Wiccan pentacles make my head spin

Wiccan pentaclesA 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.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I live in Lynn, Mass., bordering on “Witch City” Salem, Mass. So I frequently go through or visit that city. And if the Wiccan religion elsewhere is like it is in Salem–it is merely a business that is feeding off the gullibility of tourists.

  • Laren

    I think you will find that over the course of ten years, which this issue has been of interest to the Pagan community, the VA has never given any reasons for denying claims. It’s usual response was “reviewing the application” or “revising its criteria”. For a full history and background on this issue, might I recommend contacting:

    The Military Pagan Network – http://www.milpagan.org/

    This group has been heavily involved in the grave maker issue.

    As to the other issue of how the media has reported on Wicca in general, it’s handled it like many other issues recently, poorly and with lack of effort.

  • Kate

    Re: the admittedly commercial side to some of the Wiccan individuals and businesses in Salem and elsewhere, I can only suggest that one not judge an entire religion by the behavior of a few. This would be like judging all Christians by the Pat Robertsons, James Dobsons, and Jerry Falwells of the world, who also run major businesses feeding off the gullibility of their followers…

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    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.

    As I read the first blog and then this follow-up blog my initial reaction was that the VA should allow the Wicca emblem on tombstones. I suspected that the IRS might not recognize it and also suspected the VA used that as basis for its exclusion of the Wicca symbol. Since very little, if any, money is involved, what’s the big deal?

    Except that in America if one branch or pseudo-branch of government recognizes and entity as a specific form, then the courts are flooded with petitions that all branches should honor that designation.

    Thus the VA is within its rights to carefully its policies and all applications it receives. If the group is a valid faith-group that meets valid IRS non-profit guidelines then it is eligible for recognition by the government en toto.

    By the way, the state of Wisconsin has named a Wiccan priestess as chaplain at the state prison in Waupun.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Ironically there is a business side to all religions.. Look at the major religions and you will find they require hundreds of million of dollars to run, and many of them run business in direct competition with ordinary business.

    Now as for religious orientated shops that provide supplies for the religious, I don’t seem much difference between the metaphysical shops and the little shops that sell stuff for Catholics or what have you. Those I treat those like any other business and it is buyer beware.

    As a Wiccan I used to by my incense from one of those Catholic supply shops. they had good incense and I appreciated that.

    As for this pentacle fight, the VA should have no say so in what religious symbol can bee used by any vet on his grave. The vets bought that right to chose with their service. The only thing the VA should do is to set size of symbols to fit their standardized head stones and marker. But they should have no say so as to what religious symbol can be used. That is where the VA broke the law of the land, the U S Constitution.

    The court found a pattern of religious bigotry by the VA, now that does stink.

  • Jerry

    Some might be surprised if they were to search the US Government’s list of churches. They’ll find 17 churches with 501(c)3 status and with “wicca” in their name: http://apps.irs.gov/app/pub78 Publication 78 is the list of churches that the IRS recognizes http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p1828.pdf

  • Richard Brownbear

    WHAT did you say?!?! Let me quote you; “…it is merely a business that is feeding off the gullibility of tourists…” Wow! You don’t find that statement ironic in the least? That is a dead on definition of EVERY major religion in the world. ALL mainstream religions mooch money and power from their followers in the name of one particular Deity. EVERY single follower of any religion is a tourist, and they ARE gullible.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    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.

    I would contend that actually the IRS’s criteria are most likely drawn from the Protestant conception of what “religion” is in the U.S., and the underlying legal framework that has evolved to define what counts as “acceptable religion.” Many Amerindian or indigenous religious movements might have an equal amount of problems getting fully recognized, since they challenge the Protestant framework and heritage. But these movements are not necessarily any less historically “established” than others that would past muster easily.

  • Chad Padgett

    This issue is so big and mind boggling it’s hard to completely comprehend. The main issue at hand as that Wicca has been an officially recognized religion. The military allows it on dog tags and Wiccan services are even held on military bases, so why shouldn’t they have a symbol on their tombstone.

    We are at war and a hero died serving his country. Patrick Stewart was hit with a gernade attack while in a helicopter in a war zone. He died defending the constitution of the united states and when his body was returned to his wife they spit on an american hero and said we don’t recognize your religion enough to put it on a tombstone.

    The VA should have bent over backwards to do this, instead they cowered in fear over a statement now President Bush made when he was first running for office. There was a small uproar because a newspaper article ran talking about a Wiccan ceremony at Ft. Hood and the fundamentalists in the area found this unacceptable. George Bush said he did not believe that witchcraft was a religion and hoped the military leaders changed their minds.

    Of course the military leaders did not change their minds and defended their troops and they should. Those troops had a constitutional right to practice their religion. And since President Bush has taken office he hasn’t done anything to stop those meetings. But the ACLU discovered that statement in many of the current memos and e-mails.

    Why did the VA disrepect the sacrifice of an american hero? Because of an off the cuff statement made by the current president nearly 10 years ago. They should not be able to look at themselves in the mirror.

  • jennifer

    In response to : Deacon John M. Bresnahan , the Chrisitan religion is a bigger “attraction” fleecing millions every year…
    My religion , Wicca, teaches love and tolerance, and doesnt ask for ANY money…..
    we dont pass the plate and print names on envelopes so we can make sure our parishoners are paying up….

  • Will Harrington

    Its way too late, but ideally, since no one has to be buried in a national cemetary and the government does set regulations concerning this, I think markers should have the symbols of the army, navy, air force, and marines and if vets and their families want a religious monument and or ceremony they can have them in a private, not a state owned, cemetary. Just my two cents and I understand that the flood gates were opened long ago when no one could have concieved of religious symbols being controversial and long before wicca was around.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “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.”

    This argument might have held water if the VA hadn’t already approved Eckankar, humanist, and atheist emblems.

    Wicca has been in America since the early sixties. Legally recognized Wiccan religious institutions have been around since the seventies. Army chaplain handbooks have contained information on Wicca since 1990, and allowed “Wicca” on dog tags long before that. As a result, most Pagans have moved well past giving the VA the benefit of the doubt.

    As for Deacon John M. Bresnahan’s comments about Salem, I’m sure he realizes that a large part of the witch-themed festivities there are encouraged by the city to increase tourism and are quite secular in nature. The city even has witches emblazoned on the police cars. And if Salem has become a kitschy-witchy Disneyland, what better fate for a town that once put “witches” to death.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com Chas S. Clifton

    Just to build on Christopher Chase’s comment, there has been quite a bit of discussion within the Wiccan community about how what started as a religion with an intimate, small-group model can survive the cultural pressure of “Protestanization” — in other words, a congregation led by or directed by a designated, collar-wearing ministerial figure. There are people who want that model because they want to be full-time clergy. Others resist it equally vehemently.

    Chas Clifton, author
    Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America

  • K Wood

    Kate (#3) says:

    judging all Christians by the Pat Robertsons, James Dobsons, and Jerry Falwells of the world, who also run major businesses feeding off the gullibility of their followers. . .

    Then Richard Brownbear (#7) adds:

    ALL mainstream religions mooch money and power from their followers in the name of one particular Deity. EVERY single follower of any religion is a tourist, and they ARE gullible.

    I don’t know if either of you are reporters or not, but I experienced a negative reaction to your comments equating gullibility and religion. And I certainly hope you can put that aside if and when you report on the religious angle of any story.

    Dictionary.com offers this simple definition of “gullible” : easily deceived or cheated. Therefore, to call religious persons gullible is to pass judgment that their religious faith and any actions based upon that faith are delusional deceptions. No matter what they believe, no matter how they behave, they are inferior to you because you “know better.”

    Now, that may be your opinion, but you are not entitled to bias your reporting with that opinion.

    One is gullible if one gives to a Pat Robertson or a Jim Wallis (Sojourners - a liberal Christian group) expecting them to use the money for a stated purpose – even though they’ve demonstrated that they will use it for another purpose. To be more specific: Let’s say I am giving to Robertson so that the “700 Club” stays on my local cable TV service and he diverts my money (and a whole bunch of others’) to a Swiss bank account. The diversion is discovered, and I still send more money because he “promised never to do that again.” In such a scenario, you could rightly label me as gullible.

    But just because I choose to give to Robertson, the Pope, Al Qaeda, or the Holy Church of Mickey Mouse doesn’t by itself make me gullible. If my giving satisfies a personal or communal need, and if my giving goes towards what I expect it, then I have not been deceived or cheated.

    As journalists, we know words matter. Kate’s and Richard’s statements above – if included in any news story about any religion – would surely be excised at the editor’s desk. If not, then neither the reporter nor the editor “get” religion!

    Now, back to the issue of pentacles and grave sites ….

  • Maureen

    “EVERY single follower of any religion is a tourist….”

    I also find it odd that you’d point out every religious follower as a tourist, unless you were pointing to the traditional imagery of life as a journey, or a brief flight inside the barn of a bird, flying from an unknown destination to an unknown destination.

    Awfully myssssssstical for someone denouncing religion.

    Now, if you’d claimed that “all religions are as much a waste of time and money as tourist traps”, that would have been more concise, more to your point, and not left you as open to snarky comments. Rhetoric counts in arguments. :)

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And that is pentaGRAM, something constantly gotten wrong by people who have heard of “pentacles” only from Waite’s card designs….. bloody half-baked amateurs… seethe, grumble….

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com/wp/ holmegm

    about how what started as a religion with an intimate, small-group model can survive the cultural pressure of “Protestanization” — in other words, a congregation led by or directed by a designated, collar-wearing ministerial figure.

    Um, what? Protestants pioneered that, you say?

  • G

    Well, to the people who treat Salem’s tourist industry as something concocted by Wiccans, let’s get this straight.

    It so happens I’m a Wiccan whose ancestry on one side did come through Salem, …some century or two after the witch trials. These two do not relate, actually, except that Salem’s tourist industry does capitalize on the ‘Witch City’ thing and it so happens that that makes good business.

    Wiccans did not invent this. But if it happens to be a place where the chamber of commerce likes a little gitchy-gootchy-witchy factor, well, that makes it an OK place to do retail. Maybe even where the locals have something better to do than try to run you out of town for selling a crystal to a tourist or something.

    The relevance of witch trials is, well, something Arthur Miller or Nathaniel Hawthorne could tell you about… still relevant today. Just that that madness has nothing to do with Wicca except that we know that what happened once could happen again. More easily than the original perpetrators liked to think, either.

    My ancestors worked on the wharves there. Are buried there. It’s a sacred place to me, and not because of anything you can buy. My ancestors, they were not Wiccans. Certainly not ‘Witches,’ as Cotton Mather frothed about in his day. They were, however, a part of America some folks weren’t ready to accept just then.

    And people do froth in similar language, in other places in America, right now. Only thing is, when *they* do it, they think they’re absolutely *Right.*

    This time.

    All’s I can say is that if an *inverted* pentacle isn’t too ‘Satanic’ for a Medal Of Honor, then our Pagan vets deserve an upright one. And this is justice long overdue.

    Blessed be.

  • Professor T

    I am glad to see some Wiccans with common sense replying patiently to these posts. I am wishing that reporters would interview them before making assertions about Wiccan belief.

    I agree that reporting on Wiccan belief is not typically in-depth, but it generally attempts to be respectful. Unfortunately, that reporting seems to occur, invariably, in response to controversy. Coverage isn’t being given to regular events, charity work, and the like except where Wiccan/Pagan activities are upsetting someone “normal.”

    On the VA issue, I would speculate that this issue is less about establishing Wicca as a real faith based on historical claims and perhaps more about its lack of central authority. As a Wiccan myself, I am aware of the Pagan community’s general resistance to centralized authority. Small groups tend to function locally within loosely affiliated networks. The networks are maintained through the work of volunteers, sometimes in the context of nonprofit groups (such as the Wiccan Religious Cooperative of Florida at http://www.wrcf.org) or Unitarian Universalist church CUUPS chapters. While there are some established churches (WRCF is technically one), there is no one central authority or governing body. If one is reporting about a more traditionally organized religion, one can contact the local bishop or, say, Southern Baptist Convention leader/rep. Even lesser-well-known religions such as some of those listed on the VA’s approved list have this structure. The fact that Wicca lacks that central authority may be interpreted as a sign that the faith is not valid even if it is alive for thousands of people, including those in military service. It may be making good, accurate reporting more difficult as well. However, I think that this basic fact about Wicca is simply an indicator of the fierce independence of its practitioners.

  • Tony Griego

    This was a great victory for Wiccans and Pagans. Surely, our heros who gave their lives in these terrible wars should be honored by having their emblem of faith on their headstone. As for Deacon John M. Bresnahan his remarks are just mean spirited. Salem is a great town to visit. Is the Deacon aware that the Catholics have a great gift shop inside St Peters in Rome. Every known religion has their wares to sell. If only we could be more tolerant of other’s religious beliefs then maybe the world just might be a better place. As a former Catholic, now Pagan, I have no axe to grind with anyone and I feel better about it. Blessed be.

  • Sally

    I work for a VA Medical Center. Several years ago, the hospital was instructed to build a mosque (we have a catholic, protestant and jewish chapels). I stated to the Chief Chaplain that I would want a place to worship the Goddess and was not taken seriously. I let it go as I feel I can follow my path anywhere and not need to have a special room at the VA to do so, however, it did bother me that my wishes would be ignored, but all other faiths would have considerations.