For Wiccan soldier, death brings fight
Family pushes for permission to place religious symbol on headstone
|Roberta Stewart looks at the Northern Nevada Veterans memorial wall where her husband’s name would have been placed in Fernley, Nev.|
|Cathleen Allison / AP|
Updated: 8:41 p.m. ET May 25, 2006
RENO, Nev. – Nevada officials are pressing the Department of Veteran Affairs to allow the family of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to place a Wiccan symbol on his headstone.
Federal officials so far have refused to grant the requests of the family of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, 34, who was killed in Afghanistan in September when the Nevada Army National Guard helicopter he was in was shot down.
“Every veteran and military member deserves recognition for their contributions to our country,” said Tim Tetz, executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services.
The state’s top veterans official said Thursday that he was “diligently pursuing” the matter in cooperation with Gov. Kenny Guinn, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.
“Sgt. Stewart and his family deserve recognition for their contributions to our country,” Tetz said.
“It’s unfortunate the process is taking so long, but I am certain Sgt. Patrick will ultimately receive his marker with the Wiccan symbol,” he said.
Department does not recognize the Wiccan symbol
Stewart, of Fernley, who was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, was a follower of the Wiccan religion, which the Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize.
Wiccans worship the Earth and believe they must give to the community. Some consider themselves witches, pagans or neo-pagans.
The Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration allows only approved emblems of religious beliefs on government headstones. Over the years, it has approved more than 30, including symbols for the Tenrikyo Church, United Moravian Church and Sikhs. There’s also an emblem for atheists – but none for Wiccans.
Stewart’s widow, Roberta Stewart, said she’s hopeful she’ll receive permission to add the Wiccan pentacle – a circle around a five-pointed star – to her late husband’s government-issued memorial plaque.
While Memorial Day services are scheduled Monday at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley, Roberta Stewart plans an alternative service at Fernley’s Out of Town Park. She’s calling the ceremony the Sgt. Patrick Stewart Freedom for All Faiths Memorial Service.
“This is discrimination against our religion,” Roberta Stewart said. “The least his country can do is give him the symbol of faith as he would have wished,” she recently told the Daily Sparks Tribune.
Wiccan minister frustrated with lack of progress
The Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister of the Wiccan Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wis., is among those who have been pushing the federal government to adopt the emblem. She said the Veterans Affairs Department has been considering such requests for nearly nine years with no decision.