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