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Wiccan widow seeks help from church-state group

By Geralda Miller, The Reno Gazette-Journal, August 4, 2006

Roberta Stewart has chosen a national church-state watchdog group to help her get the Wiccan emblem recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Since her husband's death Sept. 25, when his Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, the Fernley resident has sought a memorial plaque that recognizes her husband's religion.

Stewart said her personal experience with the VA and knowing that Wiccans have been requesting approval for an emblem since 1997 has prompted her decision to seek assistance from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The Washington, D.C.-based organization litigates religious freedom cases.

"We're coming up on a year anniversary for my husband's death and still don't have a plaque," Stewart said. "I feel that this is a stronger, more forceful stonewalling. It could be years before my husband has a plaque."

A lawyer for the Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the group are working with legislators on Roberta's behalf and also is looking at litigation strategies.

"This is an incredibly important issue about religious freedom," said Richard Katskee, assistant legal director. "This is a case where the U.S. is playing favorites among religious groups. People of all faiths deserve to be treated the same way by the government."

Although they first will try to settle the issue "amicably," Katskee said they would not hesitate to take legal action.

"It's too early to say," he said. "We are looking at all the possibilities in doing that."

Emblem recognition
In February, Stewart petitioned for recognition through the Memorial Programs Service Office. On Memorial Day, she organized the Sgt. Patrick Stewart Freedom for All Faiths Memorial Service at the Out of Town Park in Fernley, where about 300 people gathered.

She spoke at an interfaith religious rights rally blocks from the White House on the Fourth of July.

During that time, a spokeswoman for the VA in Washington, D.C., said no action had been taken on Stewart's request.

Now, department lawyers say the rules and regulations for approving emblems must be rewritten and go through an approval process, which includes a period for public comment, spokesman Matthew Burns said.

"VA has only deferred a decision on this application until the Department completes its efforts to develop a uniform set of rules by which all applications can be considered," Burns said.

The VA approved 38 religious emblems.

Nevada legislators are working on Stewart's behalf.

U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Las Vegas, of the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability and Memorial Affairs, has written a letter to VA officials to determine the effectiveness of the evaluation process and the timetable used for decision making.

"I don't know if she can be completely satisfied until she knows that the system is working," Berkley spokesman David Cherry said.

A representative from U.S. Sen. Harry Reid's office met this week with William Tuerk, undersecretary for Memorial Affairs, Reid spokesman Jon Summers said.

"Senator Reid's office has been in constant contact with Rev. (Selena) Fox and Mrs. Stewart and continue to put congressional pressure on the VA to address this issue as quickly as possible," Summers said.

Writing new rules and regulations could take several months "because this is something new and there is a process that is being created," Summers said.

This is not the first time the VA has made new rules and regulations.

"The VA has had several different sets of regulations," Katskee said.

Katskee said he made a Freedom of Information Act request for all sets of regulations the VA has used for approving emblems.

Not the first request
Stewart's petition is not the first request for a Wiccan emblem.

The Aquarian Tabernacle Church, in Index, Wash., applied in 1997, said Fox, senior minister of Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wis. Stewart is a member of Circle Sanctuary, which has three widows waiting for the approval of the pentacle symbol.

Although other emblems have been approved since the 1997 request, Fox said the request for a pentacle has been overlooked.

"There's been nine years of disregard, delay and discrimination," she said. "Just because the VA has made mistakes on adopting their procedures should not keep the VA from adopting the pentacle."

Fox said she also wants to know how Sikh and Muslim emblems were approved in 2004 while a request from Wiccans wasn't.

Stewart said every military widow of any religious belief should have the symbol on the interment site.

"They recognized my husband when they took him to war," she said. "I will fight as long as it takes to get him recognized. Our spirituality got us through Desert Storm, training missions, this war and it's continuing to give me strength to fight for the love of my life."

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