April 23, 2007
The Wiccan pentacle has been added to the list of emblems allowed in national cemeteries and on government-issued headstones of fallen soldiers, according to a settlement announced Monday.
A settlement between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Wiccans adds the five-pointed star to the list of "emblems of belief" allowed on VA grave markers.
Eleven families nationwide are waiting for grave markers with the pentacle, said Selena Fox, a Wiccan high priestess with Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wis., a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
After more than 10 years, Wiccans are now allowed to have the pentacle in national cemeteries and on government-issued headstones of Wiccan military. Now, you might ask yourself, "What took them so long?!" I'm glad you asked.
How do you define a religion? OK, not "you" personally, but the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs? Until 2005, the VA included in its definition of "religion" the necessity of a central headquarters or centralized authority. Since Wiccans lack such a centralized authority, let alone a "headquarters", Wicca was not seen as a real, bona fide, religion. It might be spiritual, but a religion?? Nah! The following is from a Washington Post story from 2006:
The "central authority" requirement was lifted in 2005, so one might argue that that's why it took more than 10 years for the Wiccan request to go through. But even 2 years is apparently a long time by VA standards, so why the prolongation? Conspiracy theories abound, and I'm sure the political climate had something to do with it. Wiccans don't exactly have a pure reputation in America. Many people automatically (or after due consideration) lump Wiccans along with Satanists, demon-worships, dreaded polytheists, pertinacious pagans, and general undesirables. I need not go into why all that is incorrect on this blog. Suffice it to say that many persons see the existence of Wicca as an affront to their own religious tradition, and are (thus, understandably) not too keen on having Wicca recognized -- in any form whatsoever -- by the U. S. federal authorities. But freedom of religion for one, means freedom of religion for all. (See also this.)
Department spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said VA turned down Wiccans in the past because religious groups used to be required to list a headquarters or central authority, which Wicca does not have. But that requirement was eliminated last year, she noted.
There's another issue here, though: what counts as religion in First Amendment definition? Must it be organized with a central authority? Or does it merely have to involve belief in, and practice directed towards, what is super-natural? I'll leave that for another day.