Wiccan widow threatens to sue over memorial plaque
May 18, 2006
WASHINGTON — The widow of a Wiccan soldier killed in Afghanistan last year says after months of waiting, she is ready to take the Department of Veterans Affairs to court to get a pentacle engraved on her husband’s memorial plaque.
“I’m getting sick from the stress of all of this,” said Roberta Stewart, whose husband, Patrick, served in the Nevada National Guard. “I’m spending six hours a day on this. I just want to put it to an end.”
Currently the National Cemetery Administration has 38 permitted religious symbols for headstones and plaques, but none for pagans or Wiccans.
After Patrick was killed in a helicopter attack last September, his wife asked for the encircled five-pointed star to be put on his plaque on the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Wall in Fernley. But since the pentacle is not currently approved by the department, his space on the wall has remained blank.
Stewart said her formal application to the VA has been pending for more than six months now, and another request from a different Wiccan church has been processing even longer. Now she has contacted an attorney and is preparing a discrimination claim.
“I’m tired of waiting for final approval,” she said. “It doesn’t take this long to review an application.”
Officials from the National Cemetery Administration said so far no final decision has been made on the Wiccan pentacle. In March, officials said the application was in its final stages, but gave no time line for completion of the review.
Up until last fall VA administrators required applicants for new headstone markers to provide documentation from “the recognized central head or primary contact person” to certify the symbol as representative of that faith.
But Wiccans do not have a central governing structure, and officials that forced them to rebuff earlier attempts to get the pentacle approved.
Last fall the cemetery administration updated its rules, and now only requires historic information about the religion and other documentation supporting the use of a specific faith symbol.
But administrators did fast-track an application in 2004 to put allow a Sikh symbol to be put on veteran’s headstones. Stewart said she is frustrated that Wiccans did not receive the same consideration.
Bill Chrystal, a retired Navy chaplain and friend of the Stewarts, said the VA’s continued stonewalling has caused other problems as well. He was scheduled to hold a memorial for fallen Nevada troops later this month, but was told by state Veterans Affairs officials that Roberta could not speak because of the controversy with her application.
Chrystal, who belongs to the United Church of Christ, has since backed out of the event and will take part in a protest event to highlight the Stewarts’ fight.
“What the VA has done is the very thing that the founding fathers were opposed to,” he said. “It seems to me the whole point of our system is that the government stays out of religion, but here they aren’t. It’s not the government’s job to second guess the value of a religion.”
Stewart said the whole process has been upsetting not just to her but also to members of her husband’s national guard unit, which returned to Nevada in March. Several of the members were outraged to find out Patrick had not yet been properly honored, and have continued to complain to her as the issue drags on.
According to 2005 Defense Department statistics, more than 1,800 active-duty servicemembers identified themselves as Wiccans.