Religious Freedom Affirmed at Houston VA Cemetery
Religious freedom was affirmed once again at the Houston VA Cemetery as US District Court Judge Lynn Hughes signed off on an agreement between Houston veterans and volunteer groups and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The groups had accused the VA of religious censorship through the banning of the words Jesus and God from burial services at the Houston National Cemetery. For more background on these allegations, click here.
"This agreement preserves VA policy that families' wishes are paramount when their loved ones - our nation's heroes - are laid to rest," Steve Muro, VA's undersecretary for memorial affairs, said in a prepared statement. "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."
Many would dispute that point as Houston National Cemetery Director Arleen Ocasio went out of her way to interfere with the religious wishes of family members of our fallen heroes.
Congressman John Culberson (R-TX) had previously gone undercover and found that the Obama Administration and the Department of Veteran Affairs are not being honest with the American people. Congressman Culberson went undercover on July 8th, 2011 at the Houston National Cemetery and he says, “Right in front of me, the VA directly and deliberately attempted to prevent the VFW from doing their magnificent, spiritual ritual over the grave of this fallen hero." Click here to listen to his story.
After the agreement was settled, Culberson had this to say, “I am glad the lawsuit is over and grateful that Judge Lynn Hughes has ordered the VA to stop interfering with our veterans' funerals. It is deeply disappointing that it took a lawsuit to force the VA to do the right thing. I plan to change the law to ensure that the federal government cannot interfere with our veterans' funerals, and I will also work to have Arlene Ocasio removed. Under her direction, the cemetery chapel was closed and used for storage, and she has repeatedly prevented prayers from being said over the graves of our veterans.”
Under the agreement, the local members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4 and Houston National Memorial Ladies will resign from their positions as official VA volunteers and will be able to, as private citizens, provide their own texts of recitations to funeral homes for the use by Veteran's families as they choose.
Judge Lana Shadwick, candidate for the 179th Criminal District Court said, "This agreement restores the rights of the families of our honored veterans to practice their religious freedom at our National Cemetery without interference from the government." Shadwick continued, "Freedom of Religion is the foundation of our 1st Amendment rights. These rights must be protected at all times and government officials should not ever be allowed to practice censorship of religious services."
The agreement also states the VA agrees "Not to ban, regulate or otherwise interfere with prayers, recitations, or words of religious expression absent family objections". The agreement allows families of fallen veterans to hold services with any religious or secular content they want.
Houston Area Pastor's Council Executive Director, Dave Welch had this to say about the decision, "We applaud the outstanding legal work performed by Liberty Institute on behalf of not only the plaintiff organizations but on behalf of all of us. The egregious violations of First Amendment religious and speech freedoms by the VA via Ms. Ocasio were an affront to every person buried at the National Cemetery and the sacrifice of their families. The good news is that the Consent Decree by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes assures that these freedoms will be protected in the future in Houston; the reality is that the national VA policies toward religious expression still reflect a growing hostility that is rampant in our federal government. This battle was won, however there is still a war and we must press forward on land, sea and air to return our nation to reverence of our Judeo-Christian foundations and faith."
Director Ocassio had converted the long-used chapel into a storage room/meeting facility. The agreement calls for the Bible, cross and Star of David to be returned to the chapel, and that the chapel will no longer be referred to as a "meeting facility". The Bible, cross and star will be visible in the chapel and available to the families for their use.
The agreement does not agree with the disposition of demands for the resignation or termination by protesters of Director Ocassio. The VA referred to this as "an internal matter". Shouldn't the public have the right to know what will happen with her?
This is a victory for religious freedom in America and for the 1st Amendment's protection of the rights of the individual from governmental censorship.