Veterans Denied Right to Post Religious Symbol on Headstones, ACLU Charges
WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit to protect the right of veterans and their families to choose religious symbols to engrave on headstones in federal cemeteries. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two churches and three individuals to compel the government to approve a long-pending application for use of a Wiccan symbol on the headstones of service members.
"The government has no business picking and choosing which personal religious beliefs may be expressed. All veterans, regardless of their religion, deserve to have their faith recognized on an equal basis," said ACLU of Washington staff attorney Aaron Caplan.
The lawsuit was sparked by the failure of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to take action on several applications to approve the pentacle of the Wiccan faith as an emblem of belief. The agency provides headstones free of charge to mark the graves of eligible veterans, upon application by a veteran or the next of kin of a deceased veteran. An emblem of belief is included on the headstone only if it is on the list of symbols approved by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
The NCA has approved 38 emblems of belief for veterans, encompassing a wide variety of religions. Headstones have been engraved with different forms of the Christian cross, the six-pointed Jewish star, the Muslim crescent, the nine-pointed Baha’i star, and symbols for atheists and secular humanists, among others.
Yet the agency has refused since the mid-1990s to act on requests by Wiccan families and clergy to approve use of the pentacle. In the meantime, the agency approved additional emblems of numerous other religions and belief systems as a matter of course, usually in a few months.
As a result, veterans nearing the end of life are left uncertain about whether their faith will be honored after death. And families of deceased veterans have been required, in a time of grief and stress, to undertake a bureaucratic struggle to have their loved one’s wishes honored.
"The federal government’s discriminatory delay in approving these applications must end. There is no good reason to deny grieving families the solace and comfort available to military families of other religions," said Daniel Mach, senior staff attorney with the national ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
The ACLU said that the government cannot ban families from posting Christian crosses or other religious symbols on personal gravestones, even on federal property.
In addition to the constitutional guarantees of religious liberty, expression and equality, federal agencies are required to abide by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which provides that the government may "substantially burden" a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates "a compelling government interest." According to the ACLU, no such compelling reason or other lawful basis exists for the NCA to refuse Wiccan veterans the ability to display their chosen emblem of belief.
The ACLU brought the 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 Wiccan who was buried in Arlington National Memorial Cemetery in 2003;
- Patricia Darlene Howell Corneilson of Kentucky, mother of James Price, a Wiccan 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 discharged in 1997 and a member of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans
Claims in Washington, DC. Caplan and Mach are representing the petitioners in today’s lawsuit, Egbert v. Nicholson.
A copy of today’s complaint is online at: www.aclu.org/religion/discrim/26968lgl20060929.html