“The VA argued in a motion filed Jan. 19 with the U.S. District Court in Madison that the lawsuit should be put on hold until after the department finalized its new rules related to accepting new grave marker symbols. That process could take up to 12 months but the VA would make a decision on the Wiccan request within a month after the process ended, the government’s motion said. The Wiccans’ attorney objected, arguing that nothing commits the VA to finalize its rules within that time frame, or take up the Wiccan request at all.”
Luckily the judge sided with the plaintiffs and a trial date was set for June 29th 2007. The discovery phase moved forward. It was during this point that Americans United allegedly came across some damning evidence.
“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.'”
Pagan academic Chas Clifton echoes these claims at this blog.
“From what I heard last November from the spouse of one of the lawyers involved, Americans United pretty well had the VA nailed for violating their own regulations and were counting on the potential embarrassment of a court trial to scare the VA into doing the right thing. It looks like that legal strategy worked.”
But we will never get hard proof thanks to the terms of the settlement.
“The settlement stipulates, however, that the plaintiffs must not keep or disclose any documents handed over by the government during the discovery phase of the lawsuit.”
Now the VA can claim the moral high ground by stating they settled “in the interest of the families involved”, and to save the taxpayer’s money. But if it was in the interest of “families involved” it certainly is a sea-change from the past nine years of struggles against the stonewalling tactics of the government agency. There is an illusion that our military is purely “secular”, and while that may be true to a point, it doesn’t acknowledge the very real persecutions and setbacks imposed upon openly Pagan soldiers by an overwhelmingly Christian (and conservative) chaplaincy and command structure.
So in my mind this victory is a bit bittersweet. I wish we could have gone farther in this case and gotten documents and testimony into the public records. I certainly don’t blame AU, Circle Sanctuary, and the other plaintiffs for taking the settlement, it was the promise of a sure victory in a very long struggle. But I fear that government agencies will continue to use Bush’s anti-Pagan comments as unwritten policy, an excuse to disenfranchise minority religions. As for the VA, one wonders what will happen when Asatru organizations start applying for a gravestone symbol.