Bush Apologizes to Wiccan Soldier's Widow for Meeting Slip-Up

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007

President Bush has apologized to the widow of a Wiccan soldier after she was excluded from a Nevada meeting this week that the president held with the families of soldiers killed in combat.

Roberta Stewart, whose husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in Afghanistan in 2005, was left off the invitation list for the private meeting Tuesday even though other members of her husband's family were invited.

When she heard about the exclusion from her mother-in-law, Stewart said, she concluded that it was done because of her public fight to force the federal government to engrave the symbol for the Wiccan faith on her husband's marker on a memorial.

"I was devastated," Stewart said. "I was crying and upset. I couldn't believe that my country would continue this discrimination."

On Thursday, after publicity about the omission, the White House and the military scrambled to put things right. Stewart said she received phone calls from Department of Defense officials, who told her that her name was inadvertently left off a list of guests they forwarded to the White House.

Bush, who had been in Nevada for a speech to the American Legion's national convention, also called Stewart and, in a conversation that she said lasted about five minutes, expressed regret over her exclusion. She said she told the president about the Wiccan faith.

" 'I don't know whether you believe me or not, but I hope you know that this president would not dishonor a soldier,' " she said Bush told her.

Scott Stanzel of the White House press office confirmed the president's call to Stewart.

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.

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