious Freedom above all else.

    That to me is the story that was simply ignored by the press, and the wonder and the true value of this decision by the VA that was obviously opposed to approving Wicca as a acceptable faith. In the end they did the right thing and we should cherish that and be grateful that it did occur. That is the greatness of America and that is the story that is far more important than any of us may realize at this moment.