On January 9, 2017, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) added the Awen to its list of emblems of belief authorized for inclusion on the gravestones and other memorial markers it issues to honor deceased veterans. It is number 65 on the list: http://www.cem.va.gov/hmm/emblems.asp
The first VA headstone with the Awen is already in production and is for retired Air Force Captain Wayne Laliberte of Texas (1954-2013).
The Lady Liberty League depends on the volunteer efforts of many talented Pagan community members. If you'd like to join our team, please fill out the form below and let us know how you'd like to help.
If you are involved in a situation that you believe Lady Liberty League should look into, please provide us with detailed information so our staff can properly assess it and advise you accordingly. You may use our online form below, or you may download a printable copy, fill it out and send it to us. Please fill out the form completely, to save both you and us time in followup.
Printed copies may be faxed to us at (608) 924-5961, or may be mailed to us at Lady Liberty League c/o Circle Sanctuary, PO Box 9, Barneveld WI US 53507. For more information, you may also email us here.
Pagans are among the many who are taking part in Marriage Equality Support events this week in Washington, DC and across the nation, as the Supreme Court of the United States hears two cases on this issue.
Circle Sanctuary Senior Minister Rev. Selena Fox will be taking part in three events in Washington, D.C. and will be hosting a special Pagan Community forum on internet radio on this civil rights quest.
Wiccan/Pagan religious holidays are among those accommodated by many public and private institutions throughout the USA, including by public school systems, universities and colleges, hospitals, military installations, correctional institutions, work places.
Wiccan/Pagan religious accommodation guidelines are part of the Technical Reference Manual of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, US Department of Justice.
There are more than forty Wiccan/Pagan worship circles at US military installations across the USA, on ships, and around the world, including in war zones. There are thousands of Wiccans and Pagans on active duty in all branches of the US Armed Forces.
The Pentacle, Wiccan/Pagan religious emblem, is among the emblems of belief authorized by the US Department of Veterans Affairs to be included on grave markers it issues for deceased veterans. There are more than 100 VA-issued pentacle grave markers at public and private cemeteries across the USA, including 8 at Arlington National Cemetery.
Wiccan soldiers have had their religious designation on dog tags/military ID tags for more than fifty years.
Wiccan/Pagan religious leaders are doing chaplaincy work and other forms of ministry in hospitals, birthing centers, hospices, prisons, college/university campuses, military installations, law enforcement and first responder agencies, and other institutions.
Pagan Studies is an academic field. Research is being done and courses taught at a variety of public and private universities and colleges across the country. The Contemporary Pagan Studies Group is part of the American Academy of Religion.
Wiccan and Pagan churches, temples, and other religious organizations have federal 501(c)(3) tax exempt status.
By Reverend Selena Fox
Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of CIRCLE Magazine
On April 23, 2007, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) added the pentacle to its list of emblems of belief that can be included on the veteran grave markers that it issues. This important religious freedom victory occurred after a decade of effort by many individuals and groups, and directly resulted from the settlement of the Circle Sanctuary vs. Nicholson federal lawsuit Circle Sanctuary brought against the VA with the help of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Our lawsuit settlement also resulted in the VA expediting production and delivery of veteran grave markers with pentacles for those who had been waiting. In May, four markers went to Circle Cemetery, our national Pagan cemetery in Wisconsin, and two to Arlington National Cemetery, the most prominent veterans cemetery in the nation. Another marker went to a cemetery in Tennessee. Pentacle gravestone dedications and other ceremonies have occurred. On May 23 at Arlington National Cemetery was the dedication of the marble pentacle headstone for Abraham Kooiman, a World War II veteran, and his wife Rosemary. On Memorial Day, May 28, granite pentacle markers for Wiccan veterans Sgt. Patrick Stewart, Jerome Birnbaum, and Douglas Wilkey were dedicated at Circle Cemetery and ceremonies of remembrance also were held there at Samhain and Veterans Day. On July 4 was the dedication of Jan Deanna O'Rourke's marble pentacle headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.
Articles, photographs, media links, and other information about the Veteran Pentacle Quest, the victory, and these gravestone dedications have been published in past issues of our magazine and also are on-line:
More Pentacle Markers
The US Department of Veterans Affairs has continued to issue pentacle gravemarkers. At least three more markers have been produced. On June 1, 2007, a new bronze plaque honoring Harold and Betty Hecht was installed at Riverside National Cemetery in California. This VA-issued plaque includes both a Star of David for Harold, a Jewish veteran, and a Pentacle for his wife Betty, who was Wiccan. Their son, Michael Hecht of Arizona, told Selena Fox who assisted him and his sister in getting this marker with emblems, that he is glad that, fi nally, the faiths of both his parents can be displayed and honored equally on their gravemarker at this federal veterans cemetery.
On August 6, 2007, a new marble niche marker bearing a pentacle honoring Wiccan veteran John P. Graff was installed at Arlington National Cemetery. It is the first pentacle marker in the Columbarium, a special area of the cemetery with cremains inurned in memorial walls. This new marker replaced the initial one that incorrectly bore the Christian cross due to prejudice by a family member who originally handled cemetery arrangements. John's former wife, Boudica, and their son, who is John's next of kin, are relieved that this wrong has fi nally been righted and that John at last has been properly with a plaque bearing the emblem of his religion. Selena Fox, who had been working with them on marker replacement since April 2005, performed a private dedication of the marker during her visit there on August 23.
On November 6, 2007, a pentacle marker honoring Stephen P. Snowberger, III arrived at a private cemetery in North Carolina. Stephen, a member of Victory Base Open Circle, sponsored by the Sacred Well Congregation, was killed in action in Operation Iraqi Freedom on May 11, 2006. His marker has been installed in the family cemetery behind his mother's rural home. On December 1, 2007, his marker will be dedicated in a ceremony conducted by Dr. David Oringderff and Marci Drewry of the Sacred Well Congregation, J. D. Walker of the House of Akasha, Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, and others.
President Bush Makes Amends
At midday on Thursday, August 30, 2007, President George W. Bush met by phone with Roberta Stewart, a Wiccan from Nevada, member of Circle Sanctuary, and widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed in action in 2005 in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The President of the United States called her to personally apologize for her being excluded from the meeting he held in Reno, Nevada on August 28 with spouses and other family members of Nevada soldiers killed in action. Sgt. Stewart's parents and brother who are Christian were invited and attended this meeting, but Roberta, a Wiccan, was not invited.
Roberta was upset by this omission and spoke out to the press, as did Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Selena Fox. In articles that appeared on August 29 and the morning of August 30, both Lynn and Fox called for the president to apologize to Roberta and to give equal respect to soldiers and their families regardless of their religious orientation.
Following the president's call, Roberta said: "I am thankful that President Bush offered his condolences and his apology. This has helped bring some much needed closure for me regarding this recent issue as well as the struggles I have endured in the Veteran Pentacle Quest seeking to have my husband properly honored." Rev. Lynn stated: "The president has done the right thing, and his apology to Stewart should be commended. All veterans of war, regardless of their faith, should be honored and treated with the utmost respect, especially from their commander-in-chief. We are pleased the president recognized his slight of Stewart was wrong." Selena commented: "I am glad that President Bush provided this support to Roberta -- it has helped remedy this recent problem as well as helped heal the stress that Roberta has endured since her husband was killed in action. It also is a positive development for Wiccans and other Pagans who are serving and who have served in the US military and their families in the quest for equal respect and equal rights in society."
Documenting Quest Success
On Friday, August 31, BBC television's World News included a report on the Veteran Pentacle Quest victory and Pagan religious freedom. Versions of this report were broadcast in the UK, USA, and around the world as well as on-line. The Quest victory also is being mentioned in several documentary fi lms currently in production. This year's American Academy of Religion conference in late November in San Diego, California included two presentations on the Quest and Pagan religious freedom issues. Paula Johnson of Circle Sanctuary gave a presentation at the Contemporary Conference for Pagan Studies and Dr. Michael York presented from his paper at the Politics and Religion section.
Rev. Selena Fox
Senior Minister of Circle Sanctuary
As of August 27, 2006
This is the story of the Veteran Pentacle Quest.
In writing this report, I share experiences, perspectives, and facts. This Quest does not yet have a happy ending. It is ongoing.
I tell this true tale of our struggle for equal rights for our people in hopes that support will continue to grow and we will successfully and soon obtain our goal - to get the Pentacle added to the National Cemetery Administration's list of emblems of belief that can be included on the grave markers of our deceased veterans.
The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is the part of the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) responsible for overseeing and providing memorial markers, headstones, and plaques for veterans after death. To get this benefit, which is available to all who have served in the US military, the next of kin of a deceased veteran must complete an application and send it to the VA. The next of kin have the choice of several styles of grave markers -- an upright headstone of marble or granite, a bronze niche marker or memorial wall plaque, or a recumbent marker of bronze, granite, or marble. These headstones and markers include the full name of the deceased, branch of military service and rank, and dates of birth and death. Notations of any war service and medals can be included, if applicable and requested. In addition, the VA will include the emblem of belief of the deceased veteran if that symbol is on its NCA's "emblems of belief list".
The Quest to get the Pentacle, the Wiccan emblem of belief, added to this NCA list began in 1997. On July 27 of that year, John Machate, founder and coordinator of the Military Pagan Network, emailed the VA and asked what was required for the addition of an emblem of belief to the National Cemetery Administration's list. On August 11, the VA sent an email reply and indicated that all that was needed was "a formal request from an ordained Rabbi, Priest, or Minister including detailed information on the emblem as well as a graphic." The VA also stated "please understand that submissions do not automatically constitute approval. You will be notified of the Director's decision by mail."
Aquarian Tabernacle Church
On August 27, 1997, the Rt. Rev. Pete Pathfinder Davis, Archpriest of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church (ATC), headquartered in Index, Washington, sent the required materials to the VA and applied for the addition of the Pentacle to the NCA list. Although the VA received ATC's application, it did not issue a decision. In fact, it ignored this request. The VA did not issue a response until November 27, 2001, and then their response was that the VA was in the midst of drafting new procedures for emblem additions to the NCA list.
On December 15, 2003, Rev. Davis sent in a follow-up request for the addition of the Pentacle and included the additional information that was required by procedures the VA adopted in 2001. The ATC's application was again ignored.
Then on April 22, 2005, Rev. Davis wrote the VA again and urged the VA to approve the addition of the Pentacle to the list. On May 10, the Acting Director of the NCA's Memorial Programs Service (MPS) office replied and stated that the VA was revising its procedures and that approval had to wait until the new procedures were adopted. In this letter, the Acting Director claimed that the VA had no record of ATC's 2003 letter, yet as a result of a 2005 Freedom of Information Act request made by ATC member Scott Stearns, the VA included a copy of it.
On October 4, 2005, Scott Stearns spoke out about the need to include the Pentacle on the NCA list in his interview that appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Scott, a Navy veteran who took medical retirement after a diagnosis of leukemia in 1996, stated that he wanted the VA to add the Pentacle to the NCA list so that he could have it on his grave marker after he dies. Scott, who presently works for the VA in Washington State, expressed his disdain for the VA keeping the Pentacle pending for years. The article also mentioned that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had agreed to help Scott in his efforts to get the Pentacle on the NCA list.
In January 2006, ATC added additional materials to its application to fulfill requirements of the new procedures NCA adopted in 2005. ATC and Scott Stearns continued communications with ACLU attorneys for possible litigation.
Isis Invicta Mission
The second application for the addition of the Pentacle to the NCA list was made in September of 1998 by Rev. Rona Russell, Priestess of the Isis Invicta Military Mission of the Temple and Lyceum of Isis Fortuna. She made the request on behalf of some Wiccan members of the Mission who were on active duty in the US military. In her letter to the VA, she stated that she herself was a veteran as well as married to an active duty service member. She mentioned in her letter that she was a Designated Faith Group Leader who coordinated and performed religious services at the Taylor Barracks Chapel in Mannheim, Germany, where she and her husband were stationed. Rev. Russell provided all the information that the VA required. The VA did not issue a decision, and did not even acknowledge or reply to her application.
In January 1999, Rev. Russell contacted the Memorial Programs Service (MPS) office of the National Cemetery Administration by telephone and obtained contact information for another VA official. In February, Rev. Russell, who had returned to the US and relocated in Tennessee, resent her application to have the Pentacle added to the NCA list. The VA did not issue a decision or reply.
In June of 1999, Rev. Russell wrote to the VA a third time. She again submitted the required materials, and wrote: "I have yet to receive any notification of any kind, either approval or disapproval. I fear that my applications have been discarded out of discrimination. I would appreciate a timely reply this time around." Rev. Russell followed up her written request for a decision with a phone message.
Finally on July 14, 1999, the VA replied, saying, "Thank you for your telephone call. Your letter did arrive. We expect to have a final response to you within a week or so."
However, two weeks later, on July 29, the VA's MPS Director said that requests to add emblems "are presented to the Advisory Committee on Cemeteries and Memorials to seek the Committee members' advice and counsel before rulings are made affecting our regulations. Your request will be submitted for the Committee's consideration at their fall 1999 meeting. Their recommendation will then be reported for consideration by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and National Cemetery Administration (NCA) management." He also stated: "NCA is currently reviewing and drafting proposed regulations pertaining to national cemeteries, including the Headstone and Marker Program. This process has proved to be more complicated than we had anticipated, but we hope to have the proposed regulations published in the Federal Register this year. When they are published, there will be a specified 60 day period for public comment."
After not hearing back from the VA, on January 2, 2000, Rev. Russell sent the VA an email stating: "I have yet to receive any news of what the committee's actions were. I would really like to hear some kind of reply. Thank you." The VA did not reply. Then on January 20, Rev. Russell telephoned the VA and left a message and asked for a reply, but the VA did not give one.
On February 9, Rev. Russell telephoned the VA again. This time she spoke with a VA official and requested a letter from the VA reporting on the status of her application for the addition of the Pentacle to the NCA list. The VA official stated that she would send the requested status report by postal mail. The VA official also stated that no other applications from groups had been approved and that they were currently on hold. The VA did not issue a decision on Rev. Russell's Pentacle application and never sent the promised status report.
On May 9, 2001, the VA adopted its new procedures. It issued NCA Directive 3310 Emblems of Government-provided Headstones and Markers. As with the procedures in effect in 1997, a graphic depiction of the emblem of belief and a written description of its meaning were required. What changed was that "the recognized head of the organization" needed to make the application and provide "a brief description of the organization, with specific information, to include national officers, number of chapters, the total number of members and years of operation in the United States, and affiliation with other organizations."
The VA referred to this 2001 Directive in approving the addition of emblems of belief for other groups in 2002, 2003, and 2004. Although the VA adopted these new procedures in May 2001, it did not mention this to the two groups that had Pentacle addition applications pending, the Aquarian Tabernacle Church and the Isis Invicta Mission.
On November 28, 2001, the Director of MPS wrote a letter to the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. Instead of telling ATC about the new procedures adopted on May 9, he stated that the VA was still revising its regulations. Also on November 28, the Director of MPS sent a similar letter to the Military Pagan Network, even though the MPN never applied for the addition of the Pentacle but only asked about procedures for emblem of belief addition to the NCA list.
Rev. Russell of the Isis Invicta Mission, who had applied by submitting required material three different times and who had been repeatedly in touch with the VA over a three year period of time did not get this letter or any communication from the VA.
NCA Approves Other Emblems
In 2002, although both Pentacle applications were kept pending under the excuse that new procedures were being drafted, the VA approved the addition of an emblem of a Christian group. On July 3, the VA added the logo of the Christian and Missionary Alliance to its NCA list and it became emblem #30. The VA's internal approval memo for this logo stated: "NCA Directive 3310, Emblems on Government-Provided Headstones or Markers, was approved on May 9, 2001. The directive established policy on expanding the National Cemetery Administration's approved list of emblems of belief for Government-provided headstones or markers." Signing on for approval were the Director of MPS (signed on July 3), Deputy Under Secretary for Operations (on May 8), Deputy Under Secretary for Management (on July 3), and the authorizing approval signature of the Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs and head of the NCA (on July 3). The group made its request on March 12, 2002 and the VA took less than 4 months for consideration and approval of the addition of the emblem.
In 2003, the Pentacle was again kept pending while emblems of belief for other groups were added to the NCA list. On June 13, the United Church of Christ emblem, which had been on the list previously but not depicted, changed to being depicted and was added to the list as emblem #31. On July 25, 2003, the Humanist "Emblem of Spirit" was added and became emblem #32. The VA's consideration and approval period for the Humanist emblem addition, requested on June 21, 2002 and again on September 20, 2002, was approximately thirteen months. The Presbyterian Church, which already had its Cross on the NCA list (emblem #4) asked on July 2, 2003 for a second emblem to be added. This process took about three months, and on October 9, its logo was approved and became emblem #33. The approval process in 2003 and in 2004 for additions to the emblems of belief list only required signatures of two people -- that of the Director of MPS and the head of NCA, whose official title is the Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs.
Nomadic Chantry of the Gramarye
In 2003, Rosemary Kooiman, the High Priestess of the Nomadic Chantry of the Gramarye, a Wiccan group based in Maryland, applied to the VA for the addition of the Pentacle to the NCA list. Rosemary's husband Abe (Abraham) Martin Kooiman had died on December 19, 2002 and was interred in Arlington National Cemetery on May 22, 2003. Abe was a Wiccan and a decorated World War II veteran. Rosemary wanted the Wiccan Pentacle included on Abe's headstone. According to Rosemary, when she communicated with the Director of MPS, he told her that the NCA's "proposed regulations were in draft and not yet implemented." Rosemary also reported that, "He gave no indication when this might be, nor did he say it was even on an agenda." The letter she received from MPS also included a statement of the requirements for belief addition in effect since 2001.
Rosemary learned from the American Legion National Headquarters in Washington, DC that Pentacle requests were already pending with NCA. She decided to accept an interim headstone without the Pentacle on it for her late husband. Rosemary was told that the Pentacle would be inscribed after it had been added to the NCA list. She continued to urge the VA to approve the Pentacle for the next three years, with the help of Charles Arnold and the Pagan Headstone Campaign discussion list, which he founded. In 2006, Rosemary appended her Pentacle request for Abe's headstone to ATC's application. However, Rosemary died on March 5, 2006 without her last request of having the Pentacle added to her husband's headstone being fulfilled.
NCA Expedites Approval of Other Emblems
In 2004, the Pentacle was kept pending while even more emblems of belief for other groups were added expeditiously to the NCA list. It only took about six weeks to consider and approve the symbol of the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii, which became emblem #34. Its addition was requested on January 22 and the final approval signature was obtained on March 3. On February 3, the Soka Gakkai International - USA requested that their Buddhist symbol be added to the NCA emblems of belief list. It was approved eleven weeks later, on April 21 and added to the list as emblem #35. On May 10, the VA approved the request of the Unitarian Universalist Association to substitute a different emblem. The UUA emblem #8, which had been a flame above a chalice, became a flaming chalice in a circle.
The VA greatly expedited the approval of the Sikh emblem so that it could be added to the headstone of an Army sergeant killed in combat and buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The Sikh symbol became emblem #36 in about two weeks. The letter from the head of the Sikh organization requesting the addition was dated May 12. The Director of MPS signed the memo for approval on May 25 and the head of the NCA finalized approval two days later. In addition, the VA also expedited the inscription of the emblem on the deceased Sikh soldier's headstone in time for his family's visit in mid-June. It took about a month from the time the VA received the request to add the Sikh emblem from the head of a Sikh organization to the time the emblem was engraved on the headstone.
More Wiccan Groups Apply
In 2004, other Wiccan groups asked the VA to add the Pentacle to its list. On April 8, the Director of MPS replied to a letter from a Wiccan group inquiring about the status of Pentacle addition applications that the VA had not yet approved. In that reply, the VA stated "If there is a demand for a particular emblem and the national organization overseeing that belief submits a request to VA, we will attempt to honor that request. However, it is not feasible for VA to alter its contracts for 350,000 headstones and markers yearly to accommodate requests from organizations with only a few hundred or fewer members, of which a small percentage are eligible veterans." This statement reveals a disregard of the federal government's own accounting of at least 1,800 Wiccans and those of similar beliefs on active duty in the US Air Force.
On July 22, 2004, the VA replied to a Wiccan from another group who had contacted the VA on behalf of a widow who wanted to have the Pentacle included on her husband's headstone. In a previous letter to the VA, that Wiccan apparently had misconstrued the VA procedures requiring the need for the head of an organization to make the request for emblem addition to mean the head of the whole religion. That Wiccan told the VA that there was no head of the Wiccan religion. In its reply, the VA took this misunderstanding as an opportunity to decline this particular request to add the Pentacle, instead of writing the Wiccan and clarifying that what it needed was a request from the head of a denomination or organization, not the entire religion, just as is the case with Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist groups with unique emblems on the list representing different branches and denominations of their religions. Regardless of this communication exchange, the VA already had failed to add the Pentacle to its list for seven years.
In 2005, three of America's largest Wiccan churches applied to the VA for the addition of the Pentacle to the NCA list. On January 4, Rev. Davron Michael, Administrative Director of the Correllian Nativist Church International applied. On March 25, the Acting Director of the MPS acknowledged the receipt of his request and indicated that "a formal decision has not yet been made. We are currently in the process of revising and clarifying our policy." The VA also stated "Your request will be considered, along with other pending requests, upon completion of our policy revision." Rev. Michael followed up with telephone calls to the VA over several months, and then had a church attorney file a Freedom of Information Act request to learn more about the VA's history of adding emblems to its NCA list.
On April 7, 2005, Rev. Kathryn Fuller, National First Officer of the Covenant of the Goddess (COG) applied for the addition of the Pentacle to the NCA list. This application was initiated by Rev. Paula Johnson, First Officer of Everglades Moon Local Council of COG, on behalf of COG member Jan Deanna O'Roarke who, just days before she was killed, had requested that a Pentacle grace her headstone. Jan was buried in Arlington National Cemetery alongside her husband in February 2005.
On July 7, 2005, COG resubmitted its application since it never received a response from the VA. On August 11, the Acting Director of MPS wrote to Rev. Johnson and stated that the VA had no record of COG's April 7 application. The VA also indicated that procedures were being revised and stated "No requests are being processed until these new procedures are finalized."
Circle Sanctuary Applies
On April 8, 2005, Circle Sanctuary submitted its own application to the VA for the addition of the Pentacle to the NCA list. Since 1997 when the Quest began, we had been supportive of efforts by others to get the Pentacle added to the NCA list. Knowing that ATC had applied, we did not deem it necessary to also apply. Instead, we focused our efforts on providing other types of support for military Wiccans. However, in 2003, when Rosemary Kooiman told me about her difficulties in getting the Pentacle on Abe's gravestone, I formed a Lady Liberty League task force to investigate the failure of the VA to add the Pentacle to its NCA list. We began researching and discussing possible approaches to achieving this goal.
Circle Sanctuary decided to submit our own application to the VA for several reasons: (1) increasing numbers of our church members were being deployed to fight in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, (2) we had church members who were veterans and in the final stages of life, and (3) we had decades of successful religious accommodation experiences with other federal government agencies. In 1984, at the request of government officials, I revised the Wiccan religion section of the US Army's Chaplains Handbook, and in the 1990s, I served as a consultant on the Wiccan religion to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board at the Pentagon. In addition, since 1990, I have been serving as a consultant on the Wiccan religion and related forms of Nature religion for the Bureau of Prison chaplains and administrators in the US Department of Justice.
On May 9, 2005, the VA sent us a reply to our application for Pentacle addition. The Acting Director of MPS stated "We are in the process of revising our procedures and the criteria for evaluating requests to add new emblems of belief to our current listing. We will evaluate any such requests once the revised procedures and criteria are in place. We hope to have our revised procedures completed in the near future and will inform you as soon as they become available. At that time, if you wish to pursue a request to add an emblem of belief to the NCA listing, we will be pleased to provide you with full instructions on how to proceed." The letter concluded by saying that if I had any additional questions, I should contact them. The VA provided a name, phone number, and postal address.
After receiving this letter, I had questions I wanted the VA to answer. I followed the VA's instructions and called the number the VA staff had provided in the letter, but only got voice mail. I left a message asking for a call back, but never got one. In the months that followed, I tried calling again several times, but had the same experience. I was puzzled as to why a government office phone provided as a contact for information was not staffed during typical daytime hours of operation during a work week. I also wondered why VA staff did not return my phone calls.
More New Procedures
On October 5, 2005, the NCA adopted its next set of revised procedures for emblem of belief addition. Acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Richard A. Wannemacher, Jr. authorized the adoption of the new procedures in NCA Directive 3310 which rescinded the procedures adopted on May 9, 2001.
As with the two previous sets of procedures, these new procedures required the submission of a graphic depiction of the emblem and a description of its meaning. The 2005 revision of the procedures required an emblem addition request to be made by "a recognized leader of the organization." In addition, under these new procedures, much more detailed information had to be submitted in making the request, including a discussion of beliefs, teachings, worship services, holiday observances, and clergy. Another change was the addition of a requirement for an "immediate need." This meant that the only way to apply for the addition of an emblem to the NCA list was to attach the request to an application for a marker or headstone for a deceased veteran.
Circle Sanctuary Reapplies
In early November 2005, the VA sent letters to Wiccan churches that had applied for the addition of the Pentacle. The VA's letter to Circle Sanctuary and me was dated November 2. In mid-November, a Wiccan died who was a Korean War veteran and a member of our church for eighteen years. In mid-December, his grieving widow decided that she wanted to mark the cremains site with a VA-issued marker with the Pentacle on it. I helped her complete the memorial marker request for her husband's gravesite and then attached our materials for emblem addition which were required under the new procedures. I signed our request on January 6, 2006 and sent our 24-page packet off to the VA by overnight express mail.
Two other international Wiccan churches joined Circle Sanctuary's re-application with letters of support, rather than applying separately. Included was a letter from the Covenant of the Goddess (COG), signed by Rev. Kathryn Fuller, and a letter from the Sacred Well Congregation (SWC), signed by Dr. David Oringderff. Both of these churches have members who are veterans as well as members who are on active duty. SWC includes groups that meet at US military installations.
In our letter of reapplication, I asked the VA to expedite the processing of our request for the addition of the Pentacle to the NCA list. I mentioned that we were planning a memorial service for our Korean War veteran on May 4, 2006. I asked that the Pentacle be added to the list in sufficient time to have his memorial marker with a Pentacle produced, shipped, and installed at his cremains burial place in our church cemetery prior to this memorial service which I was conducting during our Beltane festival.
After mailing off Circle Sanctuary's application, I called the VA two days later. I learned that our application was not yet in the VA's system. I inquired about this and VA staff told me that there was a tremendous paperwork backlog and Circle Sanctuary's application might not be processed for two months or even longer. I learned that I could get our application into the VA's system faster by faxing it to the VA. We did this. However, this approach did not work well. When I called to make certain that all pages of our faxed application were received and were in the right order in the VA's system, I learned that this was not the case.
Then the VA staff told me to fax our application directly to the Memorial Programs Service office in Washington, DC. We did this. I called the next day and was glad that after this third try, both the memorial marker request and our Pentacle addition reapplication were received and were being processed by the VA. I continued to follow-up with phone calls to the VA on a weekly basis to track progress. Each time I called I was told that our application was under consideration, but the staff could not give me an estimate of how long it would take the VA to make a decision. VA staff members also refused to describe the sequence of steps in the approval process.
Roberta Stewart Joins the Quest
In February 2006, Roberta Stewart decided that she wanted a memorial plaque with a Pentacle on it for her late husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom on September 25, 2005. He and four other US soldiers died when Taliban terrorists shot down the Chinook helicopter they were flying. Sgt. Stewart and his friend, Chief Warrant Officer John Flynn, were the two soldiers from Nevada killed in that attack. Flynn was a Christian, and his memorial plaque with a Cross, his emblem of belief, was already on the Wall of Heroes at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley.
Sgt. Patrick Stewart was Wiccan as is his wife, Roberta. Roberta learned that the only way that she could have a plaque for her husband that included their emblem of belief was to fill out a request and provide materials and answers to the many questions the VA now required. When Roberta asked me for help by phone, she was relieved to learn that all she had to do was append her plaque request to Circle Sanctuary's reapplication. She did this.
I told Roberta that our application had been in the MPS office since early January but was still pending. Roberta wanted her request for her husband's plaque with the Pentacle expedited. She and I talked about possible approaches to make this happen. I asked her if she was willing to make her request public and if she was willing to ask the help of elected officials. She said, "Yes." We agreed to work together to accomplish this goal.
Sgt. Patrick Stewart had served as a chief flight engineer on a CH47 helicopter for the Aviation division of the Army National Guard. On occasion, he was part of the flight crew that provided air transportation for government officials, including Senator Reid and the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Roberta asked for and received help from Senator Reid's office. A staff member from Senator Reid's Reno, Nevada office contacted the VA on February 22 and asked for the expediting of the approval of Circle Sanctuary's Pentacle application. A week later, Circle Sanctuary's application moved out of the Memorial Programs Service office, which was the first level of review. ATC's application also moved forward. Finally, after 8 years and 7 months, Pentacle applications cleared the first level of review! The VA staff told Senator Reid's office that the VA would make a decision in two to four weeks.
In late February, Nevada journalist Sean Whaley learned about the Pentacle petition drive originating and circulating among US troops in Afghanistan who had served with Sgt. Stewart. In this petition, they asked that Sgt. Stewart's religious emblem be included on his memorial plaque. Whaley interviewed Roberta and me about this Quest, and his article was published in print and on-line on March 2 in the Las Vegas Journal Review, a Nevada daily newspaper. Later, his article was picked by the Associated Press and received widespread distribution among media sources. This coverage led to additional journalists reporting on this story.
Representative Jim Gibbons, the US Congressman representing the Nevada district that includes the home of the Stewart, was asked by a reporter about this issue in early March and went on record as supporting the addition of the Pentacle to the NCA list. Roberta began working with staff in his office. Congressman Gibbons and his staff had a series of communications with the head of the NCA, the Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs William Tuerk, in an effort to get Circle Sanctuary's Pentacle application approved so that the Pentacle could be included on Sgt. Stewart's plaque. Congressman Gibbons and his staff originally had hoped to get the Pentacle approved before the troops who served with Sgt. Patrick Stewart had their homecoming on March 18, 2006. Congressman Gibbons and his staff are continuing to work to have Pentacle addition approval and inclusion on Sgt. Stewart's plaque expeditiously achieved.
Journey to Washington, DC
After the VA failed to approve the addition of the Pentacle by mid-March, I decided to go to Washington, DC and meet with Under Secretary Tuerk myself. I talked with his staff and arranged an appointment. In the past, other attempts by Wiccan leaders to meet face-to-face with VA staff on this matter had been declined or ignored. I was glad that Under Secretary Tuerk agreed to meet with me. I hoped that if VA officials had some concerns or misconceptions about the Wiccan religion which had been delaying and preventing approval, I might dispel these through direct communication and thus clear the way for the addition of the Pentacle to the NCA list.
On March 29, I met at the VA Headquarters with Under Secretary William Tuerk and two of his subordinates, Steve Muro, NCA's Director of the Office of Field Programs, and Lindee Lenox, NCA's Acting Director of Memorial Programs Service. I told them that our "immediate need" for the Pentacle to be added to the NCA list was now threefold. Circle Sanctuary had three widows from three states wanting markers to mark the graves and memories of their deceased veteran husbands, which included a Korean War veteran from Utah, a Vietnam War era veteran from Ohio, and Sgt. Patrick Stewart from Nevada, who was a veteran of Desert Storm as well as Operation Enduring Freedom.
Under Secretary Tuerk told me that our widows could receive interim markers without the Pentacle included. I told him that all three widows told me that they did not want this and refused this offer. I also spoke about the need to have the Pentacle included on at least three headstones of Wiccans buried at Arlington National Cemetery, including on the "interim" headstone of Abe Kooiman, which had been without the Pentacle for nearly three years.
Under Secretary Tuerk would not give me a timeline for Pentacle addition approval . He also refused to describe the steps in the VA's emblem addition process. He indicated that the decision was beyond his ability to make alone, and that it needed the approval of additional, yet unspecified, others.
I left that meeting with a sense that our application was not being treated procedurally the same as applications made by other groups for emblem of belief additions approved in 2003 and 2004. Their VA approval memos only required signatures of two officials - that of the Director of MPS and that of the head of the NCA. Apparently many more officials were now involved in considering and approving Circle Sanctuary's emblem of belief addition application. It seemed that both Circle Sanctuary's and ATC's Pentacle applications were stuck in another bureaucratic limbo.
Networking, Media, & Memorial Day
Roberta and I continued to be in touch with the media, with Congressional staff, and with other elected officials in order to increase public awareness and support for the Quest to get the Pentacle on the NCA list and on Sgt. Stewart's memorial plaque. Roberta gained the support of the Nevada governor and his staff as well as the state's top veterans affairs official. The media coverage that Roberta and I had continued to be positive and took many forms. A national television network (Fox) ran a story in March, National Public Radio aired a report in April, and many original and wire serve articles appeared in print and on the internet throughout the Spring and Summer.
As Memorial Day neared, Roberta and I stepped up our efforts to get the VA to approve the addition of the Pentacle to its NCA list. As follow-up to my March 29 meeting, I had an hour-long phone meeting with Under Secretary Tuerk in mid-April. He told me that the VA's General Counsel was investigating whether or not the new NCA emblem addition procedures adopted in October 2005 were adopted properly, and that he did not know how long this investigation would take, but it could take up to a year or longer. I continued to urge him to find a way to approve the Pentacle before Memorial Day so that Sgt. Stewart would be honored properly by having his plaque with the Pentacle produced and installed at the veterans cemetery in Fernley. However, the following day, VA Deputy Secretary Gordon Mansfield wrote me a letter telling me that although the VA was aware of my request for expediting this matter, it would not do so and would not commit to any type of timeframe for its process of consideration of our application.
When it became apparent that the VA had no plans to add the Pentacle to its NCA list any time soon, I then talked with the head of the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery to explore possible ways that some kind of temporary marker with a Pentacle could be present at the Wall of Heroes at the cemetery to honor Sgt. Patrick Stewart on Memorial Day itself. I suggested several ideas and he told me that he would look into this.
In May, plans were being made for Roberta to be a speaker at the annual Memorial Day Service at this veterans cemetery, which is located in her hometown. However, Roberta learned that she would not be permitted to speak because of the controversy about the VA and the Pentacle. When he learned that it was no longer possible for Roberta to speak, Chaplain William Chrystal, who had been doing the invocations and benedictions at that annual event for more than a decade, declined to be part of it. He and Roberta decided to organize an alternative Memorial Day Service. I assisted them with planning.
The Sgt. Patrick Stewart Freedom for All Faiths Memorial Service was held on Memorial Day, May 29, 2006 at a public park in Fernley, Nevada. More than 300 people attended, including the press. Speakers included Chaplain Chrystal, Roberta, me, and several Nevada political candidates, Republican and Democrat.. A flag that Sgt. Stewart had flown while deployed in Afghanistan was raised and lowered to half-mast at the start of the service, which also included bagpipe and bugle music. Following the service, Roberta, Chaplain Chrystal, and I, accompanied by others, went to the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery for our wreath laying ceremony. We placed a Pentacle wreath in honor of Sgt. Patrick Stewart next to the spot on the Wall of Heroes where his VA plaque with Pentacle is to go. We also placed a wreath honoring all veterans. At Roberta's request, I led a prayer to honor Sgt. Stewart and religious freedom. Sgt. Stewart's Memorial Day service and wreath placement ceremony received widespread media coverage -- press, television, radio, and the internet.
In June, Circle Sanctuary and its Lady Liberty League called on Wiccans and others to contact their US Senators & Representatives to inform them about the Quest and to ask for their help in getting the Pentacle added to the VA's NCA list. Although this Congressional letter writing campaign was focused from Flag Day (June 14) to Summer Solstice (June 21), it has continued since that time. Some members of Congress have written and spoken to VA officials about concerns about this issue as a result of letters from constituents.
Quest in Washington, DC
On July 3, Roberta and I flew to Washington, DC. We were among the speakers at a Religious Rights Rally on July 4th held a few blocks from the VA and the White House. On July 5, Roberta and I went to Capitol Hill. We met with attorneys and other staff of Americans United for Separation for Church and State (AU) at their headquarters. After this meeting, Roberta and I were interviewed for the evening news by WJLA, the ABC television affiliate in Washington, DC.
Roberta and I then went to the Hart Senate Office Building and met with a staff member in Senator Harry Reid's office. He accompanied us to our meeting across town at the VA headquarters with Under Secretary William Tuerk and two other VA officials, David K. Schettler, NCA's Director of Communications Management Service, and Charles K. Likel, Congressional Relations Officer of the VA's Congressional and Legislative Affairs office.
At this meeting, Under Secretary Tuerk told us that the VA's General Counsel found that the procedures adopted by the NCA in 2005 were not adopted correctly and new procedures needed to be drafted and approved. Under Secretary Tuerk would not give us a timeline for completion or details about the steps in this process. We asked him to approve the Pentacle under previous procedures, instead of waiting until the VA finished its new procedures revision and adoption process, which was likely to take at least six months or more. We asked him to take our proposal to the VA's General Counsel and to let us know whether or not this was possible.
The following day, Roberta and I did more media work. We were interviewed by Bob Franken for the American Morning news program of CNN television. Roberta and I also did a variety of radio and press interviews by phone.
The Quest Continues
Since returning to our homes following this trip to Washington, DC, Roberta and I have been in frequent communication with each other and with those who are helping us with strategic planning. We also have continued to do media interviews, both together and individually.
US Congresswoman Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas, Nevada and her staff have begun communicating with the VA about the Pentacle issue, and in her letter to VA officials in late July, she called on the VA to provide specifics about the new procedures approval process and about the timeline. On August 1, three members of Senator Reid's staff met with Under Secretary Tuerk to discuss the Pentacle issue and learn more about the VA's plans for again revising its procedures. Following that meeting, Under Secretary Tuerk called Roberta and told her that the VA General Counsel declined our proposal to have the Pentacle added now. He said that no decision could be made on the Pentacle until after the VA had finished drafting and adopting yet another set of procedures for emblem addition to the NCA list.
On August 1, Roberta and I finalized arrangements with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. AU is representing Circle Sanctuary and Roberta in this Quest to add the Pentacle to the NCA list. We are presently exploring legislative, administrative, and legal remedies.
Thanks to everyone who is supporting us and this Veteran Pentacle Quest!
Rev. Selena Fox
Senior Minister, Circle Sanctuary
PO Box 9, Barneveld, Wisconsin
Phone: (608) 924-2219
Fax: (608) 924-5961
This report was compiled from a variety of sources:
An earlier version of this report is published in the Fall 2006 issue of CIRCLE Magazine.
by Reverend Selena Fox
On April 23, 2007, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) finally added the Pentacle, symbol of the Wiccan religion and related forms of Paganism, to its list of emblems of belief that can be included on the grave markers it issues to honor deceased veterans who have served in the US military. The Veteran Pentacle Quest lasted nearly a decade and met with success as a result of the settlement of the Circle Sanctuary vs. Nicholson federal lawsuit, filed in the US District Court of the Western Wisconsin District on November 13, 2006 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, representing Circle Sanctuary and others.
In addition to authorizing the Pentacle for use on gravestones and other memorial markers, the settlement also required the VA to expedite the issuing of veteran grave markers with Pentacles for pending requests, and on May 1, 2007, the first VA-issued markers with Pentacles arrived at cemeteries. Two of the markers arrived at Circle Cemetery, located at our church's headquarters, Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve, near Barneveld, Wisconsin. These were in the form of recumbent grey granite markers. One honored Sgt. Patrick Stewart who had been killed in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in September, 2005 and the other honored PFC Jerome Birnbaum who had served in the Korean War and who died in November, 2005. Stewart's widow, Roberta Stewart, of Nevada, and Birnbaum's widow, Karen DePolito, of Utah, are Circle Sanctuary members who were among the plaintiffs in Circle Sanctuary's lawsuit against the VA.
On May 1, 2007, two markers also went to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia near Washington, DC. These markers were in the form of upright white marble headstones. One honored a Wiccan couple, PFC Abraham Kooiman, a veteran of World War II, who had died in December, 2002, and his wife Rosemary, who died in March, 2006. The other honored Jan Deanna O'Rourke, a Wiccan who was the spouse of Army Captain William O'Rourke. In this case, the Pentacle was on Jan's side of the marker and a Christian Cross for her husband was on the other side.
In the weeks and months that followed the arrival of these first four markers, the VA issued additional veteran markers with Pentacles. I assisted some families with the application process and facilitated dedications of some of the markers, including three at Circle Cemetery on Memorial Day. On the 4th of July, I facilitated the public dedication of the O'Rourke headstone and in August, the private dedication of the Columbarium marble niche marker for John P. Graff at Arlington National Cemetery. On December, I facilitated the public dedication of a recumbent marble memorial marker for PFC Stephen P. Snowberger, III at his family's private cemetery near Lexington, North Carolina. Snowberger was killed in combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006 and was a member of the Sacred Well Congregation, which supported Circle Sanctuary's efforts in the Veteran Pentacle Quest.
In commemoration of the one year anniversary of the Veteran Pentacle Quest victory and the issuing of Pentacle markers, I made a Freedom of Information Act request of the VA regarding the Pentacle headstones and other markers issued thus far. Just prior to May 1, 2008, I received from the VA a packet of seventy-eight pages of pertinent documents. In perusing these materials, I discovered that VA-issued Pentacle markers are now across the nation in cemeteries in California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Also counting Nevada, which has in the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery a bronze plaque with Pentacle for Sgt. Stewart issued in the Fall of 2006 by the Nevada governor, this brings the number of states with government-issued Pentacle markers to fifteen.
In the year since adding the Pentacle to its list of emblems, the VA has issued twenty-six veteran grave markers with Pentacles. Two dozen are for deceased veterans, and of these, one, the Kooiman headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, is for a veteran and his wife.
The other two markers are interfaith with the Pentacle signifying the faith of wives buried with their veteran husbands in federal cemeteries. In addition to the O'Rourke headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, there is a bronze plaque at Riverside National Cemetery in Gustine, California with the Star of David for Air Force Major Harold Hecht, who was Jewish, and a Pentacle for Betty, his wife, who was Wiccan. Having worked directly with the Hecht family, I know that they were relieved when the Pentacle was approved for use on markers, because they finally could order a plaque with both emblems on it.
Wiccan and Pagan veterans honored by Pentacle grave markers included those who served in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Their combined range of service spanned seven decades. The majority of the markers are for war veterans, including two who served in World War II, three who served in the Korean War, and seven who served in the Vietnam War. Some, such as A. Douglas Wilkey of Kentucky, whose cremains are marked with a Pentacle marker in Circle Cemetery, served in more than one engagement - in his case, in both the Korean and the Vietnam War.
Some of the markers are for those killed in 21st century wars. In addition to Sgt. Stewart, a Desert Storm veteran who was killed in action in Afghanistan, there are markers for six who were killed during the Iraq War, and another for a soldier who had served both in Afghanistan and in Iraq and who died of war-related injuries after returning home.
The twenty-six Pentacle markers are in seventeen cemeteries across the United States. Sixteen of the markers are in national cemeteries and one is in a state veteran's cemetery. Nine are in private cemeteries.
The cemetery with the most markers is Arlington National Cemetery, with five. Circle Cemetery, the national Pagan cemetery that we operate, has four. There are two each at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Florida, and at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, Minnesota. All other cemeteries have one marker each.
Other government-run cemeteries with Pentacle markers are: Riverside National Cemetery and San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in California; Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado and Fort Logan in Colorado; Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island, New York; Fort Sill National Cemetery in Oklahoma; Houston National Cemetery in Texas; and New Hampshire State Cemetery in New Hampshire. In addition, there are Pentacle markers in two private cemeteries in Maine and in private cemeteries in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Nebraska.
Twenty-one of the veteran Pentacle grave markers were issued in 2007 and five thus far have been issued this year. As of April 25, 2008, there were none in process, but it is likely that more will be ordered in months to come as Wiccan/Pagan veterans who are in the final stages of life die. Some of these veterans and their next of kin have already been in touch with me about this as part of end-of-life planning.
I am thankful that, at last, the ordering of a grave marker with a Pentacle to honor a deceased Wiccan/Pagan veteran has become as routine a part of the VA's National Cemetery Administration's grave marker application process as ordering a marker with a Christian Cross, Jewish Star of David, or other emblem to honor those of other faiths and beliefs. It is my hope that the VA soon finishes its latest revision of its process to add emblems of belief to its authorized emblem's list in order that emblems of other Pagan paths and other religions can also be included for those in need.
Photos of some of the Pentacle grave markers and their locations, along with articles detailing the history of the Veteran Pentacle Quest and its success are on-line.
VA-issued grave markers with Pentacles are at the Veterans Ridge section of Circle Cemetery at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve near Barneveld, Wisconsin. To learn more about how to honor a deceased Wiccan/Pagan veteran at Veterans Ridge with a Pentacle grave marker from the VA, please contact: Circle Cemetery, PO Box 9, Barneveld, WI 53507 USA; (608) 924-2216; email@example.com.
Rev. Selena Fox
Circle Cemetery & Circle Sanctuary
Lady Liberty League Special Report: Success in the Veteran Pentacle Quest!
By Reverend Selena Fox
Originally published in the Fall 2007 issue of CIRCLE Magazine
On Monday, April 23, 2007, after a decade-long religious freedom struggle, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) finally added the Pentacle to its list of emblems of belief that can be included on the grave markers it issues to honor deceased US military veterans. This Veteran Pentacle Quest victory was announced that day at a national press conference held by Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, DC. Within minutes of the announcement, this wonderful news began to spread across the nation and around the world through public and Pagan media. There was, and continues to be, much rejoicing about this victory! Many thanks to everyone who was part of the Veteran Pentacle Quest! Working together, we, at last, have Success in this Quest - and in the greater Quest for equal rights for Wiccans, Witches, and other Pagans in the United States of America and around the world.
In my previous articles, "The Story of the Veteran Pentacle Quest," and "The Veteran Pentacle Quest Continues," published on-line and in CIRCLE Magazine, I detailed the history of this effort. Now that we have finally achieved victory, I am sharing more about the Quest saga here.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) began providing legal assistance and other support to the Veteran Pentacle Quest shortly after Roberta Stewart, US military chaplain Rev. William Chrystal, and I held the Sgt. Patrick Stewart Freedom for All Faiths Memorial Day Service on May 29, 2006. The national media attention that came in the wake of that event, held near Roberta's home in Fernley, Nevada, resulted in our receiving a variety of offers of legal help. Roberta Stewart and I selected AU to represent us, in part, because I already had been collaborating with AU's Executive Director Rev. Barry Lynn on other Wiccan/Pagan religious freedom issues for more than twenty years.
With AU's help, Roberta and I intensified our work with officials in both the executive and legislative branches of the US federal government. AU's legislative team helped Roberta and I in our efforts in getting support from US Senators and US Representatives and their staff on Capitol Hill, where AU also is headquartered. In addition, AU provided further support for us in our faceto- face, telephone, and written communications with top VA officials, and these efforts resulted in experiences, communications, and documents that later proved useful in our judicial branch endeavors.
On August 1, 2006, Lughnassad, Roberta and I signed legal agreements with AU attorneys in preparation for taking the Veteran Pentacle Quest into federal courts. However, we also continued our collaboration with US Senator Harry Reid and his staff, which led to the crafting of a piece of federal legislation which put additional pressure on the VA.
On September 26, 2006, a year and a day after Sgt. Patrick Stewart, Roberta's husband, was killed in action in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Roberta and I held an American Freedom Rally in downtown Reno, Nevada, in a city park across from the federal courthouse. At the conclusion of the rally, which was covered by both local and national press, I released the text of the letter that AU sent on our behalf that morning to VA offi cials. This fi nal "demand letter" put the VA on notice that we would proceed with litigation if it did not put the Pentacle on its grave marker symbol list immediately. The news of our impending litigation quickly spread far and wide through the media. Support for the Veteran Pentacle Quest continued to grow.
In a private conversation with our attorneys just before that rally, I told them of Circle Sanctuary's and my decision regarding litigation strategy. We decided on a multiprong litigation approach, designed by our lead attorney Richard Katskee, that would hit the VA with lawsuits in several federal courts. We decided that this approach would achieve victory more quickly, instead of our directly joining with ACLU and its plaintiffs in a single, combined lawsuit. Although publicly it appeared that AU and ACLU took different routes with litigation efforts, we continued to collaborate.
Plaintiffs represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) were Circle Sanctuary, which I head and serve as representative; Isis Invicta Military Mission headed by Rona; and three Circle Sanctuary church members: Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart; Karen DePolito, widow of Jerome Birnbaum, a Korean War veteran; and, added on April 5, 2007, Jill Medicine Heart Combs, representing her Army veteran husband Gary Combs, who has been in a coma in a VA hospital since August, 2005.
Plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were Aquarian Tabernacle Church (ATC) headed by Rev. Pete Pathfinder Davis; Correllian Nativist Church headed by Rev. Davron Michael; veteran Scott Stearns of ATC; Patricia Corneilson, mother of James Price who was killed in action in the Iraq war; and Kathleen Egbert, daughter of World War II veteran Abraham Kooiman and his wife Rosemary Kooiman, both of whom are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
On November 13, 2006, AU filed lawsuits (Circle Sanctuary vs. Nicholson) in two different federal courts - the US District Court of the Western Wisconsin District, in Madison, Wisconsin, and in the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The ACLU's suit (Egbert vs. Nicholson) was fi led on September 29 in a third court - the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
As a result of these three lawsuits, the VA was now legally surrounded, and had to fi ght on three judicial fronts instead of one. The VA moved to dismiss the lawsuit brought by ACLU in the specialized VA oversight court by claiming that jurisdiction in this matter belonged in a federal district court, but in doing so, this put VA on the legal battle front we had chosen. The VA also moved to dismiss the lawsuit brought by AU in the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. And, on January 22, 2007, one business day after it released its new proposed procedures for emblems of belief addition in the Federal Register, the VA used this newly launched administrative procedure in its motion calling for the judge to stay (put on hold) our federal lawsuit in the federal district court in Madison, Wisconsin.
Fortunately, on January 26, the judge in the US District Court of Western Wisconsin denied the VA's motion, which, had it been granted, could have delayed the hearing of our case for more than a year. The judge's decision let our litigation proceed. He set May 1, 2007 as our deadline for filing for summary judgment and he set June 29, 2007 as our trial date.
In addition to proceeding with our court case, Circle Sanctuary and the Lady Liberty League helped organize opposition to the VA's newly published proposed emblem approval procedures, and this networking resulted in hundreds of public comments being submitted to the VA by Pagans, Christians, and those of other beliefs. By the time that the public comment period ended on March 20, more than 540 comments had been submitted. Nearly all of these comments called for the upholding of religious freedom for all and expressed various concerns about the proposed procedures. Most comments also called for the Pentacle to be added to the VA's emblems of belief list without further delay.
At the beginning of February, Imbolc, we began the process of discovery in our court case. As part of discovery, the VA was required to turn over additional internal emails, memos, and other documents which it previously had failed to release to us through our Freedom of Information Act request. The VA turned over more than 30,000 documents to our AU attorneys. AU attorneys and other staff diligently combed through all these documents. Buried in this "blizzard" of paperwork, our AU attorneys found several documents that were additional evidence that VA officials had blocked Pentacle approval because of prejudice against the Wiccan religion.
With this additional evidence of discrimination, our preparations for court intensifi ed. Our AU attorneys began additional legal maneuvers. They issued a subpoena for the internal documents that the VA still had not turned over to us, and they began scheduling depositions of VA officials and a White House staffer. In addition, we decided to add two more Circle Sanctuary members as plaintiffs - - Jill Medicine Heart Combs and her brain injured veteran husband Gary Combs to further illustrate the need to get the Pentacle added to the VA's list without further delay.
On Thursday afternoon, April 5, 2007, our attorneys drafted an amended complaint that we planned to file in the US District Court of the Western Wisconsin District on the following morning, Good Friday, April 6. Before sending it to the judge, our attorneys emailed a draft to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys representing the VA. Within minutes after DOJ attorneys read this amended complaint, they contacted our attorneys and quickly began negotiating a settlement of our lawsuit. Over the next two weeks, we engaged in intense negotiations. Finally, both sides reached an agreement, and on Friday, April 20, signed off on the settlement, which was filed in federal court and approved by the judge the following Monday. On Monday, April 23, St. George's Day, the Pentacle was at last added to the VA's list of emblems that can be included on the veteran gravestones it issues.
Settlement & News
Through the terms of this settlement, in addition to adding the Pentacle to its list, the VA agreed to pay AU's attorney fees ($225,000) and to expedite the production of markers with Pentacles for those who had been waiting. In negotiating this settlement, we made certain that the VA would at last produce markers not only for our plaintiffs and the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit, but also for others in need who were not part of the Quest litigation.
A copy of the settlement agreement is on AU's website: www.au.org.
On Earth Day, April 22, Roberta Stewart and I flew to Washington, DC and prepared to take part in AU's national press conference. The press conference was held on Monday morning, April 23, at 10 am Eastern Time in the West room of the National Press Club in Washington, DC. National and international media attended.
Rev. Barry Lynn, AU's Executive Director, began the press conference. In his remarks, he announced the victory and then mentioned that AU had discovered then Texas Governor, now US President, George W. Bush's 1999 anti-Wiccan remarks which he made on national television. AU Assistant Legal Director Richard Katskee gave details about the lawsuit and the settlement, and then, Roberta Stewart told her personal experiences with the Quest. I spoke about the importance of this victory in upholding freedom for Pagans and for society as a whole, and concluded my remarks by ringing a bell to celebrate upholding liberty and justice for all. The four of us then answered questions from the media.
One of the reporters wanted to know more about the clause in the settlement that stated that we were permitted to work on behalf of getting other emblems of belief on the VA's list. We explained that there are other forms of Paganism and other Pagan emblems of belief besides the Wiccan religion and the Pentacle. I mentioned Druidism as an example of another Pagan religion, and said that I wanted that clause added so that we could work to get other Pagan emblems added to the VA's list so that they would be able to be included on VA veteran grave markers.
Following the press conference, and throughout the day, Barry Lynn, Richard Katskee, Roberta, and I did a variety of interviews. News of the Veteran Pentacle Quest victory appeared on-line and in national media, including the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, National Public Radio, CNN radio and television, and others. Hundreds of international, regional, and local media also carried the news.
Pagans and those of other paths started celebrating the Veteran Pentacle Quest victory as the news quickly spread around the world. May 1 was observed as a special day of thanksgiving and remembrance across the Pagan world. Wiccans and other Pagans placed offerings of flowers on home altars, at Pagan shrines, and community ritual sites in sacred thanksgiving and joy for this victory, and in remembrance of living and deceased Pagan veterans and their families.
In addition, Quest success celebrations were held in connection with Beltane festivities in many places, including at the Beltane Festival at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve in Wisconsin, the Florida Pagan Festival Beltane in the Ocala National Forest, and Beltane events in California and Minnesota. Celebrations also continued into the Summer.
A week of national Lights of Liberty celebration of the Quest victory was held at this year's Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG), June 17-24 at Wisteria in Ohio. Quest activists from across the country were honored in a special ceremony that included a Pagan military color guard, music, talks, and the awarding of Pentacle Quest medals. These medals consisted of pewter pentacles donated by Azure Green and red, white, and blue drapes donated by the Pagan Peddler. Among those honored were plaintiffs in the AU and ACLU cases, members of the Lady Liberty League Veteran Pentacle Quest team, Order of the Pentacle members, and others. I received a surprise gift of a commemorative granite marker inscribed with a Pentacle and the words "Mission Accomplished" -- I added this to the Quest altars at the Circle pavilion that were on display all week. In addition, we had preview screenings of the first half of "A Hero Denied," the Quest documentary film currently in production. Lady Liberty and Lady Justice were invoked and the Quest success celebrated in a variety of rituals, including opening and closing rites, Warrior ritual, Women's ritual, and the Main ritual.
Pentacles on Gravestones
Abiding by the terms of the settlement, the VA expedited the production of Pentacle grave marker requests that had been pending. On Tuesday, May 1, the first four markers with Pentacles appeared at cemeteries. Two of these (one for Abraham & Rosemary Kooiman; the other for Jan Deanna O'Rourke) were upright white marble headstones that went to Arlington National Cemetery in the Washington, DC area. The other two (for Sgt. Patrick Stewart; and for Jerome Birnbaum) were gray granite recumbent markers delivered to Circle Cemetery at Circle Sanctuary headquarters in Wisconsin.
The settlement agreement also included the expediting of markers with Pentacles for applications submitted to the VA within thirty days. I spent much of that month helping a variety of families submit their applications in order to get their deceased veteran loved ones properly honored. During May, the VA expedited the production and delivery of several more markers with Pentacles, including two additional ones delivered to Circle Cemetery, a plaque at Riverside National Cemetery in California, and a marker at a private cemetery in Tennessee. Although the settlement arrangement for expediting production expired in late May, requests for additional markers with Pentacles continued to be submitted to the VA and consequently produced.
Public dedications have been held for headstones and markers at Arlington National Cemetery and Circle Cemetery. The Kooiman headstone was dedicated on May 23 and the O'Rourke headstone was dedicated on the 4th of July at Arlington National Cemetery. We dedicated markers for Patrick Stewart, Jerome Birnbaum, and Douglas Wilkey at Circle Cemetery in Wisconsin on Memorial Day. News of these dedications appeared in various media. Media also covered the Pagan Religious Rights Rally held in front of the White House on July 4th, an hour after the conclusion of the Dedication ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Both Rev. Lynn and I were among the speakers at the Rally.
The Veteran Pentacle Quest victory is an important breakthrough for equal rights on behalf of Wiccans, Pagans, and other practitioners of Nature religion. In addition to finally getting the Pentacle on the VA's list and included on veteran grave markers, the Quest succeeded in bringing about greater understanding about the Wiccan religion and Paganism, both in the USA and around the world. The Quest success also illustrated the importance of guarding and upholding Constitutional freedoms.
The Quest made visible, within Pagandom and society as a whole, the large numbers of Wiccans and other Pagans who have served and are serving in the US military. Regardless of personal positions on American foreign policy, individuals and organizations came together to support Pagans in the military on this issue.
The widespread public support for the Quest, and the greater understanding about Paganism, has resulted in some Pagans wearing pentacles openly and being more visible about their Paganism in other ways. The Wiccan religion now is more frequently being named alongside Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and other world religions in media reports discussing religious diversity.
One of the greatest legacies of the Quest success however is that the Quest demonstrated that Pagans of many paths can effectively collaborate with each other and with those of other religions and philosophies for positive social change. May we continue to work together for liberty and justice for all!
Rev. Selena Fox
On September 25, 2005, with honor, Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart, 113th Aviation, D company, Mustangs, of the Nevada National Guard, gave his life for his country. He was killed in action in Operation Enduring Freedom. Mustang 22, the Chinook helicopter he was in was shot down in Afghanistan by Al Quada terrorists.
This is his story.
EVERYONE HAS A DREAM
WE ALL WORK HARD TO MAKE THE DREAM COME TRUE
THERE ARE SOME THINGS NO EYES SHOULD EVER HAVE TO SEE
KEEPING THE DREAM ALIVE ANYWAY
THINGS DON'T ALWAYS TURN OUT THE WAY WE EXPECT
SOMETIMES LIFE IS NOT FAIR
THIS IS DISCRIMINATION AND IT'S AGAINST THE LAW!
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"
QUEST SUCCESS! Thanks to everyone who responded to this and our other calls for support in the Veteran Pentacle Quest.
On April 23, 2007, the US Department of Veterans Affairs added the pentacle to the list of emblems of belief that can be included on the grave markers it issues. This was part of the settlement of the federal lawsuit, Circle Sanctuary vs. Nicholson. Sgt. Stewart's pentacle marker was immediately produced and it arrived at Circle Cemetery on May 1, 2007. It was dedicated on Memorial Day 2007.