Wiccan Pentacles at Arlington, and Why Litigation Was Necessary

Wiccan Pentacles at Arlington, and Why Litigation Was Necessary January 31, 2012

In April of 2007 the Bush Administration agreed to a settlement that paved the way for approval of the Wiccan pentacle to be engraved on government-issued headstones and markers, bringing to an end a campaign that lasted a decade, one that saw casual anti-Pagan demagoguery morph into government policy. Nearly five years after that historic settlement, the number of grave markers with the pentacle emblem, according to iPad-formatted news magazine The Daily, has risen dramatically.

Photo by Alex Brandon (AP)

“Since its addition in 2007 to a list of recognized tombstone icons, the pentacle has begun popping up on grave markers at Arlington and other government cemeteries alongside crosses, Stars of David and Muslim crescents. “There’s been a large increase over the past few years,” Jeanet Ewing, co-founder of Northern Virginia Pagan Network, told The Daily. “We’re up to near 80 grave markers nationwide.” The symbol can be found on five Arlington headstones, including that of Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Huffard, a Vietnam veteran who died in 2009, and Army Spec. Charles Heinlein, who was killed in Iraq in 2007.”

While I’m very happy to see our Wiccan veterans properly honored, and glad that The Daily decided to shine a spotlight on this issue, I’m troubled by the comments made by Department of Veterans Affairs staff.

…the proposed new emblem must represent “the decedent’s religious affiliation or sincerely held religious belief system,” the Veterans Affairs’ website states. “It can’t just be someone making up a religion,” department spokeswoman Josephine Schuda told The Daily.  As for the inclusion of Wicca, which involves the worship of a horned god that critics have likened to a Satanic figure, as well as a more benign goddess figure, Schuda recalled that the decision entailed considerable debate. “Essentially, it boiled down to the issue of whether Wiccan beliefs constituted a religion,” Schuda said. “It took a little while, I’ll say that.”

With all due respect to Ms. Schuda, it wasn’t a matter of debate, it was a matter of litigation and intense public pressure that got the pentacle approved. For nine years the VA ignored filed requests, “lost” applications, punted, and stalled. The Pagan community marshaled every interfaith ally it could, and was met by continual stonewalling.  In that time, several other emblems were approved, while outright misinformation was given to Pagan applicants. It wasn’t until Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, with the help of Americans United, took the government to court did things progress, and even then the VA tried to have the case dismissed, or delayed with the promise of policy changes.

Ultimately, it wasn’t internal “debate” that won Wiccan veterans the pentacle, it was the discovery of damning evidence by Americans United.

“Lawyers familiar with the case said that some documents suggested the VA had political motives for rejecting the pentacle … During his first campaign for president, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush told ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ in 1999 that he was opposed to Wiccan soldiers practicing their faith at Fort Hood, Tex. ‘I don’t think witchcraft is a religion, and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it,’ he said. 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.’”

In short, the “debate” over “whether Wiccan beliefs constituted a religion” really came down to the VA interpreting George W. Bush’s infamous “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion” comments as a directive. Faced with a courtroom showdown where this evidence would be presented, the VA agreed to settle. A settlement that was agreed on because it won us what we wanted in the first place, the approval of the pentacle as an emblem of faith. An emblem that now graces nearly 80 markers and headstones.

As the old saw goes: You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. The VA’s approval of the Wiccan pentacle didn’t come about because of internal theological debate, it came about because Wiccans, Pagans, and their allies, fought hard for it. Litigation ended up being necessary, and it was only after litigation was filed that we saw any forward progress from the VA. Any other interpretation belittles the decade of activism, hard work, and struggle that occurred. Considering the fact that some emblems were approved in the space of two weeks during the ten years the Wiccan pentacle was being considered ,“It took a little while, I’ll say that,” may set a new standard for understatement. So never forget what it took to get us here, and lets hope that a FOIA request will someday unearth all those “debates” over the pentacle.

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44 responses to “Wiccan Pentacles at Arlington, and Why Litigation Was Necessary”

  1. Really? The VA is stalling in regards to mjollnirs on headstones, too? I would think that after being sued over the pentacle, the VA would have learned it’s lesson.

  2. The firm stance in this article (by Jason) is well merited. Stunning how some try to re-write history and since they are the ones in power, their history may be the one that sticks.

  3. “[…L]ets hope that a FOIA request will someday unearth all those “debates” over the pentacle.”

    A story on the pentacle struggle by an PNC bureau reporter would be the perfect vehicle for such a FOIA request.

  4. “It can’t just be someone making up a religion”

    If it’s important enough to you that you want it on your tombstone, it’s a real religion.

  5. The VA never learns anything. Haven’t you noticed?

    Oh, wait, you’re probably not a vet so never had to notice. *sigh*

  6. You cannot litigate the Thor’s Hammer. The VA changed the rules. The person who was of Asatru must be deceased before the request to be made for a new emblem.

  7. They are not stalling. The VA changed the rules on how to request a new emblem.

  8. “It can’t just be someone making up a religion,”

    To be frank, aren’t all religions Man made and therefore have all been “Made Up” at some point and time?

    I personally find faith and religion to be too totally different entities you don’t need one to have the other in my opinion….

  9. The article(or the Wild Hunt) forgot the another part of Bush’s statements in that same interview where he also said “Wiccans and atheist are not Americans because this is a nation under God.”

  10. Supposedly the lawsuit settlement cleared the way for further symbols like that to be approved in a reasonably straightforward manner. We won’t know for sure until someone tries, but I would be very surprised if they tried the same stunts they did with the pentacle.

  11. I’m not 100% certain, but I think all the stuff that came out in discovery was sealed as part of the settlement.

  12. Isn’t it funny how the Christian Right vacillates between saying that we are insignificant and not a “real” religion, and then saying that we are a vast and powerful movement that runs the world that can even cause earthquakes and plagues and stuff.

  13. I would love to see the Triskele, the Bride Creosoga/Cros Bride as a symbol, too, amongst a plethora of others including Thor’s Hammer!

  14. I am glad this has been brought up again. I followed this extensively on the internet and on Witchvox while it was happening. I tried looking for it again on Witchvox about a year ago and most of it was gone, there was only a summary. I wish I saved it onto a word document for History’s sake.

  15. Litigation is expensive, yet it works. What also worked was gaining support from various organizations, including religious groups, veterans’ service groups, and legal / constitutional rights groups. Press involvement can’t be discounted. Several leaders worked tirelessly on this quest, and raised awareness amongst Pagans and the general public alike. Marching in the streets waving placards draws attention to a cause, but doesn’t actively create change. Hopefully other causes will take note.

  16. ??? Was that directed specifically to one person? I noticed a few vets and their family members responding in the comments…???

  17. What staggering presumption, taking it upon yourself to decide whether anyone else’s beliefs constitute a religion or not. How have we gotten so far from the Constitution that Veterans Affairs bureaucrats and various politicians believe they have grounds for making that call? Why is it not considered a national crisis that this has happened?

    This “debate” over the pentacle as religious symbol is a symptom of a much more fundamental straying from the intent of the Founding Fathers. Those who fight for recognition of their religious symbols benefit not only themselves and the veterans they honor. They are defending the Constitution. The Lady Liberty League and the many others who continue to insist upon our right to religious freedoms are true American heroes.

  18. When I describe the process to people I sum it up as 10 years, 3 applications and 2 lawsuits.

  19. Your use of the phrase “real pagans” is fairly offensive…
    Also, as symbols, analogous to words, have meanings determined by usage, the historical use is not where the meaning of a symbol is derived. By your logic, a cross is not a Christian symbol because people before Christians used it. Only, it is a Christian symbol because people recognize it as such. Similarly, the pentacle is a Wiccan symbol that also happens to have been used by other groups in the past and present. Other groups using it does not make it any less so.

  20. Crick , my freind altho you are correct in the historical uses of the pent, modern wiccans have adopted that symbol and as fas i know are the only ones using it now , altho many non wiccan witches us it as well, as does my own wife . My question is now will the VA consider other pagan symbols such as a druids sigal , thors hammer , etc. As you and others point out altho the most numerous , wiccans are not the only pagans serving our country in the military.Other pagans need to be regonised as well, by the VA and our govt as a whole . In my own case ADF is a recognised 501c organisation . Does the VA recognise us and others that are 501c certified religious groups? Kilm

  21. Maybe it’s just me, but I know certain Asatru vets who deserve better than someone waiting to litigate over their bones before they have their service recognized.

  22. As far as I can find out, the quote is mostly attributed – without transcript or recording, as you say – to George Bush the Elder rather than Dubya. Even then, it mentions only atheists and not Wiccans or any other pagans.

  23. “Changing rules” can be a bonafide procedure or a stall, depending how they play it. That was exactly how they strung us along the first time. As soon as it became obvious they had no more legit excuses for not processing an application, they would announce a “rules change” and tell everyone they had to re-start from square one (after a few hundred days they would need to re-write the rules and hold comment periods on them.

  24. Nope. Approved symbols are all here: http://www.cem.va.gov/hm/hmemb.asp Nothing there for ADF. If I understand the process correctly an ADF druid would have to request one (or their next of kin would, after their death, really) in order to have it considered.

  25. How hard can it be these days anyway? Isn’t it all done with lasers? Should be able to get anything you want without making the tombstone guy’s job too hard.

  26. The author of this article misspelled Army Staff Sgt. Thomas HUFFORD’s name, which is correct on his marker. Army Staff Sgt. Hufford was a friend of mine for many years. He also was one of many people who pushed for recognition of the Pentacle.

  27. I really loathe “settlements” where a gag order is imposed as a condition of “winning” the case.

    I agree with BookHouseGal, Cathryn Bauer, and Jack Heron about having to fight this battle for each separate “minor” religion or spiritual belief every time is frustrating and undignified. I see nothing more than bias, ignorance, and prejudice in such a policy.

    FYI, the statement
    “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts” has been attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The statement, and its variants, are discussed at http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Daniel_Patrick_Moynihan where the identical quote is attributed to James R. Schlesinger in 1973 Congressional testimony.

    Thus far, the earliest source is the forthcoming Yale Book of Modern Proverbs has as its earliest citation for this saying the Deming (New Mexico) Headlight, Jan. 6, 1950, which printed “Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.” The New Mexico newspaper attributed it to Bernard M. Baruch. Since 1950 was long before Moynihan came into prominence, Baruch seems to have the strongest claim to priority. Source: http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/08/18/there-are-opinions-and-then-there-are-facts/

    I had just seen this statement/quote recently, and thus was, as a source/attribution/provenance geek, driven to get to the bottom of the source question.

  28. From http://www.cem.va.gov/hm/hmemb.asp, at the bottom of the page (thanks to White Birch for the pointer)

    If you are applying for a headstone or marker and the emblem you desire is not currently available, please see information below:

    Who Can Request a New Emblem of Belief?

    CFR 38.632 rule states that the following individuals may request a new emblem of belief for inscription on a headstone or marker: the decedent’s next-of-kin (NOK), a person authorized in writing by the NOK, or a personal representative authorized in writing by the decedent.
    Instructions for Requesting an Emblem not Available for Inscription Link

    To submit a request for an emblem of belief not available for inscription, the requestor must:
    1. Establish that there is an immediate need for a Government headstone/marker to be furnished for a deceased eligible individual (i.e., submission of VA-Form 40-1330, Application for a Government-Furnished Headstone or Marker, verification from National or state cemetery officials).
    2. Certify that the proposed new emblem of belief represents the decedent’s religious affiliation or sincerely held religious belief system, or a sincerely held belief system that was functionally equivalent to a religious belief system in the life of the decedent.
    3. Submit a three-inch diameter digitized black and white representation of the requested emblem that is free of copyright or trademark restrictions or authorized by the owner for inscription on Government-furnished headstones and markers and can be reproduced in a production-line environment in stone or bronze without loss of graphic quality.

    Submit all information to the following address:

    Memorial Programs Service (41A1)
    Department of Veterans Affairs
    5109 Russell Road
    Quantico, VA 22134-3903

  29. Before I signed the settlement agreement in Circle Sanctuary’s lawsuit against the VA which led to the Pentacle finally approved, I made certain that (1) Circle Sanctuary & I could help get other symbols on the list, and (2) that we & our AU attorneys could speak about the internal documents that revealed anti-Wiccan prejudice on the part of Bush & his administration — we did this in the press conference held at the National Press Club on the day the symbol went on the list: April 23, 2007. There is no need at this point to do litigation to get the Druid Awen, the Heathen Thor’s Hammer, or other Pagan symbols added to the list — just comply with the current protocols. If you do so & have trouble, contact Lady Liberty League: liberty@circlesanctuary.org.