By Maya Dollarhide
Sunday, April 29, 2007
Wiccan war widows have prevailed in a 10-year struggle to have the VA accept their religion's pentacle as a headstone symbol in U.S. military cemeteries. Fifth in a series on women changing religious institutions and practices.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Even before she learned the good news earlier this week, the Rev. Selena Fox was upbeat.
"We'll win," Fox told Women's eNews in an interview last month. "We have two goddesses on our side; we have Lady Liberty and Lady Justice."
Fox is the leader of Veteran Pentacle Quest, a campaign based in Barneveld, Wis., that has been working since 1997 to persuade the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow the pentacle, an encircled five-point star that symbolizes the Wiccan religion, to join the list of 38 emblems allowed on markers in veteran memorial cemeteries.
This week the VA agreed to comply with that request.
"People are ecstatic and joyous," Fox said. "There is such a sense of relief and celebration for all those involved, and I'm happy because this is a major victory. Not just for Wiccans, but all people who practice nature-based religions. We received so much support on this issue from people across all religious denominations and across every political line."
Approximately 1,900 active-duty soldiers are Wiccan, according to the Department of Defense, although some Wiccans believe that number is much higher.
Women make up the majority of the Wiccan population, although there are male witches, say Fox and others. Exact numbers of male and female practitioners are not known.
The VA normally takes a few months to approve a petition to add a religious symbol to the list that can be included on veteran grave markers. But in the case of the pentacle, the decision took a decade and came after the April 23 settlement of a lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington, on behalf of Circle Sanctuary and others.
The settlement agreement ends a lawsuit filed in November that charged that denying the pentacle grave marker was unconstitutional on grounds of religious freedom. A separate but similar case, filed by the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union, was also resolved by the settlement.
"This settlement has forced the Bush administration into acknowledging that there are no second-class religions in America, including among our nation's veterans," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It is a proud day for religious freedom in the United States."
Five women associated with Circle Sanctuary, a prominent Wiccan church headquartered in Barneveld, Wis., were part of this lawsuit. They include Roberta Stewart, whose husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2005; Karen DePolito, the widow of Jerome Birnbaum, a veteran of the Korean War who died in 2005; Fox, representing Circle Sanctuary; and Jill Medicine Heart Combs, whose husband is severely ill. Fox said a female Wiccan priestess, the fifth in the group, attended the settlement case on behalf of the Isis Invicta Military Mission in Geyserville, Calif.
Today there are an estimated 135,000 Wiccans in the United States and practitioners describe it as a religion that is concerned with the inter-connectedness of life and the natural realm founded on the concept of magic. Wiccans trace their religious roots to folklore and mythology from pre-Christian Europe, including Celtic and Teutonic cultures, and the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome.
Practitioners sometimes call themselves "witches," a term used in the past and present to refer to folk healers, midwives, and pagan priestesses and priests. Some avoid the term because of the negative connotations it can give a religion struggling for mainstream acceptance.
In 1999, for instance, President George W. Bush said that he personally did not think that Wicca was an actual religion. And in 1985, Senator Jesse Helms tried to keep Wiccan and pagan churches from receiving tax-exempt status; an endeavor that failed to pass in Congress.
"Often when we look at Wicca in popular culture, what we see is very superficial," said Dr. Wendy Griffin, a retired professor of women's studies at California State University, Long Beach, and a specialist in Wicca. "The word 'witch' or 'witchcraft' gets a lot of publicity and play on television and in the media, and I think that the military and this administration have a narrow understanding of what constitutes religion."
Rev. Ann Keeler Evans, a post-Christian feminist theologian and author in Lewisburg, Pa., says Wicca attracts women because the religion celebrates the feminine as divine.
"Within Wicca, traditions are constructed to celebrate and support women's lives," says Evans. "I think that women come to these traditions looking for a spirituality which reflects themselves, and a connection with other women."
Fox had long noted that the graves of deceased Wiccan veterans in public and private cemeteries had remained unmarked. She called the VA's refusal to accept the pentacle discriminatory and said the grieving process of families and friends of veterans from Wiccan families had been complicated and prolonged as a result.
"One woman, Rosemary Kooiman, died last March. She never saw her last wish fulfilled," says Fox. "She was involved in the Pentacle Quest because she wanted it added to the grave marker in Arlington National Cemetery where her husband Abe had been buried in 2003. Her daughter Kathleen carried on her mother's work."
Some Wiccan families had refused to bury their dead, choosing to hold onto ashes, until the VA relented, according to Fox. Many, she said, would not order a marker from the VA until the pentacle was an option and one family has held on to a loved one's ashes for 10 years.
At the press conference announcing the settlement Stewart, one of the widows in the case, expressed relief. "Finally, after 10 years of struggle, the Wiccan faith has their religious emblem and can have it inscribed on government-issued headstones and markers. It has been a long hard fight, fought by many, and today is a day of celebration."
Celebrations of the settlement are taking place around the nation, and more are being planned, including a national day of remembrance and victory celebrations on Beltane, an ancient Gaelic holiday celebrated around May 1. The settlement will also be celebrated on Memorial Day and the summer solstice in June.
Maya Dollarhide is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This series is supported by The Sister Fund.
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