On June 28, Liberty Institute in Dallas filed court papers alleging that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the director of the Houston National Cemetery, Arleen Ocasio, are engaging in "religious viewpoint discrimination" in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The American Legion will support the case as an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") as soon as possible.
It is claimed that on at least four separate occasions, government officials told Legion and VFW post burial teams in Houston that prayer and religious speech could no longer be included in burial rituals unless the family of the deceased submits a specific prayer or message in writing to Director Ocasio for her approval. One government official reportedly also told the VFW honor guard commander, junior vice commander and chaplain that use of the word "God" is forbidden in unapproved ceremonies.
"The hostile and discriminatory actions by the Veterans Affairs officials in Houston are outrageous, unconstitutional and must stop," said Jeff Mateer, general counsel of Liberty Institute. "Government officials who engage in religious discrimination against citizens are breaking the law. Sadly, this seems to be a pattern of behavior at the Houston VA National Cemetery."
Keith Ethridge, director of the VA's National Chaplain Center, responded: "VA values and respects every veteran and their family's right to a burial service that honors their faith tradition. VA employs nearly one thousand chaplains who, every year, preside over thousands of religious burial services representing veterans of all faiths in VA national cemeteries across the country.
"Prayer is a very personal and sacred moment. To honor veterans as they are laid to rest, VA chaplains always pray and preside over religious services according to the veteran's faith tradition and the family's wishes."
This past month, Federal District Judge Lynn N. Hughes granted a temporary restraining order stopping cemetery director Ocasio in her attempt to prevent Houston pastor Scott Rainey from praying in Jesus' name during a Memorial Day ceremony.
Judge Hughes ruled that such censorship and religious discrimination violate the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment.
"These veterans laid their lives on the line in order to protect freedom of religion for everyone," said Jimmie L. Foster, national commander of The American Legion. "It is ironic that upon their own death, the very government that sent them to war is attempting, at least in this instance, to abridge the veteran's freedom of religion. This is carrying political correctness way too far."