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Monday, July 17, 2006

Headstone Controversy

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports

There are 38 religious symbols approved for placement on government-issued grave markers and memorials for military veterans, but the pentacle isn't one of them.

The five-pointed star within a circle that represents the Wiccan religion, a neo-pagan, earth-based belief system, is not on the list.

As a result, the space reserved for Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart's memorial plaque at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley, Nev., remains empty. Stewart, 34, was killed in September 2005 when his Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. He was a follower of the Wiccan tradition, and his wife is fighting to have the fact engraved in stone.


Earlier applications by Wiccan groups and families have not been approved because they were incomplete or because of a prior requirement that a centralized organization be listed on the application, according to Josephine Schuda, a V.A. spokeswoman. The Wiccan religion has no centralized body. That requirement has since been eliminated.

Naturally, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is siding with Stewart. The above article quotes Barry Lynn:

Every atheist can get a symbol on their markers or headstones; humanists can; Presbyterians can, but not Wiccans.

You might be surprised at who else is in that camp - John W. Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Institute:

According to federal guidelines, only approved religious symbols—of which there are 30—can be placed on government headstones or memorial plaques. Included among the 30 approved symbols are those that represent such mainstream religions as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. The list also includes more obscure religions like Konko-Kyo Faith and Seicho-No-Ie. And while the list does not include a symbol for the Wiccan faith, incredibly enough, it does include symbols for atheism and humanism.

Whatever one's opinion might be about the Wiccan faith, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution provides for religious freedom for all individuals of all faiths—whether they are Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Wiccans and others.

The United States Supreme Court has routinely held that viewpoint discrimination by the government against particular expressions of religion is unconstitutional. In the Supreme Court's 1963 ruling in Sherbert v. Vernor, Justice William J. Brennan observed, "The door of the Free Exercise Clause stands tightly closed against any governmental regulation of religious beliefs." In that same opinion, Justice Brennan wrote that "Government may neither compel affirmation of a repugnant belief, nor penalize or discriminate against individuals or groups because they hold religious views abhorrent to the authorities."

I'm with the Wiccans. If atheists and Muslims get their symbols, Wiccans get theirs, too.

The VA's official list of headstone religious emblems is here. Don't laugh too hard when you see the Atheist symbol.

Update: Note that there is no Scientology symbol on the list. Alert Tom Cruise.

Update: Ken proposes a Scientology symbol.

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