Fallen Soldier's Faith Goes Unrecognized

Ed. note -- the following was like others I've been posting recently was published earlier at the Lompoc Record. In this particular column I take up the cause of a Wiccan soldier who died in Iraq, but whose religion wasn't recognized by the Pentagon and thus his grave couldn't carry the Wiccan symbol. I wrote to the Secretary of Veteran's Affairs, but I don't know the current state of the case -- or others like it. But the point here is one of religous freedom in America.

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
June 25, 2006

In a nation that recognizes the freedom of religion, it seems odd that an Army widow would have difficulty getting a grave marker that carries her family's religious emblem.

Military graves carry crosses, Stars of David, and Islam's Crescent, the Buddhist wheel of righteousness, and even a symbol of atheism. However, the Department of Veteran's Affairs refuses to grant the widow of a fallen soldier, one killed in combat in Afghanistan, the right to place the pentacle, the symbol of Wicca, on her husband's grave. You see, it's not among the thirty approved “emblems of belief.” Without approval from the proper authorities, nothing can be placed on a memorial plaque in a veteran's cemetery.
The story of Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart is one that raises questions of how broad religious freedom really is in America. Though the Army recognizes Wicca as a religion, it refuses to acknowledge its symbol. Although Sgt. Stewart died in September 2005, his widow continues to wait for a long-delayed decision from the Department of Veteran's Affairs. That this decision has failed to garner much attention may be due to the religion in question. The faith of Sgt. Stewart, the recipient of a Purple Heart, Air Medal and Bronze Star, is one shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding.
Certainly, Wicca is very different from my own faith and its understanding of the divine is also quite different. Like many Americans, I really know very little about Wicca and Neo-paganism, but from what I have learned - largely through a conversation with a Neo-Pagan as the result of my earlier Harry Potter article, these religions which are both ancient and modern, are thriving and growing rapidly in our midst. It's quite possible that your neighbor practices Wicca without you even knowing this to be true.

Most large book stores offer multiple shelves of books on metaphysics, tarot, and other expressions of Wicca and Neo-Paganism. While Dan Brown's “The DaVinci Code” not only raised questions about the Christian faith, it celebrated the pagan religious impulse - especially the celebration of the divine feminine or the goddess. It seems there is something attractive about Wicca and its emphasis on the oneness of the human with nature. In many of its forms it has an environmentally-friendly message, it tends to be egalitarian, and it gives voice to a spiritual need that is non-institutionalized.
What I discovered from my conversations with my pagan friend, is that he doesn't fit the stereotype - he cares about his country, its freedoms, and the world in which he lives.

And so, upon being reminded of Sgt. Stewart's story, I've decided that I need to speak out in his behalf. I will admit, I've been uneasy about the war in Afghanistan from the beginning, and I've long believed that the war in Iraq was ill- advised and not in keeping with our traditional understandings of “just war theory” (as if any war truly fits these ancient principles).
In spite of my deep discomfort with the war in Iraq, I do believe that these young men and women who have given their lives for their country need to be recognized and affirmed. I also believe it's really quite silly that the Department of Veteran's Affairs refuses to allow the use of the religious symbol of a recognized religious tradition to mark the grave of a fallen soldier. It would seem to dishonor the memory of this man and it also raises questions of fairness.
I'm a Christian and I benefit from the majority status that my faith possesses. It's easy to take this status for granted and assume it will always be there, but if one religion is slighted, then aren't all religions in danger of being slighted? Whatever I may think about the theology and practices of this religion, it's a religion practiced by a significant number of Americans. Because the Constitution of the United States protects religious freedom, then this would seem to require recognition of its “emblem of belief.” Anything less would be un-American.
Therefore, I urge you to raise your voice in support of Roberta Stewart by contacting the Secretary of Veteran's Affairs, the Hon. James Nicholson, in Washington and encourage him to quickly resolve this problem.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (www.lompocdisciples.org). -- Now Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy, MI
June 25, 2006


Sophia said…
Thank you so much for seeing having wide enough vision to see the importance of true religious freedom, not just freedom for your own religion. It makes you stand out amoung Christians and puts your faith in a good light.

-Dust, Wiccan Priestess

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