The U.S. Veterans Administration has reached a legal agreement guaranteeing religious freedom during burial services at national veterans' cemeteries. Under the terms of the consent order, veterans groups will once again have the discretion to include religious
references in their ceremonial observances honoring deceased veterans.
The controversy arose at the National Cemetery in Houston, Texas, where cemetery director Arleen Occasio
instructed veterans representatives that they were to cease making references to God during funeral rituals, and to refrain from making any religious remarks in expressing condolences to the spouses and families of deceased veterans.
Occasio had also instructed the National Memorial Ladies that they were to remove the words "God," "Jesus," or "God bless" from the condolence cards they sent to military families. Occasio also proceeded to convert the cemetery chapel to storage space, removing the cross, the Bible, and the star of David, and ordering that the chapel's bell chimes no longer be rung.
Occasio found herself in legal hot water earlier in the year when she attempted to censor the benediction offered at the cemetery's Memorial Day ceremony. Occasio informed Pastor Scott Rainey that he would be eliminated from the ceremony unless he removed the
name of Jesus from his prayer. U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes responded by forbidding Occasio from "dictating the content of speeches...whether those speeches are denominational prayers or otherwise."
Judge Hughes has now signed a consent decree between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the veterans groups restoring the religious liberties of veterans representatives serving military families. The consent decree requires that the Veterans Administration revoke policies that restricted prayers offered in national veterans' cemeteries to those which are "inclusive and nonderogatory."
The VA has consented to allow Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion honor guards to provide their own texts of burial rituals to the survivors of deceased veterans for their consideration free of
censorship by cemetery officials. The VA has agreed "not to ban, regulate, or otherwise interfere with prayers, recitations, or words of religious expression absent family objection." The Bible, cross, and star of David will also be restored to the cemetery chapel.
"This agreement preserves VA policy that families' wishes are paramount when their loved ones--our nation's heroes--are laid to rest," says Veterans Administration Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Steve Muro. "This agreement respects the important principle that the family's wishes for religious
observances at the committal service must be honored.
"We are thankful that after almost five months of litigation, the government is finally doing the right thing and ending religious hostility at the National Cemetery," says Jeff Mateer, general counsel for the Liberty Institute. "This decree not only impacts religious freedoms at the Houston National Cemetery, but at all VA cemeteries nationwide because the government has agreed to modify these policies hostile to religion."
Inge Conley, Commander of VFW District 4, is relieved that the controversy has been resolved. "We are glad to see the VA overturn these policies, which will allow us
to perform the entire VFW burial ritual. We should be able to include prayers and mentions of God in these ceremonies." The VFW had been ordered to stop using the customary phrase "May God grant you grace, mercy, and peace" to grieving family members laying an American soldier to rest.
The dispute prompted Houston area U.S. Representative John Culberson
to go undercover at Houston National Cemetery as an honor guard member himself. Congressman Culberson was so outraged at the curbs on religious expression that he
threatened to "zero out" Occasio's salary if changes weren't made. Culberson is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
"Far too many of our military veterans have been laid to rest without a final prayer spoken over their graves because of some misguided policies that were blindly enforced," Culberson comments. "This practice has finally come to an end.
The Veterans Administration has agreed to pay $215,000 in legal fees to Liberty Institute, which represented the veterans organizations in the case.