Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dept. of Veterans Affairs censoring funeral prayers

HOUSTON (FOX-Houston) - Local veterans say the Department of Veterans Affairs is consistently censoring their prayers, banning them from saying the words "God," and "Jesus" during funeral services at Houston National Cemetery.

Three separate organizations have come forward complaining the cemetery's director and other government officials are violating the First Amendment. Members from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and the National Memorial Ladies all complain of "religious hostility" at the cemetery.

On Tuesday they told a federal judge what's been going on there.

"People are doing things out there that I feel like they shouldn't be," said Jim Rodgers, a Vietnam veteran.

"We are private citizens in a private organization, and yet we are restricted from saying what our ritual calls for," said John Spahr, Veterans of Foreign Wars.

A 26-page complaint outlines the allegations. According to the court papers, the cemetery's director, Arleen Ocasio, bans the word "God" and requires prayers to be submitted for government approval.

"We were told we could no longer say "God bless you" and "God bless your family," said Marilyn Koepp, a volunteer with the National Memorial Ladies.

The group attends about 60 funerals a week to honor veterans and console families.

"How did I feel? I probably shouldn't say how I felt because it was absolutely apalling that this woman would come aboard and tell us we can not say 'God bless you,'" said Koepp.

Nobleton Jones felt belittled when he says a government official told him he couldn't use the word "God" in his recitation to a family as he handed them a bag of shell casings from a gun salute.

"I tell the people, 'We ask that God grant you and your family grace, mercy and peace,’ That forth has been censored," said Jones.

Attorneys with the Liberty Institute began investigating last month after a local pastor won his fight to say his "Jesus" prayer at the cemetery's Memorial Day ceremony.

"When we investigated we determined the government and the director are discriminating based upon religious viewpoint," said Jeff Mateer, general counsel for Liberty Institute.

Ocasio couldn't be reached for comment. Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Hinrichs told the judge:

"We're in the process of going through the claims. Some are true, and some are not true."

What's more, the veterans allege the VA turned the chapel into a meeting room shortly after the director came on board two years ago.

They say they won't back down from the fight.

"I am going to say 'God bless you' until I don't know what would make me ever stop it," said Koepp.

So far the complaints appear to be isolated to the Houston National Cemetery. The government has until the middle of next month to respond to the allegations.


  1. Let me give you my take on this. I recently attended a military funeral, although in a different state. There are certain (what I would call "informal") veterans groups who show up at every funeral and "barge in." Often, they show up before the funeral procession on Harleys, flying flags, dressed in slovenly biker gear and camo, with long hair and unkept beards. (You'd almost think they were monks. lol)They take it upon themselves to accompany the funeral procession with the Harleys, and stand off to the side during the graveside service. As soon as the service is complete, they are first in line to greet the family, where they had family members some trinket--like the bag of shell casings described in this article--along with this greeting described in the article ("God bless you," or something similar).

    On rare occasion, these men and women will provide a valuable service by shielding the family and friends from those wacky Westboro nutjobs. But otherwise, a majority of the time, they are an intrusion. I'd say they mean well, in a "look at me" sort of way, but if given the choice for my own family, I would kindly ask them to get lost. They don't know the family or the lost soldier.

    This is not a case where the Baptist family is prohibited from invoking Jesus' name during the funeral. No doubt there are many of our soldiers who are unbelievers or non-Christians, and these people are offending the grieving families by thrusting upon them the reference to God.

  2. Kirk, these groups were described as VFW, American Legion, and National Memorial Ladies. The shell casings were from a gun salute performed at the grave site by either the VFW or the AL. I really doubt they were "biker" vets. But all that is really beside the point of the story. This director of the cemetery is telling people they cannot utter certain words. Illegal in every respect.

  3. Illegal perhaps, but--assuming these families are atheists or non-Christians and have requested no religious utterances, and that these veterans groups asserted religious sentiments anyway--then I don't believe the veterans are acting in a Christian manner. Love is not rude.

    To turn the situation around, how would you like it if, during your family member's funeral, a person came up to you and said, 'Allahu Akbar" or, "may the flying spaghetti monster grant you comfort" or, "Your loved one died because God hates fags"?

  4. I guess I don't understand the context of all of this. Hypothetically, were an Orthodox Christian being buried in this cemetery would the priest serving the funeral be expected to hand over a copy of the service to be edited by the cemetery director or are the guidelines in question for these 'National Memorial Ladies' and other such groups that randomly show up at funerals?

  5. Kirk, the point is not that this woman is "protecting" atheist families from the mention of God. She is editing God out of all funerals. As a pastor, I would not presubmit my prayers or service to the manager of a cemetery. If the family has asked me, as a Christian minister to perform the funeral, that I will do.

    By the way, the "bikers" don't just "show up." They are often requested by the families through an organization with which I am affiliated, who sends out the message. They may not be in funeral garb, but they are there to honor the fallen veteran and family.

  6. I serve on a national cemetery honor guard once each month. These service are scheduled by the VA in St Louis and have an allotted time within 30 minutes only. Typically ministers and sometimes Catholic priests just stand on the side, occasionally they will say prayers after the military honors, and rarely and I have only seen it with Black Baptists will the minister in robes walk ahead of the remains reading a psalm. All the honor guard commander knows is whether clergy will be there and this is minutes prior to arrival of the family at the shelter. Our experience is that funeral directors are not doing their job by talking with the clergy before they arrive and when they arrive with the family they have no idea what is going on. I believe the weak link between the family and its wishes are the funeral directors who do not coordinate with the veterans doing the service. We have had conflicts with Catholic priests wanting to recite liturgical prayers and scatter earth on caskets and there have been arguments during committal services over clergy wanting to take too much time. On the other hand most protestant ministers will just stand and do nothing letting the veterans chaplain do all the praying. The whole thing just lacks proper communication which leaves a veterans honor guard standing and waiting for the party to arrive knowing nothing about their wishes.