A fair share of you loyal readers noticed the fair share of mistakes I made in my previous post on the Veterans Affairs Department’s decision to include the Wiccan pentacle on a list of approved religious symbols for gravestones. For those mistakes I apologize, particularly to New York Times reporter Neela Banerjee. I’ll use this as an opportunity to revisit the subject briefly, because we had many thoughtful comments that I thought I would highlight.
The main point of my post was that the battle over the Wiccan pentacle has been mainly covered from a political perspective and I want to encourage reporters to give the religious angle more weight. A key fact that has come out of this story is that VA officials apparently based their decision to withhold the headstones with pentacles on statements that President Bush made while governor of Texas. All the reports I’ve read have made clear that the group bringing the lawsuit against the VA, Americans United, do not claim that White House officials had any direct say in the decisions. But that does not mean that there wasn’t any direct say.
What I’d like to know, and it won’t be easy to find out, is what went into the decision to permit the pentacle headstones, and why it took so long and a lawsuit to finally add the pentacle to a list that includes 38 symbols. I want to be clear that I recognize as a reporter that an overnight news story will not likely contain this information, but every reporter has heard of the Freedom of Information Act and nearly all decisions made by governments have paper trails. It may take some time, maybe a few years, but I’m hoping that eventually the truth about this matter comes out.
Commenting on the previous post, Dale made this observation about the legal-religious angle that could shed some light on the VA’s decisions:
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.
Now I am not here to tell you whether Wicca is a genuine religion. From all that I’ve seen, Wicca is just as much a religion as the rest of the faiths that have approved gravestone symbols. But it is worth exploring this uncomfortable question and establishing whether this was a factor in the VA’s decisions.