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Definition: Religion?

By Joshua R. Stein

When President George W. Bush met with the families of fallen northern Nevada soldiers, widow Roberta Stewart, whose Wiccan husband Sgt. Patrick Stewart lost his life in Afghanistan in 2005, was not contacted. Bush later officially apologized for the oversight, but some wondered whether religious discrimination motivated Bush’s inaction.

In a more blatant display of religious prejudice, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) refused to engrave a symbol of Sgt. and Mrs. Stewart’s religious faith on his tombstone, prompting Mrs. Stewart to file suit against the VA. Under threat of a looming court date, the VA finally relented last April and approved the Wiccan Pentacle as an official “emblem of belief.” Sadly, this victory came far too late, after almost a decade of petitioning by the next of kin of fallen Wiccan soldiers.

This struggle highlights a larger issue in church-state relations: how a government ought to define what constitutes a religion. Although a definition is a necessity, the government must act with the utmost caution, lest it violate the paramount separation of church and state.

The chief interpreter of law, the Supreme Court, has long struggled to create a working definition of religion that is both inclusive and effective at distinguishing secular from sacred. During the Vietnam War, for example, in U.S. v. Seeger, the Court approved “conscientious objector status” for people who held a “sincere and meaningful” belief which “occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.”

The definition provided by Congress is equally vague: In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress defines religion as “a belief [that] must be sincerely held, and within the believer’s own scheme of things religious.” It is easy to see how either of these legal definitions could apply to most of the 4,000 or more world religions. So where did the VA go wrong?

The VA currently lists 39 official “emblems of belief,” including the recently added Wiccan Pentacle and an atomic symbol that is characterized as “atheist.” Of the official symbols, 17 are directly related to Christianity, including such obscure denominations as the Aaronic Order Church, a 20th-century outgrowth of the Latter Day Saints movement that has fewer than 2,000 members nationally. Contrast that to the 130,000 self-identified Wiccans in the U.S. in 2001, according to a poll conducted by the City University of New York. The Pentagon has recognized over 1,500 Wiccans in the Air Force, 354 in the Marines, and although numbers aren’t available for the Army or Navy, it is estimated that there are over 4,000 Wiccans in uniform. But Wiccans are not allowed military chaplains, and practitioners are generally frowned on by the military.

Although the VA has rectified this specific mistake, it is no closer to a more expansive definition of religious legitimacy. In January 2007, the VA proposed a new set of criteria to determine when it ought to recognize a new emblem of belief. The new criteria seeks to ensure that “there is an immediate need” for a new emblem, and that the belief system is a “genuine and non-frivolous group of religious opinions, doctrines and/or principles believed or accepted as true by a group of persons.” The VA has also established a new bureaucratic procedure for applying for new emblems of belief. Although the proposed definition wisely uses the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) definition of a religious institution as one of its many criteria, the new overall process is seriously flawed.

First, the proposed rule does not allow for enlisted soldiers or veterans to petition for a new emblem on their own behalf. The new procedure requires a petition from the next of kin or personal representative, preventing the veteran from applying for and choosing the symbol for his own memorial.

Second, the VA requests a “concise written description of the main tenets” of the belief system, as well as “information about the structure” of the organization. The VA should be blind regarding the specific structure and tenets of a religion. As Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote in Lemon v. Kurtzman, “This kind of state inspection and evaluation of the religious content of a religious organization is fraught with the sort of entanglement that the Constitution forbids.” Rather, the VA should adopt a methodology more similar to that of the IRS, which makes no attempt to evaluate the content of the belief system in its evaluations for religious tax exemptions.

Finally, the criterion for a new emblem of belief specifically excludes “social, cultural, ethnic, fraternal, trade, professional or military emblems.” This rule inadvertently discriminates against nonreligious people who do not expressly identify as atheist. There are many other identifying organizations and affiliations that may be equally important to a person besides his religion. The way in which a veteran is remembered should not be limited solely to his religion. Although there certainly may be cost constraints to the VA’s ability to provide any and every emblem requested, the VA’s current standard of permissible emblems demands significant revision.

While it is laudable that the VA has accepted the Wiccan Pentacle and begun to examine their highly entrenched, anachronistic system, this single action is not enough. The system of emblems of belief—which places an undue, indeed unfair, emphasis on one’s religious identity—needs to be reevaluated entirely so that soldiers can be remembered in a way most appropriate to them.

Joshua R. Stein ’09-’10 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.

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