Monday, April 23, 2007

The Bush administration has agreed to allow Wiccan pentacles in military cemeteries in a court settlement announced yesterday by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The settlement was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin to settle a suit filed in November against the Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of several families of Wiccan soldiers and Circle Sanctuary, a 200-acre Wiccan nature center 30 miles west of Madison, Wis. The sanctuary holds the remains of two soldiers, one who fought in Vietnam and the other in Korea.

Until now, the U.S. government had refused to issue grave markers, headstones or memorial plaques with the Wiccan symbol to join those of 38 other religions — or those with none. In addition to the Christian cross, the Jewish six-pointed star and the Islamic crescent, atheists, Hindus, humanists, Sikhs and members of the Eckankar, Serbian Orthodox and United Moravian faiths also have symbols.

The star in Wicca, a nature-based religion, symbolizes earth, wind, fire, spirit and water. Although its followers say it is not related to the occult, they meet in small groups called “covens” that are usually headed a woman called a “high priestess.”

In “Circle Sanctuary vs. Nicholson,” Americans United argued that denying Wiccan servicemen and women their own symbol violates the Constitution. In November, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes cited Department of Defense statistics in estimating there are 1,800 Wiccans active in the U.S. military.

“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.

VA spokesman Matt Burns said the government “acted to settle in the interest of the families concerned and to spare taxpayers the expense of further litigation.”

Wicca has long been an issue for the U.S. military, which does not recognize Wicca as a religion for chaplain purposes.

“It took them long enough,” said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Arlington, of the settlement. The U.S. military got burned by critics of Wicca after press reports of soldiers involved in a Wiccan celebration of the vernal equinox at Fort Hood, Texas, in 1999, he said, thus, “The military has been very nervous about Wicca.”

In May 1999, then-Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, demanded that the Wiccan ceremonies be stopped at Fort Hood. That June, then-Texas Gov. George Bush was asked his opinion on the matter by ABC News.

“I don’t think witchcraft is a religion,” he said. “I wish the military would rethink this decision.”

Mr. Haynes called it “sad” that “these people have had to struggle so long for what is their constitutional right.”

“It’s time people got over their stereotypes of witches and realized Wiccans have the same rights as everyone else,” he said.

Mr. Lynn attributed the government’s opposition to religious prejudice.

“Many people have asked me why the federal government was so stubborn about recognizing the Wiccan symbol,” he said. “I did not want to believe that bias toward Wiccans was the reason, but that appears to have been the case. That’s discouraging, but I’m pleased we were able to put a stop to it.”

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