Bush Calls Wiccan Widow in Nevada

President Bush called a Fernley military widow on Thursday and apologized for her not being invited to a private meeting earlier this week in Reno, when he met briefly with the families of fallen Nevada soldiers.

The president's phone call to Roberta Stewart came a day after White House and military officials said her exclusion from Tuesday's meeting was an oversight and not an intentional snub because of her Wiccan faith.

"I am happy that I was able to speak with him and hope that now I can truly move forward and close this chapter," Stewart told the Lahontan Valley News.

In a written statement issued by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Stewart said Bush "apologized for the exclusion and the error that was made. He said he admired me for my spirit and thanked me for accepting his apology and said that he hoped he would have the opportunity to someday meet me.

With regards to her faith, Bush told her he "would not discriminate against someone because of their religion," Stewart said.

Stewart is the widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed with four other soldiers Sept. 25, 2005, when their Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.

After his death, Roberta Stewart spent more than a year in a public struggle with the Department of Veterans Affairs to have her husband's grave marked with a Wiccan religious symbol.

White House spokesman Trey Bohn said Roberta Stewart's exclusion
from the meeting with Bush was a regrettable oversight by the Army,
who provided contact information to the president.

"The president was not aware. This was an oversight on the part of the Army, and we deeply regret the mistake," Bohn told the Lahontan Valley News.

A military official echoed the White House's explanation.

"It was a mistake, an unfortunate mistake," said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington of the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, D.C.

A year after his death, Stewart was given a plaque with his emblem of belief, a five-pointed star or pentacle, by the state of Nevada, which oversees the veterans cemetery in Fernley.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State assisted Stewart and other Wiccans in suing the federal government last year, arguing that it was unduly stalling a decision on whether to add the pentacle to the list of acceptable symbols for veterans' graves.

A settlement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was reached in April, and the Wiccans five-pointed star was added to the list of "emblems of belief."

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


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