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Wiccan Symbol in Veterans' Cemetery:

Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) reports:

[F]riends and family of a Nevada soldier killed over a year ago in Afghanistan, gathered today for the dedication of the first Wiccan pentacle symbol in a military cemetery.... While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has still failed to act on requests by Wiccan families, the pentacle was placed on the Veterans Memorial Wall at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley because in September the Nevada Office of Veteran Services that has jurisdiction over the state cemetery approved the plaque.

Go to the post for links and some more details. As I noted a few months ago, the government already provides a wide range of religious symbols for different religious.

Public_Defender (mail):
People often cry, "Where's the ACLU"? Here, we should be shouting, "Where's George W. Bush"? This is his administration, and this no-brainer request from the families of dead Wiccan soldiers has been pending way, way, too long.

Has he no shame? Or does he (like many of us on the left suspect) support religious freedom only for religions that he personally doesn't find too weird.

Personally, I question whether Scientology is a religion, but if a Scientologist dies for this country, the least we could do is let her have a symbol that's sacred to her on her tombstone.
12.3.2006 12:09pm
CJColucci:
America decides what religious symbols its soldiers are buried under, not a witches' coven.
12.3.2006 1:04pm
Robert West (mail) (www):
CJColucci: why should soldiers not be buried under the religious symbol of *their* preference? To me, that's what matters; does the burial reflect the religious beliefs of the person buried.

ISTM that the state has no business whatsoever determining the religious contents of burial of its employees.
12.3.2006 1:19pm
johnd:
I'm sure that I'm rehashing from previous discussions, but I haven't found an answer for either of these questions in earlier threads

Does anyone know if the Atheist atom has ever been picked? It seems ridiculous.

Moreover, is there a secular choice? It seems that if you want to be buried in the Veterans' Cemetery, your memorial has to either be religious or hard-line atheist.
12.3.2006 3:06pm
Public_Defender (mail):

America decides what religious symbols its soldiers are buried under, not a witches' coven.

If pagens are willing to die for this country, let them have a pagen symbol on their tombstones. Given the sacrifice a fallen soldier has made, I think those who are put off by the symbol can fairly be asked to live with their discomfort.
12.3.2006 3:40pm
cirby (mail):
I think that you'll find that the problem isn't so much anyone at the top of the system worrying about "weird" symbols as someone at the bottom/middle of the pile being a lifelong bureaucrat.

There's probably some committee somewhere that's still talking about this, and until that group of folks turn in their 500 page report, you're not going to see any action either way by the people in charge.

People have only been talking about the Wiccan symbol issue for a couple of years now. In bureaucratic time, that's practically nanoseconds...
12.3.2006 4:23pm
Chris Bell (mail):
I read a while ago that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was trying to get their own symbol (a willing soldier had applied for it) but was turned down.

Anyone have an update?
12.3.2006 4:36pm
Public_Defender (mail):

I read a while ago that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was trying to get their own symbol (a willing soldier had applied for it) but was turned down.

One easy way to swat down made up "religions" is to look at whether the soldier honestly believes that it is a religion.

I hope cirby is right, and that this is just an example of slow Pentagon bureaucracy. But given that we have people dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, the delay is inexcusable.

Maybe Rumsfeld should issue one final "snowflake" to the bureaucracy to get this fixed. It's the least he owes someone who dies under his command.
12.3.2006 4:56pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
CJColucci: why should soldiers not be buried under the religious symbol of *their* preference? To me, that's what matters; does the burial reflect the religious beliefs of the person buried.
I believe Mr. Colucci was parodying Dennis Prager.
12.3.2006 5:21pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
I think it'd be interesting to see some sort of analysis of the different burial customs of the "approved" religions and how they feel about burial in a secular military cemetary. I've never really thought about it before, but aren't Christian cemetaries usually sanctified in some way? Is that merely because it's Church property (or am I just remembering something from The Highlander that has no basis in actual doctrine?) How would a Muslim (at least accoring to "accepted" doctrine) feel about being buried in the same cemetary as a Christian?

Not that these questions have any real bearing on whether a certain symbol should be allowed... I'm just curious. Has anyone thought about the religious implications of military cemetaries before?
12.3.2006 5:39pm
Public_Defender (mail):

I believe Mr. Colucci was parodying Dennis Prager.

Fair point. I was probably wrong to take the comment seriously.
12.3.2006 6:25pm
Ghlade:
Does ReaderY still wonder what the big deal is, I wonder?
12.3.2006 8:15pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I think it'd be interesting to see some sort of analysis of the different burial customs of the "approved" religions and how they feel about burial in a secular military cemetary. I've never really thought about it before, but aren't Christian cemetaries usually sanctified in some way?

Roman Catholic cemeteries are, I don't know about other faiths. Since there is no requirement that an RC be buried in one, I doubt it makes a lot of difference. Buried my ex and her mother, who were VERY devout RCs, in a regular cemetery, because it was next to her father. And I doubt an RC cemetery would check a person out if they wanted to be buried there anyway, so the only clue would be if the coffin burst into flames upon being lowered into the sacred soil.
12.3.2006 9:29pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
One easy way to swat down made up "religions" is to look at whether the soldier honestly believes that it is a religion.

Actually, under the 1st Amendment, I suspect that's the first thing on the list of "don't do's".

We had an attorney at Interior who had a great sense of humor, and after they announced you could take "comp time" for religious holidays not overlapping with federal holidays, put in an application to worship the god Salmonensis, The Great Trout, who can only be appeased by a ritual meal of a trout, caught on openning day of trout season.

They ignored him. It was the only way to deal with it. They couldn't legally quiz him on whether he believed Salmonensis was a deity, or honestly intended to worship him. Or her.
12.3.2006 9:34pm
Ken Arromdee:
Given the sacrifice a fallen soldier has made, I think those who are put off by the symbol can fairly be asked to live with their discomfort.

By this reasoning, a soldier who was a Nazi (or more specifically, some kind of Nazi-associated pagan religion, and they do exist) could get a swastika on his tombstone. And anyone else's discomfort wouldn't matter.

Should it matter?
12.3.2006 10:31pm
Nate F (mail):
Oh look, a Nazi analogy. How helpful.
12.3.2006 11:13pm
Waldensian (mail):

And I doubt an RC cemetery would check a person out if they wanted to be buried there anyway, so the only clue would be if the coffin burst into flames upon being lowered into the sacred soil.

That's funny as hell. So to speak. :)
12.3.2006 11:14pm
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
"Oh look, a Nazi analogy. How helpful."

Oh look, a total refusal to answer the question. Yeah, that's really helpful.

Nate, what if the individual viewed his "religion" as Marxist-Leninism and wanted to be buried under the hammer and sickle? That you choose to ignore the question of whether we would have to honor the symbols of America's enemies shows that you know the answer.
12.3.2006 11:25pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Dare I make the "We already allow the Islamic Crescent" comment? Whoops... too late! :)
12.3.2006 11:44pm
Jeremy T:
Amen Ken &UHC are right. What if a soldier wanted a swastika or a hammer &sickle or even a bust of Osama bin Laden? This isn't a Godwin-improper "Nazi analogy" so much as a hard case that the libertarians have to deal with.

Those who have claimed that a soldier can get whatever he wants on his tombstone (no pizza jokes please ;-) had better say either "I'm ok with American soldiers being buried under swastikas" or "I was wrong, my previous argument was too broad, I think there should be some limits."

Argument by counterexample and reductio ad absurdum are valid ways to argue logically, and both of them lend themselves to points about Nazis and Communists in public policy debates. And, if you're a serious logician, there's not a thing wrong with that. Anyone who puts forward an argument should be prepared to deal with all of its consequences.

So, those of you who think Wiccan symbols should be on markers in military cemeteries, please answer these questions:
1) Should any soldier be able to put any symbol he wants on his marker?
2) Would you limit soldiers to religious symbols? If so, why?
3) Should the symbols be only the "official" symbols of the religion or could the soldier pick any religious symbol?
4) The swastika is a religious symbol, as are a variety of KKK symbols. Should soldiers be allowed to choose those symbols? If not, why not?
5) Do you think a soldier could be legally excluded from military service if he was a neo-Nazi who advocated the peaceful election of Nazis to office and the peaceful adoption of Nazi policies (i.e. extermination of Jews, etc.)?
6) Same question as #5 for KKK members?
7) If a soldier can be legally excluded from the military for holding radical views, why should a soldier not be prevented from displaying radical symbology in American military cemeteries?
8) Presumably soldiers can find out when signing up for the military whether they can be buried under the symbol of their choice. Isn't it then just a question of, essentially, contract rights? Nobody forces anyone to be a soldier anymore.
12.4.2006 1:32am
BobNSF (mail):
If you've ever wondered why cemetaries are often located in places with amazing views, here's your answer: it's to take the deceased's attention away from the tombstones of his neighbors...
12.4.2006 1:35am
Ricardo:
The reason why Nazi analogies are unhelpful is because, well, Wiccans are not Nazis nor are they enemies of the state.

There seem to be three principled stances on government and religion. One is to abolish all public recognition of religion and have enforced secularism in the public arena. A second is religious pluralism, where government recognizes all religions unless there is a compelling state interest to do otherwise. Finally, you can argue that the U.S. is a Christian nation and so Christianity is the top dog on the hierarchy of religions.

I find the first and last options unacceptable. The burden of proof should be on those arguing against a Wiccan symbol on military graves -- you won't get out of this burden just by arguing that if we recognize Wiccans we have to recognize Nazis. It is not at all relevant to the current example.

Unless there is something I missed, Wiccans are allowed to serve openly in the military which suggests that the Pentagon does not see them as threats to civilization. Skinheads on the other hand will find no place in today's racially integrated military. Mind you, I'm sure they exist but I think they have to keep pretty secretive about their beliefs.

Incidentally, while the swastika is a symbol used by many Hindus the VA seems to have avoided that mess by using the word "Om" written in Sanskrit instead. Clever indeed.
12.4.2006 1:59am
Public_Defender (mail):
Argument: One easy way to swat down made up "religions" is to look at whether the soldier honestly believes that it is a religion.

Response: Actually, under the 1st Amendment, I suspect that's the first thing on the list of "don't do's".


I thought that was how they handled it with the draft. (I have to get to work and research my clients' cases, so I don't have time to research this one now. If someone else has time, I'd be interested in seeing proof as to which one of us is right.)

When someone claims, "I have a religious belief in 'X,'" it seems perfectly reasonable to ask them to shwo that they are not lying. Of course, they don't have to prove the truth of "X," but they should have to convince us that they really believe in it.

And for those who think that it's OK to ban the wiccan symbol, do you think it would be OK for majority Christians to ban Jewish symbols? (Ricardo did a good job at dealing with the Nazi/Osama canard.)

Finally, no one has yet made an argument as to why the wiccan symbol should be barred. If you want to keep a fallen soldier's religious symbol off her tombstone, the burden should be on you to come up with a darned good reason.
12.4.2006 4:22am
Public_Defender (mail):

What if a soldier wanted a swastika or a hammer &sickle or even a bust of Osama bin Laden?

Thank you! We should bar fallen wiccan soldiers from having their religious symbol on their tombstone because of the millions of people slaughtered by wiccans over the last century. And let no one forget all the recent wicca-inspired terrorism.
12.4.2006 5:12am
Anderson (mail) (www):
could get a swastika on his tombstone

No Nazism required. The swastika is an ancient religious symbol.

Wiki also links us to the previously-unsuspected Swastika, Ontario:

The town's other claim to fame is its association with the Mitford family, who owned the Swastika Mine for which the town was named. In particular, Nazi sympathizer Unity Mitford's association with the town — she was conceived there — impressed the superstitious Nazis, to whom the swastika was an important symbol.

During World War II, the provincial government sought to change the town's name to Winston, in honour of Winston Churchill, but the town refused, insisting that the town had held the name long before the Nazis co-opted the symbol.

An important figure was Christopher Macaulay, direct descendant of Thomas Babbington Macaulay, who fought to keep the name as Swastika.

Swastika Public School serves local students from grades 1 through 6.


No high school, thank god. "Go, Swastikas!"
12.4.2006 10:17am
Erasmus (mail):
The First Amendment doesn't prohibit courts from making sure individuals are claiming their religious belief in good faith; in fact, the First Amendment requires it. Courts do it all the time in Free Exercise cases where there's reason to believe the person is lying.
12.4.2006 10:28am
Public_Defender (mail):
What amazes me is that there is any opposition. Can anyone explain why a Wiccan who gives her life for her country should be denied a Wiccan symbol on her tombstone?

I don't see how reasonable people could disagree about this.
12.4.2006 10:58am
Eugene Volokh (www):
DaveHardy: Erasmus is right as a legal matter -- courts aren't supposed to consider whether a person's religious belief system is widely shared, internally consistent, reasonable, or scripturally supported, but they are entitled to (and often required to) consider whether the person sincerely believes what he says he believes.

In practice, I suspect that often proves quite difficult. Our usual decisions about what someone sincerely believes turn in large part on what is reasonable for that person to believe, and what many other people believe; these matters are conceptually different, but often hard to disentangle in practice.

My guess is that therefore judges often err on the side of finding sincerity, and sometimes do consider the seeming reasonableness of the belief and the degree to which it's shared but do so in ways that are hard to review. Fortunately, though, in those instances where there's little secular benefit to be gained from lying (for instance, in choosing a grave marker, but not in claiming a conscientious objector exemption from the draft), sincerity will rarely be in serious dispute.
12.4.2006 12:43pm
Ken Arromdee:
The reason why Nazi analogies are unhelpful is because, well, Wiccans are not Nazis nor are they enemies of the state.

The original argument, that the sacrifice of the soldier trumps anyone's discomfort, contains no qualifications such as "unless that discomfort is related to the symbol being used for an enemy of the state". It's a very broad argument, and as such is subject to the Nazi objection.

If you wish to make a modified argument that is narrower--for instance, that the sacrifice of the soldier only trumps the viewer's discomfort under certain conditions--feel free.
12.4.2006 3:39pm
Owen Hutchins (mail):

What if a soldier wanted a swastika or a hammer &sickle or even a bust of Osama bin Laden?


If he fought and died for this country, he can have any damn thing he wants on his headstone.
12.4.2006 5:15pm
Public_Defender (mail):

It's a very broad argument. . . .

Yes, it is. The diversity of faith in the US is very broad, and the debt we owe our fallen soldiers is very deep.

Ken,

You've nitpicked the standards we have proposed. Now it's your turn. Tell us what standard you would use to decide whether a fallen soldier is allowed to put her religious symbol on her tombstone.
12.4.2006 6:04pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
Prof. Volokh is right, last I looked at the Free Exercise cases. While the government can look into whether the soldier considered himself a Wiccan, in determining what the soldier's religious preferences are, that is about it. Otherwise, it would present Free Exercise and Etablishment clause problems.

I have wondered how the Bush Administration would respond to a Wiccan-based charity's request for federal funds through the "faith-based initiative" program, given that many fundamentalists consider Wiccans to be satanic, and Bush apparently appointed such persons to rund this office. I think they would be uncomfortable granting such a request, regardless of the merits of the underlying program.

These small religious groups often create interesting legal issues under the Constitution. I once represented a group of parents who intervened on the side of a school district that was accused, by other parents, of promoting the religions of Wicca and Neo-Paganism in violation of the Establishment Clause, by its use of a certain reading textbook series that had pictures, stories and poems with witches, other magical figures (goblins, elves, etc) depicted in some of its selections (e.g., "Country Witch, City Witch" was one poem, a take off of the Country Mouse, City Mouse poem). The case was easy to predict who would lose (the plaintiffs) but was harder to explain why because of the confused nature of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.
12.4.2006 6:22pm
comatus (mail):
That Wiccan symbol, for God's sake, is the same one displayed on the hoods of our Army's vehicles, and is misapprehended by 90 per cent of non-wiccans as a Pentagon. How much cound it hurt?

Now, the Church of the Raised Middle Finger is demonstrably espoused by a large number of serving and retired military, and, if one is to believe their war stories, is a frequent last gesture by candidates for these same cemeteries. It ought to be represented in the catalogue.
12.4.2006 9:41pm
Public_Defender (mail):
Sorry to beat a dead horse, but it's telling that no one has been able to explain why a Wiccan soldier should be denied a Wiccan symbol on her tombstone. Is the argument so weak that people are embarrassed to try to write it?

Someone started a slippery slope argument, but they never explained how a Wiccan symbol would lead to Nazi symbols (or how banning a Wiccan symbol would not result in banning the Jewish start). So that doesn't count.
12.5.2006 5:10am
Public_Defender (mail):
Since no one has been able to give an explanation for banning fallen Wiccan soldiers from having a Wiccan symbol on their grave, let me suggest their motivation--they think Wicca violates their own conservative religious beliefs.

Worse, they have a Fred-Phelps willingness to use the tombstones of fallen soldiers to express their dislike for the soldiers' faith. Disgusting.

If someone would like to propose a less disgusting rationale for banning fallen Wicca soldiers from having a Wicca symbol on their grave, by all means, make your argument.
12.5.2006 5:38am
Adam R:
Public_Defender: I favor allowing Wiccans and pretty much any one else to use whatever symbol they want on their tombstone, but I can think of two potentially less disgusting arguments for opposing it. One, not wanting to allow all kinds of symbols of tiny, marginal sects. That, I think, is pretty weak if that's all there is in a certain case. The second reason, as has been hinted but not outright stated by some commenters, is that a lot of people don't believe that any Wiccan has a sincere belief in their theology, but rather is just trying to be a tweak-the-fundies in-your-face iconoclast. (This could apply just a well to atheists as to religious conservatives.) That may be true of some Wiccans (in fact, some members of any religion can probably be said to have such motivation), but I'm quite sure that it's not true of all of them.
12.7.2006 2:45am
Public_Defender (mail):
Adam R,

Thanks for responding. I know you were just trying to defend a position that others did not want to defend, but I think your arguments help prove that Wiccans should have their headstone.

Maybe some think that the Wiccans don't really believe what they are saying. If that's the case, the military should be up front with the reason for its denial/stonewalling. Then the Wiccans could take thar issue head on.

As to the small number of Wiccans, from what I've read, there appear to be a substantial number of Wiccans in the military (who'd of thunk it?). But once the military has verified that a soldier actually believes in a certain faith, then there is very little reason to deny that soldier an appropriate religious symbol on her tombsone. By defintion, tiny sects are tiny, so any disruption will be minimal.

This dispute reminds me of then-Secretary of State Powell's comment that after the tremendous sacrifices of WWII, the U.S. asked only for "enough land to bury our dead." A religious symbol on a tombstone is not much to ask for, given that it's on a tombstone.
12.7.2006 3:57am