Baha'i News -- Military grave markers a monument to atheists in the foxholes

Military grave markers a monument to atheists in the foxholes

Any member of the United States military who wouldn't be caught dead proclaiming "one nation, under God" has an option.

Our federal government carves atheist-affirming emblems into the gravestones of qualified veterans.

This information comes to me in an e-mail from the always engaging Calvin Claus, an Arlington Heights resident and World War II veteran who retired from National-Louis University in 1991 after more than three decades as a professor in the psychology department.

"Imagine, the full weight of the U.S. government certifying and authenticating the existence of a group that disclaims the existence of anything 'under God'!" Claus writes of the atheist headstones. "Don't tell Ashcroft; he'll flip."

Since Abraham Lincoln started the practice, our government has been providing headstones or modest markers for military veterans. When it comes to "emblems of belief," the government now gives veterans more options than Baskin-Robbins - with 32 emblems on the frequently expanded list at the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration's Web site (www.cem.va.gov/hmemb.htm).

Among the emblems deemed "appropriate" for a headstone are the "Christian Cross," the "Hebrew Star of David," the "Muslim Crescent & Star," the "Buddhist Wheel of Righteousness," the "Hindu Om," the "Mormon Angel Moroni," the "Christian Scientist Cross & Crown," the "Unitarian Church Flaming Chalice," the "Bahai 9-Pointed Star," and the "Atheist" emblem, which looks like a logo for a nuclear power plant.

"We just recently approved another one, and I have seven or eight in the pipeline," says David Schettler, the director of memorial program services for the National Cemetery Administration. The requests must be legitimate and have the blessing of an organized religion or belief, Schettler adds.

(This eliminates any requests for "Church of Bob" or "Temple of Exit 201 Discount Shoes.")

The atheistic "atomic whirl" symbol was designed in 1963 as a way of "recognizing the new atomic era but emphasizing the truth of older scientific findings," explains Joe Zamecki, an employee of American Atheist, a national atheist organization.

From April 1, 2001, through March 31 of this year, 306,909 veterans requested headstones or markers, notes Jo Schuda, a spokeswoman for the veterans department. Of those, only 18 requested the atheist emblem.

Christians dominated the requests with an overwhelming 263,612 veterans ordering the Christian Cross, Schuda says. The next most-popular emblem was the Lutheran Cross, with 3,220. Then came the Methodist (2,747) and Jewish (2,443) emblems.

But the VA tries to accommodate all sincere requests - whether they come from the 206 veterans who wanted the Native American Church of North America emblem, the two who sought the sign of the Tenrikyo Church, or the solitary soldier who ordered the emblem of the Seicho-No-Ie faith.

After witnessing the overwhelming public and political support for keeping "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, "I think some folks would be upset" that our government provides atheist gravestones for veterans, says Kathleen Johnson, founder of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (www.maaf.info).

Nope, says Schettler. He adds that before 1997, the government subsidized private markers, which led to some beefs about publicly funded military headstones that also boasted privately funded homosexual emblems.

Originally designed for unmarked graves, the VA program expanded under a law signed last December by President Bush. It now provides military stones and plaques even for veterans who also have private headstones. Schettler says the VA wants veterans to take advantage of the program, which costs about $35 million a year.

In no rush to claim his burial benefits, Claus allows that he'll probably opt for a Lutheran Cross.

"But at that point in my life/death," Claus says, "I couldn't care less about the details."

You're better off not caring about the details. After all, the devil is in the details, and he isn't on the list of acceptable emblems.


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