Channeling Selena Fox on the Pentacle Quest


This paper addresses the historical narrative of the recent pagan grave marker’s  conundrum through the insights of those who have been actively pursuing a rectification of the pentacle denial (e.g., Selena Fox, Angie Buchanan, Tom Gordon and others). Specifically, the issue concerns the denial and long delay in rectifying a hurtful imbalance.  The issue is an issue because of cultural biases and prejudices. While a victory has been obtained in this case, what are the implications that have arisen from it in the first place? Has the situation been completely resolved, and, if not, what obstacles remain? The narrative here occurs within a cultural framework that asks whether paganism by default asks for the problems it encounters in dealing with the state and its political machinery. Any answers to these questions have significant implications not only for paganism in an American future but also for the well-being of all religious dissension both without and within mainstream venues. 

Specifically, until August of this year, the United States Veterans Administration blocked the use of pagan insignia for military grave markers. From its theological position, the "cross" that pagans carry may be understood in terms of gravity. Sadness is a pagan obstacle, but attempts to counter gravitas render the practice to outsiders as seemingly childish and non-serious. The seriousness involved in the sacrifice of life by American military in pursuit of official duties, however, cannot be doubted. But the resistance and delay of some federal and state level agencies to grant the Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religious expression to pagan individuals and organizations most likely stems from their inability to perceive pagan spiritual expression as bona fide and legitimate.

Despite favourable Federal Appellate Court decisions for the pagan community in America, the United States Veterans Administration blocked for nine years the use of pagan insignia for military grave markers. The VA reversed its position suddenly in April of this year. This unexpected reversal stemmed most likely from the lawsuit brought the preceding November against the Department of Veteran Affairs by the religious liberty watchdog group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, on behalf Roberta Stewart, Karen DePolito, Jill Medicine Heart Combs, Circle Sanctuary and the Isis Invicta Military Mission, a Wiccan and Pagan congregation serving military personnel. Though the precise reasons behind the switch of its stance remains unknown, the likelihood is that the VA recognized its untenable position in denying a pentacle to deceased Wiccan service personnel while granting religious symbols to other traditions. Governmental bias against Wiccans or any minority faith violates the U.S. Constitution.

Until the recent decision, the VA’s list of 38 approved symbols for government gravestones, markers and plaques included emblems for Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Hindus, Humanists, Buddhists, Jews as well as members of the ECKANKAR, Sufism Reoriented, Japanese Seicho-No-Ie, Serbian Orthodox and United Moravian faiths. During the time from when a Wiccan group had first petitioned the VA for approval of the pentacle, the symbols belonging to six other faith positions were sanctioned by the Department. In fact, a Sikh emblem was approved in only a matter of weeks, but the VA’s nine-year obstinacy toward the pentacle was obviously motivated by discriminatory bias toward Wiccans. This bias most likely stems from President George W. Bush’s position when, as Governor of the State of Texas, he opposed the right of Wiccans to meet at a military base in that state. In his desire to have the military bar Wiccan ceremonies, Bush declared, “I don’t think witchcraft is a religion.”[1]

This bias is of course not confined to the VA but is found throughout several Federal institutions. For instance, in discussing the removal of Don Larsen, a former Pentecostal Christian minister serving as an Army chaplain in Iraq who converted to Wicca and applied to change his religious affiliation, the First Amendment Center’s Charles Haynes stated that

“The Army denies any discrimination against Wiccans and cites a maze of Catch-22 bureaucratic reasons for Larsen’s dismissal. But earlier attempts by Wiccan groups to obtain a military chaplain have also failed – in spite of there being more than 130 other religious groups on the approved list.”[2]

Haynes mentions that Larsen had “an outstanding record,” and while he admits that Wiccans constitute only a small percentage of military personnel (approximately 1900 according to the Pentagon), he adds that other groups with similarly small numbers already have their own chaplains.

Anti-Wiccan bias is not only to be found within the Federal government but occurs on state administrative levels as well. For instance, in two cases before the Magistrate’s Court in Florence, South Carolina (October 2006 and April 2007), Judges Eugene Cooper and Roger N. Langley, respectively, allowed questions concerning the religious affiliation of a witness, a plaintiff, the plaintiff’s wife who was not present or involved in the case, specifically whether witness, plaintiff and plaintiff’s wife were Wiccan and whether the witness had morals. The defending lawyer, Gary Finklea, sought to establish inferior moral creditability for Pagans/Wiccans vis-à-vis Christians by raising the issue of Wiccan identity.

Concerning the VA reversal on the pentacle, Angie Buchanan, Director of Public Relations for the Lady Liberty League, said it made no sense “for Wiccan symbols to be banned from grave markers when Wiccan soldiers can list their faith on dog tags, Wiccan organizations are allowed to hold services on military installations, and the Army Chaplains Handbook includes an explanation of the religion.” [since 1976][3] She feels that the

“decision to settle was instigated by the VA and came at [the] point it did because we were in the discovery part of the case and had uncovered some interesting documents which were leading to some equally interesting depositions of individuals that the VA did not want us to interview. Individuals who might have provided names and references to conversations that indicated the involvement of higher ups actively stopping the progression of our application – contrary to advice they were receiving to approve it.”[4]

Officially, the VA sought the settlement in the interest of the families involved and to save taxpayers the expense of further litigation.[5] In the settlement that was made, the VA  agreed to pay $225,000 to the Americans United for attorneys’ fees and costs. According to Selena Fox, a Wiccan high priestess with Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wisconsin, nationwide there are eleven families who are waiting for grave markers with pentacles. Fox, a leading party to the lawsuit, facilitated in the last of the dedications of the first four VA-issued gravestones with pentacles at 9 am in the Arlington National Cemetery on July 4th, 2007 before attending a noon Pagan Religious Rights Rally in Lafayette Park between the Whitehouse and the Veteran Administration Headquarters.[6]

Part of the capitulation of the VA most likely stems from earlier actions taken by US Senator for Nevada Harry Reed and then Nevada Governor-elect Jim Gibbons in June 2007. They issued press statements in support of the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley, Nevada which, in defiance of the Federal Department of Veterans Affairs, had, through the Nevada Office of Veterans Services, allowed Roberta Stewart to install a pentacle symbol on her husband Patrick’s grave marker – Patrick Stewart having been killed in action in Afghanistan. As Selena Fox commented at the time, this not only gave Roberta, Patrick’s widow, closure, but it also gave the AU further ammunition in their lawsuit with the VA. Although a state cemetery, the graveyard is also overseen by the National Cemetery Administration who, rather than the VA, is the one who is actually in charge of the affairs concerning deceased veterans. A major precedent had been established when the VA passed word to the governor’s office that they would not contest the State of Nevada’s decision. As American’s United Assistant Legal Director, Richard B. Katskee stated on 23 April 2007,

“By approving some religious symbols and not others, by maintaining an official list of ‘approved’ symbols, the Department of Veterans Affairs appeared to be sorting religions into two bins. Some faiths, deemed ‘legitimate’ and ‘real’, went into a bin labeled ‘Approved’. But other faiths were labeled ‘illegitimate’ or ‘phony’, and got tossed into the ‘Disapproved’ bin.”[7]

Nevertheless, this attitude concerning judgment passed on ‘bogus’ religions occurs even among those who support the pentacle effort. For instance, Michael Medved, agreeing that one has to right to choose the memorial marker of her choice, still can feel “little personal respect for Wicca—it’s a trendy, phony potpourri of druidical, primitive and New Age elements that’s more a pagan cult than an organized faith.”[8] Medved’s attitude differs little from that of governmental agencies and bureaucrats whose dismissal of paganism and Wicca (“often identified with witchcraft and earth-worshipping paganism”) is exacerbated by Disneyesque and alleged satanic perceptions.

As I have said, the corpo-spiritual orientation of pagan religions set them distinctly apart from the transcendental spirituality not only fostered but in general insisted upon by the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – with the former two being the dominant religious expressions and orientations of the Western world. Pagans understand the spiritual or divine as resident in matter, even in many instances as matter. The material to the pagan is holy. It is sacred and is to be honoured as such. The sacred is, therefore, not something wholly other but instead is this world, the world of nature, the here-and-now and the tangible. It may include the intangible and/or transcendental but usually as developments of the material and not as its source, origin or creator.

But in honouring the physical reality of life and nature as sacred, holy and divine, the pagan commits herself/himself to engagement rather than withdrawal, escape or denial. The well-being of the planet and her communities becomes a pagan responsibility. There is no necessary otherworldly heaven that is the pagan’s goal or ultimate release from the physical consequences of material existence, namely, inevitable pain and loss. This attitude, however, puts the pagan in an opposite camp from that which prevails for mainstream thought in which the sacred is precious, somber and serious.

But if original sin and the Crucifixion of God are the crosses that the Christian must carry, the burden for the pagan is different and contrary. With the revering of earth coupled with the pagan’s intrinsic yearning for emancipation, freedom, fantasy, imagination and dream, it is the concomitant reality of gravity, matter’s attraction to matter, that becomes the pagan’s onus and millstone. It is gravity that holds the pagan to earth and prevents one from ‘falling’ into the abyss of the cosmos. But at the same time, it is gravity that prevents both physical flight and exploration, on the one hand, and the ability to soar into a realm of unlimited discovery and celebration, on the other. Worry and encumbrance are pagan distractions in communing with the affirmations and delights of nature. Gravity becomes gravitas or sadness.

And as the pagan strives to deal with unhappiness and sorrow, she/he practices a faith of laughter, cheerfulness and jollity – one which precisely differs from the prevailing solemnity and seriousness of mainstream religiosity. Consequently, from the perspective of her opponents, pagan and Wiccan expression is often seen as childish, foolish, non-serious and even decadent. Paganism is not perceived as only a non-serious religion but not even as a religion. The pentacle fiasco is only one consequence that results from this unsympathetic perspective of pagan and Wiccan religious expression.  While the Satanic associations persist, these last are probably not entertained by the majority of mainstream Westerners but only by the smaller number of Evangelical, Pentecostal and Fundamentalist believers, however rapidly ascending in numbers, as well as by militant Islam. But apart from the continuing associations with devil worship and the like, the Protestant mainstream and the scientistic secularists tend to be no less condemnatory of what they perceive as a non-bona fide religion, a bogus religion.

There can be no ready fix for such a situation. While education appears to be the answer, education itself is often a slow process – working incrementally rather than in leaps and bounds. But this is no less the recourse that the pagan, the religious studies scholar, the sociologist and the true believer in the democratic forum must pursue. Augmentation is required on the legal front as well such as has occurred with the pentacle victory. With more and more advances on the legal and institutional fronts, with more interfaith and ecumenical encounters, and with greater exposure and rational understanding, the pluralistic tolerance and cooperation that encourages, even celebrates, minority religious expression of many different kinds, not only that of the pagan but of new religious and alternative movements in general, the roundtable of exchange and debate should have a more secure future.

There is one coda to the pentacle narrative. During the American Legion’s National Convention in Reno, Nevada on the 28th of August in 2007, families of the injured and deceased from the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars were invited by President George W. Bush to a private meeting. Relatives of Sgt. Patrick Stewart were included but not Patrick’s widow Roberta – Roberta Stewart being instrumental in the effort to secure the pentacle marker for her husband and in the litigation efforts that ensued. The press noticed Roberta’s absence and articles began to appear locally.[9] Consequently, two days later (30.8.7), Mrs. Stewart received a phone call from the White House and when she spoke with the President, he gave her his deepest condolences. Bush apologized for the VA problem and for the exclusion and error that had been made. He expressed admiration for Roberta’s spirit and thanked her for accepting his apology – adding that he hoped some day to meet her and that he would not discriminate against someone for their belief.[10]

As Medved says, “No matter how much we might dislike Wicca/witchcraft, the Constitution leaves no room for the government to discriminate against its adherents. According to Department of Defense figures from 2005, some 1,800 active duty personnel list their religious preference as ‘Wiccan’. The First Amendment gives them an absolute right to do so.” He adds, “Like the recent controversy over Congressman Keith Ellison, the newly-elected Muslim who plans to take his oath of office on the Koran, the issue of the Wiccan plaque in a military cemetery forces us to come to terms with the true meaning of pluralism.”[11] But once again, he claims that “The right approach to people silly enough to proclaim allegiance to Wicca is to talk them out of it—show them the error of their ways and the superiority of the faith we happen to practice.”[12] The seriousness of Wicca and other pagan religions remains to date largely in doubt.



[1] Cited in “Inside the First Amendment: Witch Trials and Tribulations in the Land Of The Free,” by Charles C. Haynes (

[2] Ibid.

[3] Personal communication 23.4.7.

[4] P.c. 26.4.7.

[5] Matt Burns, VA spokesperson – apud Buchanan 23.4.7.

[6] P.c. 1.7.7.

[7] “Remarks of Richard B. Katskee, Americans United Assistant Legal Director, April 23, 2007” (Pentacle_settlement-richard_katskee-apr_07.pdf accessed via

[8] (accessed 18.10.7).

[9] E.g., Viktoria Pearson, “Wiccan widow not invited to meet Bush during visit,” Lahontan Valley News 30.8.7; (accessed 30.8.7).

[10] Selena Fox, personal communications 30.8.7 & 31.8.7.

[11] (accessed 18.10.7).

[12] Ibid.