Religious discrimination while serving for freedom
When I was young, the first Gulf War had begun. Through the combined forces of ‘directionless youthfulness’ and ‘love of country’, I joined the USAF. I had been studying and practicing paganism for about three years by then but wasn’t as yet focused on a specific path. When they asked me what my faith was for their records, and how I should like it to be listed on my dog tags, in a fit of connection with my ancestral heritage, I requested “Druid”.
They didn’t have that. They didn’t recognize Druidism. That’s not a particular fault of the government, they’re just not good at recognizing minority religions without a more traditional leadership structure that they could ‘speak to’ about it all. They did recognize Wicca, and had recognized that as a faith for nearly ten years by that point, but I had opted for ‘non-denominational’.
The US military then, and from what I can tell always has been made up of predominantly recruits from the various sects of Christianity. Judaism has always had a presence as well, and by then other faiths had been recognized. Most military bases held space for worship and if the military chaplaincy didn’t have an appropriate representative to administer to spiritual needs, outside spiritual leaders, properly vetted, could hold services on base and space provided for them to do so. One of the most important goals of the military is readiness, and doing all that is reasonable for the health and welfare of its members is an import part of that. But military culture is slow to change. The traditions and methods have been tried and true for centuries. Mind you, this was even before the days of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” so although LGBTQIA+ people still had to serve while hiding their truth, or be washed out, but that too would thankfully change in its own good time.
When a recruit enters basic training, these 18 or 19 year olds, there is intentional shock to shake you out of the lazy feckless life you may have led up until then. They break you down and build you up. You start off being humiliated by each small infraction of discipline and as the weeks pass, slowly filled with pride of service, but at the start it can be traumatic. Amongst the recruits, it became known that a ‘release’ from this was to go to the protestant service on our first Sunday there. It was a RELEASE! It was like a spiritual pep rally with singing and shouting, and all fifty of us or so filed in to a packed room for it. Some of the recruits who were more connected with that particular faith broke down and openly wept. Naturally, it was full of the Christian prayers and such, but felt much more like they weren’t pushing the faith, but celebrating it. And wow, did I need that release too.
As the weeks passed, the Catholic recruits started to go to their own service and such, and it was better to go to SOME service rather than sit in the bay with aught to do but polish boots. Music was my release more than any other, so I actually signed up to sing in their choir. The ‘choir’ was essentially me and very few others. None from my unit, but by the gods, I needed that! It meant a hour or so on Saturday away from the stress to go to practice, followed by a ‘front and center’ spot for the Sunday release of stress. One recruit in my unit (‘Flight’, as it’s called in the USAF) mentioned one day in a completely joking fun manner “It just kills me to see a pagan like you up there singing about God.” and we both had a chuckle.
Service is like that. Amongst the recruits, as we had time to talk while ironing t-shirts, making beds, and a number of the mindless repetitious tasks to be done to instill discipline and attention to detail, we’d cover all manner of things and religion was one of them. We had one of those annoying evangelical types who was always on about God and so forth and how they had been saved and all. Nice person, struggled physically to make the cut, but a bit annoying. But one day, this person, a southern Baptist and I were at a task and discussing faith. I asked them both, starting with the Baptist, “I don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, am I going to Hell? The Baptist confidently answered “Yes, you are.” The evangelical, meanwhile, answered “That’s not for me to decide, that’s for God to decide.” Which I found to be a much more consistent answer for their faith.
But that’s the way it was. In the hot August sun in Texas, we all prayed, encouraged one a other, shared, but knew there was a different bond apart from faith.
By and large, the US military understands this and have understood this for well over a century. They don’t care WHAT religion you are, active duty members are to be bonded to the purpose of country and one another, so whatever religion, or no religion, they’re going to make sure you have a place.
Other part of the government are not so understanding of this.
If the US military is ‘bad’ at recognizing minority faiths, the rest of the government is far worse.
My time in the military came to an end and not soon enough for my taste!
The Clinton administration came into office and the Democratic party had moved from the left towards the center. The Republicans responded by moving even farther to the right with a new evangelical wing gaining influence. This was the time of Newt Gingrich, ‘Contract with America’ and all and a push from the far right for “God and country!”
Also, the internet had become much more accessible to everyone. Finding their own on-line spaces, pagans of various beliefs scattered around the country were first finding each other and feeling a bit less isolated.
In 1999, Republican representative from Georgia Bob Barr began a movement to end access for Wiccans to hold services on US military bases. His organization called for a boycott, asking people NOT to enlist until the US military ended the practice. This movement went nowhere, but then Governor of Texas, George W. Bush responded to a question on the matter: “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it.”
It was not long after that he started his presidential bid for the upcoming election of 2000. I recall my friends and I discussing the merits and flaws of the candidates, and they reminded me of G. W. Bush’s comments on Wicca. To my mind, at the time, anyone – even the President – was entitled to their personal views, and thank the gods the constitution is there to protect all faiths. And I was wrong.
I was wrong to think that a president doesn’t have a great influence on this in practice.
On Jan. 29th, 2001, just days after his inauguration, President Bush signed an executive order establishing White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This organization allowed religious charitable organizations to bid for government contracts to receive money for helping the poor. The philosophy was that they already had a network in place for charitable offering and although equal footing was to be given for all organizations who might apply and thus skirting the ‘Non-establishment clause’, there was still that issue of fairness for how a government ‘recognizes’ a religion as legitimate.
On Nov. 26, 2003, Bush appointed head of this office, Jim Towey, was asked about the ability for pagan charitable organizations to access these funds and his response was:
“I haven't run into a pagan faith-based group yet, much less a pagan group that cares for the poor! Once you make it clear to any applicant that public money must go to public purposes and can't be used to promote ideology, the fringe groups lose interest. Helping the poor is tough work and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it.”
This was the direct influence of a President who didn’t consider a particular set of minority religious beliefs to be ‘legitimate’.
So how did this play out for service members? After all, the US military then and now is very resistant to the whims of politics and culture as they ebb and flow.
But the Department of Veterans Affairs is not under the auspice of the US military. It is a separate department entirely.
On September 25, 2005, Sgt. Patrick Dana Stewart’s helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.
Having died in service, he was to be interred in a Military cometary with full honors. There are specific government specifications for grave markers for military members and veterans and this included a symbol of their faith. The problem was, that although over thirty different emblems of faith were approved, many Christians sects, but also including Buddhism, Islam, Native American faiths, and even atheism, Sgt. Stewart was a practicing Wiccan and the Pentacle was not approved. Although the US military had recognized Wicca for over twenty years by that point, the Dept of Veterans Affairs did not.
There was an application process. What’s more, Sgt. Stewart wasn’t the first. Already there had been several Wiccans who had passed and for various reasons had been told that the process of obtaining a pentacle on their headstone was ‘under review’.
This included Abe Kooiman, a decorated veterans of WWII who passed on Dec 19, 2002. Now, I didn’t know Abe, but shortly after his passing, I had met his widow, Rosemary. And she was NOT content that the country her husband served and had been wounded for would not recognize his faith, and unlikely to recognize hers when her time came to be buried at Arlington next to her husband.
So, the issue of the pentacle was already being discussed in pagan space on-line and at gatherings. As a form of protest Charles Arnold (a controversial figure even within the pagan community, and a veteran of Vietnam) accompanied assisted Rosemary in the crime of vandalism at Arlington. They went to her husband’s grave and placed a pentacle placard prominently over the blank space on his headstone where a religious symbol should be. Although we shared the photos on-line and talked about it quite a bit, no one took no particular notice. Nor was there any great fear that if Rosemary were to be caught in the act that the authorities would be inclined to arrest a woman well into her 70s for visiting her husband’s grave.
The rest of us were signing petitions, writing to our representatives in government, and keeping each other aware of what was going on.
But that’s it. No one really pays all that much attention to veterans, except to use them as an ‘issue’ for political expediency. But Sgt. Stewart died in combat, and that somehow made it different. Now EVERYONE had something to say about this man denied his religious freedom even in death.
My mom would listen to conservative talk radio, and I was inclined to ‘tune it out’ in those days, but in that moment, Sean Hannity was beginning to talk about the issue of Sgt. Stewart being denied the pentacle on his headstone. As I recall, Hannity had first brought up the topic in the framework of some whack job s being upset that their BS religion wasn’t being recognized, but he QUICKLY changed his tune. Conservatives were different then. They still ascribed to the notion that military member of ALL walks of life should be properly honored. One after another these conservative fans called in saying that what the government was doing was NOT right. One conservative caller even near shouting said “They won’t allow him his religious symbol? Let’s take up a collection for his funeral and bury him with ANY DAMN SYMBOL he wants!” A nice sentiment but missing the point.
My friend Rosemary passed in May or 2006. She joined her husband Abe at Arlington and also with a blank spot on her headstone. She had a huge pentacle tattooed on her chest and still her headstone was blank.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Stewart’s widow Roberta was ratcheting up pressure on the government. She contacted Selena Fox from WI who was already an organizer and activist with the greater pagan community. I had the honor of meeting Selena Fox just a few years before. It was at an event in NJ, big campout, yadda yadda. We had heard that she was attending, but pagans in the community don’t put much stock in ‘prominent’ figures until they know them and see for themselves. We’re resistant to organization in that way, and it is a double edged sword. While it ensures that there can never be a rise of some charismatic ‘pagan pope’ it meant it was, in fact, difficult to talk to government agencies.
Anyway, our coven was becoming known for packing in far too much food and cooking for every dang lost soul who wandered into our area, and they were met with a warm bowl AND a smack upside the head with a wooden spoon in equal measures as needed.
Selena got in late that first night and wandered into our area. We immediately sat her down by the fire and had a warm bowl before her as quick as you please. And let me tell you, she was so very much like a living hobbit (but taller) that you couldn’t help but love her. She smiled a lot. She listened with great patience as we 30-somethings pontificated on the issues of the day. Right or wrong, she listened, absorbed, and exuded a great love for all. At no point did she require a whollop with a wooden spoon.
So back to the headstone issue.
By the time Roberta Stewart was petitioning the government for a pantacle for her husband, the government let it be known that they were in the process of reviewing how they make approvals on new religious symbols. This was a lie.
After repeatedly receiving this information, the government approved several more symbols of other faiths while still issuing that statement of review to pagans.
Roberta teamed up with Selena and in turn, they and several other families sued the G. W. Bush administration. Selena pointed out "Veterans Affairs has been considering such requests for nearly nine years with no decision. While this stonewalling continues, families of soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice are still waiting for equal rights."
The government backed down and settled the suit. The pentacle has been included as an approved symbol starting in early 2007. Abe and Rosemary Kooiman, Patrick Stewart, and others could now have their faith displayed the same as any other veteran.
In April of 2007, G. W. Bush held a meeting with the surviving family of service members who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan, including members of Sgt. Patrick Stewart’s family.
Roberta Stewart was not invited.
In 2014, Thor’s Hammer was approved for Heathen military members.
In 2017, the Awen was approved for Druid military members.
Charlie Arnold, the man who assisted Rosemary in her protest was also a friend of mine. He may have been one of those ‘uncomfortable’ friends who can cause you to apologize to others on his behest (not that he ever felt he required such), but a friend none the less. My friend Charlie passed on Aug. 12th, 2015. He has a pentacle on his military grave marker.