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For Wiccan soldier, death brings fight

Nevada officials are refusing to allow the family of a dead soldier to place a religious Wiccan symbol on the sergeant's headstone.
Roberta Stewart looks at the Northern Nevada Veterans memorial wall where her husband’s name would have been placed in Fernley, Nev.Cathleen Allison / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nevada officials are pressing the Department of Veteran Affairs to allow the family of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to place a Wiccan symbol on his headstone.

Federal officials so far have refused to grant the requests of the family of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, 34, who was killed in Afghanistan in September when the Nevada Army National Guard helicopter he was in was shot down.

“Every veteran and military member deserves recognition for their contributions to our country,” said Tim Tetz, executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services.

The state’s top veterans official said Thursday that he was “diligently pursuing” the matter in cooperation with Gov. Kenny Guinn, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.

“Sgt. Stewart and his family deserve recognition for their contributions to our country,” Tetz said.

“It’s unfortunate the process is taking so long, but I am certain Sgt. Patrick will ultimately receive his marker with the Wiccan symbol,” he said.

Department does not recognize the Wiccan symbol
Stewart, of Fernley, who was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, was a follower of the Wiccan religion, which the Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize.

Wiccans worship the Earth and believe they must give to the community. Some consider themselves witches, pagans or neo-pagans.

The Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration allows only approved emblems of religious beliefs on government headstones. Over the years, it has approved more than 30, including symbols for the Tenrikyo Church, United Moravian Church and Sikhs. There's also an emblem for atheists — but none for Wiccans.

Stewart’s widow, Roberta Stewart, said she’s hopeful she’ll receive permission to add the Wiccan pentacle — a circle around a five-pointed star — to her late husband’s government-issued memorial plaque.

While Memorial Day services are scheduled Monday at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley, Roberta Stewart plans an alternative service at Fernley’s Out of Town Park. She’s calling the ceremony the Sgt. Patrick Stewart Freedom for All Faiths Memorial Service.

“This is discrimination against our religion,” Roberta Stewart said. “The least his country can do is give him the symbol of faith as he would have wished,” she recently told the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Wiccan minister frustrated with lack of progress
The Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister of the Wiccan Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wis., is among those who have been pushing the federal government to adopt the emblem. She said the Veterans Affairs Department has been considering such requests for nearly nine years with no decision.

“While this stonewalling continues, family of soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice are still waiting for equal rights,” Fox said by telephone. “Sgt. Stewart was shot down by terrorists. He deserves to be recognized. I’m holding out hope that my ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War did not do so in vain and that the freedom of religion on which our country was founded will prevail,” she said.

Officials for the National Cemetery Administration in Washington, D.C., did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment.

Veterans Affairs Department spokeswoman Jo Schuda told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last month that the application was being processed but there was no new information on whether it will be approved.

Stewart enlisted in the Army after he graduated from Reno’s Wooster High School in 1989 and served in Desert Storm and in Korea. After completing his active duty, he enlisted in the Nevada Army National Guard in 2005 and went to Afghanistan with Task Force Storm.