The Veteran's Administration and the Bush Administration have finally reached an agreement that will allow Wiccan troops to be buried with the appropriate symbol for their religion; the pentacle. As I reported here, there has been a long stand-off between the VA and the families of those of our fallen who practiced Wicca.
The Department of Veterans Affairs previously had given veterans a choice of 38 religious symbols, including numerous forms of the Christian cross, as well as the Jewish Star of David, the Muslim crescent, the Buddhist wheel and an atomic symbol for atheism.
But, for nearly a decade, the department had refused to act on requests for the pentacle, without a clear reason. VA spokesman Matt Burns said that approximately 10 applications were pending from adherents of Wicca, a blend of witchcraft and nature worship that is one of the country's fastest-growing religions.
But a legal settlement was reached yesterday.
In yesterday's legal settlement, the VA agreed to grant all the pending requests within two weeks and to approve new ones on an expedited basis for 30 days. The department will also pay $225,000 to the plaintiffs for attorneys' fees.
This resolves the lengthy battle, in which Wiccan service members and their families struggled for recognition of their religion.
Until now, the Veterans Affairs department had approved 38 symbols to indicate the faith of deceased service members on memorials. It normally takes a few months for a petition by a faith group to win the department’s approval, but the effort on behalf of the Wiccan symbol took about 10 years and a lawsuit, said Richard B. Katskee, assistant legal director for Americans United.
The group attributed the delay to religious discrimination. Many Americans do not consider Wicca a religion, or hold the mistaken belief that Wiccans are devil worshipers.
“The Wiccan families we represented were in no way asking for special treatment,” the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said at a news conference Monday. “They wanted precisely the same treatment that dozens of other religions already had received from the department, an acknowledgment that their spiritual beliefs were on par with those of everyone else.”
Among Wicca's detractors: President Bush.
In reviewing 30,000 pages of documents from Veterans Affairs, Americans United said, it found e-mail and memorandums referring to negative comments President Bush made about Wicca in an interview with “Good Morning America” in 1999, when he was governor of Texas. The interview had to do with a controversy at the time about Wiccan soldiers’ being allowed to worship at Fort Hood, Tex.
“I don’t think witchcraft is a religion,” Mr. Bush said at the time, according to a transcript. “I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made.”
In what Rev. Lynn described as a "total capitulation," the religion of a fair segment of the armed services has finally been legitimized.
There are 1,800 Wiccans in the armed forces, according to a Pentagon survey cited in the suit, and Wiccans have their faith mentioned in official handbooks for military chaplains and noted on their dog tags.
At least 11 families will be immediately affected by the V.A.’s decision, said the Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church in Wisconsin.
Now if we could just get rid of "Don't ask, don't tell."