Those pentancle wars, again

altarLong ago, when I was a graduate student in Baylor University's church-state studies program, one of our professors liked to cut to the chase by saying the following: "Your religious liberties have been purchased for you by many people with whom you would not necessarily want to have dinner." What did he mean? He meant that it is important to recognize that our laws protect the human rights of all kinds of people, including people that some of us may consider a bit on the wild side. But that is what religious liberty is all about. You must fight for the rights of others to speak freely and to disagree with what you believe.

There are times when this really bothers people on the right. There are also times -- keep your eye on freedom of association cases involving clashes between gay-rights organizations and traditional religious groups -- when this same tradition really ticks off people on the political and cultural left. Click here for a Weekly Standard piece mapping out that conflict.

Here at GetReligion, we have been trying to keep up with what we think is a highly symbolic case, which is the battle by Wiccan believer named Roberta Stewart to have her late husband's faith formally recognized -- by having a pentancle on his military tombstone.

The pentancle offends some people, in part because they strongly oppose neo-paganism.

However, the truth of the matter is that almost all religious symbols are offensive to somebody and they always have been. Rare is the New York Times columnist who is not offended by the sight of a cross in a public place. And on the legal side, this is not a simple church-state question -- as anyone who has followed the fights over holiday trees and secular menorahs will know.

In this case, President George W. Bush was provoked into making an important gesture, by contacting Roberta Stewart as a sign that the government needed to recogize her faith tradition. Here is the background section of that story in The Washington Post:

Stewart, also a Wiccan, fought an 18-month battle to get the Wiccan symbol -- a five-pointed star within a circle -- engraved on a brass plaque for war heroes at the veterans cemetery in Fernley, Nev. Patrick Stewart, who was in the Nevada Army National Guard, is believed to be the first Wiccan killed in combat. The helicopter he was riding in was shot down.

The Wiccan faith is based on nature and emphasizes respect for the earth. Some Wiccans call themselves witches or pagans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs turned down Roberta Stewart's request because the Wiccan symbol was not among the 38 emblems, including ones for atheism and humanism, allowed for inscription on military memorials or grave markers. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sued the department on behalf of Stewart and other Wiccan spouses, and in April, the VA agreed to add the symbol to its approved list.

A question: Are there really Wiccans who do not consider themselves pagans? Really?

And there is one other thing that I would like to know: Did conservative religious groups take a stand on one side or the other in this case, or where they divided? I think many journalists would assume that conservative believers oppose the Wiccan case. I do not think that can be assumed, because many conservatives now realize that equal access means equal access and freedom of association means freedom of association.

Journalists must remember that in America, the legal goal is "political toleration," not "theological toleration." Our government is supposed to insist that all faiths are equal in the eyes of the state, not that all faiths are equal in the eyes of God (a point of confusion all too common in many public schools).

The pentancle case is a classic example of the difference. The Post told us where a key group on the left came down on this matter. What about the activists on the right?

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