Attorney Rees Lloyd
July 2, 2011
The battle of veterans represented by Liberty Institute in Texas against censorship of prayers and the banning of references to God or the name of Jesus in military funerals by diktat of Veterans Affairs government bureaucrats at the Houston National Cemetery has national implications.
Liberty Institute, representing Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4, The American Legion Post 586, and the National Memorial Ladies, recently expanded its original lawsuit to add new allegations of unlawful censorship and hostility against religion by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its Director of the Houston National Cemetery, Arleen Ocasio.
Liberty Institute first filed suit in May when Ocasio attempted to censor the prayer to be offered by Christian Pastor Scott Rainey and forbade him from referring to Jesus Christ in prayers at annual, privately-sponsored Memorial Day ceremonies held at the cemetery.
U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes issued a restraining order preventing the VA censorship of prayer, stating that the VA and Ocasio had overstepped their authority and were in essence "decreeing how citizens honor their veterans."
In an amended complaint filed June 28, 2011, adding additional allegations, Liberty Institute alleged that the VA and Ocasio have engaged in religious viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"The hostile and discriminatory action by the Veterans Affairs officials in Houston are outrageous, unconstitutional and must stop," said Jeff Mateer, Esq., general counsel of Liberty Institute in a statement issued on filing the amended complaint.
The amended complaint alleges, among other acts by the VA and Ocasio:
-- VFW and American Legion Honor Details which have performed military services honoring veterans for decades, have been ordered that prayer and religious speech can no longer be included in the burial ritual "unless the family submits a specific prayer or message in writing to Director Ocasio for her approval."
-- Nobleton Jones, the VFW Honor Guard Junior Vice Commander and Chaplain was instructed that the word "God" is forbidden. He states: "Director Ocasio told me that I couldn't say "May God grant you grace, mercy and peace' to grieving families."
-- The American Heritage Funeral Home, which is located next to the Houston National Cemetery and specializes in veterans' funerals, was instructed by government officials that it may not inform the families that they have the option of requesting prayer in the military services performed by veterans' honor details.
-- The president of Memorial Ladies was instructed by Defendant VA Director Ocasio that the words "God" and Jesus are forbidden and that "God Bless" could no longer be written in condolence cards to families. Further, the Memorial Ladies volunteers are banned from speaking a religious message when talking directly to veterans' families on cemetery grounds.
-- The cemetery Chapel, where families used to gather, pray, and reflect is no longer a chapel. Instead, it is now called a "meeting place" and is used for storage. The Chapel Cross and Bible have been removed and the bells that once used to chime, have been silenced by the VA.
U.S. District Court Judge Hughes ordered the VA to respond to the new allegations of the amended complaint by July and ordered a status conference for July 31.
The importance of the fight of veterans through Liberty Institute against the extreme secular-cleansing policies of the VA has national implications: If the veterans and Liberty Institute do not prevail in stopping the VA's policies in Houston, they will spread nationwide at all 131 National Cemeteries.
Oregon, for instance, has three National Cemeteries: Willamette in Portland; Roseberg; and Eagle Point, northeast of Medford in Jackson County. Right now, there does not appear to be any censorship policy in place.
Jerry Rainey is the Director of Eagle Point National Cemetery who administers the Roseberg National Cemetery. Rainey, himself a veteran who retired from the military after 25 years of service., told me in an interview:
"I am not familiar with the specifics of the controversy in Houston. But, I am not requiring anybody to submit anything to be censored regarding what they wish to say in military services. I do not intend to institute any such policy. Services are a family issue. It is totally up to the families how they want to honor their loved ones in their funeral services."
George Allen, Director of Willamette National Cemetery, was unavailable for comment.
This is not the first time that government bureaucrats have attempted to ban God from military funerals at National Cemeteries. In 2007, the VA issued a nationwide order banning the recitation of the Flag Folding Ceremony, which references God, at all national cemeteries after one (1) person complained to the White House that he was offended by hearing reference to God while attending a funeral at Riverside National Cemetery in California. At every military funeral, the Flag is ritually folded, and the tri-cornered folded Flag is presented to the family representative. Traditionally, the Flag Folding Ceremony is recited as to the meaning of each fold as it is made.
Unfortunately for the VA, its secular-cleansing order – made to avvoid lawsuits by the ACLU and like-minded secular extremists – was issued for thhe first time to the Robert J. "Uncle Bobby" Castillo Honor Detail, Team 12, of American Legion Post 79, at RNC, of which I was then an active member. Team 12 founder and captain, the late "Uncle Bobby Castillo," a Purple Heart survivor of D-Day in WWII and a legendary American Legionnaire, received the order by radio as we were about to perform our sixth military service of the day. He rebelled, carried out the service as the family wished, and said: "We have to fight this."
We did fight it, and there was a nationwide outcry when the VA's bureaucratic ban of recitation of the Flag Folding Ceremony became known. Then-President George Bush, himself a veteran, ordered the VA to rescind its ban and leave it to the families to decide what they want in the services honoring their deceased loved one. Then-Vice President Dick Cheny announced the presidential order rescinding the VA's ban in a speech at the National Headquarters of The American Legion in Indianapolis.
The fight of veterans against the diktats of the VA and Director Ocasio to ban "God" and the name "Jesus" from prayers and other expression at the Houston National Cemetery deserves the same kind of national support.
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Fortunately, veterans in Houston are represented by Liberty Institute, an extremely capable non-profit public interest law firm defending religious liberty generally, and veterans in particular.
Liberty Institute is representing also, among other cases, multiple veterans services organizations, including the VFW and The American Legion, in the fight against the ACLU's extremist secular-cleansing legal attacks to destroy the Mojave Desert and Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorials because of the crosses at each honoring veterans. For more information on all these secular-cleansing, culture- transforming cases, and on Liberty Institute's fight against them, see www.LibertyLegal.org.
© 2011 Rees Lloyd - All Rights Reserved
REES LLOYD is a longtime civil rights attorney and veterans activist whose work has been honored by, among others, the California Senate and Assembly, and numerous civil rights, workers rights, and veterans rights organizations. He has testified as a constitutional expert at hearings before the U.S. House and Senate representing The American Legion.
He has been profiled, and his work featured, by such varied print media as the Los Angeles Times and American Legion Magazine, and such broadcast media as ABC's Nightline and 20/20, Fox News In The Morning, and, among others, by Hannity. His writings have appeared in a variety of national, regional, and local newspaper, magazine, and other publications. He is a frequent radio commentator, and a sought after speaker.*
[*For identification only. The views expressed here are solely Rees Lloyd's and not necessarily any person, entity or organization he may otherwise represent. ]