Prayer at National Cemeteries Upheld
Special Report - October 21, 2011
A federal judge signed a consent decree this week ordering the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to put an end to policies hostile to religion at national seminaries. The decree came after the Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit last May on behalf of a Texas pastor, who was told “that he could no longer pray in Jesus’ name at Memorial Day ceremonies” at the Houston National Cemetery, according to a press release from the Liberty Institute. Eventually, several other groups joined the lawsuit, complaining about other First Amendment violations, including volunteers being told “to remove the word ‘God’ from their vocabulary; requiring grieving family members to submit prayers in writing for approval when burying loved ones; closing the Chapel and using it as a storage facility.”
On October 19, Federal District Court Judge Lynn Hughes signed a decree in the case, Rainey v VA, agreed to by all parties in which the VA and the Houston National Cemetery agreed to several policy changes, including:
- Not banning, regulating, or interfering with the religious practices of families at committal services
- Remove an existing requirement “that requires special ceremonies and events at VA national ceremonies and speech at such ceremonies and events, including invocations and benedictions, to be ‘inclusive’ and ‘nonderogatory.’”
- Not editing, controlling, or restraining “the content of private religious speech and expression by speakers at VA-sponsored or non-VA-sponsored special ceremonies or events.”
- Several changes to policies regarding volunteer honor guards that will now allow “the reading of ‘Thirteen Fold’ Flag Recitations,” more freedom for “the VFW and American Legion honor guards to work independently with funeral homes to coordinate provision of volunteer services at the committal services scheduled the cemetery without interference from the government.”
- Not ban religious speech or words, such as “God” and “Jesus,” in condolence cards provided by volunteers or in oral communication at committal services.
- Keeping the Houston National Cemetery chapel open and available during normal operating hours and allowing it to be used for private committal services.
- Returning the Bible, white cross, and Star of David to the Chapel.
“I am glad to see the VA overturn these policies, which will allow us to perform the entire VFW burial ritual,” said Inge Conley, a 20-year veteran with the U.S. Army who served two tours in Korea and is now the Commander of VFW District 4 in Houston, in the Liberty Institute press release. “We should be able to include prayers, mentions of God, and the phrase, ‘May God grant you, grace, mercy and peace,’ to grieving families laying American soldiers to rest.”
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