Wiccans Say First Amendment Rights Violated by VA

By Alison Espach | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The Wiccan organization Circle Sanctuary claims that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has violated the First Amendment by refusing to approve the Wiccan Pentacle for use as an emblem of belief on the burial headstones and markers of servicemen and women.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stipulates that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof "

Circle Sanctuary states that it and other Wiccan organizations have requested the use of the Pentacle since 1997, but that the VA has either ignored the groups or lied to them while other emblems were being approved.

The VA currently has a list of 38 approved emblems of belief, which can be engraved on government headstones and markers of fallen service members. Emblems include the Christian Cross, the atomic whirl used by Atheists and the most recently approved symbol of the Sikh religion, but the Wiccan Pentacle has not been approved.

The VA states that the matter involving the Wiccan Pentacle is still under consideration, but Rev. Selena Fox from Circle Sanctuary said the government agency has had "nine years to consider the pentacle it has requested."

Fox said the quest for the VA's approval of the Wiccan Pentacle began in July 1997 when John Machete - the coordinator of the Military Pagan Network -- wrote a letter to the agency asking what he would need to do to win approval.

"All that was needed was a letter signed by ordained clergy from the religion, not the head of the religion, plus a description of the symbol, what it meant and a graphic representation of the symbol," said Fox.

In August 1997 Rev. Pete "Pathfinder" Davis of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church in Washington, D.C., sent a letter containing all of the information the VA needed, according to Fox, but the department took no action.

In 1998, Rona Russell from the Temple of Isis in California, who like Davis claimed to be an ordained Wiccan clergy member, sent in the same information. When the VA did not respond, Russell, working as a lay service leader at a U.S. military base in Germany, applied again in 1999 and made two follow-up telephone calls. Fox said the VA indicated a decision was forthcoming, but never produced one.

Circle Sanctuary applied twice -- in April 2005 and October 2005 -- attempting to comply with new standards implemented by the VA. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, Presbyterian Church USA and Sikh emblems were approved during this time frame, Fox said, but not the Wiccan Pentacle.

"They actually did not give equal treatment to the Wiccans at that time. They not only did not give people an opportunity to apply, letting them have the perception that the rules were still being revised, but at the same time they were accepting emblems of belief requests from other people. It's just not fair," said Fox.

Jo Schuda, spokesperson for the VA, said two requests for the Wiccan Pentacle's approval are currently under consideration, but that the approval process is time consuming.

"There is actually a review of our process for implementing those directives. The VA legal staff is looking at the process by which those directives were put in effect, and if they are legally sound," said Schuda. She said that is "another factor here that is part of the delay now."

Schuda said that in the past "denials were made for organizations that did not have -- and the Wiccan organization apparently didn't have -- an identifiable, central headquarters or national organization," said Schuda. However, she added that a central headquarters was removed from the list of requirements in October 2005.

But the VA does require that any newly-approved emblem of belief be used immediately on a headstone or marker. Fox said that Circle Sanctuary has three examples that could immediately be used, including the one involving Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed when his helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan on Sept. 25, 2005. Stewart's widow Roberta has requested that the Wiccan Pentacle be engraved on his plaque when it is included on a memorial wall.

Fox said she is frustrated because Circle Sanctuary is the largest and oldest Wiccan organization with 53,000 members and should have been treated with more respect.

"I was truly hoping that since I've already worked with the Pentagon, giving them information, the VA would recognize that and basically understand that we are a legitimate church and part of the world religion known as the Wiccan religion," said Fox.

"Now they are saying that attorneys are looking at whether they adopted regulations correctly and that is very frustrating, not only for me, but for the widows that are waiting for this approval," she added.

"Requests have come in from nine different Wiccan groups and they have come in under three different sets of procedures and it is time for the VA to finish stalling and finish its consideration and to approve it," said Fox.

The VA would not say when it might make a decision on the Wiccan Pentacle.

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