Monday, November 10, 2008

Freedom of Religion in the US - it's about time

Tomorrow is Veteran's Day, but I'm thinking about this today, so I'll start early to get you all thinking about this important day too.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"

Sometimes, in the US, we take our freedoms and rights for granted. Often, we do so to such an extent that we do not notice when others in the US continue to face institutionalized bias and prejudice. It's easy to understand. We believe that our laws cover us, right? I mean, how often do we read that it is it wrong to "discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, skin color, religion, gender, or national origin"? It's everywhere! Wander over to the wiki page on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and peruse a bit of history. Looks pretty good, and there are, clearly written, exceptions, but in this day and age, are people really hurt by that stuff. Does institutional discrimination against religion still occur? You bet it does.

In the year 2002, a World War II veteran, PFC Abraham Kooiman, who had been awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, passed away. He was interred in Arlington National Cemetery, and his wife, like many other military spouses, applied to the VA for a headstone. Eligibility for a VA marker is stated as follows: "The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) furnishes upon request, at no charge to the applicant, a Government headstone or marker for the unmarked grave of any deceased eligible veteran in any cemetery around the world, regardless of their date of death. The VA may also provide a headstone or marker for graves that are marked with a private headstone or marker, for veterans that died on or after November 1, 1990.". However, although he met the eligibility requirements, the request for PFC Kooiman's headstone, with his emblem of belief, was denied. Why? Because of religious discrimination. PFC Kooiman was pagan.

To put it very simply, the VA has the authority to decide who has a valid religion, and who does not. Oh, they might argue against my wording here, but the reality is, if your symbol of belief is not on their approved list, too bad for you. They can discriminate against you. Oh, and you do not actually have to have a "religion" to be on the list... the symbol for Atheist is on their list, #16, and has been there for a long time... but if the VA does not approve of your religion, you are in for a legal battle. The battle for the pentacle took ten years. Much too long, in my humble opinion. Not only because of the shame of living with the hypocrisy... our soldiers can claim the religion they want whilst alive, they may proudly display it on their ID tags and practice their beliefs on active duty - but the VA does not have to honor them in death. This was shame enough. What is saddest to me though, is that although this particular legal battle ended in success in April of 2007, Mrs. Rosemary Kooiman passed away in March of 2005... the only pentacle she ever saw on her husband's headstone was an emblem, a sticker of protest, taped on the front his empty headstone.

I will not fill my blog retelling the history of the Pagan Headstone Campaign, the Veteran Pentacle Quest, or whatever name people wish to remember this particular fight under. This particular chapter is finally closed and the Wiccan Pentacle was finally included in the list of approved emblems by the VA. A very significant individual in this closing act, was Mrs. Roberta Stewart, wife of Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart who was killed in action in Afghanistan, and officials of the State of Nevada, who determined they had authority over State Veteran cemeteries and approved Sgt. Stewart's marker. Please visit the Circle Sanctuary page on the pentacle quest for more articles, history, images, and news articles.

I must share this quote:
John W. Whitehead, President of the Rutherford Institute, wrote in his June 5, 2006, editorial on Christianity Today's website, "Although our country was founded on a Judeo-Christian base, the Framers of the Constitution understood that religious freedom was for everyone, not just Christians. In other words, the only way that freedom can prevail for Christians is for Christians to stand up and fight for the minority beliefs and religions of others."
If only we all could display such tolerance! The world would be a much kinder place.

Also, drop by the VA website to view a list of 'approved emblems of belief'. True, the title of this page does say 'available', not 'approved', but scroll on down the list. Yes, that is the Wiccan symbol, finally, at the end there. But look further. Notice the fine print: "No graphics (logos, symbols, etc.) are permitted on Government-furnished headstones or markers other than the approved emblems of belief, the Civil War Union Shield, the Civil War Confederate Southern Cross of Honor, and the Medal of Honor insignias."
Did you see your emblem of belief as you scrolled down? If you are a member of a mainstream religion, you probably did. Lucky you. I'm a veteran, a Druid, and my symbol is not on the list.
The Awen

So, tomorrow, if you are off work for Veteran's day, first of all... enjoy the free day! Go shop, BBQ, do nothing, be free... that's what I'm doing! But remember our veterans. Think of our soldiers - past, present, and future. Reflect on our recent election and the historic relevance of our selecting President Obama. Think of the light that he has shone - full of hope and promise - his mere presence in the campaign a reflection of how much we have grown and changed as a nation, and we have, grown and changed, but let's not forget that we still have far to go. There are still pockets of bias, prejudice, and discrimination that should not exist. Keep this in mind, and have a blessed Veteran's day.

Support our heros... all of them.


Tina in CT said...

I totally agree. What someone's religious (or non-religious) beliefs are is no business of the government/military. If someone serves in the armed forces for our country, they should be given a headstone.

Tina in CT said...

I will be wearing my American flag sweater to work tomorrow to honor all of our veterans.

MsTypo said...

I can't believe that they can do that! And to make a time that is already difficult for family even harder only makes it worse. :(


Mama Seoul said...

I wouldn't think there would be many Pagans/Wiccans/Druids in the military, but since I heard about that campaign and "met" you I have been corrected! Even if there aren't many of a particular religion, whatever religion, veterans should be able to have it on the headstone.

Diane Mandy said...

Great post and so informative. That quote was fantastic. I wish all showed such wisdom and tolerance!