Skip to main content

Legal Features

Coming Out of the Broom Closet

We are not evil. We don't harm or seduce people. We are not dangerous. We are ordinary people like you. We have families, jobs, hopes, and dreams. We are not a cult. This religion is not a joke. We are not what you think we are from looking at T.V. We are real. We laugh, we cry. We are serious. We have a sense of humor. You don't have to be afraid of us. We don't want to convert you. And please don't try to convert us. Just give us the same right we give you--to live in peace. We are much more similar to you than you think.--Margot Adler (Journalist, National Public Radio Correspondent and Wiccan)

Similar to the historical treatment of most religious groups, the American experience has treated practitioners of Wicca with mixed emotions. This may be out of ignorance or intolerance--and since the former is usually the cause of the latter, we can presume as much. Recently, the story of Sgt. Patrick Stewart, a U.S. soldier killed in combat in Afghanistan and a practitioner of Wicca, caught national attention because his family had requested that the Wiccan pentagram be placed on his tombstone and the Department of Veterans Affairs denied them this constitutional right. This being the case, the time seems appropriate to set the record straight on what practitioners of Wicca believe and why the law demands--and should demand--that the wishes of Sgt. Stewart's family be fulfilled.

First and foremost, who are these Wiccans and what do they stand for? Much like the religion itself, the origin of the word "wicca" has invited much debate, yet yielded few definitive answers. One generally accepted theory contends that Wicca evolved from the Ninth Century Old English phrase "wise ones" or "to bend or shape." The father of the modern Wicca movement, Gerald Gardner, contends that the practice of Wicca has its roots in Celtic or Norse Paganism. Yet while principles of the neo-pagan religion of Wicca vary and are often unknown to individuals outside of a particular sect, the benchmark theme to the practice of Wicca centers on a belief in the spiritual affinity for the earth and nature. To remain consistent with neo-pagan principles, most Wiccans are polytheists who worship a broad range of the characters from mythology, whereas other believers center the focus of their worship on a "Mother Goddess" whom they hold responsible for the changing of the seasons.

Although it is commonplace among the Wiccan community for practitioners to disagree upon their historical origins, it may generally be agreed that Wicca ritual practice appears to have roots in Pagan worship. Similar to many faiths, ritual is an important part of Wiccan practice. In ceremonial worship, known as a coven, Wiccan practitioners assemble in a group and then draw a circle around themselves. This act may be accompanied by prayer from the Book of Shadows. Items used in Wiccan rituals may consist of brooms, cauldrons, chalices, wands, altar cloths, candles, incense and knives. In keeping with their theme of affinity for the earth, occasions for ritual practice take place upon the sighting of a full moon or at the mark of a new moon and on equinoxes and solstices.

Popular culture best recognizes the Wiccan community through its adopted symbol, the pentacle. Therefore, because the Stewart case involves the desire to have this religious symbol etched on his tombstone, it seems a fair question to ask what the symbol symbolizes. The pentacle is a five-sided geometric shape with a single point facing upward located inside of a circle. Historically, this five-sided shape, known as the pentagram, has been understood to symbolize beauty and harmony because it exemplifies the balance of the golden ratio, phi. Subsequently, the sides of the pentagram have been understood to symbolize the earth's four elements--with the fifth side symbolizing the creatures of the earth.

What does the law say about Wiccans? The case of Dettmer v. Landon, 799 F.2d 929 (4th Cir. 1986) concluded that the Church of Wicca is, indeed, a religion. Although this is not a U.S. Supreme Court case, it should be noted that the case was decided in the U.S. Court of Appeals, the court directly below the U.S. Supreme Court, and in the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which is widely considered the most conservative of the twelve Circuit Courts of Appeal. Seventeen years later, the Fourth Circuit again noted that "Wicca has been recognized as a religion [here in the 4th Circuit] and elsewhere on the basis that it occupies a place in the lives of its members 'parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God' in religions more widely accepted in the United States." Simpson v. Chesterfield County Bd. of Supervisors, 292 F. Supp. 2d 805 (4th Cir. 2003), Dettmer v. Landon, 799 F.2d 929, 931 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 166, (1964)). These cases considered, it should be noted that American courts of law are unique because they exist to protect the rights of the minority when the majority of society refuses to do so otherwise.

Perhaps the saddest irony of this case is the fact that, historically, the U.S. military has taken numerous steps to ensure that Wiccan servicemen and servicewomen are able to practice their faith while they are in uniform. For example, the 1990 edition of Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains, a publication which lists the "U.S. Department of the Army" as its editor, includes 15 pages of material related to Wiccans. Nevertheless, the aforementioned Wiccan pentagram is not listed on the Veterans Benefits and Services Memorial website, which lists 37 specific emblems of belief available for placement on government headstones and markers.

Regardless of one's personal objections to the legitimacy of another's religion, the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause guarantees Sgt. Stewart the right to have that symbol on his tombstone, just as the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause guarantees Sgt. Stewart the right to believe and practice in the Church of Wicca. And if citizens do not protest the Department of Veterans Affairs' refusal to recognize one religion, all religious symbols may potentially be at stake.

You may have heard the phrase "I may disagree with what you are saying, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." In America, or anywhere else for that matter, the religious rights of members of a group whose religious practices are out of the mainstream should not be more limited than the rights of a practitioner from a mainstream religious group. It does not take much research to recall that Christians were outcasts at one time, just as practitioners of Roman Catholicism were also outcasts here in this country no more than one hundred years ago. As Benjamin Franklin recalled at the founding, "If we don't hang together, we shall surely hang separately."

In chapter one of his famous treatise On Liberty, John Stuart Mill reminds us that "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." Although it is unlikely that Doreen Valiente had Mill in mind when she coined the "golden rule of Wicca," it would be fair to say that the substance of Mill's "harm principle" certainly applies to the Wiccan adage that "If it harms none, do what you will." Although it may be argued that this quotation beckons at the door of anarchy, it effectuates a philosophy that many Americans hold as essential to the founding and survival of this country.

Sgt. Stewart and his family have already been harmed in the ultimate way. The least the Department of Veterans Affairs can do to ease that suffering is to act in the manner that realizes the constitutional values which Sgt. Stewart died to preserve.

Rob Luther is a student at Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law and an intern with The Rutherford Institute's 2006 Summer Intern Program.


Copyright 2024 © The Rutherford Institute • Post Office Box 7482 • Charlottesville, VA 22906-7482 (434) 978-3888
The Rutherford Institute is a registered 501(c)(3) organization. All donations are fully deductible as a charitable contribution.