MARTY RUSSELL: No atheists in foxholes, just a few Wiccans

Most of us like to think this country was founded on freedom of religion. After all, one of the key reasons we made the trip over in the first place was to get away from the tyrannical Church of England and its state-imposed dominance.

But by establishing in the First Amendment freedom of religion, the Founding Fathers also were establishing another right – freedom from religion. Basically what they were saying was, “Believe in anything you want or don't believe in anything at all, that's fine with us.”

But, of course, all religions are premised on the fact that their god can beat up anybody else's god and, because they really have nothing better to do like caring for the sick, the poor and the homeless, they spend most of their time trying to prove their superiority by constantly reminding everybody else that they're going to spend eternity looking for an air conditioner unless they switch sides.

And so it was with a bit of a chuckle that many of us heathens learned the news this week that the Department of Defense, after a 10-year debate and a lawsuit, has agreed to allow Wiccan symbols to be engraved in federally provided headstones for deceased veterans.

Wicca, for those of you who refuse to admit you even know the meaning of the word, predates all of the world's contemporary religions and worships nature and not a god. Its primary symbol is that of a five-pointed star or pentacle.

The military has long acknowledged that there are Wiccans in its ranks, albeit on a don't-ask-don't-tell kind of basis. It places pentacles on soldiers' dog tags so they're assured of the proper religious treatment if killed in action. It also advises military chaplains and counselors on the belief system in case they encounter any Wiccans in their line of work.

But up until this week, it has refused to allow Wiccan symbols on federally provided headstones. There are 38 approved religious symbols for the headstones but, up until now, no pentacles. Part of the problem has been a lack of support from the White House. While he governor of Texas, now-President Bush called Wicca “witchcraft” and tried to stop Wiccan worship services at the military base at Fort Hood, Texas.

But someone finally realized, probably as a result of being beaten over the head with a lawsuit, that freedom of religion means just that, freedom of all religions. You can't just pick and choose and you certainly can't discriminate against one religion just because it doesn't follow the tenets of the majority.

Thank god, or goddess, or nature or a garage in New Jersey, depending on what you believe.

Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 227 Lester Hall, University MS 38677 or by e-mail at marusse1@olemiss.edu.