Veterans Affairs Approves Pentacle as an Official Emblem
It has been a long battle, but finally families of soldiers who have passed away can now place the Pentacle on their loved ones tombstones.
The VA previously recognized 38 emblems/symbols from a wide variety of religions or church affiliations but until recently, it did not recognize a symbol for the pagan religion of Wicca.
The battle actually began 9 years ago but did not receive nationwide notoriety until the 2005-2006 when 2 widows protested that the VA would not recognize the Pentacle as a religious symbol and would not allow it on the tombstones. They were met with opposition and discrimination. But, with the help of 11 other families who were also awaiting approval of the symbols, the Pentacle is now a recognized symbol.
This story really begins when in 2005; Sgt. Patrick Stewart was killed when a helicopter he was riding in was shot down over Afghanistan. It is believed that Stewart is the first known Wiccan to be killed in combat. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star but the Pentacle was not allowed on his tombstone because the VA did not recognize it as one of their approved gravestone markings. His widow, Roberta Stewart, was informed by the veteran's cemetery that they would offer to install a plaque with no religious symbol (she had his remains cremated and ashes scattered but wanted an official memorial). She adamantly refused to settle with a marker but no religious symbol. The wait was worth it, because now Wiccans and Pagans can use the Pentacle to represent their religion.
In 2006 Karen DePolito's husband, Jerome Birnbaum, a Korean vet, passed away. His widow was also denied a Pentacle on his tombstone. Both women plus 11 other families were suing for the right to have the Pentacle and it was finally settled outside of court. The lawsuit was filed in November 2006 and was scheduled to have a hearing in June 2007 at a Federal Court in Madison, Wisconsin. A spokesman for the VA said that the government decided to settle in the interest of the families and to save taxpayers the expense of litigation. Selena Fox, a spokesperson for the Circle Sanctuary (a church of Wicca) states that the approval of this emblem has now put Wicca on an equal status as other faiths.
The Americans United for the Separation of Church and State announced the settlement in April 2007. The Americans United is a 501c non-profit organization that protects separation of church and state by working on a wide range of pressing political and social issues and they represented the plaintiffs in this case. It normally takes a few months for a faith group to petition and win the approval by the VA Dept., but this time it took almost 10 years and near-lawsuit in which to gain approval. The families involved in the lawsuit feel that they were being discriminated against religiously. They were not asking for special treatment, only equal treatment.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Veteran's Affairs stated that in the past Wiccans were turned down for approval of the Pentacle due to one of the requirements for approval of an emblem or symbol is to list a headquarters or central authority. Wicca, like many other Pagan religions, is not an organized religion and has no formal headquarters or central authority. However, the Department of Veteran Affairs has now abolished this criterion for emblem approval sometime last year. Federal Courts have recognized Wicca as a religion since 1986. Prisons, the Internal Revenue Service and the US Military all recognize Wicca as a formal religion; military bases and prisons even allow ceremonies to take place on their premises.
The Pentacle, or commonly referred to as the Pentagram, is a 5-pointed star inside of a circle with one point of the star pointing upwards (the pentagram is the name of the star itself). It has long been associated with Satanism and Devil Worship but this is a misconception. Wiccans and other Pagan religions do not worship Satan because to worship Satan would be to acknowledge his existence, to acknowledge a belief and a following of the Bible, and to acknowledge the Christian God. Wiccans and Pagans do not recognize these in their faith. Instead, their beliefs tend to rely on a double-deity of a Mother/Father or God/Goddess representation or even of polytheistic representations of the Gods (Greek, Egyptian, Norse, Roman, etc.). The Pentacle pre-dates Christianity and was used predominantly by ancient Pagans, but ancient Israelities, Christians, magicians and Wiccans and many other pagan or neo-pagan religions have acknowledged the symbol. The pentagram (the 5-pointed star) was actually once thought to represent the 5 wounds of Christ (2 ankles, 2 wrists, 1 side) and also as the Star of Bethlehem.
The Pentacle is, however, not copyrighted to the practice of Wicca. Other religions, including Satanism, may use the symbol. But its representation of evil, darkness, and Satan is a complete misnomer. Granted, if that is what Satanists revere the symbol as then that is the meaning it takes for them. But that is not a true representation of the Pentacle. The Pentacle is a revered symbol among Pagans and Wiccans. The 5 points represent the 5 elements of life: earth, air, water, fire and spirit. It is used as a protective symbol and represents the integration of body and spirit. It is often worn as a symbol for pagans to be recognized by other pagans. Sometimes it is mixed in with other signs or symbols to "disguise" it from those who discriminate against it. Paganism and Wicca tend to be a very peaceful and nature-loving practice. Wiccans strongly follow the "harm ye none" rule which, translated another way, is the same as "do unto others as you would have done unto you." In fact, there are very few Pagans who use their practice for evil measures. But, just as there are good and bad Christians or Catholics, there are good and bad Pagans.
Even though religion is a protected right in the United States it is hard for someone who is of a non-traditional religion to speak about it. Many people fear persecution and discrimination for stating what their practices are. Also, there are very few advocacy groups or organized sects of Pagan religions, which make it very difficult for people to receive support when needed. Having the Military recognize Wicca as a religious preference and now with the VA (Veterans' Affairs) Department supporting the Pentacle's acceptance onto tombstones, small steps are being taken and loud cheers are being shouted.
Among some of the other accepted symbols are: the Buddhist Wheel of Righteousness, Unitarian Universalist Association, Native American Church of North America, the 9-pointed Bahai star, Atheist, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian Scientist.
Wicca is one of the fastest growing faiths in the country with an increase almost 17 times over from a reported 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001. The Pentagon states that there are approximately 1800 in active duty in the armed forces. How many more that reside in the United States is anyone's guess; but the numbers are greater than anyone thinks.