Wiccan Soldier's Widow Petitions for Recognition

The widow of a Nevada National Guardsman killed in Afghanistan wants her husband's Wiccan faith recognized. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs permits 38 religious symbols to adorn headstones and memorials, like the one commemorating Sgt. Patrick Stewart's unit. That list includes the Christian cross and even a symbol for atheists, but the government has not yet approved the Wiccan pentacle.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Take a stroll through almost any veterans' cemetery and on the gravestones you'll see names and dates, crosses and stars of David. You'll even see an occasional teepee, a symbol of Native American religions. You will not see a symbol of the Wiccan religion. NPR's Raul Moreno reports on efforts to change that.

RAUL MORENO reporting:

The Northern Nevada Veteran's Cemetery sits about 30 miles east of Reno off Interstate 80. Among the thousands of markers are several dozen placards fixed to a pair of walls five feet high, bearing the names of veterans from as far back as World War II. But down along the newest wall there's a blank patch of cement for Sergeant Patrick Stewart.

Ms. ROBERTA STEWART (Wife of Sergeant Patrick Stewart): It's horrible. It's heartbreaking. I go by it often, we're a very small town.

MORENO: Roberta Stewart lost her husband, a Nevada National Guardsman, to a helicopter crash in Afghanistan last September. She wants his placard to bear the Wiccan pentacle, a five-pointed star enclosed in a circle. It's an emblem Wiccans link to pagan healing rituals and an ancient Celtic goddess. But it's not yet recognized by the government, and Stewart says that's prolonging her grief.

Ms. STEWART: Especially with Memorial Day coming and Earth Day which are, you know, great Wiccan celebrations, I have nowhere to memorialize my husband, and he was cremated.

MORENO: Only a handful of Wiccans have been killed on active duty, and no one knows exactly how many are serving. One branch of the military, the Air Force, estimates it has 762 Wiccans. At least five families of Wiccan veterans from wars including Iraq are pushing the government for recognition of the pentacle. They point to 38 other beliefs approved for veteran memorials, including several strands of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism.

Ms. SELENA FOX (Minister, Circle Sanctuary): Sufism, the Church of World Messianity, Eckankar. The Humanists also have a symbol, and the most recent was the Sikh symbol.

MORENO: Selena Fox is a minister at Wisconsin's Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church supporting the Stewart family. She says there's even an emblem for atheism, that drawing of an atom with electrons whirling around. The VA wouldn't comment directly on Roberta Stewart's petition. Instead, Dick Wanamaker, Deputy Head of Cemetery Administration, read from a prepared statement.

Mr. DICK WANAMAKER (Deputy Head of Cemetery Administration, Veterans Administration): The Department has received two requests recently to recognize a Wiccan emblem of belief. When we make a decision on those two requests, those effected partied will be notified.

MORENO: Being a young religion centered on nature worship, Wicca often meets with skepticism. Some followers call themselves witches, and the Wiccan pentacle, turn upside down, becomes a Satanic symbol. Up until her husband's death, Roberta Stewart didn't think of her faith as controversial.

Ms. STEWART: I am trying to follow the guidelines of the Veterans Administration and have faith in my government. I don't want to go put a plaque up myself, but it's time for a decision to be made and I will stand strong on my spiritual beliefs, and I will stand proud for my husband, and demand that we have the right to our religious emblem.

MORENO: Stewart is headed to Wisconsin for a Wiccan ceremony honoring her husband later this month. By then, she hopes to have a decision on the pentacle. Raul Moreno, NPR News, Washington.

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