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.