Wiccan war widow holds service to protest alleged discrimination
FERNLEY (AP) – A war widow who has failed in her efforts to get a Wiccan religious symbol recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs for her husband’s memorial plaque held an alternative memorial service on Monday as a form of protest.
A few hours later and a few miles away in this pastoral community east of Reno, official ceremonies were conducted at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery, where a space for the plaque remains blank.
“It’s been a long, very hard 8 months,” Roberta Stewart said. “No one who has loved ones serving in the military wants to be the one hearing the knock on the door.”
Federal officials so far have refused to grant the requests of the family of Sgt. Patrick Stewart to have the Wiccan pentacle placed above his name on the government-issued memorial plaque set on a wall at the cemetery here.
“This is discrimination against our religion,” she said at the gathering of some 200 people at a tree-lined park just east of Fernley. “I ask you to help us remember that all freedoms are worth fighting for.”
Patrick Stewart, 34, of Fernley was killed in Afghanistan Sept. 25 when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his helicopter. Chief Warrant Officer John Flynn of Sparks also died in the crash along with three other crew members.
Stewart was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, but the Wiccan belief is not among the 38 – including atheism – recognized by the Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration.
“We are here today to honor American religious diversity of all faiths,” the Rev. Selena Fox said.
Fox, senior minister of a Wiccan group based in Wisconsin, said Stewart died defending the country that is denying him the right to express his religious freedom.
Jo Schuda, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., said on Friday she did not know when a decision would be made on Roberta Stewart’s request.
The Rev. William G. Chrystal, minister of the First Congregational Church of Reno, and a chaplain of the U.S. Army Reserve, who retired as a major, was scheduled to have delivered the invocation and benediction at Monday’s formal ceremony.
“But we are here today at Out of Town Park, rather than at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery, especially to honor Sgt. Patrick Stewart and others who, though they died for our four freedoms, have yet to receive the benefits of them all,” he said.
He said those four freedoms, identified in a 1941 speech by President Franklin Roosevelt, are freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom of worship.
“In Pat’s case especially, may we never tire until all are free to worship as they please and, when the time comes, to rest under the symbol of the faith that sustained them in life and gave them hope in death,” Chrystal said.
A wreath in front of the stage at the informal ceremony contained the Wiccan pentacle – a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle. Roberta Stewart carried it to the federal cemetery and placed it by the vacant space on the wall next to Flynn’s plaque.
Wiccans worship the Earth and believe they must give to the community. Some consider themselves “white” or good witches, pagans or neo-pagans.
Approximately 1,800 active-duty service members identify themselves as Wiccans, according to 2005 Defense Department statistics.
At the memorial cemetery near the city park, state Adj. Gen. Cindy Kirkland told a gathering of about 1,000 – many of them veterans – that while a lot of kids see Memorial Day as the time the pools open, “it’s more than another day off.”
“Serving in the armed forces of the United States has always been a noble calling. Our most potent weapon in this war (against terrorism) is, without a doubt, the brave men and women in uniform.”
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User