By Jennifer Garza -- Bee Staff Writer Published 12:01 am PDT Saturday, July 8, 2006
Roberta Stewart holds wiccan wreath at funeral alongside unknown military personel
Sgt. Patrick Stewart openly discussed his Wiccan faith, and his beliefs were inscribed on his dog tags.
Now his religion is at the center of a controversy that has pitted his widow against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Stewart, 34, was killed with four other men in September when the Chinook helicopter in which they were riding was shot down in Afghanistan. Stewart, from Fernley, Nev., is believed to be the first Wiccan killed in combat.
Stewart, a Nevada National Guardsman, was cremated and his ashes were spread near the family home about 30 miles east of Reno. There is a space set aside for a plaque honoring Stewart at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley. But for now, it is empty.
The Department of Veterans Affairs does not permit the Wiccan symbol -- a five-pointed star known as a pentacle -- to be inscribed on U.S. military memorials.
Stewart's widow, Roberta Stewart, doesn't want a plaque without a religious symbol. Stewart met with top agency officials this week, hoping to resolve the matter. Now she is considering legal action.
"He was proud to be a Wiccan and I think it should be there to honor his memory. I think what they're doing is discriminatory," says Stewart.
The Department of Veterans Affairs allows only "approved emblems of belief" on government-furnished headstones or markers.
The government agency has approved symbols of 38 faiths that can be used on memorials, more than half of those Christian. The department also allows the Bahai Star, the Muslim Crescent, the Jewish Star of David, the Buddhist Wheel of Righteousness and a symbol for atheists, among others.
Wiccan groups have been applying to the veterans agency to use the pentacle for the past nine years. During that time, symbols for eight other faiths have been approved, says Selena Fox, a minister with a Wiccan group called Circle Sanctuary. She adds that federal courts have recognized Wicca as a religion for two decades.
"Despite repeated attempts to get this approved, they haven't done anything. Our application is still pending," says Fox.
Roberta Stewart says she is frustrated with the government.
"They said all applications currently pending will not be considered until the process is fixed."
Several organizations are supporting Stewart, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State. John Whitehead, a prominent constitutional lawyer, wrote on ChristianityToday.com in June that "whatever one thinks about the Wiccan faith, there should be no doubt … that the First Amendment … provides for religious freedom for all individuals."
The Veterans Affairs Department issued a statement saying that a final determination on Stewart's application has not been made.
"VA has only deferred a decision on this application until the department completes its efforts to develop a uniform set of rules by which all applications can be considered," says the statement by Matt Burns, an agency spokesman. "VA believes that it is in the best interest of our nation's veterans to establish rules that can fairly and consistently be applied to such applications."
Stewart doesn't believe the agency has been fair. She thinks the government agency has not approved the pentacle because people misunderstand Wiccan beliefs.
"There is this misconception that we worship Satan. We don't even believe in Satan; that's a Christian belief," says Stewart.
Wiccans believe in reincarnation and honor the Earth, says Stewart. She says her beliefs are a combination of Native American spirituality and Celtic faiths. Wiccan rituals celebrate the cycle of seasons.
The Wiccan pentacle is an encircled five-pointed star. The star represents balance and the circle surrounding it represents unity and eternity, says Fox.
Patrick Stewart practiced Wicca for 15 years. He and his wife had a Wiccan ceremony when they married in 2003. His religion was an important part of his life, says his widow.
Stewart, who served in the Army in South Korea and Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991, was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star after his death. Several of his military colleagues in Afghanistan are circulating a petition to support his beliefs.
Roberta Stewart said her husband was never told his religion was not officially recognized.
"He died for his country, for our freedoms. … This is like a slap in the face to everything he believed in."