You mean freedom of religion is for everyone?

This is perhaps the most awesome piece of legal news I’ve heard in a while. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State have finally settled their case against the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs:

Bush Administration Agrees To Approve Wiccan Pentacle For Veteran Memorials

For those that missed where this all started, the Washington Post covered the story last July:

At the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in the small town of Fernley, Nev., there is a wall of brass plaques for local heroes. But one space is blank. There is no memorial for Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart.

That’s because Stewart was a Wiccan, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has refused to allow a symbol of the Wicca religion — a five-pointed star within a circle, called a pentacle — to be inscribed on U.S. military memorials or grave markers.

From the Americans United press release, we now learn:

Americans United’s attorneys uncovered evidence that the VA’s refusal to recognize the Pentacle was motivated by bias toward the Wiccan faith. President George W. Bush, when he was governor of Texas, had opposed the right of Wiccans to meet at a military base in that state. Bush’s opinion of Wiccans was taken into consideration when making decisions on whether to approve the Pentacle…

“It is rank hypocrisy for this administration to claim publicly that it cares about religious freedom and equality but then to quietly and deliberately discriminate against a minority faith like Wicca,” she said. “Until now, this administration’s view has been that Wiccans are good enough to fight for their country, but not good enough to be acknowledged with a proper headstone”…

AU noted that the VA’s list of 38 approved symbols for government gravestones, markers and plaques includes emblems for Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Hindus, Humanists and members of the Eckankar, Serbian Orthodox and United Moravian faiths.

A Wiccan group first petitioned the VA for approval of the pentacle years ago. Officials at the agency dragged their feet on the request but in the interim approved the symbols of six other religions and belief systems. Among them was a Sikh emblem, which the VA approved in just a few weeks. 

For a person who has gotten very tired of hearing some people claim over and over that “clearly, the Founding Fathers intended this to be a Christian nation, and to believe otherwise is a naive misunderstanding of the historical context,” and on, and on, this news is a welcome breath of fresh air. The idea that our country was founded on a religious tolerance that was only meant to extend to persons of mainstream, preferably Christian, faith is just so antithetical to everything I ever learned about our country’s supposed founding ideology, in both school and at church, that I was beginning to wonder if the world around me had gone insane.

This kind of news gives me a tiny bit of renewed hope that maybe, just maybe, the ideals I was raised to believe in might still exist out there, and are being defended rigorously by people who care. I am not alone. We are not alone.


10 Responses to You mean freedom of religion is for everyone?

  1. Dana says:

    For the curious, here’s the official list of approved emblems, all 39. The Wiccan pentacle is there at number 37:

    US Department of Veterans Affairs: Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers

  2. Kevin says:

    I’m not sure I understand why the VA is involved in this at all, why they’re deciding on which symbols they approve of, etc. I’d be perfectly happy if the VA gave the family of the victim an allowance to buy whatever headstone/marker made them happy, but I’m not so sure there’s a real need for the VA to do the providing and engraving themselves. As it is now, it seems like the government is explicitly deciding which religions are religions, which has some thorny questions about where you stop. My conception of separation of church and state is more removed from religion than that. I could perhaps be swayed on this, though.

    Also, that list of approved emblems has a lot of really cool stuff on it. I’m definitely fond of the atheist and humanist ones, but several of them are pretty neat.

  3. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Kevin, I believe the receipt of a headstone and burial in a military cemetery is a military benefit. I assume you’ve seen those military cemeteries? The headstones are purposefully identical and laid out symmetrically. If you want a different headstone, you’ve got to be buried somewhere else.

  4. Kevin says:

    Hilary –
    Yeah, I get that it’s something that they’ve done for a long time, I just don’t get why. What state interest is there in doing the actual provision of the stone? Like I said, I have no problem with them paying for one for everyone – it just seems like it’s not the military’s place to both purchase and decorate the headstone. Unless they put an American flag emblem on every single one, absent religious icons.

  5. Dana says:


    To echo Hilary, as far as I can tell, the military is all about conformity, and if you really enjoyed your military career and wish to be buried in a military cemetery at the end of your life, you probably appreciate the symmetry of all those identical “ranks” of headstones. Ooooh, symbolism. As Hilary said, it’s a benefit, not a requirement.

    I’m actually torn about the atheist symbol. It (and the alternative double helix symbol I heard someone else suggest) seems too rooted in presenting science and religion as opposing alternatives, which plays nicely into the hands of the Religious Right’s desire to frame secularism as a new religion.

    In any case, if the markers on these memorials seem to be representing some sort of belief that shaped the dead person’s views of the afterlife, wouldn’t the better one for an atheist be a skull and crossbones? I mean, I’ve never been able to conceive of an afterlife, so what do I think will happen after I die? I’ll be dead, my body will disintegrate, and I’ll be bones. It’s a very concrete image, easily representable in a pictographic form. The pirates have already conveniently designed the image for us.

    As for the humanist symbol, I don’t know. It looks kind of like the Batman symbol crossed with a street-sign stick person to me.

  6. TheGnat says:

    The problem with a skull-and-crossbones is that not only does it mean “deadly” and “poison”, but it does have the connotation with the Jolly Roger and piracy. And there are plenty of atheists who don’t agree with anything that might be labeled piracy.

    What I find funny is that the symbol of Seicho-no-Ie is acceptable, and it’s basically a fluffy new-age harmless almost-cult. And that “Hindu” has only one symbol…namely “Om”, which while appropriate in a general sense, I’m sure there’s plenty of people who consider themselves Hindu that associate their beliefs with different symbols entirely.

    Dana, I think your description of the Humanist symbol is awesome, because it involves Batman.

  7. Dana says:

    Darn those poisons and pirates anyway.

    Actually, the skull and crossbones motif, as well as that of just a skull, has been found on gravestones for quite some time, though, admittedly, not so much recently, as graveyards force people to trend more toward inset stone or metal plaques in the ground so they can mow over them easily.

    From Tomb with a View’s Guide to Gravestone Symbols (the first more or less decent source I ran across):

    Crown upon skull = Triumph of death
    Skull and crossed bones = death; crucifixion
    Skull = Transitory nature of earthly life, penitence, mortality
    Winged skull = Flight of the soul from mortal man
    Wreath on a skull = Victory of death over life

    Indeed, the picture on the very front page of A Very Grave Matter featured a winged skull with crossed bones when I happened across it. (I actually think their pictures of winged cherub heads in the photo archives are a lot more creepy, personally.)

    In any case, by those interpretive rules above, either the plain skull, the crowned skull, or the wreath on a skull seem the most appropriate for an atheist, by my reckoning.

  8. TheGnat says:

    Man, atheists are depressing…

    I don’t think Western cemeteries would let me have Haniwa around my grave. Or you know, a huge artificial mountain for a tomb.

  9. Dana says:

    The best ever tumulus-like structure is the Emperor’s tomb in China, because it maybe (probably?!) has a to-scale, jewel-encrusted model of China under the first emperor, with starred heavens and a flowing river of mercury inside. And seriously, if we’re not allowed to do that anymore, what’s the point? Why not just be cremated?

    Speaking of mound builders, though, some of the Native American ones built them all around the area where Beloit’s campus is in Wisconsin. Now people go have picnics on them, and one inspired art student added a molded cement head, legs, and tail to one of them next to the art building to make it into a lizard/dragon. I have a picture somewhere… Again, if there’s no option to be buried under a dragon, why bother?

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