HED Why no Wiccan? Whose freedoms are we fighting for?

Amid a sea of memorial plaques at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery, one space remains blank. 

That space is waiting to be filled by a plaque honoring the life and sacrifice of 34-year-old Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed in action on September 25, 2005, when his helicopter was struck with a rocket-propelled grenade as it flew over Afghanistan. But it may be some time before Sgt. Stewart is remembered with a memorial plaque. That's because his war widow and the Department of Veterans Affairs are at odds over the Stewart family's request to have the Wiccan pentacle, a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle, placed on the plaque. As of May 31, 2006, government officials have refused to allow the Wiccan symbol to be placed on Stewart's plaque.

Sgt. Stewart identified himself as belonging to the Wiccan faith. Although Wiccans are not considered part of America's mainstream religious establishment, they are a growing minority. 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.

According to federal guidelines, only approved religious symbols– of which there are 30– can be placed on government headstones or memorial plaques. Included among the 30 approved symbols are those that represent such mainstream religions as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. The list also includes more obscure religions like Konko-Kyo Faith and Seicho-No-Ie. And while the list does not include a symbol for the Wiccan faith, incredibly enough, it does include symbols for atheism and humanism.

Whatever one's opinion might be about the Wiccan faith, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution provides for religious freedom for all individuals of all faiths– whether they are Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Wiccans, or any other.

The United States 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. Vernor, 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 Sgt. Stewart's memorial plaque, while permitting symbols of other religions and non-religions, the government is clearly engaging in viewpoint discrimination– which is a shoddy way to treat someone who has died in service to his country.

Having posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart to Sgt. Stewart, the U.S. government intends that he should be remembered for his bravery and sacrifice. Yet what his widow, Roberta Stewart, will remember is the fact that her husband died defending the country that is denying him the right to express his religious freedom.

Hours before official Memorial Day ceremonies were set to begin at the Northern Nevada Veterans Cemetery, Patrick Stewart's widow gathered at a park a few miles away to hold an alternative service in honor of her husband, his faith, and his service to his country. Speaking to a gathering of approximately 200 friends and family, Roberta 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 as he looked 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 Sgt. Stewart and 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.

Although our country was founded on a Judeo-Christian base, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that religious freedom was for everyone, not just Christians. In other words, the only way that freedom can prevail for Christians is for them to stand up and fight for the minority beliefs and religions of others.

Without it, freedom will most likely be lost. And we will be left wondering whose freedoms we are really fighting for.