To be clear: the VA can make this entire case go away by simply granting the petitions that it has had before it for more than nine years, just as it has (in far less than nine years)approved the petitions for other minority religions such as, for example, Sufism Reoriented, Eckiankar and the Japanese faith Seicho-No-Ie. That's what the VA should do, rather than wasting taxpayer dollars fighting this in court.
MADISON, Wis. - A federal lawsuit filed by Wiccans against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will proceed despite a request by the VA that it be put on hold for perhaps as much as a year.
The lawsuit, filed in November, accuses the VA of coming up with "excuse after excuse" for more than nine years to deny the Wiccan symbol on grave markers of veterans who were members of that religion. The department does not allow its religious symbols on veterans' headstones in national cemeteries.
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.
U.S. District Judge John Shabaz issued a one-line order on Jan. 26 allowing the case to proceed. He set a trial date for June 29.
"We're pleased that the litigation will go forward and the VA will not be able to delay further coming to the right decision and giving the families of veterans the memorials that they're entitled to," said Richard Katskee, lead lawyer in the case for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
U.S. Attorney Erik Peterson, who is defending the government, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday.
Selena Fox, a Wiccan high priestess with Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, praised the judge's decision.
"The VA's decade-long pattern of delay, disregard, and discrimination against the Wiccan religion must stop," she said. "The thought of possibly having to wait more than a year to have our case heard was terrible."
A nature-based religion, the Wiccan faith is founded on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons.
The Wiccan symbol is a pentacle, a five-pointed star representing earth, air, fire, water and spirit. Variations of it that are not part of the Wiccan belief have been used in horror movies as a sign of the devil.
The lawsuit argues that constitutional rights of freedom of speech, religion and due process have been violated by the department's not acting on requests to allow the symbol. The lawsuit seeks an order compelling the VA to make a decision.
The lawsuit was filed by Circle Sanctuary, Isis Invicta Military Mission, a Wiccan and Pagan congregation serving military personnel based in Geyserville, Calif., and two widows of Wiccans: Roberta Stewart of Nevada and Karen DePolito of Utah.
The lawsuit argued that it makes no sense for Wiccan symbols to be denied on grave markers especially given that Wiccan soldiers can list their faith on dog tags, Wiccan organizations are allowed to hold services on military installations and the Army Chaplains Handbook includes an explanation of the religion.
Americans United is in the process of objecting to the new proposed rules that the VA has drafted covering acceptance of new symbols on grave markers, Katskee said. The rule gives the VA too much discretion in deciding what to allow and doesn't have firm enough timelines governing the process, he said.
"It leaves a lot of room for the government to reject things out of hand," Katskee said.
A message left with the VA's public affairs office was not immediately returned.
Currently, 38 religious symbols are recognized by the VA for gravestones. The list includes commonly recognized symbols for Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, as well as those for smaller religions such as Sufism Reoriented, Eckiankar and the Japanese faith Seicho-No-Ie.
The VA has suspended consideration of all requests while the new rule is being drafted.
I'm a woman, a Witch, a mother, a grandmother, an eco-feminist, a gardener, a reader, a writer, and a priestess of the Great Mother Earth. Hecate appears in the
Homeric Ode to Demeter, which tells of Hades who caught Persophone
"up reluctant on his golden car and bare her away lamenting. . . . But no one, either of the deathless gods or of mortal men, heard her voice, nor yet the olive-trees bearing rich fruit: only tenderhearted Hecate, bright-coiffed, the daughter of Persaeus, heard the girl from her cave . . . ."