God, Chapels, and the VA
Scott Rainey is the lead pastor of Living Word Church in Houston, Texas. As he has in the past on other occasions, this year Pastor Rainey was invited to give the blessing before a Memorial Day event at Houston National Cemetery, a private event sponsored by the National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston. The Director of the Houston Department of Veterans Affairs, Arleen Ocasio asked that Pastor Rainey send to her a copy of his invocation, and he promptly did so.
This is where it turned bad. According to her:
The above prayer/message is specific to one belief. As you know, on Memorial Day we will be commemorating veterans from all cultures and religious beliefs. The tone of all messages must be inclusive of all beliefs, need to be general, and its fundamental purpose should be specific to those we are honoring, and non-‐denominational in nature.
In other words, yes, you can give the prayer, but God (Yahweh, Allah, Great Spaghetti Monster) forbid you should mention a specific religious message in your religious message.
Unsurprisingly, the court that would later hear this case took exception to her views on the State with regard to Freedom of Religion:
The Government’s compulsion of a programs inclusion or exclusion of a particular religion offends the Constitution. The Constitution does not confide to the government the authority to compel emptiness in the prayer, where a prayer belongs. The gray mandarins of the national government are decreeing how citizens honor their veterans. This is not a pick-up-your-trash sign; this is a we-pick-your-words sign.
These people say that remarks need to be content-neutral messages. The men buried in the cemetery fought for their fellow Americans – for us. In those fights, they were served by chaplains, chaplains of two faiths and many denominations, chaplains in the field. They ministered to men who needed them – to all – not only to their personal calling. No deputy general counsel of the Department of Veterans Affairs was in the Ia Drang Valley. The veteran may be Jewish and his friends may be Christians – or Christians, atheists, Moslems, pagans, Shinto, and Sikh. “Friends” of course, means all who appreciate what they did.
That should have ended all debate, but as The American Legion reported last week, it only marked the genesis of what could be long litigation. In a new lawsuit,
[i]t 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."
The VA for their part defend on a few grounds, first, from the Legion article:
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."
Further, from an email I received from the VA directly which attached several policy documents:
Attached are National Cemetery Administration policy documents. Both documents reiterate in policy that “NCA will allow the reading of recitations at the committal services, but will do so only if such recitations are requested by the deceased’s survivors.” The Houston policy also says, under #7: “Religious Services: On occasion, a family may request that a member of the Clergy provide a brief religious service. This may include a reading from scriptures or a brief prayer. If the family provides their own clergy, the honor team will not provide this service.” It also says, and most importantly, under 8c that “NCA employees, including VA sponsored Volunteer Honor Guards, will not be selective in determining which recitations will be read. The deceased’s survivor(s), and only they, will identify the text to be read. Subject to paragraph d, NCA will accept for reading at its committal services any such texts including those which reflect any, all or no religious traditions on an equal basis.”
Paragraph d then says the only limitations on texts, which do not include religion: “VA will not accept for reading any texts that would, as determined by the cemetery director, have an adverse impact on the dignity and solemnity of a cemetery honoring those who served the Nation. Among the texts that would not be read would be those that are obscene, racist, are “fighting words,” or are coarse, abusive, or politically partisan.”
When I first got an email alert on this lawsuit from Fox News (I do read their page, but do not watch the TV Channel) I figured it was simple hyperbole. Turns out, I was VERY wrong on that one. Look at some of the instances cited in the new case:
On at least three separate occasions, Government Officials informed VFW District 4 that prayer and religious speech could 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.
On the morning of May 5, 2011, Director Ocasio instructed incoming Commander Inge Conley, Junior Vice Commander Jay Sanders, and Commander Julia Rosenbaum, that prayer/religious speech could no longer be included in the VFW burial ritual unless the family of the deceased submits the prayer/religious speech to Director Ocasio in writing for her approval.
On May 19, 2011, Government Official Jose Henriquez told VFW District 4 Honor Guard Commander Gus Sivcoski, Honor Guard Junior Vice Commander Nobleton Jones, and VFW District 4 Chaplain Felix Sivcoski that they were allowed to say the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, but no other prayers or religious speech. Mr. Henriquez informed Chaplain Sivcoski that the word ―God‖ was forbidden, which is not included in the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm. Mr. Henriquez then came back and told VFW District 4 burial team members that no prayers or religious messages are allowed, including the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, absent prior approval.
Houston National Cemetery official policy governing volunteer honor guards additionally states that if the family of the deceased veteran has a member of the clergy recite a prayer or read from scripture that the volunteer honor guard may not also read scripture or recite a prayer.
The claims go on in this vein for quite a while. But, there are other things alleged in the complaint that are truly troubling:
Director Ocasio only unlocks the [Cemetery] Chapel doors when meetings or training sessions are held at the building. Furthermore, it is no longer called a ―chapel― but a meeting facility. The back pews are filled with boxes, making the building appear more like a storage facility than the Chapel for which it was originally intended.
There seems to be HUGE confusion on the issue of Religious Freedom. Specifically, a shocking number of people think that Jefferson’s letter to the Connecticut Baptists is somehow legally binding. There is no “wall of separation between Church and State”. No Court has held that there is. The applicable tests are too lengthy to go into in this venue, but you can read about the Lemon Test and its progeny at Wikipedia.
The short story on this as far as the Supremes are concerned are analyzing whether there is:
1. The government's action must have a secular legislative purpose;
2. The government's action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
3. The government's action must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion.
The first one is easy, as they’ve found that memorializing in a religious manner also serves as secular. The problem for the VA is #2 and #3. If they are mandating certain things be either included or excluded, they run afoul of both #2 and #3.
Looking forward to sharing The American Legion’s Amicus Brief as soon as I get it. Apparently it is being written now!