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| Article Specs|
Article ID: 11743
Age Group: Adult
Posted: April 29th. 2007
Success in the Veteran Pentacle Quest!
by Selena Fox
On Monday, April 23, 2007, after a decade of efforts, the US Department of Veterans Affairs finally added the Pentacle to its list of emblems of belief that can be included on the grave markers it issues to honor deceased US military veterans. This Veteran Pentacle Quest victory was announced that day at a national press conference held by Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, DC, and within minutes of the announcement, this wonderful news began to spread across the nation and around the world through public and Pagan media. There was ... and continues to be ... much rejoicing.
Many thanks to everyone who has been part of the Veteran Pentacle Quest! Working together, we, at last, have Success in this Quest -- and in the greater Quest for equal rights for Wiccans, Witches, and Pagans around the world.
In my articles, " The Story of the Veteran Pentacle Quest" and " The Veteran Pentacle Quest Continues" published on-line and in CIRCLE magazine, I detail the history of this effort. Now that we finally have had this victory, I am sharing more about this Quest saga here.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) began providing legal assistance and other support to the Veteran Pentacle Quest shortly after Roberta Stewart, Rev. William Chrystal, and I held the Sgt. Patrick Stewart Freedom for All Faiths Memorial Day Service on May 29, 2006. The national media attention that came in the wake of that event, held near Roberta's home in Fernley, Nevada, resulted in our receiving a variety of offers of legal help. Roberta Stewart and I selected AU to represent us, in part, because I already had been collaborating with AU's Executive Director Barry Lynn on other Wiccan/Pagan religious freedom issues for more than twenty years.
With AU's help, Roberta and I intensified our work with officials in both the executive and legislative branches of the US federal government. AU's legislative team helped Roberta and I in our efforts in getting support from US Senators and US Representatives and their staff on Capitol Hill. AU also provided support for us in our face-to-face, telephone, and written communications with top VA officials in the executive branch. We were able to put additional pressure on the VA to approve the Pentacle. Our communications processes also resulted in experiences and documents that later proved useful in judicial branch endeavors.
At Lughnassad, on August 1, 2006, Roberta and I signed legal agreements with AU attorneys in preparation for taking the Veteran Pentacle Quest into federal courts. However, we also continued our collaboration with some on Capitol Hill, which led to the crafting of a piece of federal legislation designed to put additional pressure on the VA.
On September 26, 2006, a year and a day after Roberta's husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in action in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Roberta and I held an American Freedom Rally in downtown Reno, Nevada, in a park across from the federal courthouse. At the conclusion of the rally, which was covered by both local and national press, I released the text of AU's letter sent that day to VA officials. This final "demand letter" put the VA on notice that we would proceed with litigation if it did not put the Pentacle on its grave marker symbol list immediately. The news of our impending litigation quickly spread far and wide through the media. Support for the Veteran Pentacle Quest continued to grow.
In a private conversation with our attorneys just before that rally, I told them of my and Circle Sanctuary's decision regarding litigation strategy. We decided on a multi-prong litigation approach that would hit the VA with lawsuits in several federal courts, instead of our joining with ACLU and its plaintiffs in a single, combined lawsuit. Although publicly it appeared that AU and ACLU took different routes with litigation efforts, we continued to collaborate.
Plaintiffs represented by AU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, were Circle Sanctuary which I head, Isis Invicta Military Mission headed by Rona; and three Circle Sanctuary church members: Roberta Stewart, widow of Sgt. Patrick Stewart; Karen DePolito, widow of Jerome Birnbaum, a Korean War veteran; and, added on April 5, 2007, Jill Medicine Heart Combs, representing her Army veteran husband Gary Combs, who has been in a coma in a VA hospital since August, 2005.
Plaintiffs represented by ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, were the Aquarian Tabernacle Church headed by Rev. Pete Pathfinder Davis; Correllian Nativist Church headed by Rev. Davron Michael; veteran Scott Stearns; Patricia Corneilson, mother of James Price who was killed in action in the War in Iraq; and Kathleen Egbert, daughter of World War II veteran Abraham Kooiman and Rosemary Kooiman, both of whom are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
On November 13, 2006, AU filed lawsuits, known as Circle Sanctuary vs. Nicholson, in two different federal courts -- the Federal District Court of Western Wisconsin in Madison, Wahsington, and in the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circle in Washington, DC. The ACLU's suit, Egbert v. Nicholson, was filed on September 29 in a third court -- the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
As a result of these three lawsuits, the VA was now legally surrounded, and had to fight on three judicial fronts instead of one. The VA moved to dismiss the lawsuit brought by ACLU in the specialized VA oversight court by claiming that jurisdiction in this matter belonged in a federal district court, but in doing so, this put VA on a legal battle front we had chosen. The VA also moved to dismiss the lawsuit brought by AU in the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. And on January 22, 2007, one business day after it released its new proposed procedures for emblems of belief addition in the Federal Register, the VA used this newly launched procedure process as its reason in its motion requesting that the judge stay (put on hold) the AU lawsuit in the Federal District Court of Western Wisconsin.
Fortunately, on January 26, the judge in the Federal District Court of Western Wisconsin denied the VA's motion, which, had it been granted, could have delayed our case for more than a year. The judge's decision let our litigation proceed. He set our trial date for June 29, 2007. At Imbolc, at the beginning of February 2007, we began the discovery process in our lawsuit.
As part of discovery, the VA was required to turn over additional internal emails, memos, and other documents which it had failed to release to us through our Freedom of Information Act request. The VA turned over more than 30, 000 documents to our AU attorneys. AU staff diligently combed through all these documents. Buried in the "blizzard" of paperwork, our AU attorneys found several documents that were additional evidence that VA officials had blocked Pentacle approval because of prejudice against the Wiccan religion.
With this additional evidence of discrimination, our preparations for court intensified. Our AU attorneys began additional legal maneuvers. They issued a subpoena for the internal documents that the VA still had not turned over to us, and they began scheduling depositions of VA officials.
Then, in early April, our attorneys drafted an amended complaint that we planned to file in the Federal District Court of Western Wisconsin on Good Friday, April 6. As part of this process, our attorneys sent a draft to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys representing the VA. Shortly after DOJ attorneys saw this amended complaint draft, they quickly began negotiating a settlement of our lawsuit with us through our AU attorneys. After two weeks of intense negotiations, both sides reached an agreement and signed off on the settlement, which was filed in federal court on Monday, April 23. The agreement became official when the judge signed it that same day.
Settlement and News
Through the terms of this settlement, the VA agreed to put the Pentacle on its emblems of belief list within one business day. The VA also agreed to pay AU's attorney fees and to expedite the production of markers with Pentacles for those who had been waiting. In negotiating this settlement, we made certain that the VA would at last produce markers, headstones, and plaques not only for our plaintiffs and the plaintiffs in the still pending ACLU lawsuit, but also for others in need who were not part of Quest litigation. A copy of the settlement agreement is on AU's website: www.au.org.
On Earth Day, April 22, Roberta Stewart and I flew to Washington, DC and prepared to take part in AU's national press conference. The press conference was held on Monday morning, April 23, at 10 am Eastern Time in the West room of the National Press Club in Washington, DC. National, international, and other media attended.
AU's Executive Director Barry Lynn began the press conference. In his remarks [ www.au.org], he announced the victory and mentioned that AU had discovered in internal VA documents a recommendation to consider Bush's 1999 anti-Wiccan remarks, made on national television. AU Assistant Legal Director Richard Katskee gave details about the lawsuit and the settlement, and then, Roberta Stewart told her personal experiences with the Quest. I spoke about the importance of this victory in upholding freedom for Pagans and for society as a whole, and concluded my remarks by ringing a bell to celebrate upholding liberty and justice for all. The four of us then answered questions from reporters.
One of the reporters wanted to know more about the clause in the settlement that stated that we were permitted to work on behalf of getting other emblems of belief on the VA's list. We explained that there are other forms of Paganism and other Pagan emblems of belief besides the Wiccan religion and the Pentacle. I mentioned Druidism as an example of another Pagan religion.
Following the press conference, and throughout the day, Barry Lynn, Richard Katskee, Roberta, and I did a variety of interviews. News of the Veteran Pentacle Quest victory appeared on-line and in national media, including the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, National Public Radio, CNN radio and television, and others. Hundreds of international, regional and local media also carried the news.
Veteran Pentacle Quest victory celebrations have already begun. Many groups and individuals are including celebrations of the Quest Success as part of Beltane Festivities this week, such as at Circle Sanctuary's Beltane Festival in Wisconsin on May 4-6 and at the Florida Pagan Gathering in Florida, where I will be speaking May 3-6.
Please join us and other Wiccans, Witches, and Pagans of many paths around the world in a special day of Quest remembrance and celebration on Tuesday, May 1. Place offerings of flowers on your home altars, at Pagan shrines, and community ritual sites in sacred thanksgiving and joy for this victory, and in remembrance of living and deceased Pagan veterans and their families.
On Tuesday evening, May 1, I will be facilitating a special Quest Success evening at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve near Barneveld, Wisconsin. It will be held at our national Pagan Cemetery, Circle Cemetery, where three markers with Pentacles will soon be placed at the cremains gravesites of Jerome Birnbaum of Utah, Sgt. Patrick Stewart of Nevada, and a Vietnam War era veteran from Ohio. If you are interested in attending, contact the Circle Sanctuary office: email@example.com or call: (608) 924-2216 for directions and more information.
We also invite you to take part in a national celebration of the Veteran Pentacle Quest victory at the 2007 Pagan Spirit Gathering, being held during Summer Solstice week, June 17-24, at Wisteria's campground in Ohio. Some of the plaintiffs in the AU and ACLU lawsuits will be present for the celebration. We are planning a special Quest Success night on Tuesday, June 19, which will include a premiere showing of the documentary film currently in production, A Hero Denied, about Sgt. Patrick Stewart and the Quest. Roberta Stewart will be on hand to help introduce this film.
We plan to include news about Quest Success celebrations on our Veteran Pentacle Quest website. Please let the Lady Liberty League know about your victory celebrations you have held and/or will be holding at Beltane, Memorial Day, and other times. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org with Quest Victory in the subject line.
I know of eleven families who are in need of Pentacles on VA-issued grave markers for deceased Wiccan/Witch/Pagan veterans. Since the settlement went into effect, I have been working with family members on getting their veteran loved ones properly honored. There may be others who want the Pentacle on a VA-issued grave marker for a deceased veteran. If you know of any such needs, please be in touch with me right away. Include the name and other information about the deceased veteran and contact information for the next of kin. Email: email@example.com, or call the Circle Sanctuary office: (608) 924-2216 and leave a message for me. Thank you.
In Liberty and Blessed Be!
Additional Links Photo Credits (top to bottom)
- Rev. Selena Fox and Roberta Stewart (front) with Americans United for Separation of Church and State attorneys following the national press conference in Washington, DC on Monday,April 23,2007, announcing the Veteran Pentacle Quest victory. Photo courtesy of Circle magazine.
- Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, speaks at AU's national press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Also speaking were Richard Katskee, AU Assistant Legal Director; Roberta Stewart and Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Circle Sanctuary
- Rev. Selena Fox & Roberta Stewart of Circle Sanctuary on April 23, 2007 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Circle Sanctuary.
- Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary concludes her remarks about Veteran Pentacle Quest success by ringing a ritual bell to celebrate this religious freedom victory. Selena spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, DC as part of a national press conference sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented Circle Sanctuary and some of its members. Photo by Suzanne Krall and Debby Morris, courtesy of CIRCLE Magazine.
- Rev. Selena Fox, Wiccan veteran Debby Morris, and Roberta Stewart on Monday, April 23, 2007 just before the start of the national press conference where the Pentacle Quest victory was announced. Americans United for Separation of Church and State sponsored the press conference which was held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Photo by Suzanne Krall, courtesy of CIRCLE Magazine.
- Setting up the Pentacle Quest altar prior to the start of the national press conference in Washington, DC on April 23, 2007. Illustration is of the late Sgt. Patrick Stewart, the first Wiccan killed in action in the War on Terror/Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Circle Sanctuary.
| ABOUT... |
Location: Barneveld, Wisconsin
Bio: Rev. Selena Fox is high priestess and senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, one of America's oldest and largest Wiccan churches and Pagan centers. She is founding editor of CIRCLE Magazine and executive director of the Lady Liberty League, a Pagan civil rights and religious freedom organization. She travels, throughout the United States and internationally, presenting workshops and facilitating rituals. She also is active in environmental work and interfaith endeavors. More info: Click HERE
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