Press savvy witches launch PR campaign for Wiccan war dead
Before every dangerous mission in Iraq, Capt. Richard A. Briggs Jr. stood on the hatch of his vehicle, drew a pentacle in the sky with his finger and recited the Wiccan Warrior Prayer for protection.
It was a quick, effortless ritual, but one that Briggs was thankful for in the spring of 2003 when his unarmored cargo truck turned a corner on an Iraqi road and rolled right into machine gun fire.
Briggs’ gods planned for him to come home that day. But had he died, he would have been denied a right given to countless other U.S. soldiers killed in battle: to have the symbol of his faith engraved on his U.S. military headstone.
“I have fought and nearly died in serving my country,” Briggs said. “And I think the U.S. government should mind the law, mind the Constitution and do the right thing--not only for me, but for guys who’ve died. Let their families rest in peace.”
Briggs, who recently returned from Iraq, is one of thousands of Wiccans involved in a nationwide campaign aimed at forcing the Veterans Administration’s National Cemetery Administration to allow the Wiccan pentacle, a five-pointed star enclosed in a circle, to be engraved on military headstones. There are roughly 1,800 Wiccans currently serving in the military. The Wiccan community has been petitioning for pentacle approval for more than nine years.
Members say the government has refused to make a decision even while giving the go-ahead for other religious symbols--like the Sikh khanda--to appear on gravestones. There are now 38 VA-approved symbols for military headstones, everything from mainstream religious symbols to those of lesser-known faiths like Konko-Kyo--from Japan--to the atheist atomic whirl.
Most Wiccans see the pentacle campaign, known to many as “the quest,” as one of the last major hurdles in their long, painful struggle for acceptance in American society. Their widespread mobilization effort is a way to assert their constitutional rights, they say, and to transform negative stereotypes about the religion. Their campaign intensified in September 2005 after Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart, a member of the Nevada National Guard, was killed in Afghanistan, the first Wiccan to be killed in the war on terror.
His widow, Roberta Stewart, was devastated to learn that the VA would not allow her to order a plaque with a pentacle to honor her husband.
On Feb. 24, in St. Paul, Minn., a group called the Upper Midwest Pagan Alliance showed its solidarity with the quest by creating a human pentacle near the state capitol. In the last year, Wiccans have also held ceremonies in Fernley, Nev., and Barneveld, Wis., lobbied members of Congress and rallied in Washington, D.C., southeastern Ohio and at numerous pagan festivals.
“Symbol,” a song by Celtic folk singer Celia, has become the quest’s unofficial anthem. Wiccans have developed organizations and Web sites aimed at getting the pentacle approved and have enlisted the help of attorneys at the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They have filed three lawsuits that have not yet been heard in court.
The campaign has had one success: The day after the fifth anniversary of 9/11, veterans officials in Nevada, acting under a directive from Gov. Kenny Guinn, told Stewart’s widow that they would provide a plaque with a pentacle to hang on the Veterans' Memorial Wall in the Fernley Memorial Cemetery.
The VA argues it cannot rule on the symbol until it finishes updating its policy rules. Wiccans call this an excuse, and say that they’ve heard it for years.
The VA did not return repeated calls for comment.
Although Wiccans are upset about what they see as the latest assault on their liberties, most say things are much better than they used to be. From the 1400s through 1700, men and women accused of witchcraft were often tortured or burned at the stake. Slowly their situation improved. But even as recently as the 1950s, Wiccans said that believers commonly lost their jobs because of their faith or were forced to give up their children once their religion was known. Many insist these kinds of abuses continue, although now they are not as severe.
Wicca is difficult to define, because it is practiced in many different forms. For the most part, however, Wicca is a pagan, nonproselytizing nature faith in which followers worship a god and goddess or many gods and goddesses. Most Wiccans practice magic, the use of psychic powers. Many worship in covens--small, private circles that observe the year’s eight Sabbat festivals and full moons, known as esbats.
The Upper Midwest Pagan Alliance is one of the organizations leading a new branding campaign for Wicca. The group was stirred to action in late December after St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray said Wiccans lacked an effective marketing strategy.
“Soucheray was right, we should be doing more,” said Nels Linde, the organization’s chairman. “We have a PR problem in that we tend to be quiet people. We don’t get out there and say who we are or what we do. People think we’re out dancing in the woods in robes.”
The group hoped to foster more respect for the Wiccan community through its February pentacle campaign in Minnesota, and has been encouraging Wiccan groups throughout the country to form human pentacles and share the photos. So far the process has been moving slowly--only a few human pentacle pictures have trickled in. But Linde and other Wiccan activists refuse to be discouraged.
“You clear a forest one tree at a time,” said Pete "Pathfinder" Davis, archpriest of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church in Index, Wash., who’s been educating the public about Wicca for years.
Davis and other Wiccans plan to keep pressing forward until Stewart and every other Wiccan soldier who has died in battle receives the same honor in death as in life: the right to display the pentacle.