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In Memory of a Fallen Soldier

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  • Jolly Green Pilgrim
    Author: Steph Posted: July 2nd. 2006 Times Viewed: 360 Like many Americans I have been following the developments of the Pagan Headstone Issue. And like many
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 2, 2006
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      Author: Steph
      Posted: July 2nd. 2006
      Times Viewed: 360

      Like many Americans I have been following the
      developments of the Pagan Headstone Issue. And like
      many other Americans I am a little confused about what
      the major malfunction is, in getting Pagan symbols
      approved for use as headstone insignias for authorized
      personnel. Rona Russell, a long time member of MPN and
      the head of the Isis Invicta Military Mission applied
      for the Wiccan Pentacle in 1997, and our community has
      been in a tug-o-war over this issue with the
      Department of Veteran’s Affairs, from that point on.
      As of late, this story has hit the national news
      media. As a fallen soldier, more than qualified for
      all posthumous services offered to vets by the VA, a
      man dead in a recent[1] war has made it clear through
      his family, that he wishes to collect his due. He
      wanted his headstone to reflect his Wiccan faith.

      The rest of America is finding out what we Pagans have
      known all along; religious authenticity is in the eye
      of the bureaucrat.

      The VA recognizes symbols for Christians, Jews,
      Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, Sikhs, - even
      atheist’s capital “A” surrounded by an atomic swirl.
      In 2003, the VA approved the American Humanist
      Association emblem of spirit—a stylized human figure
      with arms stretched upward.[2]

      According to a Covenant of the Goddess member’s FOIA
      request, this is the break down of symbols approved
      while Pagans waited for rejection letters from the VA
      over this issue.



      The Christian Missionary Alliance symbol was approved
      in July of 2002

      The United Church of Christ symbol was approved June
      13, 2003

      The Presbyterian Church symbol was approved October 9,
      2003

      The Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii symbol was
      approved, March of 2004

      Soka Gakkai Buddhist symbol was approved in April of
      2004

      The Sikh Symbol was approved May 25, 2004

      Other symbols that were approved during this time,
      without exact dates listed, are the symbols for the
      American Humanist Association and the Muslim Crescent
      and Star.[3]

      All of this, while Isis Invicta received a letter
      stating that no new symbols were being approved due to
      the VA changing their regulations concerning the
      submission and acceptance of new symbols. The FOIA[4]
      paperwork also states, according to Reverend Kestra
      that VA regulations in use at the time, were not
      applied equally to all groups making similar requests,
      meaning some groups received preferential treatment
      while IIMM and other Pagan groups were put off
      indefinitely.

      To me this is painfully reminiscent of the treatment
      minorities received in the 1960s and 1970s when they
      applied for jobs and financial loans. Situations in
      which the minority applies for the position, satisfies
      the prerequisite paperwork and qualifications only to
      find that their requests and applications are
      “mysteriously[5]” lost, or refused, or the position
      has already been filled, often by a less qualified
      candidate, or they were told the position was filled,
      just to get the minority applicant to retract their
      paperwork. Back then it was the politics of race, now
      it’s the politics of religion. All over the internet,
      people are raising the *BS flag over this issue,
      pointing out these other minority religions have
      received this benefit from the VA, while our community
      has been ignored, in addition to other larger
      mainstream groups adding symbols to their collection
      of options. A snub that has been justified using some
      very shoddy logic disguised as regulation and red
      tape. No one begrudges these other groups their
      symbols or recognition, but there is the nagging
      question about why some groups, groups that have much
      fewer members, that make our obscurity pale in
      comparison, receive benefits, and other groups that
      already have access to commonly accepted symbols
      receive approval for even more permutations of that
      one emblem. Meanwhile we Pagans are constantly
      rejected and given excuses for that rejection. Let’s
      take a look at a breakdown of these other excuses:

      In order for us to make a determination to include the
      Wiccan emblem on the VA’s approved list [please]
      provide the following information; a written request
      to include the Wiccan emblem signed by the head of the
      organization. A brief description of the organization
      with specific information to include national
      officers, number of chapters, the total number of
      members, and years of operation in the United
      States.[6]

      What does this really mean? That the Veteran’s Affairs
      Administration has indicated that in order to qualify
      for this request, we have to show that we are
      organized like the Catholic Church as a monolithic
      religious institution complete with absolute creed, a
      pope, hard numbers showing membership demographics,
      and years of operation. I say this because Circle
      Sanctuary, Covenant of the Goddess, the Aquarian
      Tabernacle Church, and Isis Invicta could easily
      satisfy this counter-request for information using
      their own internal hierarchy, by-laws, membership,
      chapter stats, and years of operation since founding,
      and receipt of state and/or federal tax exemption as
      religious institutions.



      Head of IIMM, Rona Russell + her officers and DFGL
      groups = Chapters, or we could go under the parent
      organization which is the Fellowship of Isis, an
      international organization with chapters world wide,
      IIMM being a highly specialized expression of FOI to
      service military members in the United States Armed
      Forces.[7]

      Head of Circle Sanctuary, Selena Fox + officers[8].

      Head of Aquarian Tabernacle Church, Pete Pathfinder, +
      ATC officers, hell they even have the Pagan answer to
      the boy and girl scout chapters.[9]

      But if we were to infer the reason behind the
      rejection of these requests, one might believe that
      the Pagan community does not contain any recognizable
      organizations that hold hierarchies, nor possess
      national headquarters that can be used to define
      fundamental beliefs or leadership within those
      organized groups as variants of this religious
      community. If indeed we cannot qualify for VA benefits
      because we cannot supply a suitably impressive
      pedigree proving that we are organized, with a
      recognizable creed and belief system based on an
      absolute authority, then I have to ask how
      Congregationalist Churches qualify for VA benefits?
      Consider the following:

      Congregationalism is more easily identified as a
      movement than a single denomination, given its
      distinguishing commitment to the complete autonomy of
      the local congregation.[10]

      Meaning each congregation constitutes a complete
      Church, law unto itself, autonomous, much like a
      coven, grove, or kindred. And like Congregationalism,
      Paganism is also more easily defined as a religious
      movement rather than coherent religion. Now before we
      go accusing these other Christian churches of
      belonging to some obscure sect, I suggest we consider
      the established recognition of such denominations as
      Baptists, the United Church of Christ, and
      Presbyterians. This would explain the idea that some
      Christian groups consider themselves a “creed with no
      creed.” While all of these groups share the common
      identification of Christian, each group has a
      different interpretation, of what being a Christian
      means. This is how we have liberal and conservative
      Christians, this is also how we distinguish between
      normalized expressions of Christianity as opposed to
      extremist or fundamentalist ideologies. This is also
      how we distinguish between denominations and sects.

      A creed is a statement of belief—usually religious
      belief—or faith. The word derives from the Latin credo
      for I believe. It is sometimes called a symbol
      signifying a “token” by which persons of like beliefs
      might recognize each other.[11]

      Credal disagreement is the root of most schisms within
      churches and traditions. If Christians had to adhere
      to the VA’s interpretation of these regulations, then
      all Christian groups would have to adhere to the same
      creed [12], and all churches would answer to one
      hierarchy, with one set of officers and one leader.
      There would be no distinctions between groups, there
      would be no sects, no denominations, and
      congregationalism would not receive recognition.
      Because Congregationalists would be outside of the
      VA’s accepted version of Christian orthodoxy. So
      anyone care to pick which Christian sect gets to
      become the template for all other Christians? If that
      had to be determined currently, do you suppose that
      would be resolved through a lottery or through ritual
      combat? And what happens to the rights of members of
      the loosing sides who refuse to conform? While most
      Christians {though not all} adhere to some form of the
      Nicene Creed[13], with Pagans, things are a bit
      different. And rightfully so, we are not Christian nor
      are we Abrahamic[14], so it is not a great surprise
      that our structure, creeds and means of categorizing
      those qualities are different. On the most basic
      level, Pagans share two or more of the following
      theological constructs[15]:


      Polytheism {belief in many deities}

      Pantheism {the belief that divinity is immanent in
      creation}

      Animism {the belief in a spirit world and that all
      objects are imbued with numen or soul by virtue of
      existing in creation.

      So where does that leave our common creed? We don’t
      have one, nor would it be fair or realistic to ask us
      to develop a common creed. How can we all share a
      common creed when our community contains monists,
      duotheists, polytheists, panentheists, animists,
      people who may or may not agree that there are
      deities, who may instead revere only their direct
      ancestors, or believe that all gods emanate from one
      godhead, or that all gods are distinct individuals
      with independent powers? The varieties of cosmological
      order with multiple gods or spirits could be endless.
      This is especially true now that so many new orders
      and groups are basing their beliefs on reconstructed
      material unrelated to the founding principles of
      Gardnerian Wicca, such as Heathenry. The credal
      concerns of the Veteran’s Administration could easily
      be handled if they accept the requests represented by
      our established institutions, some of which are named
      earlier in this piece.

      Hierarchy is also a serious issue here. Even if we
      were to stick only to British Traditionalist Wicca,
      the lineage of different groups is not necessarily the
      kind of hierarchy that the VA is asking for, nor do
      they all end with the same, living person. There is no
      overlord, no mega-queen or king of Wicca. And what of
      the Fam-trads? The various American groups that may or
      may not be offshoots of the BTWs? What of other Pagans
      who do not identify as Wiccan? Would they respect
      those hierarchies any more than a Protestant street
      preacher kowtows to the Pope? And even those groups
      that have a highly organized structure can tell an
      outsider that each group is autonomous under their
      designated leader who is usually considered first
      among equals, assuming the group is not run on
      consensus.

      This internal diversity within the Pagan community is
      also why the pentacle should not be the only symbol
      available for Pagans. We should be able to request
      several symbols representative of those permutations
      of creed. After all, how else could one explain the
      multiple symbols present for the variety of Christian
      denominations or Muslim traditions? Requesting just
      one symbol is well within the precedents set by
      previous petitions filed on behalf of other religious
      institutions. Multiple symbols for the Body of Christ
      alone sets a precedent for other large, internally
      diverse groups to do the same. We Pagans certainly
      qualify in that respect. But, Pagans are trapped in a
      catch-22.[16] We have the numbers, but without
      recognition. It is very difficult for our religious
      groups to prove that those numbers exist, however
      without those numbers, many refuse to recognize our
      institutions as legitimate. But numbers, counting and
      statistical data are another set of wrenches in our
      works, especially for American, military Pagans.

      We lack an official census of Pagans in all services
      but one. And this has been used over and over, on a
      variety of issues to justify rejection of our requests
      for religious accommodations. We cannot show need
      without apparently numbering in the tens of thousands.
      Because if the VA were to be believed, then there are
      not enough Pagans to validate the need for the benefit
      of having our symbols available for use on our
      gravestones. Repeatedly, the national media has
      indicated that there are approximately 1, 800 Pagans
      service-wide, and they get their facts from one
      source, our government.[17] Now what the Department of
      Defense and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs are
      hoping that the media never realizes, or the American
      people, or military Pagans, is that the number 1, 800
      is excessively low. In fact most of us know that ONLY
      the Air Force counts its Pagans officially, and that
      shortly after that count started, access to the Air
      Force’s religious demographics were removed from
      public viewing, those numbers became confidential. But
      while those numbers were visible, it became clear that
      Pagans would soon outnumber Muslims and Jews in the
      Air Force as more Pagans opted to be counted[18]. The
      Air Force began counting its Pagans in March of 2001,
      but no other service branch has been eager to follow
      suit, and no other such requests have been made, or at
      least made public. That means that the entire Pagan
      population of 1,800 service members hails exclusively
      from the Air Force count, leaving all other service
      branches, authorized personnel like dependent spouses,
      reservists, and veterans out of the count. So here is
      my little fun with numbers:

      If I multiply 1,800 by 5 {5 representing the Air
      Force, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, and Army} we
      get 9, 000 service members. And still that is without
      counting Pagan service members like me who are no
      longer active duty, dependent spouses, or reservists
      or National Guard, all of whom are eligible for
      religious accommodation and VA benefits. This also
      does not account for the actual average mean based on
      the relationship of possible ratios/percentages of
      Pagans based on the number of members per service
      branch.

      But why avoid a conclusive count of Pagans in every
      service branch? Well this is where it gets
      complicated. If we can show need for our headstones
      through active duty numbers then it is conceivable
      that we could also show need for Pagan chaplains. By
      counting the actual number of Pagans in the services,
      it could also force the issue of electing an
      ecclesiastical endorsing agent or three for our
      community, agencies that would be authorized to choose
      chaplain’s candidates for the Pagan military members,
      an issue that could throw certain religious,
      ultraconservatives that espouse a supremacist
      ideology, [19] into a flat spin of absolute rage.

      The next question regarding our numbers is: Why have
      the service branches waited so long to count us? If
      the Department of Defense saw a need to publish two
      chapters in an Army Chaplain’s Handbook in the
      1970s[20] detailing the beliefs of Wicca and
      Gardnerian Wicca, how many Pagans do you suppose were
      actively known in the Army at that time? It indicates
      that Pagans were acknowledged on some level by the
      establishment for the last 30 years and it is known
      through various articles by publications such as the
      Stars and Stripes, through letters to commands, and
      requests by active duty members that our numbers and
      activities within the ranks have been growing steadily
      since that time. So why ignore us, why fail to count
      us? Why pretend that our needs are less than our
      fellow service members? The remarkable thing about
      this matter is that we [Pagans] are not the only ones
      taking note of procedural inconsistencies regarding
      religious accommodations.

      When conservatives Christians make remarks, when
      religious groups that have traditionally identified
      themselves as non-supportive or even openly hostile to
      our presence in the ranks begin to question these
      issues, then one might believe that we have reached a
      turning point. That the situation has become so
      blatant that it could threaten the rights of other
      religious adherents if this issue were to ever reach
      the courts. Oddly enough this has happened before.
      This was the primary concern behind the ruling of
      Katcoff V. Marsh; a case ruling that set important
      precedents for the Chaplains Corps. In the not so
      distant past, some military schools forced their
      cadets to attend chapel, regardless of that person’s
      faith or lack thereof. This was challenged on the
      basis of the first amendment. The idea was presented
      that if the Department of the Defense appointed
      chaplains and supported chapels, that this was a
      clear-cut case of the government respecting and
      establishing a religion. And by forcing members and
      cadets to attend services that this was a direct
      violation of the separation of church and state, and
      of the free exercise clause for military members and
      cadets. The courts ruled that cadets and other service
      members could not be forced to attend religious
      services, and that the Department of Defense could
      keep their chaplains if those chaplains were to serve
      as facilitators for religious accommodations for all
      authorized personnel regardless of a member’s faith.
      Now we might have reached a similar tipping point with
      the Veteran’s Affairs Administration. John Whitehead,
      a prominent member of the Rutherford Institute[21] has
      observed the following in his editorial piece for
      Christianity Today:


      Whatever one's opinion might be about the Wiccan
      faith, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that
      the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution provides
      for religious freedom for all individuals of all
      faiths—whether they are Christians, Jews, Muslims,
      atheists, Wiccans and others… The United States
      Supreme Court has routinely held that viewpoint
      discrimination by the government against particular
      expressions of religion is unconstitutional. In the
      Supreme Court's 1963 ruling in Sherbert v. Vernor,
      Justice William J. Brennan observed, "The door of the
      Free Exercise Clause stands tightly closed against any
      governmental regulation of religious beliefs." In that
      same opinion, Justice Brennan wrote that "Government
      may neither compel affirmation of a repugnant belief,
      nor penalize or discriminate against individuals or
      groups because they hold religious views abhorrent to
      the authorities." …Yet by refusing to place the Wiccan
      symbol on Sgt. Stewart's memorial plaque, while
      permitting symbols of other religions and
      non-religions, the government is clearly engaging in
      viewpoint discrimination—which is a shoddy way to
      treat someone who has died in service to his
      country.[22]


      If this were brought to court, could this case lead to
      the denial of all symbols for Veteran headstones in
      the future? And could this threaten the ruling of
      Katcoff V. Marsh[23] or other related cases, should
      that be challenged again if similar abuses are found
      to be widespread within the active duty ranks as well?
      Again, we witnessed a similar situation arise during
      the Barr Wars[24], in which high profile conservative
      Christian leaders[25] denied their support of the
      Honorable Bob Barr, because what he was proposing
      would not have passed muster in the courts due to the
      First Amendment[26]. Additionally, his suggestion of
      non-accommodation of Pagan military service members,
      would have also threatened the Katcoff V. Marsh ruling
      and therefore the establishment of the Chaplains
      Corps, and that could have challenged the DoD’s use of
      chaplains in the military, even the Christian
      chaplains. Some may argue that because the Department
      of Veteran’s Affairs and the Department of Defense are
      separate entities that a ruling on one could not
      affect the other, however, the two are inexorably
      linked through their service to military members,
      veterans, and their dependents. And this issue bridges
      both government entities through its simultaneous
      applications to those personnel and dependents
      authorized for benefits and accommodations. Showing
      definitive signs of willful, institutional
      discrimination in one agency could conceivably taint
      the façade of the other by lending the appearance of
      impropriety.

      The American military from its inception has
      traditionally been ecumenical and soon after,
      interfaith at its core, reflecting the melting pot of
      pluralism that is typical of our national
      character.[27] Though not every command or Chaplain
      expresses interfaith ideals perfectly, on the whole
      the military does put forth the effort to honor the
      freedom of all members to exercise their religion
      within the paradigms of military culture. Many
      civilian religious organizations also espouse the
      values of interfaith ideals, which is beneficial to
      the cause of Paganism and other minority groups. In
      addition to the usual suspects advocating religious
      freedom for all such as Americans United for the
      Separation of Church and State[28], The National
      Association of Evangelicals Statement on Religious
      Freedom for Soldiers and Military Chaplains, Feb 2,
      2006 states in its introductory bullet:

      Evangelical Christians are committed to fostering
      faith and religious freedom. We understand the call to
      faith and the eternal importance of each person
      answering that call and living it without governmental
      interference. We reject the old model in which a
      government established one “true” religion, and either
      persecuted or tolerated disfavored religions. The old
      model was founded upon the discredited notion that
      “error has no rights.” We understand that all men and
      women have the right to exercise their religion
      because, owing their lives to the one that made them
      and sustains them, they must honor and worship the
      Lord. Others also respect religious freedom because
      they too know the innate dignity of human kind.[29]

      Truly the idea, that if Pagan blood is red enough to
      shed for this country, then our chosen religion{s} are
      authentic [enough] to be honored in our names
      respectively. This document did not mention Paganism
      or Wicca specifically for any form of special
      consideration or exemption. But I was struck that if
      Evangelical Christians[30] can honor the members of
      other faiths and acknowledge that they also “know the
      innate dignity of humankind, ” and if that same
      organization can endorse accommodations for all
      military members, why then is the Veteran’s Affairs
      Administration so resistant? What is so complex about
      this issue that would cause the VA to hesitate for 10
      years, dodging the issue with frail excuses of
      regulatory rewrites and statistical prerequisites?
      What do they hope to accomplish beyond costing
      tax-payers money to defend discriminatory practices
      while contributing to the stress and grief of
      Veterans’ widows by dishonoring the memories of our
      beloved dead?

      If this case were about an actual legal issue, then
      that matter would have revealed itself by now, ten
      years is long enough to explore the matter carefully
      and with legal precision. And that leaves us with the
      ugly truth of religiously motivated, institutional
      discrimination by wrong-headed crusaders bent on
      imposing their beliefs by making others invisible. It
      is after all, our visibility that is so threatening,
      that patriotism can be held *even by the likes of
      us[31]. We must have gall to expect that our Pagan
      symbols will adorn our graves on hallowed ground, a
      place reserved for the heroes of this country who have
      made the ultimate sacrifice. The silence and avoidance
      regarding our requests speaks volumes to me.

      Currently, 13 requests have been submitted to the
      Veterans Affairs Administration for a Pagan Headstone.
      For ongoing coverage of this issue please visit the
      blog: Veteran’s Headstones for Pagans and Wiccans at
      http://paganheadstone.blogspot.com/


      If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.
      -Will Rogers

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