HOUSTON—As Houston National Cemetery undergoes extensive renovations and construction at its northwest Houston location, veterans groups and local clergy are celebrating a renovation of the cemetery’s policies on religious symbols and phrases at funerals and services.
“God Bless America,” said Willie Beck with American Legion 827 as a crowd of fellow veterans joined him in a round of applause. Gathered at VFW Post 581 they were there to celebrate the end of five months of negotiations with the Veterans Administration over policies initiated by Houston National Cemetery director Arleen Ocasio.
In May, Houston-area pastor Scott Rainey rejected a request by Ocasio that he remove references to Jesus from his Memorial Day prayer at Houston National Cemetery. Ocasio requested an all-inclusive prayer that would not single out a particular deity or religion. Rainey sought and was granted a temporary injunction that allowed him to give his Christian-themed prayer anyway.
But lawyers with the Liberty Institute who took on Rainey’s case also discovered that under Ocasio’s direction that demands for religious political correctness were not just limited to the Memorial Day prayer.
Women with the volunteer group called National Memorial Ladies said they were being told not to say “God bless you” while assisting grieving families at the cemetery. And honor guards provided by VFW and American Legion volunteers reported they were being pressured to remove religious references from their burial rituals that mention God as many as five times.
Lisa Ward said that honor guard disagreement forced her to conduct her husband’s military funeral at a private funeral chapel where the honor guard ritual would be allowed.
“I couldn’t understand how one person at a federal cemetery could be dictating what is said and what’s not said,” said Ward.
After months of mediation between lawyers from the Liberty Institute and the Veterans Administration, Federal District Judge Lynn Hughes signed a consent decree on Wednesday clarifying the VA’s rules on religious terminology at funeral and memorial services. The VA agreed “not to ban, regulate, or otherwise interfere with prayers, recitations, or words of religious expression absent family objection” and to “allow veterans’ families to hold committal services with any religious or secular context as they desire.”
“And no pastor like Pastor Rainey will ever again be told how to pray,” said Liberty Institute lead counsel Jeffrey Mateer.
“I want anybody to be able to pray as an American the way that they feel comfortable praying,” added Rainey.
In response to the settlement, VA Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Steve Muro issued a written statement:
“This agreement preserves VA policy that families’ wishes are paramount when their loved ones – our nation’s heroes – are laid to rest,” he said. “This agreement respects the important principle that the family’s wishes for religious observances at the committal services must be honored, which VA has fought to protect from day one.”
The agreement does require local members of VFW District 4 and the volunteers with the National Memorial Ladies to resign as official VA volunteers and instead make their services available to military families as private citizens.
“This settlement allows us to move forward and continue to focus on fulfilling our important mission of honoring the service and sacrifice of America’s Veterans and their families.” added Muro.
The initial outcry from the Memorial Day 2011 controversy over Rainey’s prayer led to hundreds calling for the resignation of Houston National Cemetery Director Arleen Ocasio. The VA would only say that is an internal decision and Ocasio remains at her post.