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Wiccans celebrate settlement allowing symbol on gravestones

  • Article by: Pamela Miller
  • Star Tribune
  • April 23, 2007 - 11:31 PM

For Jim Mosser, a Marine Corps veteran and practitioner of the Wiccan faith, Monday's legal settlement allowing the pentacle on military tombstones "has been a long time coming."

Mosser, 45, a computer technician from St. Louis Park who served in the Marines in the United States and Japan from 1981 to 1985, said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' longstanding exclusion of the Wiccan emblem "was disheartening and hurtful."The armed forces recognize us [on dogtags and in military chaplains' handbooks, for instance]," Mosser said. "But if a Wiccan soldier made the ultimate sacrifice, the VA wouldn't allow it on the tombstone. So this is a great step forward."

The settlement, which heads off a June trial in federal court in Madison, Wis., calls for the pentacle, a circled five-pointed upright star, to be placed on military gravestones within 14 days for 11 families who had requested it. That's well in time for Memorial Day. The symbol, the 39th to have agency approval, has been added to the agency's list at www.cem.va.gov/cem/hm/hmemb.asp.

No requests for pentacles on gravestone have been made at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, said Don Emond, the cemetery's assistant director. Information about the symbol's availability will now be part of standard information offered by the veterans agency and funeral directors, he said.

Wicca is an nature-based religion that falls under the umbrella of pagan traditions. The pentacle star's points stand for earth, air, fire, water and spirit. Satanists occasionally co-opt the symbol by turning it upside down, an act deeply offensive to Wiccans.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, there were 274,000 Wiccans and pagans nationwide in 2001. Minnesota has several thousand, estimates Penny Tupy, vice president of the Upper Midwest Pagan Alliance, a coalition that in February held a State Capitol rally pushing for approval of the pentacle.

"We're absolutely thrilled by the settlement," said Tupy, of Prescott, Wis.

For Elysia Gallo, acquisitions editor at Llewellyn Worldwide, a publications company in Woodbury, the settlement is about more than the pentacle. "Finally, Wicca and other forms of neopaganism are being taken seriously as valid spiritual paths," said Gallo, 32, of St. Paul. "I would hope no other religious group has to go through what we went through with the VA."

Gallo said that Llewellyn, one of the oldest New Age publishers in the nation, has a guidebook for Wiccans in the military slated for publication next year that will include information about religious rights and responsibilities, as well as "spells and meditations."

The pentacle long has been "a powerful and explosive symbol," said Penny Edgell, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. "Fair or not, it is associated by those on the Christian right with witchcraft, which they don't necessarily differentiate from Satanism."

Some also are uncomfortable with the countercultural definitions of gender, sexuality and family espoused by some pagans, Edgell said. "So a whole host of issues may have underlain this debate."

The settlement is an important sign of increasing religious diversity in a country that, while legally subscribing to separation of church and state, has been culturally Christian, she said.

"In polls, we see an increasing number of Americans claiming no religious preference or saying they are spiritual, but not religious," she said. That trend, she said, may have helped open the way for a more benign view of the pentacle.

Mosser said the debate has put a positive spotlight on the Wiccan religion.

"There's been more truthful information about us put out by the media in the past few months than in many years," he said. "For the first time, I've had people say to me, 'I didn't know what Wiccans really believe in till now.'

"This isn't just about Wiccans and the pentacle, but about religious tolerance of all kinds," he said.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290 • pmiller@startribune.com

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