September 14, 2006
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Contact: Joe Conn, Rob Boston or Jeremy Leaming
AMERICANS UNITED APPLAUDS ACTION OF NEVADA OFFICIALS IN GRANTING MEMORIAL MARKER TO WICCAN SOLDIER
Action Comes After Federal Government Fails To Approve Religious Symbol
Americans United for Separation of Church and State today applauded Nevada Gov. Kenny C. Guinn and other state officials for ordering that the symbol of the Wiccan faith be affixed to a memorial plaque of a soldier who died in combat in Afghanistan.
Roberta Stewart, the widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, has petitioned the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to add the Wiccan symbol, the Pentacle, to Stewart’s plaque, but VA officials in Washington have refused to act. The VA has approved 38 other religious and non-religious symbols for use on headstones and memorial plaques but has refused to act on a nine-year-old application to permit the Wiccan symbol. In the interim, it quickly approved six other emblems for faiths with far fewer adherents serving in the armed forces.
Sgt. Stewart, a decorated soldier and follower of the Wiccan faith, was killed in action when his helicopter was shot down by Taliban forces over Afghanistan on Sept. 25, 2005. He was a resident of Nevada, and his memorial marker will be placed on the Wall of Heroes at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery near Fernley.
Guinn and Tim Tetz, executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services, took action yesterday after consulting with the Nevada attorney general’s office. Nevada officials believe that because the cemetery is located on state land, state officials have a right to intervene.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn praised the Nevada officials for the move and called on federal officials to stop dragging their feet. Lynn said other Wiccan families are still waiting for approval to use the symbol at federal gravesites.
“It’s a disgrace that the federal government continues to refuse to recognize complete religious equality,” said Lynn. “Under our Constitution, Wiccans enjoy the same religious-freedom rights as every other faith.
“We will continue to press this issue until the federal government gives a favorable response,” Lynn concluded.
Attorneys with Americans United have written letters to VA officials, urging them to approve the use of the Pentacle at federal gravesites. AU is also considering litigating the matter.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.