Sun, Oct 01, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Wiccan vets fight to place symbol on graves

ON THE FENCE The US Department of Veterans Affairs has neither approved nor disapproved the use of the religion's pentacle figure on the tombstones of soldiers

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

US military veterans are entitled to have their headstones engraved by the government with a symbol of their religion. Families of the deceased may choose from emblems representing a variety of 18 Christian churches, a number of Buddhist sects, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism and atheism (represented by an atom with an A inside) -- 38 symbols in all.

But the Wiccan pentacle is not allowed because the Department of Veterans Affairs has neither approved nor disallowed it despite various petitions over the last nine years.

On Friday, three Wiccan families and two Wiccan churches sued to force the department to include their symbol -- a five-pointed star inside a circle -- on the list of approved emblems.

Wiccans, also called pagans, are often wrongly confused with Satanists. Theirs is a nature-based religion recognized by the Internal Revenue Service, by the US military itself in its chaplains' handbooks and on the dog tags that troops are required to wear around their necks. There are an increasing number of Wiccans in the armed forces -- about 1,800, according to a Pentagon survey cited in the suit.

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing the plaintiffs, brought the action in the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington. A spokesman for the VA did not respond to requests for an interview.

In the years that Wiccans have been petitioning, the department has approved emblems for at least six groups, including the obscure Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii.

Kathleen Egbert, a Wiccan priestess in Laurel, Maryland, is among the plaintiffs. Her father, Abraham Kooiman, fought in World War II and received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He died in 2001 at age 77 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, a Wiccan without a symbol on his headstone.

"I'm angry," Egbert said, "because if pagans can fight and die for our country, we should be recognized by our country the same way anyone else would be."

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