Nevada's top veterans official joins fray over Wiccan headstone

Sunday, May 28, 2006

RENO, Nev. -- Over the years, families have used religious symbols such as the Jewish Star of David, the Christian cross and the Islamic crescent and star to honor their loved ones on headstones and markers.

For Sgt. Patrick Stewart's family, the symbol of choice was also from his religion: the Wiccan pentacle.

But of all the symbols and faiths recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Wicca and its emblem -- a circle around a five-pointed star -- are not among them.

The department is reviewing a request to include the symbol, but when a decision will come is unclear.

That has angered many. The state's top veterans official, Tim Tetz, said he was "diligently pursuing" the matter with Gov. Kenny Guinn, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.

"Sergeant Stewart and his family deserve recognition for their contributions to our country," said Tetz, executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services.

"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 Thursday.

Helicopter shot down

Stewart, 34, had enlisted in the Army after he graduated from Reno's Wooster High School in 1989 and served in Desert Storm.

After completing his active duty, Stewart enlisted in the Nevada Army National Guard in 2005 and went to Afghanistan. He was killed there last September when the helicopter he was in was shot down.

Stewart, of Fernley, who was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, was a follower of Wicca. Wiccans consider themselves witches, pagans or neopagans, and say their religion is based on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons.

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 is also one for atheists.

Deserves recognition

Stewart's widow said she's hopeful she will get permission for the Wiccan pentacle.

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 it 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.

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.

Fox said Veterans Affairs has been considering such requests for nearly nine years with no decision.

"While this stonewalling continues, families of soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice are still waiting for equal rights," Fox said.

"Sgt. Stewart was shot down by terrorists. He deserves to be recognized," she said.

Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Jo Schuda in Washington, D.C., said Friday the request was under review and she did not know when a decision would be made.

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