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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Bush Plays Politics with the Religion of a Soldier Killed in Afghanistan

First, the good news. Kinda-sorta, anyway.

Family and friends of a Nevada soldier killed in Afghanistan a year ago marked the anniversary of his death by holding a demonstration in Reno.

The small group gathered in the early morning chill Tuesday at a downtown veterans memorial to remember Nevada Army National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart and four comrades who died Sept. 25, 2005 in Afghanistan.

"We remember them today and the sacrifices they made for us," said Stewart's widow, Roberta.

For her, the past year has been a mix of grief and resolve to have a Wiccan pentacle -- a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle -- placed on her husband's plaque at the state Veteran's Memorial Wall in Fernley.

She won a partial victory two weeks ago when state veterans officials granted use of the symbol after the Nevada Attorney General's Office concluded federal officials have no authority over state veterans' cemeteries.

And the bad news (again, kinda-sorta):

American Civil Liberties Union:

The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit to protect the right of veterans and their families to choose religious symbols to engrave on headstones in federal cemeteries. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two churches and three individuals to compel the government to approve a long-pending application for use of a Wiccan symbol on the headstones of service members.

"The government has no business picking and choosing which personal religious beliefs may be expressed. All veterans, regardless of their religion, deserve to have their faith recognized on an equal basis," said ACLU of Washington staff attorney Aaron Caplan.

The lawsuit was sparked by the failure of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to take action on several applications to approve the pentacle of the Wiccan faith as an emblem of belief. The agency provides headstones free of charge to mark the graves of eligible veterans, upon application by a veteran or the next of kin of a deceased veteran. An emblem of belief is included on the headstone only if it is on the list of symbols approved by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

The NCA has approved 38 emblems of belief for veterans, encompassing a wide variety of religions. Headstones have been engraved with different forms of the Christian cross, the six-pointed Jewish star, the Muslim crescent, the nine-pointed Baha’i star, and symbols for atheists and secular humanists, among others.

Yet the agency has refused since the mid-1990s to act on requests by Wiccan families and clergy to approve use of the pentacle. In the meantime, the agency approved additional emblems of numerous other religions and belief systems as a matter of course, usually in a few months.

So, what's the deal here? If atheists can get a symbol, why can't a bona fide religion? The answers demonstrate the danger of government involvement in religion and is a textbook example of the reason for the separation of church and state.

The family has been trying to get the pentacle approved for Sgt. Stewart since September of 2005. Stewart was killed in Afghanistan when the helicopter he was in was shot down. He was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

According to the Washington Post, "Department spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said VA turned down Wiccans in the past because religious groups used to be required to list a headquarters or central authority, which Wicca does not have. But that requirement was eliminated last year, she noted.

"'I really have no idea why it has taken so long' for the Wiccan symbol to gain approval, Schuda said."

I do.

The Post also reported that, "Wiccans still suffer, however, from the misconception that they are devil worshipers. Some Wiccans call themselves witches, pagans or neopagans. Most of their rituals revolve around the cycles of nature, such as equinoxes and phases of the moon. Wiccans often pick and choose among religious traditions, blending belief in reincarnation and feminine gods with ritual dancing, chanting and herbal medicine." That's where the problem lies.

In his 2000 run for the President, then Governor Bush was asked by the Rolling Cyber Debate, "With religious diversity increasing, what are your thoughts on the protection of religious freedom and the separation of church and state? Should religions like Wicca be banned from recognition by the military, as some legislators suggest?"

Bush answered:

Religious freedom and tolerance is a protected right. I am committed to the First Amendment principles of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.

Whether Mormon, Methodist, Jewish, or Muslim, Americans should be able to participate in their constitutional free exercise of religion.

I do not think witchcraft is a religion, and I do not think it is in any way appropriate for the US military to promote it.

In other words, "I'm for religious freedom -- except when I'm not."

This is basically a repetition of a view he expressed on ABC News. When asked what he thought of Wiccan rituals being allowed at Ft. Hood, Bush answered, "I don't think that witchcraft is a religion. I wish the military would rethink this decision."

The problem with having government involved in religion is that government is then put in the position of deciding what constitutes a 'real' religion. Given the common misconception that Wicca is Satanic, it's not surprising that an uber-christian executive like Bush would let his constituency's prejudice influence his ideas about which religions are legit.

After all, this is his base:

That was game show contestant Marguerite Perrin on the FOX show Trading Spouses. And that tirade was a reaction to spending time with a pagan family. I don't know if she votes, but wouldn't you bet everything you've got that she voted for Bush if she voted at all?

Of course, Perrin's reaction here is an exaggeration (at least, I hope it is) -- a drama queen tantrum thrown to show viewers how righteous she is. Had there been no cameras, she'd likely have limited her disgust with another religion to quiet, but cruel, sniping and criticism. Consider this video a political cartoon. It's an exaggeration that illustrates a truth.

When government and religion join together, people like Marguerite Perrin have a lot more influence than any sane person would give them. They get a vote, sure, but why should that vote have any effect on what's considered a 'real' religion? Is this what the religious right means when they cry foul over religious freedom -- is 'religious freedom' the freedom of the majority religion to oppress?

Really, what the hell difference does it make to the military what symbol is on a tombstone anyway? If I were running things and someone told me a soldier had wanted 'Kiss Rules!!!' on their marker, 'Kiss Rules!!!' would be on their marker. Considering what they gave up for the service, it's hard to understand why anything would still be required of them after death. And, seriously, who looks at a gravestone and thinks, "Oh my! What an offensive religion!"?

Well, what sane person anyway..?

A soldier shouldn't have to spend eternity with 'none of the above' over his head because a president's playing politics with his religion. To go back to the Post article, "Wicca is one of the fastest-growing faiths in the country. Its adherents have increased almost 17-fold from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. The Pentagon says that more than 1,800 Wiccans are on active duty in the armed forces."

Does this administration believe these eighteen hundred soldiers deserve a damned thing if they've given what Lincoln called "last full measure of devotion" to the nation?

Apparently not.

For Bush, it's much more important to keep psychopaths like the 'god warrior' happy than it is to honor the actual warriors who've died in his wars.


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