Religious Rights for All

Sergeant Patrick Stewart, a 34-year-old decorated American soldier and follower of Wicca, was killed in Afghanistan on September 25, 2005, along with four other soldiers, when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his helicopter. For bravery in the line of fire, all five soldiers were posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

Yet while the U.S. government recognizes that Sergeant Stewart should be remembered for his bravery and sacrifice, what Stewart's widow will remember is the fact that her husband died in service to a country that is denying him the right to religious freedom.

For Roberta Stewart, the year following her husband's death has been marked by her personal battle with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to have the Wiccan pentacle, a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle, placed on Sergeant Stewart's memorial plaque at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

Under federal guidelines, only approved religious symbols can be placed on government headstones or memorial plaques. Included among the 38 approved symbols are those that represent such mainstream religions as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. However, the list also includes more obscure religions such as Sufism Reoriented, Eckankar, Konko-Kyo Faith, and Seicho-No-Ie, as well as symbols for atheism and humanism.

In fact, memorial markers can include a host of religious imagery, including several types of crosses, a Buddhist wheel of righteousness, a nine-pointed Baha'i star, the Mormon angel Moroni, the flaming chalice for Unitarians, or the Islamic star and crescent. However, because no Wiccan symbol has yet been approved for inclusion on government headstones, Stewart's request to have the pentacle adorn her husband's plaque was denied.

Although Wiccans are not considered part of America's mainstream religious establishment, they are a growing minority—especially in the military. According to 2005 Defense Department statistics, approximately 1,800 active-duty service members identify themselves as belonging to the alternative religion that subscribes to magical activities and Earth worship.

The military has, in fact, made some attempts to accommodate the religious beliefs of its Wiccan servicepeople by including an explanation of the religion in the Army chaplains' handbook, allowing services to be held on military installations and even permitting soldiers to proclaim their affiliation on their dog tags. As journalist Hanna Rosin pointed out in "Should the Witches Be Welcome?" (a Washington Post piece on Wiccans in the military), "Far from clashing cultures, the Wiccans and the military coexist cheerfully. To the Army, the Wiccans are part of a proud American tradition, proof that 'people with different religious beliefs are all working together successfully.'"

Given the military's seeming willingness to support, as Rosin puts it, "soldiers who want to practice what the military calls, without passing judgment, 'minority' religions," the Department of Veterans Affairs' obstinacy over approving the Wiccan symbol for inclusion on headstones makes little sense, legally or otherwise. Whatever one's opinion might be about the Wiccan faith, there is no doubt that the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution provides for religious freedom for individuals of all faiths.

The U.S. 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. Verner, 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."

Yet by refusing to place the Wiccan symbol on Sergeant Stewart's memorial plaque, while permitting symbols of other religions and nonreligions, the government is clearly engaging in viewpoint discrimination—which is not the right way to treat someone who has died in service to his country.

We cannot allow our fallen service personnel to be dishonored because of what they believe. That is why Roberta Stewart went on the offensive, waging her own personal battle in the halls of Congress, through the media, and eventually in court.

As a result of Mrs. Stewart's tireless efforts to honor her husband's memory and acknowledge his religious beliefs, the state of Nevada finally agreed to have a plaque constructed with the Wiccan pentacle for Sergeant Stewart and added to the Veterans' Memorial Wall in Fernley, Nevada. The state's attorney general even went so far as to declare that federal officials have no authority over state veterans' cemeteries.

However, the Department of Veterans Affairs has yet to add the pentacle to its list of approved symbols. As a result, in November 2006 Stewart and the widow of a Korean War veteran who died last year sued the federal government for not allowing Wiccan symbols on their husbands' military headstones. A separate lawsuit filed by a Wiccan church charges that the government's failure to approve the Wiccan symbol, while accepting various other faith symbols, violates the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Thus, for Roberta Stewart, the battle is far from over. Speaking to a gathering of approximately 200 friends and family at an alternative memorial service in honor of her husband, Stewart declared, "This is discrimination against our religion. I ask you to help us remember that all freedoms are worth fighting for."

How do we remember? We do so by renewing our resolve to preserve and protect our freedoms. As President Ronald Reagan remarked while looking out upon a sea of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery on a Memorial Day many years ago:

"The sight before us is that of a strong and good nation that stands in silence and remembers those who were loved and who, in return, loved their countrymen enough to die for them. Yet, we must try to honor them—not for their sakes alone, but for our own. And if words cannot repay the debt we owe these men, surely with our actions we must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to battle and to final sacrifice."

If we are to keep faith with the other brave men and women who have died in service to the United States, then we must remember that all rights hang together. That is both the genius and the strength of the American system.

The Framers of our Constitution understood that religious freedom was for everyone. This is even more so today with the multitude of religions that dot the American cultural landscape. And the only way that true religious freedom can prevail is for all faiths to stand and fight for one another to be treated fairly. Otherwise, all our freedoms are in jeopardy.

John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute, based in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Article Author: John W. Whitehead

John W. Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Foundation, writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.