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Article Specs

VxAcct: 257376

Article ID: 10965

Section: festivals

Age Group: Adult

Posted: July 8th. 2006

Views: 9050

Rally for Religious Freedom

by H. Byron Ballard

A Star in a Circle

It was the morning of the nation’s birthday, and energy and humidity were high in the nation’s capital. With Mercury retrograde looming over us, a stage was set up , the sound system checked and signs with slogans were displayed. Dignitaries had been fetched from the airport and the order of speakers and entertainment had been carefully drawn up. Coolers filled with ice and bottled water were set in strategic locations around the rally area. I was there representing the WNC Interfaith Network (a United Religions Initiative Circle) as well as the Coalition of Earth Religions for Education and Support (CERES) and was proud to be speaking at such a time in such a place.

We had no idea how many people would show up for the rally, though rally organizers and the Lady Libery League had sent press releases to the media. As people began to set up blankets on the grass in front of the stage, we began to hope there might be a few people for this rally in DC. The rally was the brainchild of Caroline Kenner and was inspired in part by Robert Kennedy‘s 1966 address about apartheid in Cape Town:
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

The rally’s general focus was religious freedom and the celebration of the First Amendment but there was also a sadder cause: Roberta Stewart, whose husband Patrick was killed in Afghanistan, was there to talk about her battle with the Veteran’s Administration to have a pentacle engraved on his grave marker, a request that has thus far been denied.

We know how it is when the drummers and Pagans gather in the heat of midsummer. There are drum riffs and laughter, spinning poi and Celtic-designed sarongs. As the speakers gathered under the tent in Farragut Square, a few blocks from the White House, the crowd was excited and a little edgy. There was some initial confusion about the electrical hook-up but that was soon resolved and the rally began with a warm welcome and poetry and dance from DC’s Guerilla Poets, Shahid Buttar and Kristen Arant.

The speakers included many well-known members of our national Pagan community, as well as representatives from other organizations that support the Jeffersonian concept of separation of church and state and religious freedom . The speakers were; Barry Lynn (Americans United for Separation of Church and State), Kathleen Egbert (whose mother Rosemary battled for years to have a pentacle on her husband Abe‘s grave in Arlington Cemetery), Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, Caroline Casey (creator of The Visionary Activist radio show), Patrick McCollum (Lady Liberty League), Phyllis Curott (Network of Spiritual Progressives), as well as Roberta Stewart speaking on behalf of her quest, and myself. The singer/songwriter Celia performed a song she wrote for the pentacle cause called “Symbol” and Mzimani and Circle Skin and Bone gave us the drum jam following the speeches.

Others were there in spirit. Selena read the following statement
Wiccan Leaders Call for Religious Freedom & Equal Rights for Wiccan Veterans!

In the past, we have requested that the US Department of Veterans Affairs add our religious emblem, the Pentacle, to its National Cemetery Administration’s list of emblems of belief that can be inscribed on government-issued memorial markers, headstones, and plaques for deceased veterans.

It has been nearly nine years since the quest to have the Pentacle added to this list began…

On this day marking America’s birthday, we call to President George W. Bush, to the Secretary of US Department of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson, and to the head of the National Cemetery Administration…to uphold the US Constitution and America’s tradition of Religious Freedom by immediately approving the addition of the Pentacle.
The statement was signed by five prominent Wiccan clergy members for their organizations. The crowd clapped and chanted its approval.

A particularly touching point in the rally saw members of the military who were in attendance asked to come to the front, as Marcia Drewry, Director of Military Affairs for Sacred Well Congregation, out of Converse TX, read the following:

Keepers of the Fire
In dawn of each new day, we will turn to the East,
And see your shining faces in the radiant light of the rising Sun,
And we shall know that you have joined as One,
With the Creative Power of the Universe.
In the bright day of noon, we will turn to the South,
And feel the warmth of your courageous, honorable spirits in our hearts,
And we shall know the full living expression
Of your souls on Earth and your spirits hereafter.
In the glorious canvas of sunset, we will turn to the West,
And witness your signatures on the day as you walk with honored ancestors,
And we shall know both the wisdom of your lives
And the admonishment of your deaths--to create a World of Peace.
In the deep of the night, we will turn to the North,
And witness in the stars that you are given a place of remembrance,
And we shall ever know you in our dreams,
As alive and fulfilling your own dreams beyond your allotted years.
In the deepest center of our souls, we will feel your constant presence,
And find ourselves humbled by the true essence of your spirits,
And we shall pray that like you, we will be Keepers of the Fire,
Each in our own way, will live and love with honor and courage.
And as the Family Anchors of this Earthly Home Front,
We know there isn’t any distance between loving hearts,
And we make This Solemn Promise in the Memory of Your Lives,
To Keep the Hearthfires Burning for Our Troops still serving,
Until They All Come Home!

Kay J. Ahl
A proud Army Mother and Friend

An event like this is a rare opportunity for people from different parts of the country to discuss the implications of religious bigotry regionally and nationally. I was honored to speak on the platform with such renowned thinkers and was touched to spend time with Roberta Stewart, one of the most remarkable people I've ever met. But I was energized by speaking with these people outside of the event, to make strong connections that will serve all of us as we face the 21st century's unique challenges.

We talk a lot in our Pagan world about the warrior tradition. Many of us wear ritual daggers or swords: some of us even know how to use them. This inspired event on the 4th of July, staged in the political heart of our country, was a remarkable rally which centered around the quest of a remarkable woman, a woman who hasn’t yet had time to mourn her dead husband because she is still fighting for his right to be honored as other American warriors are honored. Yes, there were drums and BNPs and inspiring speeches. But the significance of this event goes beyond the words and the rhythms and even the fierce determination of Roberta Stewart. This was the moment when our community, which has worked for so long for its place among the ranks of serious religions, demanded the rights and respect afforded all Americans of any spiritual bent. We can no longer hide in the closet or lurk behind a Ren Faire persona. There are real warriors in our midst and it is our duty to see that they are honored. It seems so simple--a star surrounded by a circle--carved on the gravestone of the fallen soldier. And yet so much hinges on this one graceful symbol and the larger meaning of the First Amendment. As Phyllis encouraged us--get educated, get involved, get busy. There’s a world to win or lose, in the carving of a star in a circle.


H. Byron Ballard

Location: Asheville, North Carolina

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