- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

BARNEVELD, Wis. (AP) — With an estimated 400,000 members nationwide, and a high-profile fight with the federal government over veterans’ grave markers, Wiccans are moving into a more prominent place in the religious landscape.

Selena Fox is leading the way.

A Wiccan priestess and founder of Circle Sanctuary, a 200-acre nature center in the Wisconsin woods about 30 miles west of Madison, Miss Fox battles for acceptance of the so-called neopagan religion.

Though they are often equated with witches, many Wiccans reject the label because of the baggage it brings.

Miss Fox, whose graying hair flows midway down her purple dress and matching cape, exudes more hippie charm than any kind of Hollywood-conjured witchery. She embraces the task of fighting discrimination against Wiccans.

“Spirituality should be something that lifts the spirit,” she said.

Miss Fox, a 57-year-old psychotherapist, wants to make clear that Wiccans do not worship the devil or engage in Satanism. She doesn’t cast spells or wear a pointy black hat.

The golden rule for Wiccans is, “And it harm none, do what you will.”

A nature-based religion, the Wiccan faith is founded on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons.

A “yule tree,” which looks identical to a Christmas tree, sits in a corner of the 100-year-old red dairy barn Miss Fox has converted into an office, meeting room and spiritual center.

“We worship the divine and we do that by recognizing that the divine permeates all of life,” Miss Fox said.

The Wiccans’ highest-profile struggle for recognition is with the federal government over its refusal to allow pentacles on grave markers issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The pentacle, a symbol of Wiccans, is a five-pointed star representing earth, air, fire, water and spirit. Variations of it that are not part of the Wiccan belief have been used in horror movies as a sign of the devil.

Last month, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of Circle Sanctuary and others arguing that the VA is violating the constitutional rights of Wiccans.

Buried at Circle Sanctuary’s cemetery are the remains of two soldiers — a Vietnam veteran from Ohio, and Jerome Birnbaum, a Korean War veteran. There also is a memorial to Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed in Afghanistan last year.

The widows of Sgt. Stewart and Mr. Birnbaum are part of the lawsuit.s

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