Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Should military restrict religious symbols?
Sgt. Patrick Stewart fought for the United States in Afghanistan and died doing it, yet the U.S. government didn't grant him the same religious freedom he was fighting to uphold.

This member of the Nevada Air National Guard was shot down in his Chinook helicopter September 25, 2005. Ever since, his gravesite has been marked with a plain old rock and a few small American flags. His wife says that's because the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs refused to recognize their religion and allow them to express their faith in a military cemetery.

The Stewarts practiced Wicca, a pre-Christian religion wrongly criticized as being associated with devil worship. Wiccans don't pray to God in the traditional sense. Instead, they believe in a "great oneness," and see themselves as part of the circle of nature.

Earlier this week, the VA announced that as part of a settlement of a lawsuit, it will allow 11 families to display the Wicca pentacle, a religious symbol whose five points represent earth, air, fire, water and spirit, at their gravesites. The pentacle will be provided by the military.

So why did it take 10 years to settle this dispute with these families? Sgt. Stewart's widow, Roberta Stewart, believes Wiccans are victims of religious discrimination.

"My husband is a military man. To deny him the rights he fought and died for breaks my heart," she told me.

The Pentagon estimates there are more than 1,800 Wiccans serving in the military. In the Air Force, there are nearly three times as many Wiccans as Muslims.

This case raises some interesting questions: Do you think it took too long for the military and the VA to agree to place the Wiccan pentacle on gravesites? Should service members and their families have complete control over which symbols are displayed on their gravesite? Or is it important for the VA to maintain some restrictions on religious symbols?

-- By Randi Kaye, CNN Correspondent
Posted By CNN: 2:36 PM ET
  39 Comments
So what is this really about?
Foxhole faith?
Oh God get me out of this and I'll do what you.
Or
To deny the rights that are fought and died for.

These rights apply to surviving families as well to the men & women
who gave all to protect them.
Posted By Anonymous Greg, Scottsdale, Arizona : 2:53 PM ET
Hi Randi:

Your report was excellent last night. I am glad the family had the conviction to hang in there for their cause.

I was reading a book last night about world religion and thought of some other topics for the religion segments.

What is a Muslim?
What is a Buddist?
What is a Christian Scientist?
What is a Scientologist?

Randi, don't forget to keep all your blog posts for your salary review. Good report on the women's issue the other night too.
Posted By Anonymous Renee Bradenton, FL : 2:57 PM ET
Hi Randi,
When it's all said and done, it's really a shame that there's even a debate over what religious symbol is ok and what's not. If a soldier is accepted into service, fights and dies for their country, in my opinion, let their final resting place be theirs and theirs alone. Take Care
Posted By Anonymous Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif. : 3:07 PM ET
Hi Randi,
I believe in freedom of choice. After all, there is one creator no matter what we call it. You say Wiccans believe in a "great oneness" and see themselves as part of the circle of nature. Many of the founding fathers of our country such as George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, etc. were Masons, and they believe that God is the great architect of the universe. What's the difference? Are their graves marked with the Mason symbol?
This may not be the belief that others choose to "channel" God into their lives, but each to his own. We all have to find our own way.
Did it take too long for the military and VA to agree to place the Wiccan pentacle on gravesites? Yes, in the land of the free, it should have never been an issue.

"Our cause is noble, it is the cause of mankind." George Washington ~
Posted By Anonymous Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,TX : 3:10 PM ET
Of course it took too long for the military and VA to agree on this. Why should they even have to agree? It's a religious belief. Who cares what the religion is, or how popular it is? If someone actually, legitimately believed in the flying spaghetti monster, why not put a Pastafarian symbol up there too? The last time I checked (and no matter what the President thinks), America had no official religion.

Wicca is not, however, a pre-Christian religion. Wicca draws from many pagan (yes, pre-Christian ideas), but the term wasn't actually used to describe a religion until the 1950s.

Be that as it may, it is just as valid a religion as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, and anything else you can think of.

Bottom line: why should the VA have any say over whose religious symbols get put onto memorials and whose don't? This is ludicrous.
Posted By Anonymous Ashley, Baton Rouge, LA : 3:18 PM ET
The United States of America is a nation which is supposed to uphold freedom of religion for all. This freedom must have been most important to the Founding Fathers of this nation for them to list freedom of religion first in the Bill of Rights.

There are some in this country attempting to establish Christianity as the state religion with special privileges. If we, as a nation, are to remain true to the principles upon which our nation was founded, freedom of religion, even a religion disapproved of by Christianity, must be allowed to exist alongside all other religions.

This means when a soldier of the Wiccan faith dies, giving his life for this country and it's freedoms, his military grave should exhibit a pentacle as the symbol of his religion just as the Christian solder's grave exhibits the cross.
Posted By Anonymous Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA : 3:31 PM ET
You just know I'm going to go against the grain in my post but here goes anyway. Shouldn't the person who pays for it be the one to decide what goes on the stone? I go gravewalking fairly often doing geneology and the old stones from WW1 are all the same and have the same markings indicating the name of the deceased, the rank and a symbol of Canada, religion doesn't figure into it but personal things will be on the back. If the family wants to pay to have some other adornment put on the back of the stone so be it.

The one thing I can never understand is why so many people have so much opinion of things that are truly and definitely none of their freakin' business. What other people do or say or post or think or worship or want to put on their gravestone is their right and everyone else can butt the heck out.
Posted By Anonymous Em, Toronto, Ontario, Canada : 4:10 PM ET
I think they should be able to display religious symbols on gravesites. Faith is so important in so many soldiers lives; it is something they are so proud of, they should be able to display it with their name forever.
Posted By Anonymous Jess, Paris KY : 4:18 PM ET
Randi,
As an Aetheist, I can honestly say I don't care.
As an intelligent person however, I have to say that granting special rights to one group or other, no matter what they call their imaginary friend, is discrimination and therefor counter to our very existance as a progressive country.

As for me... I have a Chihuahua puppy named Pokey with a Smiley-face birthmark under her chin [no kidding], and I plan on having that put on my grave. After all, like the Edie Brickell song goes... "Happiness is a smile onna dog."
Posted By Anonymous James Foley Kamiah, Idaho : 4:19 PM ET
Wiccans are not satanic in any way. I took a class at LSU with some and they were great people who happen to have a unique faith. They worship nature, not satan. Witchcraft has gotten a bad reputation over the centuries based on ignorance-no, just flat out stupidity. Pagan doesn't mean satanic. Christians practice paganism at Christmas when they put up Christmas trees-but I guess that's okay, right? If this family had not been allowed to put that symbol on that grave, that would have been a violation of religious freedom. Period. Governmental interference with a right guaranteed by the Constitution is a violation of religious freedom. And yes, it took much too long for the government to allow it.
Posted By Anonymous Debbie, Denham Springs, LA : 4:21 PM ET
As a Wiccan who has been following this particular issue since it first came to my attention during Desert Storm, I am very pleased that the VA has finally decided to recognize Wicca officially. They are a bit slow on the uptake, perhaps - Wicca has been a recognized faith in the military generally (including appropriate dog-tags for those who wish them, and chaplaincy) for many years.

I'd just like to add that as well as allowing the families in current litigation, the VA is also adding the pentacle to their list accepted religious symbols, so that no Wiccan families will have to face this particular ordeal in the future.

And Ashley is correct -- while Wiccan mythic history traces our faith to pre-Christian Britain, historically the faith dates to late '40s and early '50s.
Posted By Anonymous Anna, Canton, OH. : 4:49 PM ET
If the military doesn't have a problem with the religious belief of a man or woman before they are killed in action, then they shouldn't have a problem with what religious symbol goes on their grave marker.
Posted By Anonymous Perry, Dallas, Texas : 5:05 PM ET
Randi,

To deny Sgt. Stewart a marker that expresses his faith is no different than thumbing your nose at his faith.

It may be different than someone elses, but who are we to say it is or isn't legitimate?

It's the "final insult".
Posted By Anonymous Maggie, Grain Valley, MO : 5:39 PM ET
To James in Idaho:

I would love to see a picture of your puppy's chin. Thanks for making me smile.
I gotta love the atheists-they're so logical.
Posted By Anonymous Debbie, Denham Springs, LA : 6:02 PM ET
This should never have been an issue. I am an Atheist, but all people are entitled to freedom of choice. We should be weary as a nation when an organization such as the Pentagon denies someone their constitutional right. We must never allow Christianity to dictate our decisions and it should never trump our Constitution.
Posted By Anonymous Anthony in Los Angeles, CA : 6:16 PM ET
I'm delighted that this fallen soldier is finally able to have his faith symbol on his grave marker. It is unconscionable that any soldier be denied a right that he or she died for. The VA was trying to carry out the bigoted agenda of President Bush and the theocratic subversives who are his political base. It's a relief to see the good guys win this one.

Thank you.
Posted By Anonymous Valerie Voigt, Palo Alto, California : 6:20 PM ET
If a soldier who died fighting for freedom can't display a symbol of his choice on his grave then what's the point of his fighting and dying?
Posted By Anonymous Marty Sisk, Page, Arizona : 6:32 PM ET
I am a practicing Witch, attorney, and author (PAGANS AND THE LAW: UNDERSTAND YOUR RIGHTS). Wiccans worship the Triple Goddess in Her multiple aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. She is the central deity in the Wiccan cosmos. This feature of Wiccan spirituality has led the American courts to afford Wicca First Amendment recognition and status: that is, Wicca is a religion meritorious of First Amendment protection. That having been said, it is nothing less than shameful that it has taken the VA ten years to place emblems of Wiccan faith on the graves of service personnel who gave their lives fighting for religious freedom in other lands. recognized by American courts of law
I can not beleive that this was even an issue. These soldiers are willing to die for their country. We owe them and their families much more than the grave marker of thier choice. This is rediculous. Didn't we already fight for our religious freedom?
Posted By Anonymous Theresa, Puyallup WA : 8:15 PM ET
Of course military servicemen/women should be able to display whatever religious symbol they would like on their gravesites. If there was no problem with them practicing the religious while they were alive then what's the problem with their families recognizing their faith when they die? I think it's actually quite disrespectful of our government to basically call one religion "better" or "more right" than the next.

May God bless all our military servicemen and women who have fallen in the name of freedom and liberty. May God bless them however they choose to worship (or not worship) him.
Posted By Anonymous Lindsay, Baton Rouge, Louisiana : 10:08 PM ET
The US doesn't truly have "freedom of religion" if the government can pick and choose which religious sects it will recognize. Either allow all, or none. You can't have it both ways.

Frankly, those who are willing to fight and die for our freedoms should never have to endure having their beliefs questioned.
Posted By Anonymous Deb. Richmond VA : 10:43 PM ET
The term Wicca dates to the 40s or 50s but the religious percepts that encompass Wicca are as Randi says - preChristian. Primarily they are rooted in the worship of nature and the goddess as in old Celtic religions. My family has practiced this religion for over a 1000 years (we call it the "old faith") but it is identical to many many forms of Wicca.

Glad to see that finally freedom of religion extends to us as well. This should have never been an issue in this country.

Good report (as always) Randi. Thanks for taking the time to do such a detailed and "calm" report on this matter.
Posted By Anonymous Annie Kate, Birmingham AL : 11:05 PM ET
Bottom line, you do not have to agree about a religious symbol or on religion itself; however you should still show respect, and allow a person their right to believe in who or what they wish. Really that is the message, respect, it goes along way.

Take Care
Posted By Anonymous Tracy-Marie Anderson, N.S. Canada : 11:31 PM ET
[I]s it important for the VA to maintain some restrictions on religious symbols?

This is what I'd call "duh"-worthy--of course the VA shouldn't restrict religious symbols. All religions are opinions, based on faith and personal meaning rather than objective fact, and the VA having a special set of "approved" religions is as incomprehensible as the government's taking an official stand on the best ice cream flavors or the best television shows. The fact that there is any straight-faced debate on this matter is shameful.

And for the record, I really do mean that *all* religions should get equal consideration. Wicca is not devil worship, but if it were, it still would be wrong to refuse to place its symbol on a headstone.
Posted By Anonymous Diane from Philadelphia PA : 12:51 AM ET
You know, I may be just an atheist, a "member" of a "religious sect" whose discrimination is unmatched by all others combined, but I'd have to say that, if I am willing to commit the ultimate act of selflessness by risking life and limb to follow the orders of my commanding officers in a war that the people who I am sworn to protect disagree with by a two-thirds majority...then the very least the VA should do for me is respect the religious freedom granted me by the Constitution which I died to protect. Seriously...why in the name of crumbcake is this an issue?
Posted By Anonymous Chris, Mansfield, TX : 7:37 AM ET
It took entirely too long for the VA to allow Wiccans to have their symbol. Especially in light of the fact that there are more Wiccans in the military than a lot of the other smaller religions that were allowed their own symbol.

While I agreed with most of Anna's (from Canton) post, she was incorrect to say we have a chapliancy. Currently there are no Wiccan chaplains in the military. It hasn't been from lack of trying. There was an Army Chaplain serving in Iraq that decided he wanted to become a Wiccan Chaplain. All military chaplains have to have an endorsing agency, and generally when a chaplain wants to change his endorsing agency his current one will keep him until the process is complete with the new agency. In this case, a call was made to his endorsing agency who then revoked his endorsement. He was removed from Iraq and the chaplaincy. The ACLU is looking into this case, and I hope it comes to a good conclussion. I believe until the military has a Wiccan chaplain most Wiccans (and other pagans) will keep "No Religious Preference," on their dogtags to reduce their chances of discrimination in a predominantly Christian military.

I think the Founding Fathers were wise in their decision to separate church and state, but I fear that with the political power Christian lobbyist are wielding we're coming dangerously close to losing that separation. There should be freedom and respect for all religions--not just our own. Any military member willing to lay down his/her life for the freedoms granted to us, should have the same freedoms he or she is upholding.
Posted By Anonymous Ida, Schertz, TX : 9:11 AM ET
Of course the military waited too long. We owe our brave soldiers everything that we can possibly give them. Isn't is bad enough that we don't properly take care of them when they come home from war? I honestly don't understand how anyone can have a problem with allowing a family to honor a loved one by displaying the symbol of something that they believed in.
Posted By Anonymous Karen, Orlando, Fl. : 9:15 AM ET
I'm glad that the military finally agreed to allow the pentacle. It's a shame that in this day and age, we still have religious persecution. Hopefully, this is a step toward more acceptance of non-Christian religions by the government. I have several friends that are Wiccan and are afraid to reveal themselves because they are afraid to lose their jobs, homes, or children. If the government can start accepting non-Christian belief systems, maybe the rest of the country will follow suit.
Posted By Anonymous Judy Sullivan, Charlotte NC : 10:05 AM ET
It is sad that there was even a debate about this issue. I'm Christian and a child of a Vet. I would be beside myself if my father could not have a cross put on his grave. He is an Episcopal man who loves his faith, his country and his family. Its our duty as families and countrymen of these soldiers to properly respect and honor them upon their final resting place.
Posted By Anonymous K, Rockland, ME : 10:08 AM ET
The VA or the military has no right to dictate anything concerning religions of any manner. Especially the VA. The VA is the worst, as in pit bottom, government agency there is. They are managed by dinosaurs that train their employees to do anything it takes to deny compensation to our vets. Everytime you ask for compensation you are called a liar. My father in law has a bullet wound from Korea, but "OH MY" his records were burned in 1973 in St. Louis and if it ain't in your records - so sorry. It amazes me that they can dictate anything at all about religion preferences. That is pure communism. The VA is the poorest representation of this countries gov't, or at least until the left gets control, then our military people will get nothing.
Posted By Anonymous Mark, Springfield, MO : 10:45 AM ET
For every person religon has a different meaning and is personal
Some people make special requests for what goes on their grave stone
and if not the family should have final say.
it's like a rememberence of that person who is lost.
Posted By Anonymous carie citrus heights,ca : 10:48 AM ET
It is fairly obvious that there is something of a consensus on this issue here, so I'm going to do my best to play "devil's advocate" ... kind of ironic considering the subject matter.

The fact that these gravestones are made by the government as a courtesy to her country's heroes means that the VA is simply not in the position to give the "thumbs up" to every symbol requested on a gravestone. The stones represent the United States military as much as they do the individual buried. It should be understandable that it would take a significant amount of time to decide that the symbol of a relatively obscure religion be recognized (especially when said symbol has very negative connotations in pop culture). If the flood gates were just left open, how long would it be before someone has Dane Cook's "superfinger" on their headstone?

In the end, the VA should be recognized for making the right choice, not villified for doing their job.
Posted By Anonymous Thomas, Washington DC : 10:49 AM ET
It seems to me that the Wiccan beliefs are not so far removed from some Native American tenets. This really is a non-issue made into one by the moronic views of the VA, the military, and the current administration that would force its "blinded by the light" religious views on all of us. An individual's religious beliefs are not to be questioned, especially if that person's life was given to ensure just such freedom.
Posted By Anonymous A. Roy Olson, Tucson AZ : 10:52 AM ET
It occured to me, that when our forefathers established the right of religious freedom, how open minded they were for their time, yet here we are in the 21st century, and it took this poor family all this time just to get the pentacle on the gravestone of one of our finest! It is my sincerest hope that this will be a turning point for all the Wiccans and Pagans in this country. That they will receive the quiet acceptance that so many other religions in this country take for granted, and not have to continually hide and/or defend their beliefs. My condolences to the family for the second heartache they had to endure. You are in my prayers. Your loss and hardship will be long remembered by this American.
Posted By Anonymous Ellen Paquin, Cordes Lakes, AZ : 11:01 AM ET
So whatever happened to the seperation of church and state? Why do any of the graves have to bear any symbol? Why can't they all be uniformly made tombstones like the ones at every VA cemetary I have ever been to, especialy ones that house WWI, WWII, etc, graves. Does what is on a marker really define a persons faith? Without the marker is he not Wiccan anymore? I mean really, lets all gain some perspective.
Posted By Anonymous Jennifer C, Sierra Vista, AZ : 11:13 AM ET
Hi Randi, IMO the military has no right to restrict religious symbols on head stones. Freedom of religion is a right in this country and this man was fighting for that right for all Americans. How dare the Military?
Posted By Anonymous Judy Stage Brooklyn MI : 12:40 PM ET
I have to disagree with Thomas from Washington, although I have to say his comment was exceptionally well written and very insightful...but...the symbol in question has indeed had negative connotations, but that comes from as Thomas put it "pop culture." Pop culture doesn't dictate the meaning of everything and thusly I would have to say it has no place in this argument. Because a legitimate religious symbol has been misinterpreted for so long shouldn't be an explanation (or excuse)for this.
Posted By Anonymous Debbie, Denham Springs, LA : 1:51 PM ET
I am sorry but I say NO to this. Wiccan following has for so long been associated with satanism that anyone walking by their symbol would think of that. I would absolutly not want to be buried next to this symbol nor would I want a loved one to be so buried, many others feel this same way (though apparently none have posted here).
Religous Freedom meant that we could each worship our own way (as long as no one was harmed in the doing)- not that the State would recognize any and all religions.
This is not meant to hurt those who have lost someone dear to them
Posted By Anonymous Nancy from Ann Arbor, MI : 2:36 PM ET
Thomas in Washington pondered the slippery slope argument...
"If the flood gates were just left open, how long would it be before someone has Dane Cook's "superfinger" on their headstone?"

Thanks for that. That gave me a good laugh I gotta say.
However, that begs the question still, "What would be the harm?"

I can picture it now... family walking along the headstones passes and thinks..."Gee, I guess this guy wasn't too pleased about the prospect of being here."
Posted By Anonymous James Foley Kamiah, Idaho : 3:17 PM ET
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