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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE | FREE EXPRESSION

A grave oversight

July 15, 2006

WHEN IT COMES TO SOLDIERS' gravestones, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hardly follows a strict separation of church and state. Officially sanctioned memorials for service members are decorated with various Christian crosses, the Star of David, a Muslim crescent, the Buddhist wheel, the Mormon angel, the nine-pointed star of Bahai and even a symbol for atheism.

So what's the explanation for the VA's refusal to authorize a religious symbol for Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart? It may have something to do with Satan.

The VA has not allowed the widow of Stewart, a Nevada National Guardsman who was killed in Afghanistan in September by a rocket-propelled grenade, to adorn his commemorative plaque with a mark of his religion. As a result, the Washington Post reports, no plaque has been erected in a Fernley, Nev., military cemetery to honor Stewart.

Stewart was not a devil-worshipper, but he did follow the Wiccan faith, which is a nature-based religion often confused with Satanism. That confusion may not explain why the VA has not authorized his widow, Roberta, to affix a Wiccan pentacle -- a five-pointed star within a circle -- to a cemetery plaque. A VA spokesman says that the department has deferred a decision on her application until it can develop a "uniform set of rules" for such applications.

Maybe the real devil here is bureaucratic inertia.

If it were a cross, not a pentacle, that was snarled in red tape, it's likely that the VA would be inundated with demands that it pick up the pace. That there isn't the same outcry over the slighting of Stewart's faith is disappointing. As the Supreme Court has noted repeatedly, religious freedom in this country is enjoyed not only by members of mainstream faiths but also by adherents of unusual or even unpopular religions, who in seeking to secure their legal rights have expanded religious freedom for everyone. It shouldn't take a lawsuit to get the Pentagon -- another five-sided icon -- to grant Stewart his star.

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