1 of 2 | A volunteer places a wreath on several graves on  Wreaths Across America Day at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis on December 16, 2020. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is protesting the use of the wreaths, a symbol linked to Christianity, on graves on non-Christians. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
Dec. 14 (UPI) -- Religious liberty advocates are protesting the annual Wreaths Across America event, decrying the "the hijacked-from-paganism symbol of Christianity" being placed on military veterans' graves, including those of Jews and other non-Christians.
Volunteers are expected to put about 2 million wreaths on graves on Saturday at more than 3,100 burial sites, including national and local veterans cemeteries.
Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the nonprofit Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said placing a wreath on a headstone without getting permission from the veteran's surviving family members is a desecration of the grave.
"We're being flooded by people who do not want to have Wreaths Across America working in conjunction with our federal government to place the stamp of this sectarian Christian holiday," said Weinstein, who is an Air Force veteran.
The Albuquerque, N.M.-based foundation, which has a mission of protecting the separation of church and state in the U.S. military and the Veterans Administration, represents more than 76,000 service members and veterans, about 95 percent of whom identify as Christians, Weinstein said.
Amber Caron, a spokeswoman for Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit based in Maine, said the organization is doing as much as it can to educate the public about being mindful of where the wreaths are placed.
Weinstein said he has no problem with the wreath-laying as long as the cemetery director has permission from family members and the burden to opt out is not on them.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, which maintains the national cemeteries, and the administrators of other cemeteries should set up an opt-in system that allows the wreaths to be left only on the resting places of veterans whose survivors have given their approval, he said.
"It's completely irresponsible, immoral, unethical, illegal and unconstitutional to require a veteran's family to go to all the trouble to reach out to the VA and say, 'Don't you dare put a Christian emblem on my loved one's grave, or any other emblem, without getting permission first,'" Weinstein said.
An image from Fox5 in Washington, D.C., of the 2017 event at Arlington National Cemetery that is posted on the MFRR website shows a wreath on a gravestone with a Star of David. And, Weinstein said, volunteers have in the past put leftover wreaths on the graves of homeless veterans at the Santa Fe, N.M., cemetery "thinking that will be fine."
Weinstein said there are many people -- including atheists, agnostics, humanists, Buddhists, Hindus and some Christians -- who also object to the practice and volunteers can't always know which graves should not get wreaths.
Caron said Wreaths Across America is not affiliated with any religion or political view. The organization's mission is to remember fallen military members, honor those who served in the military and teach children the value of freedom, she said.
"These are veterans' wreaths," Caron said. "We do not call them Christmas wreaths."
She also said some Jewish families have asked to have a wreath placed on a headstone, and those requests are honored. Otherwise, the volunteers pause and pay their respects at those graves before moving on.
"We have a policy about not placing wreaths on headstones that have the Star of David," Caron said. "Obviously, errors happen. We are a network of volunteers. Not everyone knows what a Star of David is. We do have protocols in place to work with our core volunteers to ensure that we are checking and being respectful."
Weinstein said it's outrageous to argue that the wreaths, which are made with live balsam tips and tied with a red bow, are not Christmas wreaths.
The annual event has its roots in a donation in 1992 by the family that owns the Worcester Wreath Co. in Maine of a surplus of their product to Arlington National Cemetery to put on graves. The family members continued to make a yearly donation to Arlington and after a photo of the wreaths went viral in 2005, they began getting thousands of emails from people who wanted to participate in the effort.
Based on the requests, the Worcester family sent ceremonial wreaths representing each branch of the military, plus one for POW/MIA military members, to more than 100 locations in 2006. In 2007, the family and supporters set up Wreaths Across America.
The event is held each year on the second or third Saturday of December. Volunteers sign up to coordinate locations and lay wreaths, and individuals and organizations -- such as the VFW, American Legion, churches and community groups -- sponsor the $15 wreaths. Wreaths Across America gives back $5 to the nonprofits for each sponsorship to use for their own programs, Caron said.
This year, wreaths are being placed on graves in every state, Puerto Rico and Guam, Caron said.
The Worcester Wreath Co.'s website says the family has farmed for years on thousands of acres in Maine.
"It is from these same sacred forests that the wreaths used by Wreaths Across America in the annual wreath-laying ceremonies are handcrafted," the website says. "We're honored and proud that our commitment to integrity and quality led to them to choose us as their provider of quality wreaths."
Chris Rodda, MRFF's senior research director, said Wreaths Across America was created by Morrill Worcester, the owner of the Worcester Wreath Co., and his wife, Karen Worcester, is the executive director of the organization.
The Worcesters have faced criticism in the past for the "profitable incestuous relationship between their non-profit organization and their for-profit Christmas wreath company," Rodda wrote in a post on the Daily Kos.
Caron counters that the company and the nonprofit are separate entities and that Worcester Wreath Co. became the vendor for Wreaths Across America through a bidding process. A conflict-of-interest policy requires any Worcester-related board members to recuse themselves from decisions involving the wreath procurement contract, she said.
Rodda also wrote that the primary concern of the foundation is the indiscriminate placement of Christmas wreaths on graves. The wreath is circular and made of evergreen to symbolize everlasting life through Jesus Christ, she said.
Since raising its concerns about the wreaths, MRFF has been inundated with angry emails and threats.
One profane email said, "As a combat veteran, if I fell in a foreign land, it would have been nice for a complete stranger to spend the time and money to remember me at this time of year."
In response, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Marty France, an MRFF advisory board member, asked if the veteran would be open to any decorations being put on a gravestone.
"So, you would be okay with me putting an little black ISIS or green Muslim flag on your grave?" France said in an email posted on the foundation website. "That's very open-minded. How about a menorah for Hanukkah? Maybe a Confederate flag from the Daughters of the Confederacy? May my dog leave a decoration?"
France also wrote that if Wreaths Across American wants to help people honor the fallen, "then they should first make sure that the survivors of the fallen want their brand of symbolic honor."