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Location: St. Louis, Missouri, United States

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

God Bless Texas - and Veterans Funerals' Religious Rights

Jack Kemp

In further researching the current status of religious expression at military funerals, a topic I had previously written about in the Obama administration's War on Religion, I contacted DeeAnn Thigpen, the Press Secretary to Cong. John Culberson, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans' Affairs and Related Agencies. Here is an account of the latest battle and court ruling.

In 2011, Dr. Scott Rainey, is the Lead Pastor at Living Word Church of the Nazarene in Houston, Texas, along with The Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4 and The American Legion Post 586 and The National Memorial Ladies all found they had a problem where none previously existed.

Arleen Ocasio, Director of the Houston National Cemetery, requested that Pastor Rainey submit his proposed Memorial Day prayer in advance, a prayer that ended with the invoking of Jesus's name, as per the teachings of his faith. He did so and was, ironically asked, in an email that misspelled his name as "Reiney," to edit his prayer, removing all religious references.

A lawsuit filed by Pastor Rainey and the above veterans' and auxiliary groups claimed:

"Director Ocasio stated that Pastor Rainey’s prayer is ―specific to one belief‖ and ―on Memorial Day we will be commemorating veterans from all cultures and religious beliefs. Therefore, ―[t]he tone of all messages must be inclusive of all beliefs, need to be general, and its fundamental purpose should be … non-denominational in nature."

By this logic, no person of any faith should profess their faith in a public prayer. One could use the same logic to say that a rabbi invoking the name of God should refrain because he would somehow offend believers in the Vedic texts of India - and also atheists, Muslims, etc. Such a request reduces professions of faith (in both senses of the word, i.e., by ministers' and lay people' speech) to what is essentially a de facto hate crime, something to be ashamed to speak of in public.

In further Owellian Newspeak, Director Ocasio complained that Pastor Rainey's was "specific to the teachings of one faith." Yes, that's why his title is "Pastor" and not "New Age Counselor" or "Chapter President of the state Atheists' Association." Notice insidiousness of this request. Rather than disinviting any Man or Woman of the Cloth, Director Ocasio wanted those that attended the service to be forced to take on the role of a secular speaker.

This is conceptually somewhat similar to forcing Catholic and other religious hospitals to become dispensers of birth control and funders of abortions. It extends the attack on religion from the cradle to the grave.

After further insistence on this "viewpoint-neutral" policy (Orwell's "Ministry of Truth" would be proud of such phrasing), the lawsuit then states:

"On May 26, 2011, Pastor Scott Rainey filed a complaint and a motion for a temporary restraining order in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, seeking that the Defendants be enjoined from censoring the contents of his prayer and religious expression at the May 20, 2011 Memorial Day ceremony..."

At the hearing held the next day, Pastor Rainey and his attorneys introduced new charges of Bibles being removed from the chapel - as was a cross - at the Houston National Cemetery as well. Why stop there? perhaps the cemetery could remove crosses and Stars of David from the individual burial sites because someone seeing them might be offended? The removal of the Bibles and the Cross from the chapel is behavior that immigrants to the U.S. who came from communist countries would find chillingly familiar.

Because the restraining order was in effect, Pastor Rainey attended the Memorial Day service and recited The Lord's Prayer and invoked the name of Jesus. However, the Houston National Cemetery then began to inhibit the speech of Veterans of Foreign Wars Honor Guards at individual military funerals. Specifically, prayers and religious speech were forbidden unless submitted in advance to Director Ocasio. Probably believing such a submission for approval was a fools' errand, the VFW simply stopped including prayers and references to "God" or "Jesus" in the funeral ceremonies they performed at Houston National. Even the words "God Bless" were removed from condolence cards used by the volunteer organization, the National Memorial Ladies, at this cemetery. And they were instructed to discontinue using the expression "God bless you," and use "Peace be with you" instead.

A further specific example of a petty ban on "offending language" is also mentioned in the lawsuit against Houston National. From Page 13 of the court papers:

"For approximately two and a half years, Junior Vice Commander Nobleton Jones recited the following to family members of the deceased as he handed them the discharged shell cases from the gun salute: ―On behalf of the United States of America, a grateful nation, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, I present you with these shell cases from the shots that were fired to honor our departed comrade. We ask that God grant you and your family grace, mercy, and peace.

..After a burial ceremony on May 16th, 2011, the Government Official monitoring the funeral instructed Mr. Jones that he was no longer allowed to recite his message as he hands the discharged shells to the family, presumably because his message includes the word ―God."

Page 11 of the lawsuit says that a VFW chaplain was not allowed to be present at funeral service. This frankly sounds like North Korea and not the United States.

After months of litigation, the Texas federal court ruled that the Department of Veteran Affairs had to comply with fifty points of Pastor Rainey's lawsuit and stop their major ban on religious expression. Although this annulled this attack on the First Amendment, there still were some scars as some funerals held in the interim period before the court ruling. Fox News states:

"One widow testified that a cemetery employee sought to restrict the religious speech of the VFW Honor Guard just moments before her husband’s funeral was about to begin.

Another widow, whose husband served in the army for thirty years, held her husband’s funeral service at a nearby private chapel due to V.A. restrictions on religious expression. These grieving widows joined the lawsuit against the VA in hopes that no other family would have to endure such unwarranted governmental intrusion."

And so the veterans, even in their deaths, got to fight another battle for the "freedoms that aren't free." They and their loved ones got to teach us another lesson in American History even from their graveside. Let us be wise enough to learn it and stand up for it because this fight is far from over.

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