WASHINGTON — The Rev. Selena Fox said Wednesday wasn’t the first time she visited a Wiccan’s grave site at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It was just the first time one was identified that way.
“This is the first time the Christian cross and Wiccan pentacle have both been engraved on a tombstone here, and it’s great news for us,” said the senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, a Wisconsin Wiccan community. “It’s recognition we’ve fought for for so long.”
On Wednesday Fox, members of her congregation and other pagans held a consecration ceremony at the grave site of Jan Deanna, a Wiccan minister who passed away more than two years ago.
Her husband, Army Capt. William O’Rourke, passed away nine years earlier and had the Christian cross engraved on his tombstone. But Deanna’s side was left blank, because until May the Department of Veterans Affairs had no symbol to recognize her faith.
Wiccan groups have been pushing for the pentacle as a recognized religious symbol for almost a decade, but efforts have been stymied by paperwork and administrative delays by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
This spring, after new rules from the department and continued unsuccessful lobbying by pagan groups, Circle Sanctuary and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sued the department for the right to put the symbol on gravestones and plaques.
In May the department settled the suit, agreeing to include it among the 38 other religious symbols permitted for veterans’ memorials. Veterans and military spouses at Wednesday’s event called it an important First Amendment victory.
Retired Army Capt. Richard Briggs, who is working toward becoming a Wiccan military chaplain, said over the years pagan servicemembers have faced discrimination from commanders and other troops, but as people learn more about the religion the military has become more accepting.
“Coming out of the broom closet can be dangerous, but we have to,” he said.
Army Staff Sgt. Frederick Twombly, a member of the 63rd Engineer Support Battalion, helped set up a Wiccan worship community in Baghdad during both of his deployments over to Iraq.
“We had guys from all over, all different units, all different ranks,” he said. “People would look and say, ‘Wait, he’s a major and he’s a Wiccan?’ And then they’d understand that it’s not just some hidden thing.”
The event was designed not just to celebrate the legal victory but also to remember Deanna, who friends called a kind and generous woman. The Rev. Paula Johnson, who belonged to the same worship community in Florida, said she worked with local charities every Christmas to help poor families with gifts for their children.
“A year before she died, she spoke often about not tolerating religious persecution,” Johnson said. “She’s an inspiration to us all.”
Deanna’s tombstone is one of two in the cemetery bearing the symbol; Pfc. Abe Kooiman, a World War II veteran who died in 2002, also left instructions to have his headstone marked once a Wiccan symbol was approved. Fox said at least four other veterans have also had the symbol etched into memorial plaques since the lawsuit was settled.
“And now, I’m hearing from people that are requesting and getting it without me being included in a fight,” she said. “That makes us very, very happy.”