To settle a lawsuit, the Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to add the Wiccan pentacle to a list of approved religious symbols that it will engrave on veterans’ headstones.
The settlement, which was reached on Friday, was announced on Monday by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which represented the plaintiffs in the case.
Though it has many forms, Wicca is a type of pre-Christian belief that reveres nature and its cycles. Its symbol is the pentacle, a five-pointed star, inside a circle.
Until now, the Veterans Affairs department had approved 38 symbols to indicate the faith of deceased service members on memorials. It normally takes a few months for a petition by a faith group to win the department’s approval, but the effort on behalf of the Wiccan symbol took about 10 years and a lawsuit, said Richard B. Katskee, assistant legal director for Americans United.
The group attributed the delay to religious discrimination. Many Americans do not consider Wicca a religion, or hold the mistaken belief that Wiccans are devil worshipers.
“The Wiccan families we represented were in no way asking for special treatment,” the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said at a news conference Monday. “They wanted precisely the same treatment that dozens of other religions already had received from the department, an acknowledgment that their spiritual beliefs were on par with those of everyone else.”
A Veterans Affairs spokesman, Matt Burns, confirmed that the “V.A. will be adding the pentacle to its list of approved emblems of belief that will be engraved on government-provided markers.”
“The government acted to settle in the interest of the families concerned,” Mr. Burns added, “and to spare taxpayers the expense of further litigation.”
There are 1,800 Wiccans in the armed forces, according to a Pentagon survey cited in the suit, and Wiccans have their faith mentioned in official handbooks for military chaplains and noted on their dog tags.
At least 11 families will be immediately affected by the V.A.’s decision, said the Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church in Wisconsin.
In reviewing 30,000 pages of documents from Veterans Affairs, Americans United said, it found e-mail and memorandums referring to negative comments President Bush made about Wicca in an interview with “Good Morning America” in 1999, when he was governor of Texas. The interview had to do with a controversy at the time about Wiccan soldiers’ being allowed to worship at Fort Hood, Tex.
“I don’t think witchcraft is a religion,” Mr. Bush said at the time, according to a transcript. “I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made.”
Americans United did not assert that the White House influenced the Veterans Affairs Department. Under the settlement, Americans United had to return the documents and could not copy them, though it could make limited comments about their contents, Mr. Katskee said.
Americans United filed the lawsuit last November on behalf of several Wiccan military families. Among the plaintiffs was Roberta Stewart, whose husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in September 2005 in Afghanistan.
Ms. Stewart said she had tried various avenues to get the pentacle approved. Late last year, Gov. Kenny Guinn of Nevada, her home state, approved the placing of a marker with a pentacle in a Veterans Affairs cemetery in Fernley, east of Reno. But Ms. Stewart said she had continued to pursue the lawsuit because she wanted the federal government to approve the markers.
Other religious groups that have often opposed Americans United supported the effort to have the government approve the pentacle.
“I was just aghast that someone who would fight for their country and die for their country would not get the symbol he wanted on his gravestone,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, which litigates many First Amendment cases. “It’s just overt religious discrimination.”