Veterans Win Right to Post Religious Symbol on Headstones
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
WASHINGTON – Following separate lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Department of Veterans Affairs today agreed to allow family members to include a Wiccan symbol on the headstones of deceased veterans.
The ACLU has long argued that veterans and their families should be free to choose religious symbols on military headstones – whether Crosses, Stars of David, Pentacles, or other symbols – and that the government should not be permitted to restrict such religious expression in federal cemeteries.
“We are gratified that the government will finally allow military families to express their religious beliefs and honor their loved ones,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, who represents families and churches in this case. “Veterans who have served their country honorably should not have to worry that their faith will be ignored after death.”
The settlement reached in the Americans United case included and resolved all claims made in the ACLU’s parallel litigation.
The national ACLU and the ACLU of Washington filed their lawsuit on behalf of two churches and three individuals, including the mother of a soldier who was killed in action in Iraq in 2004. The National Cemetery Administration had previously approved 38 emblems of belief for veterans, encompassing a wide variety of religions, as well as symbols for atheists and secular humanists. Yet the agency had refused since the mid-1990s to act on requests by Wiccan families and clergy to approve use of the Pentacle.
Under the terms of today’s settlement, the Department of Veterans Affairs will add the Pentacle to its list of approved emblems of belief, and will provide Pentacle-engraved headstones and markers to the individual families who brought the ACLU and Americans United lawsuits.
“It is deeply unfortunate that grieving families of deceased veterans were forced to undertake a bureaucratic struggle to have their loved ones’ wishes honored,” said ACLU of Washington staff attorney Aaron Caplan, who is co-counsel in this case. “All veterans, regardless of their religion, deserve to have their faith recognized on an equal basis.”
The ACLU brought its lawsuit on behalf of two churches: the Aquarian Tabernacle Church formed in 1979 in Index, Washington, and the Correllian Nativist Church International, formed in 1979 with offices in Albany, New York. The lawsuit also names the following individuals as petitioners:
- Kathleen Egbert of Laurel, MD, daughter of World War II veteran Abraham Kooiman, a decorated Wiccan soldier who was buried in Arlington National Memorial Cemetery in 2003;
- Patricia Darlene Howell Corneilson of Kentucky, mother of James Price, a decorated Wiccan service member who was killed in action while serving in the Army in Iraq in 2004; and
- Scott Stearns of Kent, WA, a retired disabled U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Persian Gulf War and is a member of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. Stearns plans to have the symbol posted on his headstone.
The ACLU lawsuit, Egbert v. Nicholson, was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, DC. Today’s settlement comes after oral arguments before the court on April 10. During that argument, the Department of Veterans Affairs promised to act on the pending Pentacle applications within 90 days. Immediately after the argument, the court issued an order that repeated the department’s promise to act, and scheduled a second oral argument in July.
A copy of the ACLU complaint is online at: www.aclu.org/religion/discrim/26968lgl20060929.html
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