VA Settles Lawsuit with Wiccans Over Grave Markers

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Wiccans will be allowed to have the symbol of their religion placed on grave markers in national cemeteries under a lawsuit settlement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday.

The settlement calls for the Wiccans' pentacle, a five-pointed star representing earth, air, fire, water and spirit to be placed on grave markers within 14 days for those who have pending requests with the VA.

There are 11 families nationwide that are waiting for grave markers with the pentacle, said Selena Fox, a Wiccan high priestess with Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wis., and a party to the lawsuit.

"I am glad this has ended in success in time to get markers for Memorial Day," she said.

The agreement settles a lawsuit filed in November by veterans' widows and others alleging that the VA has stalled for more than nine years in recognizing the pentacle. The case, which will be dismissed under the settlement, was scheduled to go to trial in June in federal court in Madison.

The pentacle joins 38 religious symbols the VA already permits on gravestones. They include commonly recognized symbols for Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, as well as those for smaller religions such as Sufism Reoriented, Eckiankar and the Japanese faith Seicho-No-Ie.

The pentacle was already listed as an acceptable symbol Monday
morning on the VA's Web site.

"This settlement has forced the Bush Administration into acknowledging that there are no second class religions in America, including among our nation's veterans," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Wiccans. "It is a proud day for religious freedom in the United States."

The VA sought the settlement in the interest of the families involved and to save taxpayers the expense of further litigation, VA spokesman Matt Burns said. Under the settlement, the VA agreed to pay $225,000 in attorneys' fees and costs.

The government also agreed to settle when it became clear the Wiccans' application to have the pentacle recognized would be "favorably considered" under new rules the VA was working on,
Burns said.

A nature-based religion, the Wiccan faith is founded on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons. Wiccans have argued that the pentacle has gotten a bad reputation because people don't understand the religion or its imagery. Variations of the pentacle not accepted by the religion have been used in horror movies as a sign of the devil.

The lawsuit argued that the VA's refusal to act on requests to permit the symbol on veterans' grave markers violated Wiccans' constitutional rights of freedom of speech, religion and due process.

The lawsuit also said it made no sense for Wiccan symbols to be banned from grave markers when Wiccan soldiers can list their faith
on dog tags, Wiccan organizations are allowed to hold services on military installations, and the Army Chaplains Handbook includes an explanation of the religion.

The lawsuit was filed by Circle Sanctuary, Isis Invicta Military Mission, a Wiccan and Pagan congregation serving military personnel based in Geyserville, Calif., Jill Medicine Heart Combs, whose husband is severely ill, and two widows of Wiccans - Roberta Stewart of Nevada and Karen DePolito of Utah.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)