Veterans Administration Hammers Through Barriers to Diversity


57 approved emblems

The Veterans Administration, in its list of authorized emblems for its headstones, has been a pioneer in recognizing diverse beliefs. They have recently added the Hammer of Thor, named Mjölnir (Crusher), to accommodate the wishes of sincere devotees of pagan (Ásatrúar) beliefs. They also include other pagan symbols, Jewish, Native American, Sikh, atheist, and humanist emblems. Though the list is growing longer, the VA seems to be receiving and processing applications without prejudice to accommodate all beliefs.

Though MAAF has been accused of opposing religious symbols on personal gravesites, this has never been the case. MAAF applauds the actions of the VA to treat all beliefs equally and to honor the wishes of veterans and their families. The Department of Defense currently does not allow humanists to identify as humanists on their official records, but if a humanist dies, then they can be buried under a humanist headstone.

Though outreach to national leaders has not been successful, local Veterans Administration offices in San Diego and West Palm Beach have worked with local humanists to ensure equal treatment for humanists. In addition, the VA took steps to protect veteran families from unwanted evangelism by VA volunteers.

The VA has required some outside pressure. On behalf of Circle Sanctuary and the family of a Wiccan who had died in combat, Americans United for Separation of Church and State successfully sued to add a Wiccan Pentacle in 2007. Even at the time, there were 38 symbols with more being approved, and the Pentacle seemed to suffer special opposition. The continuing use of the emblem shows its need.

(Added 7/13) commenter Ryan Jean notes “The crane article marks another milestone, as it involves the nation’s first military veteran to win permission to have her same-sex spouse buried in a national cemetery as a result of the DOMA downfall.” Actually, the article states VA policy has not changed, but the same-sex burial was provided as a single case. He refers to the Sandhill Crane, which they say “represents the perfect expression of their relationship.” This is a fascinating development in that it seems to represent not an organized religious expression but rather an entirely personal emblem of their relationship.

Of note is that discussions in Congress regarding the legality of religious symbols on public monuments have also referenced the VA emblem list. Across the country, Christians are attempting to secure rights to display their crosses and shrines on federal land. A suggestion was made to pass a bill to allow religious symbols so long as all the VA symbols were allowed. This was quickly rejected when found how many symbols would have to be included in every monument. The sense of secular government becomes clear when we see the true diversity of belief in society and not just the propaganda of Christian monoculture.

The addition of Thor’s Hammer shows a commitment to diversity. The diversity group in this case may be called Ásatrúar, heathen, or neopagan. It is very easy in modern times to dismiss older beliefs as mythology, but this case – personal headstones – is a place for inclusion and accommodation. There are currently 57 options (50 is skipped, previously Scientology?), 50% more than in 2007. Included also is the Unification Church, also known as the Moonies. Many consider the church to be a dangerous cult, but in the absence of official legal sanction, the VA made accommodation. Just over half of the symbols are of the Christian tradition, but the rest include Native American, pagan, Sikh, Sufi, Zoroastrianism, Baha’i, Buddhist, atheist, humanist, and others.

A secular government does not show hostility toward beliefs, but rather neutrality. This allows for personal expressions, like grave markers, to be accommodated very broadly without judgment on the content of the belief.



3 Responses to Veterans Administration Hammers Through Barriers to Diversity

  1. What’s even better (and probably due to the pentacle lawsuit, where Americans United questioned the legality of having a finite, official list of symbols), is this new text:

    If you are applying for a headstone or marker and the emblem you desire is not currently available, please see information below:

    Who Can Request a New Emblem of Belief?CFR 38.632 rule states that the following individuals may request a new emblem of belief for inscription on a headstone or marker: the decedent’s next-of-kin (NOK), a person authorized in writing by the NOK, or a personal representative authorized in writing by the decedent.

    Instructions for Requesting an Emblem not Available for Inscription Link

    To submit a request for an emblem of belief not available for inscription, the requestor must:
    1. Establish that there is an immediate need for a Government headstone/marker to be furnished for a deceased eligible individual (i.e., submission of VA-Form 40-1330, Application for a Government-Furnished Headstone or Marker, verification from National or state cemetery officials).
    2. Certify that the proposed new emblem of belief represents the decedent’s religious affiliation or sincerely held religious belief system, or a sincerely held belief system that was functionally equivalent to a religious belief system in the life of the decedent.
    3. Submit a three-inch diameter digitized black and white representation of the requested emblem that is free of copyright or trademark restrictions or authorized by the owner for inscription on Government-furnished headstones and markers and can be reproduced in a production-line environment in stone or bronze without loss of graphic quality.

  2. I couldn’t find any reference to Scientology having been an accepted symbol at any point, but I did find one mention of #50 being a placeholder for a second Muslim symbol. That symbol is usually listed at #98 now, and most places say an image of it is unavailable due to copyright. It makes sense that they might partition it off somewhat in such a case, although the copyright itself makes no sense as the symbol in question is literally nothing but a simple geometric 5-point star.

  3. I saw the “Thor’s Hammer” symbol a few days ago on the blog MetaFilter, linking to a story of how it came to be included, but also discussing the newest addition, the Sandhill Crane.

    Thor’s Hammer:
    Sandhill Crane:

    The crane article marks another milestone, as it involves the “nation’s first military veteran to win permission to have her same-sex spouse buried in a national cemetery,” something only made possible because of the recent Supreme Court decision holding DOMA as unconstitutional.

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