Thursday, February 08, 2007

Symbols of Faith

This is a symbol of my faith. It's called a pentacle. It's not the symbol of a scary Satanic cult that offers animal sacrifices; it is the symbol of a peaceful set of beliefs that are in tune with nature. I believe in both Gods and Goddesses and follow a structure of eight holidays, including the solstices and equinoxes. The points of a pentacle represent to my belief structure the five elements that make up each being: air, water, fire, earth, and spirit, all encased in a never-broken circle. What I believe you can not describe with one word -- though people have tried. The best word that has been found is pagan, though there are about as many misconceptions about this description as there are about that star.

Just like in every other faith-based group, some pagans choose to serve in the American armed forces. It's estimated that around 2,000 pagans serve in the military, though I presume that number to be higher. The choice to be pagan, the choice that is allowed by the First Ammendment, is a very private one. It is often misunderstood by the public, and therefore, it is often kept private. All American soldiers are given certain rights, especially if they see combat. These rights include a burial plot and a headstone, which can be engraved with a symbol of faith of the soldier's choosing. The pentacle, however, is not considered a "approved" symbol of faith -- soldiers who elect this symbol of faith are denied the right to express their freedom of religion and have no symbol displayed.

In 1997 a petition was filed with the Veteran's Administration to have the pentacle added to the list of approved symbols of faith. Petitions usually take three to six months to be approved or denied. If denied, there is an appeals process; however, this petition hasn't been denied -- it has simply been ignored. Pete Davis, the petitioner, also is the founder the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. Davis is a veteran, and his son is serving in Iraq as a medic. The church, known as the ATC, is a federally recognized tax-exempt pagan church, which practices the more specific beliefs of Wicca. The ATC holds bi-monthly services that draw a congregation of about 700. It was Pete Davis who submitted the initial petition in 1997, and it was Davis who waited four years for a letter that said that "the VA was revising its regulations" and that his application would have to be resubmitted. Davis complied, and submitted a new application in 2003, only to be told the same exact thing. A third application from the ATC was submitted in January of 2006, but there is still no definitive answer from the VA.

What makes this whole situation ridiculous is that eight symbols of faith have been added while the pentacle has been ignored. An additional Christian Cross, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and the Spiritual Humanists emblem were all approved while the pentacle application was ignored. The Presbyterian Church actually had a second symbol approved, so that their members have a choice, in the time that the pentacle applicants were told, "We're sorry, we're revising our policies. Try again another time." The Universalist Unitarians had their symbol added; so did the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii and the Soka Gakkai International Buddist Temple.

I think my favorite of these stories to tell in this is about the Sikh symbol, which was expedited in two weeks to become a symbol of faith so that it could be placed on the military issued gravestone of a soldier killed in the Middle East. Two weeks.

What, I ask, happened when the first pagan soldier came home from the Middle East? No two week shuffling at the VA, that's for sure.

In September 2006, the ACLU came to the rescue, citing:

"The government has no business picking and choosing which personal religious beliefs may be expressed."

Well, I say thank goddess for the ACLU. Thirty-eight other symbols of faith are recognized by the Veterans Administration, including atheism, sufism, and the spiritual humanists. Not to mention that the fundies go screaming about the second amendment when we try to pull AK47s off the streets -- isn't it time we go screaming about the first when they try to ignore the symbol of a peaceful movement? Soldiers go to war and come home in caskets, and they ask for their faith to be honored. Is our government too embarrassed to even give them that? The ACLU has more to say:

"There is no good reason to deny grieving families the solace and comfort available to military families of other religions."

Damn right.

The ATC isn't the only pagan group to apply for the pentacle to be recognized. And soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan aren't the only ones affected here.

Rosemary Kooiman applied for her husband, veteran Abraham Kooiman to have the pentacle included on his gravestone. Abraham Kooiman was was a decorated World War II vet who died in 2002; he's buried at Arlington National Cemetery with no symbol of faith on his military issued headstone because he chose a pentacle, and his government chooses not to recognize the pentacle. Abraham Kooiman fought when soldiers truly were protecting their country. Yet sixty years later, he is being dishonored by his own country. Abraham Kooiman has been interred at Arlington for four years now, without his faith recognized on this headstone. Rosemary has since passed away, but her daughter carries on the fight.

The fight has been going on for a decade while the VA tries to decide if the pentacle is worthy of recognition. My government, which touts its freedom of religion for all, is clearly afraid of that little star with a circle around it.

Army PFC James A. Price was killed in Iraq in 2004 when an IED exploded under his Bradley tank. The Army denied his request for a pentacle marker on his gravestone, so his mother joined the ACLU lawsuit. So did Kathleen Egbert, Kooiman's daughter, and disabled Navy vet Scott Stearns who lives in Seattle and was honorably discharged in 1997 after being wounded in the Persian Gulf. "'Discrimination' might be too strong a word, but it definitely seems like there might be a bias," Sterns told the Seattle P-I in 2005. The ACLU lawsuit has its next court date in June.

To date, there is only one military headstone in the country with a pentacle on it, and it's just about 100 miles from me in Fallon, NV. Nevada National Guardsman Patrick Stewart died in when his helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. Posthumously, Stewart was awarded a Bronze star, and then denied his symbol of faith for his gravestone. Roberta Stewart, his widow, lobbied the government to honor her husband's wish but was ignored just as much by the media as by the government -- as you can see, I had to go all the way to the WaPo to find her story (There is also a great OpEd piece in the Pioneer Press). It was Nevada governor Ken Guinn who stepped in with some common sense and convinced state officials to issue the pentacle marker, which was laid in a ceremony last December.

One pentacle marker in ten years -- am I the only one who thinks this is absurd?

The beauty of freedom of religion is that it comes with the freedom to choose. No one else has to understand why you choose it. The government has dragged its feet on approving the pentacle for ten years because of lack of understanding. It's unconstitutional, and above all, it dishonors soldiers like those mentioned here, who served their country with bravery. Some have gave their life for freedom of religion, both theirs and ours. To repay them by ignoring their request for a symbol of faith is a slap in the face.

My government apparently only offers freedom of religion as long as you follow a path that is easily accepted and understood. It is misunderstanding -- furthermore, lack of desire to understand -- that is leading to delay of the freedom of religion for our soldiers, who have given their lives for this country. These soldiers have only asked to be repaid with a symbol of their faith. Understanding that religion is secondary -- after all, do many understand the tenants of the United Moravian Church? Yet it has an approved symbol.

Pagans are not asking to hold public rituals on the White House Lawn -- we are asking for an engraved symbol that honors the faith of soldiers who believe as we do on the stone that remembers their life. Is that too much to ask when these men and women have given their lives for the freedoms we enjoy in America, including the freedom to worship in whatever way we choose?

More Information: #1 | #2

Sara Brooks is a Pagan who resides in California. She is the daughter of the owner of this blog.


Anonymous said...

"It's not the symbol of a scary Satanic cult that offers animal sacrifices"

Oh come now, if that isn't bigotry I don't know what is. There are no Satanic cults, that have performed animal sacrifices. Only Crazed christians with a belief in Satan as a real living dark lord.

Try education:

try the theory and practice section.

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