Archives For Veteran Pentacle Quest

In 2006 Roberta Stewart made headline news when she found herself at the epicenter of the Veteran Pentacle Quest. During that time she publicly stepped forward as the widow of a fallen soldier to speak out for religious equality under the law. In 2013 Roberta finds herself, once again, speaking out to the public and the media. However, now she has a different opponent – Gastroparesis.

roberta_stewart_2Many remember Roberta Stewart as the wife of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed in combat on September 25, 2005 when his Chinook helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan. As a Wiccan, she wanted a pentacle inscribed on her Wiccan husband’s grave marker. However, the pentacle was not one of the thirty-six symbols on the National Cemetery Administration’s (NCA) emblems of belief list. In February of 2006 she joined the Veteran Pentacle Quest – a nine year old, on-going campaign to have the pentacle added to that very list.

With the help of Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, Roberta added her own formal request to a collection of similar requests being sent directly to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. With that decision she had joined forces with many other concerned Pagan organizations, Churches and individuals across the country.

Shortly after Selena asked Roberta if she would consider making her story public. Roberta consented. As a result, the campaign began to gain greater momentum. Over the next few months, Roberta and Selena spoke to both Federal and State officials, attended religious freedom events and told their story to the local and national media.

2006 Pagan religious freedom rally at the September 11 memorial in Reno, Nevada. Pictured, left to right: Selena Fox, executive director of Lady Liberty League; Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, first Wiccan killed in action in War on Terrorism in Afghanistan; and US Army Chaplain William Chrystal, Pastor Emeritus of First Congregational Church (UCC) of Reno, Nevada.

2006 Pagan religious freedom rally at the September 11 memorial in Reno, Nevada.

But publicity took its toll.  She and her family experienced violent backlash.  Her property was vandalized and her daughter was beaten and called a witch.

Additionally, Roberta was not permitted to speak at a local Nevada Memorial Day Service due to her involvement with the Quest. That didn’t stop her. With the press watching, she, Rev. Selena Fox and Army Chaplain William Crystal performed an alternate service at a public park near the Nevada Veterans Cemetery in Fernley. The service was attended by more than 300 people and many members of the press. They called it the “All Faiths Memorial Service.”

Over the next six months the Quest’s momentum continued to grow. Roberta and Selena visited Washington D.C. multiple times, continued talking to the media, and encouraged Pagan letter-writing campaigns.  Roberta remained in the public eye for much of this time. As a result, She garnered support from many people far and wide. Recently, she told a Reno Nevada TV station:

Through all of this…there were surprises among those who stood with [me] and those who did not. I couldn’t have done it without the support of people here in this state.

Former Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn was one of these supporters. He allowed the pentacle to be placed on Sgt Stewart’s plaque on the memorial wall at the Nevada Veteran’s cemetery.

Marker for Sgt. Patrick Stewart.

Marker for Sgt. Patrick Stewart.

However that wasn’t the end of Roberta’s story.  For her, the Quest was about religious equality for all service men and women – not just for her husband.  In the fall of 2006 American United for the Separation of Church and State filed two lawsuits against the VA on behalf of Roberta and Circle Sanctuary. Finally, after ten years of struggle, the VA conceded. On April 23, 2007, the pentacle was added to the list of emblems. On Memorial Day of that year, Sgt. Stewart’s marker was dedicated proudly displaying the symbol of his faith – the pentacle.

Sgt. Stewart Pentacle Marker

Beyond all the publicity and visible struggles, Roberta was also quietly fighting another adversary.  Prior to her husband’s death she began to experience the early warning signs of the serious stomach disorder Gastroparesis – a near paralysis or weakness of the Gastrointestinal system. The symptoms of which include nausea, vomiting, dehydration, malnutrition, bloating, abdominal pain, weight loss, lack of energy and more.

But it wasn’t until 2008, a year after the Quest had ended, that she was officially diagnosed with this incurable disease. Rev. Selena Fox remembers all those bouts of stomach problems that Roberta had during the Quest years. One occurred while they were preparing to speak at the Pagan Religious Freedom Rally near the VA offices on July 4, 2006.  At the time Selena and Roberta agreed to keep her personal health problems quiet in order to stay focused on the cause.

Doctors do not have a clear understanding of what causes the condition and have no direct way of treating it.  As a result, patients must try various methods in order to find one that will maintain a comfortable quality of life. Since being diagnosed five years ago, Roberta has visited the hospital monthly. In some cases she has had to stay as long as two or three weeks.To date she has tried surgery, various medications, TPN feeding, Gastro-Jejunal feeding tube, and other intravenous feeding methods.  Unfortunately none of these treatments have brought her any measurable comfort. She said:

I died two times when they attempted to put a GJ feeding tube….With the stomach bag, I was in the hospital for 4 weeks and every time they released me I had kidney failure.

robertaDespite all of that she remains positive.  She added, “I am hopeful that acupuncture, colon therapy, colon hydration, detoxification, kinesiology and natural herbs will help as all other methods have failed.”

In addition, Roberta has chosen once again, to share her struggle with the public in the hopes of helping others.  As with the Quest she has turned a very personal battle into an opportunity to raise public awareness. Long-time friend, Rev. Selena Fox said:

I am thankful for her courage, strength, and willingness to turn her life challenges into opportunities to increase public awareness, understanding, and support on important issues. Roberta and I hope that by her speaking out about Gastroparesis … [she will help] build public support for [more] research towards a cure.

Circle Sanctuary has set up a Life Appreciation Page. When news of her condition began to spread the many people whose lives she has touched tried to reach out to her directly.  However, she is unable to field the sheer number of emails and calls. If you would like to reach out to her with love, well-wishes, or words of support, you can do so through Circle Sanctuary’s Life Appreciation page.

Additionally, if you would like to help Roberta in her newest Quest, learn more about Gastroparesis. Help Roberta raise awareness about the debilitating disease that has now consumed so much her time and her energy.

 

In 2007, after a decade-long struggle, Pagan and Wiccan organizations succeeded in getting the Pentacle approved for military veteran headstones and markers. After that victory, in July of 2007, a rally was held to start the push for two more symbols: the Druid Awen and the Heathen Thor’s Hammer. Two Heathen organizations, The Troth and the Asatru Folk Assembly, were represented at that rally, and from it a wider movement to get the Thor’s Hammer approved emerged. Now, after a six-year journey which included some inter-organizational tensions within the Heathen community and a U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs rule change, it appears the symbol has finally been approved.

Thor's Hammer Emblem.

Thor’s Hammer Emblem.

The updated emblems list is the only place where this addition is noted. There’s no media release, news story, or even blog post that I’ve been able to find about this development. So I have no way of knowing when, exactly, the official approval went through. I have sent a note to The Troth for an official statement on this victory.

The 2007 4th of July Pagan Religious Rights Rally in Washington DC featuring Wiccan, Druid, and Asatru leaders.

The 2007 4th of July Pagan Religious Rights Rally in Washington DC featuring Wiccan, Druid, and Asatru leaders. Photo: Witchvox

Until we find out more, here’s a relevant quote from Diana Paxson, an Elder in The Troth, written in the wake of the Pentacle Quest and the 2007 July 4th rally.

“America has always been noted for creativity, in religion as in all else. Each new faith, whether immigrant or homegrown, enriches our culture. Today, when Buddhist temples and Islamic mosques may be found in many parts of the U.S., one might wonder why the VA denied a Wiccan veteran the right to have a pentacle on his headstone for ten years, and the Army has still not hired a Pagan chaplain. Paganism does not seek to replace other religions, but Pagan perspectives can revitalize the ways in which we relate to our history, our ancestors, and especially, in this time of climate crisis, to the environment. Rather than resisting, America should welcome the Pagan contribution to our cultural diversity.”

For now, congratulations to all Heathens and Asatruar on this amazing victory! Forward to the Awen! If you or a loved one are a Heathen veteran and want the Thor’s Hammer for a headstone or marker, you can find ordering information at the VA website.

ADDENDUM: The Troth has released the following statement.

“To our knowledge, current procedure to add an emblem of faith to a military headstone requires that the next of kin for a deceased Veteran request it. Josh Heath, of the Open Halls Project, has requested information in writing from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, but at this time we do not know who the Heathen service member was. In Heathen tradition, we greatly honor our slain warriors and offer Blóts and Fainings to them as the Einherjar, those warriors collected by Odin and Freya to take to their halls in Asgard. We are ever grateful to this fallen service member, both for their sacrifice to our country and for requesting Mjöllnir, or the Thor’s Hammer, for their headstone. We solemnly anticipate the time we can honor this newest of the Einherjar by name.”

Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

Update on the Kyrja Withers Story: On March 30th I reported that Florida Pagan and children’s author Kyrja Withers had her home shot at, the latest in a string of escalating incidents seemingly connected to her Pagan faith. Now, PNC-Florida and the New Port Richey Patch are both reporting that the attacks have not stopped, and that her home was recently the subject of a chemical bomb attack, which required Withers’ daughter to seek medical care after inhaling fumes from the home-made bottle-bombs.

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

Kyrja Withers (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

“She said there was a young man in the driver’s seat and another in the front passenger seat with his body sticking out of the window. She said the driver was also coming out of the window. There was also a young man in the backseat. She says two bottles with fluid inside were thrown at the house from within the vehicle on its return alongside the home. One landed near a bush in the front yard of the house. She saw the bottle expand and tried to get away before it exploded. “Every time I close my eyes, I see the bottle expanding,” she said. She said she did not escape the fumes when the bottle burst. She told the New Port Richey police that both bottles exploded. The second bottle exploded so hard that it went flying across the street and into a neighbor’s yard.”

Police are still investigating these incidents, and no arrests have been made. The Lady Liberty League is currently working on providing Kyrja Withers with support, and ask that those who are interested in contributing suggestions of resources, ideas for strategies, and volunteering security consulting and other help” to send them an e-mail, or comment at the organization’s Facebook page.  A focus image has also been provided for those who want to do magical/prayer work for Kyrja and her family. We will update you here with further developments. May Kyrja and her family remain safe, and may these perpetrators be brought to justice. 

Hexenfest Happens This Saturday: The second annual Hexenfest, a celebration of mythic music and dance, is happening this Saturday, April 27th, at the Rhythmix Cultural Works in Alameda, California. Featured performers are  Arcane DimensionPandemonaeon, Morpheus RavennaAnaar, a Tombo Studio fashion show, and DJing by Skellington.

“Welcome to Hexenfest, a music and arts festival dedicated to myth, magic, folklore, fairytale, and the numenous.   We feature artists who are exploring the wild archetypal through their art; musicians, dancers, visual artists, and crafters who look to the realms of myth and dream and reflect their visions into our world. Hexenfest has a flair for the darkly exotic. Gothic, Pagan, and Tribal belly dance themes are featured prominently, evoking the forbidden forest more than than the enchanted wood. If you feel at home in dark fairytales, join us in the realm!”

I was honored to be involved in the first Hexenfest, and I think the event could be replicated by local communities who want to grow and support Pagan-made music, dance, fashion, and other arts. So if you’re in the area, why not consider dropping by in a show of solidarity? I can guarantee that a lot of excellent people will be there. Here’s the official Facebook event page. 

6th Anniversary of Veteran Pentacle Quest Victory: On April 23rd, 2007, a settlement was reached with the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs concerning the inclusion of the Wiccan Pentacle to the official VA list of Emblems of Belief. Nine years of bureaucratic stalling over this issue were endured, very likely due to the personal beliefs of former Texas governor, then-president, George W. Bush. While some have tried to gloss over this struggle, litigation and public pressure was necessary to move this issue forward, and open the door for more minority religions to have their symbols included. Now, on this 6th anniversary of the victory, Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, who was an instrumental part of the campaign, is hosting a special radio show this evening to share stories and remembrances.

2006 Pagan religious freedom rally at the September 11 memorial in Reno, Nevada. Pictured, left to right: Selena Fox, executive director of Lady Liberty League; Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, first Wiccan killed in action in War on Terrorism in Afghanistan; and US Army Chaplain William Chrystal, Pastor Emeritus of First Congregational Church (UCC) of Reno, Nevada.

2006 Pagan religious freedom rally at the September 11 memorial in Reno, Nevada. Pictured, left to right: Selena Fox, executive director of Lady Liberty League; Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, first Wiccan killed in action in War on Terrorism in Afghanistan; and US Army Chaplain William Chrystal, Pastor Emeritus of First Congregational Church (UCC) of Reno, Nevada.

“Celebrating 6th Anniversary of Veteran Pentacle Quest Victory Day with Roberta Stewart, others who helped make this happen. Tune in to special podcast tonight, 8-9pm CDT”

You can find the link to the show, here.  Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, will be participating. You can read a history of this quest for inclusion, here. The Wild Hunt’s extensive coverage of the Veteran Pentacle Quest can be read, here. We give our thanks for those who fought to make sure individuals like Sgt. Patrick Stewart would be properly honored.

In Other Community News: 

 

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

In April of 2007 the Bush Administration agreed to a settlement that paved the way for approval of the Wiccan pentacle to be engraved on government-issued headstones and markers, bringing to an end a campaign that lasted a decade, one that saw casual anti-Pagan demagoguery morph into government policy. Nearly five years after that historic settlement, the number of grave markers with the pentacle emblem, according to iPad-formatted news magazine The Daily, has risen dramatically.

Photo by Alex Brandon (AP)

Photo by Alex Brandon (AP)

“Since its addition in 2007 to a list of recognized tombstone icons, the pentacle has begun popping up on grave markers at Arlington and other government cemeteries alongside crosses, Stars of David and Muslim crescents. “There’s been a large increase over the past few years,” Jeanet Ewing, co-founder of Northern Virginia Pagan Network, told The Daily. “We’re up to near 80 grave markers nationwide.” The symbol can be found on five Arlington headstones, including that of Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Huffard, a Vietnam veteran who died in 2009, and Army Spec. Charles Heinlein, who was killed in Iraq in 2007.”

While I’m very happy to see our Wiccan veterans properly honored, and glad that The Daily decided to shine a spotlight on this issue, I’m troubled by the comments made by Department of Veterans Affairs staff.

…the proposed new emblem must represent “the decedent’s religious affiliation or sincerely held religious belief system,” the Veterans Affairs’ website states. “It can’t just be someone making up a religion,” department spokeswoman Josephine Schuda told The Daily.  As for the inclusion of Wicca, which involves the worship of a horned god that critics have likened to a Satanic figure, as well as a more benign goddess figure, Schuda recalled that the decision entailed considerable debate. “Essentially, it boiled down to the issue of whether Wiccan beliefs constituted a religion,” Schuda said. “It took a little while, I’ll say that.”

With all due respect to Ms. Schuda, it wasn’t a matter of debate, it was a matter of litigation and intense public pressure that got the pentacle approved. For nine years the VA ignored filed requests, “lost” applications, punted, and stalled. The Pagan community marshaled every interfaith ally it could, and was met by continual stonewalling.  In that time, several other emblems were approved, while outright misinformation was given to Pagan applicants. It wasn’t until Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, with the help of Americans United, took the government to court did things progress, and even then the VA tried to have the case dismissed, or delayed with the promise of policy changes.

Ultimately, it wasn’t internal “debate” that won Wiccan veterans the pentacle, it was the discovery of damning evidence by Americans United.

“Lawyers familiar with the case said that some documents suggested the VA had political motives for rejecting the pentacle … During his first campaign for president, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush told ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ in 1999 that he was opposed to Wiccan soldiers practicing their faith at Fort Hood, Tex. ‘I don’t think witchcraft is a religion, and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it,’ he said. Lynn, of Americans United, said references to Bush’s remarks appeared in memos and e-mails within the VA. ‘One of the saddest things is to learn that this wasn’t just a bureaucratic nightmare, there was a certain amount of bigotry,’ he said. ‘The president’s wishes were interpreted at a pretty high level. . . . It became a political judgment, not a constitutional judgment.’”

In short, the “debate” over “whether Wiccan beliefs constituted a religion” really came down to the VA interpreting George W. Bush’s infamous “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion” comments as a directive. Faced with a courtroom showdown where this evidence would be presented, the VA agreed to settle. A settlement that was agreed on because it won us what we wanted in the first place, the approval of the pentacle as an emblem of faith. An emblem that now graces nearly 80 markers and headstones.

As the old saw goes: You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. The VA’s approval of the Wiccan pentacle didn’t come about because of internal theological debate, it came about because Wiccans, Pagans, and their allies, fought hard for it. Litigation ended up being necessary, and it was only after litigation was filed that we saw any forward progress from the VA. Any other interpretation belittles the decade of activism, hard work, and struggle that occurred. Considering the fact that some emblems were approved in the space of two weeks during the ten years the Wiccan pentacle was being considered ,“It took a little while, I’ll say that,” may set a new standard for understatement. So never forget what it took to get us here, and lets hope that a FOIA request will someday unearth all those “debates” over the pentacle.

Top Story: A local Nevada television station is reporting that Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, had her truck vandalized. The Stewart’s were at the heart of a campaign to grant Wiccan soldiers the right to have the pentacle engraved on their military tombstone or marker after ten years of stonewalling by the VA. While the act is attributed to local vandals, the report does explore the possibility that the brick thrown at her truck was connected to anti-Pagan sentiment.

But there’s another more remote, but more disturbing possibility: Roberta Stewart’s very public dispute with the Veteran’s Administration following her husband’s death. Although the Army recognized Patrick Stewart’s religion, it took a lawsuit against the V-A and government intervention to get the Wiccan faith’s symbol, a pentacle, placed on his marker at the veterans cemetery in Fernley. She won that fight, but the marker was vandalized shortly after it was installed. Roberta has continued to be a vocal advocate for religious tolerance and slain soldiers’ families. It’s a stance that still stirs strong emotions in some. She still gets angry emails. She doubts her truck was targeted for that reason, but can’t help but wonder. “We still get things where people don’t believe that we have the right to practice religious freedom, so it could have. I can’t be the one to answer that, but i would hope not.”

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, who worked closely with Roberta Stewart during the Veteran Pentacle Campaign, issued the following statement on her official Facebook Pagan.

“Please send healing, strength, and protection to Roberta Stewart, the courageous Wiccan Afghanistan War Widow who was with me on the front-lines of the successful quest to the get US Department of Veterans Affairs to add the Pentacle to the list of emblems that can be included on the grave markers they issue to honor deceased veterans.”

While this vandalism is terrible, I do hope that it truly was random, as evidence suggests, and not motivated by religious hatred. My best wishes go out to Roberta Stewart, may she have all the strength and healing she needs, and may the perpetrators be caught.

In Other News:

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who was killed along with four other US troops of “Mustang 22″ when their helicopter was shot down by enemy fire in Afghanistan. Sgt. Stewart was the first openly Pagan soldier to be killed in the line of duty, and his death is what ultimately led to Wiccan soldiers finally being granted the right to have the pentacle engraved on their military tombstone or marker after ten years of stonewalling by the VA.


Staff Sgt. Patrick Stewart.

In Nevada, a memorial is being erected in honor of Stewart and the Nevada Army Guard’s Mustang 22 crew.

“A Nevada Army Guard memorial is set to be dedicated Saturday. The permanent memorial will pay tribute to the Nevada Army Guard’s Mustang 22 crew and helicopter, which was the CH-47 Chinook helicopter that was shot down in Afghanistan on September 25, 2005. Five soldiers were killed in action: Chief Warrant Officer John Flynn, Warrant Officer Adrian Stump, Staff Sgt. Patrick Stewart, Staff Sgt. Tane Baum, and Sgt. Kenneth Ross. Flynn and Stewart were in the Nevada Army Guard.”

In addition, a special remembrance rite was performed today at Circle Sanctuary.

“A Remembrance Rite will be conducted by circle Sanctuary’s senior minister Rev. Selena Fox & Pagan veteran Al Rickey of the Order of the Pentacle & others at 9:15 am CDT on Saturday, September 25 at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve in Wisconsin at the start of this year’s Welcome Fall Festival. The rite will be held at Circle Cemetery at Sgt. Stewart’s grave marker, which was one of the first pentacle markers issued by the US Department of Veterans Affairs after it added the pentacle to its list of emblems of belief.

Circle Sanctuary invites others to join in honoring the service & sacrifice of the Mustang 22 Crew killed in action on September 25, 2005 by kindling a candle, ringing a bell, speaking their names, and/or honoring them in other ways: Chief Warrant Officer John Flynn, Warrant Officer Adrian Stump, Staff Sgt. Patrick Stewart, Staff Sgt. Tane Baum, Sgt. Kenneth Ross.”

Stewart’s sacrifice not only led to the Veteran Pentacle Quest victory, but helped spark a movement within our interconnected communities to expand on that victory and include other Pagan symbols on military headstones and markers, and to continue the fight for Pagan military chaplains. Let us honor Stewart’s sacrifice, and the sacrifice of all Pagan military personnel who choose to serve. I would also like to extend blessings to Patrick’s widow, Roberta Stewart, and their family and friends on this day. My blessings as well to all the veterans and civilians who work tirelessly to see that Pagan military personnel receive equal treatment and consideration, a struggle that continues today.

(guest post by Elysia Gallo)

I’m committed to becoming another brick in the wall – one that makes it stronger – rather than becoming another sucker who punches a hole in that wall. What wall am I talking about? The wall of separation between church and state.

The Establishment Clause provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” Jefferson later famously referred to this clause in a letter as having built “a wall of separation between church and state.” Like all walls (the Gaza wall, the US-Mexican border, the Great Firewall of China), this wall is not impermeable. It protects us from being forced by the government to join or financially support a church, but it does allow in streams of personal religious expression – the other right we hold so dear. The Constitution ensures that religious expression on a personal level is acceptable, as long as our government does not endorse one religion over another. However, there are many times when it does just that, whether purposely or simply because the majority thoughtlessly and naively sees itself as the default mode.

For example, when a crèche turns up in front of city hall, minority faiths who want equal representation in the public sphere often have to ask for inclusion after the fact. In many cases– in Wisconsin and Washington state, for example – the consequent opening of the door to all faiths is quickly followed by a swift slamming of it when too many requests flood in or the displays cause too much controversy. Baby Jesus and a menorah are one thing, but a Wiccan pentacle? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? The Festivus Pole? The mainstream can’t take it!

A poll last year found that “83% [of respondents] say a nativity scene on city property should be legal, but only 60% say a display honoring Islam during Ramadan should be legal. Overall, 58% of all Americans feel both should be legal, while 15% feel both should be illegal.” If the majority of Americans are for the nativity but only slightly more than half would open up that space to all faiths regardless of their personal religious views, you have the majority effectively suppressing the minority’s religious expression. We need to put a stop to this practice altogether, or else this stream could become a flood that washes away our Constitutional protection against such state-sanctioned oppression. The Constitution is supposed to protect the rights of minorities, not strengthen those of the majority – that’s what the Civil Rights movement was all about.

While not all Christians are trying to push their religion on us, not all non-mainstream religions are without ulterior motives of their own…

Should we support proselytizing by non-mainstream religious groups?

You may remember Jason blogging about the case of a fringe religious group called Summum trying to get its Seven Aphorisms erected in a city park in Pleasant Grove, UT, on equal standing with the Ten Commandments already displayed there.

However, Summum had challenged another city for the same reasons – the city of Duchesne, UT. While the Pleasant Grove case proceeded to the Supreme Court, Duchesne instead reluctantly moved its Ten Commandments piece to a cemetery to avoid further litigation. Surprisingly enough, this was not seen as a victory in Summum’s eyes; in an article published after the monument had been moved,

“We are saddened that the Ten Commandments monument has been removed from the city park in Duchesne,” Summum President Su Menu said.

“Summum has never requested that religious monuments be removed from government property. We have only asked that all religions be given equal access,” Menu said. “Just as the citizens of Duchesne have benefited from the display of the Decalogue, so, too, would they have benefited from the display of our Seven Aphorisms.”

So was Summum ultimately just trying to win converts, or did they believe that all beliefs could peacefully coexist if everyone had equal access to them? Would we ever want to erect a statue of the 42 Principles of Maat, or the Nine Noble Virtues, or the Wiccan Rede in a public park simply because others “may benefit” from its display? Proselytizing is not a central tenet of any Pagan faith I can think of, but does that mean we should bar others from doing so? If we are all for tolerance and acknowledging the validity of an infinite number of other paths, why would we be intolerant of a Ten Commandments statue in a park or courtroom?

And if we went to all the courthouses of the nation to dismantle any Christian-themed decorations, then what of Pagan decorations like Lady Liberty? Would you get rid of Moses yet keep Confucius? What of Mars in front of the US Capitol, or the Three Fates and the four elements in front of the Supreme Court building? Obviously we live in a society where religious expression is not easily extracted from the public sphere; indeed, in many cases it makes our lives richer.

Conversely, if tolerance is one of our core beliefs as Pagans, how can we tolerate intolerance and religious aggression? Wiccans say “An’ it harm none, do as ye will” – so the question then becomes whether Christians are actually doing harm by erecting the Ten Commandments in public places, placing nativities on City Halls, and so forth.

Pagans and Atheists – strange bedfellows?

Unfortunately what may have once been the simple, well-intentioned decorating of buildings and parks in the past is now being pushed as part of a malicious and divisive political agenda. That fits the definition of “harm” well enough for me. You can see this again and again as part of the “Culture Wars” that fundamentalist Christians believe they must wage to stop the secularization of America. In the words of Green Bay City Council President Chad Fradette, who placed the nativity on government property, “I’m trying to take this fight to the people who need to be fought. I’ll keep going on this until this group imposing Madison values crawls back into its hole and never crawls out.”

Because of people like Chad, I’m more inclined these days to crawl into bed with the atheists – to stop, or at least to impede, the progress of the Christian right juggernaut that is hell-bent on tying up taxpayer’s money in long, drawn-out court battles revolving around their supposed “persecution” by a secularized America. I realize that in not supporting religious displays on public land I’m in a small minority of Americans – but what else is new?

It’s not just Chad fighting to get us back in our hole – many Christians are organizing to be more proactive in thrusting their nativities into the public sphere, to deliberately inflame others. The response of setting up a Wiccan pentacle is just feeding into that – a retribution against having the nativity on government property. And then that pentacle gets trashed, which is just more revenge visited upon retribution. Does it make any sense? Can’t we just nip it in the bud by saying no to everyone before it gets ugly? Can’t religious displays be simply relegated to private homes, churches and temples? Why bring it to city property or schools in the first place?

A huge chorus of secularists saying “no” to these displays will probably be heard more loudly than one or two minority faiths’ disjointed efforts to fight these assaults or gain equal standing on their own.

One atheist organization, the Secular Coalition for America, has been lobbying Washington of late for initiatives that Pagans may also support, such as eliminating faith-based policies that impose mainstream religious tenets on the rest of us through discriminatory hiring, weakening science-based education and health services, and proselytizing through charity. They are also urging more atheists to come out of the closet; this article about their lobbying efforts reveals that of 23 privately self-proclaimed atheists in the House and Senate, only one was willing to go public with it! Ultimately they, too, fear PR damage on the basis of the mainstream American belief that only Christians can be moral or ethical and that atheists are necessarily evil, deluded, liberal or untrustworthy. (Sound familiar? Such labels are often applied to Pagans, too.)

As Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition, wrote to me in an email,

“Our mission is twofold: to promote non-theism and work for the separation of religion and government. We are on your side on just about all cases. […] I think it is a good idea for all of our groups to work together on the main issues and also to work for the visibility and respectability of our constituencies. The more Atheists and Pagans come out of their closets, the better off we will all be.”

Besides the Secular Coalition and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, there are more inclusive groups fighting for the same ideals (because believers of any faith can be secularists, too), such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State – the very same organization that helped Roberta Stewart and Circle Sanctuary with the pentacle quest.

What do you think? Do you want to join the atheists and other secularists to ensure that minority rights don’t get trampled by keeping faith out of the public sphere, where we still can? Or will it be more effective to fight for better minority faith inclusion in the long run? How should we respond when “culture warriors” provoke us to action?

If one fact refutes the idea that modern Paganism in America is merely some sort of 1960s holdover full of pacifists, rebellious teens, and aging baby-boomers (though we have plenty of all three) it is that so many of our number have been, and are, active members of our military services. There are active military (and military family) Pagan groups from Aberdeen, Washington to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. There has been a Military Pagan Network since 1992, and they are joined by Circle Sanctuary’s robust military ministries, and a nascent Pagan Veterans group. So today, Memorial Day, isn’t just a day for those Christian soldiers who marched off to war, but for their Pagan brothers and sisters-in-arms who marched with them. It is a day to not only honor our coreligionists who fell in the line of duty, but to continue to work towards seeing that they are properly respected and honored in death, and given the support they need in life.

We here at The Wild Hunt honor those who gave their lives, and salute those who have served and are serving. May your gods and goddesses watch over and protect you. I leave you now with some thoughts from other Pagans on this day.

“The right for Pagans soldiers and veterans to have the pentacle inscribed on their headstones and memorials was one fought for very hard by Pagan communities throughout the country over the course of several years. Instigated by Veterans’ Affairs refusal to grant the late Sgt. Patrick Stewart a pentacle on his grave marker after he was shot down in Afghanistan, his widow, Roberta Stewart, and Circle Sanctuary’s Lady Liberty League spearheaded an anti-discrimination action against the VA. Pagan communities nationwide joined the fight, and this issue was the formative one that brought together the Upper Midwest Pagan Alliance (UMPA) here in the Twin Cities. UMPA organized a a protest action in in February 2007 in a freezing cold blizzard on the St. Paul Capitol steps at the same time other communities held marches and rallies in support  …  It has been a bittersweet victory; celebrating a hard-won right also brings with it the acknowledgment of the growing number of Pagan military folks and the sacrifices that they are making in order for this and other rights to be upheld. UMPA is continuing to send care packages of religious reading and supplies as well as maintaining correspondences with Pagan soldiers who are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.”Murphy Pizza, Minneapolis Pagan Examiner

“I will be going to the Lafayette war memorial on Monday, because people are still killed in war. We will place a pentacle for Sgt. Jason Schumann, enlisted at 17 and dead at 23, father and husband. We shall also recall Sgt. Joseph Ford, a Pagan member of Nova Roma who died in Iraq last May. Memorial Day, for me, is also a day to remember the 100,000 estimated civilians killed in Iraq since 2003, the more than 2,000 dead in Afghanistan just last year, the close to 5,000 US soldiers dead in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 30,000 wounded, and countless others with psychological and emotional distress.”T. Thorn Coyle, Peacock Dreams

“In September of last year I posted about the Order of the Pentacle, of which I am a very proud member. This Memorial Day I will have the Honor and Privilege of representing the Order in a ritual in remembrance of our fallen soldiers. This Memorial Day, Monday May 25th the Pagan Alliance and the Order of the Pentacle will assemble at the War Memorial near the Lafayette BART station we will remember our Pagan Brothers and Sisters who who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will dedicate a new Pentacle for Sergeant Jason A. Schumann of Hawley, Minnesota. Sgt. Schumann was killed by an Improvised Explosive Devise in Ad Diwaniyah, Iraq. I myself have survived several trips through Diwaniyah, and will proudly carry his Pentacle.”Joseph Merlin Nichter, WitchDoctorJoe’s RattleBone

“My monument to the cost of the recent wars will be adorned with flowers and a paper red poppy tomorrow.  And today, I will walk through the beauty of early summer in the Nor’west, thinking of eyes that cannot see it and holding each image in trust for them.  Oh, that we would be wiser and more careful of lives that stand in harm’s way at the order of others!”Labrys, Walk of the Fallen

Blessings to you this Memorial Day.

The Indianapolis Star reports on a mother who is investigating the death of her son, Sgt. Joseph A. Ford, who was serving in Iraq’s Anbar province. The official statement says his vehicle rolled over and he died as a consequence, but fellow soldiers have told her that the turret Ford was riding in came loose, and that he was thrown from the vehicle.


Sgt. Joseph A. Ford

“Dalarie Ford, a wife and mother from the Northern Indiana town of Knox, had never been one to rock the boat. She voted, but not passionately. Never had she felt wronged. But now she senses injustice. She’s on a mission to find out precisely what happened in Iraq’s Anbar province on May 10, the day her son died. Sgt. Joseph A. Ford was 23, a soldier with the Indiana National Guard’s 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. He was a gunner in an Armored Security Vehicle, a sort of tank-on-wheels that’s commonly used to guard convoys that haul food and supplies for U.S. troops. The vehicle rolled over. Ford was killed. That’s the extent of the military’s public explanation. Ford’s mother says soldiers privately provided her with additional details. “They said the turret came loose and he was thrown out of the vehicle and the vehicle rolled over on him and it impacted his chest and face,” she said.”

Dalarie Ford, since launching this investigation, has discovered that ASVs are vulnerable to rollovers, and that this isn’t the first time the gunner’s turret has broken away. She has been contacting her state officials in an effort to make sure what happened to her son doesn’t happen to other soldiers.

As for Sgt. Joseph A. Ford, the paper reveals that he was a member of Nova Roma, a group dedicated to reviving the “Cultus Deorum Romanorum” (the religion of Rome). The group’s banner hung at his funeral.

“His friends and teachers describe him as intellectual, curious. He often had a book under his arm. He attended the University of Southern Indiana, where he majored in history. Ancient Rome fascinated him. He practiced the religion of Roman paganism. At his funeral, a banner hung on the lectern. “SPQR,” it said — shorthand for the Latin “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” or the Senate and the people of Rome.”

Ford had only been in Iraq for two months when the accident occurred. While some commentators are saying that such accidents are part of the package of military service, I can’t imagine a turret breaking off and killing its rider should be considered a normal or acceptable situation. If shoddy equipment is indeed responsible, the military should take responsibility for Ford’s death. It is the very least they can do to honor his sacrifice.

Finally, depending on burial plans, I do hope that Nova Roma enquirers with Dalarie Ford to see if her son would want an official emblem of his faith engraved on his military tombstone or marker. Perhaps this would be an excellent time for Nova Roma to join the growing coalition working for an expanded selection of Pagan and Heathen emblems of belief from the VA.

May Ford rest with his gods and ancestors, may his sacrifice be honored, and may his family find the closure and justice needed to move forward.

[You can read part one of this entry, here.]

05. Discrimination, Harassment, Hate Crimes, and Firings: Last year one of my picks for a top story was “Growing animosity and tensions between Christians and Pagans”, and while this year didn’t appear to be quite as bad, there seemed to be plenty of animosity to go around. Christians extremists fought for the right to intimidate us, Witches were beaten and stabbed in Canada, a Pagan store-owner had a noose left on her doorstep, and the FBI reported that hate crimes towards religious minorities is on the rise.

“A couple things become immediately clear, one, that Christians (both Protestant and Catholic) experienced the fewest religiously-motivated hate crimes of any faith grouping (despite claims of widespread anti-Christian activity by some conservative Christians), and two, that a large number of religious hate crimes (coming in third behind Muslims and Jews) are towards faiths that check the “other” box in surveys. In fact, the number of incidents against “other religions” have risen since 2005, with 41 more victims of a religious-motivated hate crime in 2006.”

But it wasn’t just threats and physical attacks, this year saw quite a few firings that seemed to be motivated by an anti-Pagan bias. In some cases rumor-mongering seems to have replaced due process, and people who were a bit too odd being labeled as “Witches”.

“The same early December day a fellow substitute teacher asked if she was Wiccan, Harmon found herself in Principal Jamie (Rene) Tolbert’s office answering questions about her appearance and whether she had discussed religion with students.”

I wish I could say this particular story will diminish in 2008, but I think that as we continue to enter the mainstream, a certain minority of religious believers will do all in their power to shove us back into our “broom closets”.

04. Pagans in Politics: This year, more than any other I have witnessed, saw modern Pagans involved with, and affected by, our political process. This year saw the Chair of the Kennebec County Democratic Committee in Maine outed as a Pagan by a conservative Christian group, who then stalked her and attempted to incite vandalism against her. When that didn’t work they went after the vice-chair (who is also a Pagan). But you don’t have to be a Pagan to get smeared politically, you only have to associate with them. An Asheville City Council found herself the victim of an attack ad based around her participation in a “save the trees” event, and subsequently lost her bid.

However, one of the biggest political events directly involving a modern Pagan has to be the scandal involving a deputy of Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

“[Ginger] Cruz, a former spokeswoman for the governor of Guam, originally joined SIGIR as a contractor working for the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche. Current and former SIGIR employees have told investigators that Cruz threatened to put hexes on employees and made inappropriate sexual remarks in the presence of staff members. Cruz is a self-described wiccan, a member of a polytheistic religion of modern witchcraft. “We warned Ginger not to talk about witchcraft, that it would scare people,” a former SIGIR employee said.”

In addition to these events, 2007 saw politics become ever-more Christian focused and identified. With non-Christian expressions of faith being shoved to the margins by Presidential candidates, and non-Christian prayer getting shouted down in our halls of government. With monotheist modes of belief becoming more blatant and forceful across the political spectrum, will there be a place for Pagans (or any religious outsiders) in the near future?

03. Salem’s Psychic Wars (plus other psychic legal developments): Divination and psychic services were all over the news in 2007. With many modern Pagans making a portion of their living from providing tarot readings or other divination methods, laws regulating, taxing, or outlawing these services can become a big issue (fiscally and religiously). Michigan recently started taxing psychic readers claiming it was a “high-income” service, a local Wiccan was successful in getting Caspar, Wyoming to remove its ordinance against fortune telling, Philadelphia used a previously unenforced state law to close down psychics, tarot readers, and other diviners in the city, and Livingston Parish in Louisiana passed a religiously-motivated ordinance against all forms of fortune-telling despite objections from local Pagans.

But the biggest story involving psychics, the law, and modern Pagans had to be the “psychic wars” in the “Witch City” of Salem, Massachusetts. With 10% of Salem’s population practicing Witches, and a large amount of Salem’s tourist income based on Halloween traffic, proposed licensing regulations on psychic readers became a heated debate between rival factions. A debate that took a criminal turn, when one couple decided to use intimidation tactics. A situation that gained national attention, and was even reported on in Time Magazine. The Salem story points to the growing cultural relevance of Pagan faiths (especially when big money is involved) in America. As regional Pagan populations grow, expect to see more conflicts (and cooperation) with local governments over divination services, religious freedom, and local laws.

02. Pagans in the Public Square: A late development this year, but an important one nonetheless, is the recent eruption in the “Christmas Wars” involving modern Pagans. Three separate cases involving public property, religious Nativity displays, and Wiccan participation, have placed modern Pagans on the forefront of the debate over the separation of Church of State, religious freedom, and pluralism. One case is heading for litigation, while another appears to be drawing out into the Spring. Expect these cases to loom large in 2008, and set the stage for next Winter’s battles.

01. The Veteran Pentacle Win, and Pagans in the Military: My top story for 2006 was the Veteran Pentacle Quest, and the biggest for 2007 is the successful win in getting the Pentacle symbol approved for Veteran headstones and markers. In addition, we saw Pagan groups forming coalitions in order to expand that recognition to other Pagan symbols, and an ongoing struggle to get a Pagan military chaplain approved. Aside from activism, we also saw stories about Pagans in the military, and how safe they are in an increasingly Christian military.

The legal and social struggles concerning Nativity displays and Pagan soldiers have some of the farthest-reaching implications for modern Pagans in America. Situations that have gained international attention, and in the case of the Veteran Pentacle Quest, President Bush. 2008 will very likely see even more important developments involving these stories.

That wraps up my top ten news stories about or affecting modern Paganism in 2007. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join me for another year of sifting through the news and views of interest to our communities. See you in 2008!