Religious Groups Criticize Houston VA for Respecting Families' Wishes

Imagine you are at a funeral for a fallen veteran, possibly your husband or wife or uncle, and cemetery volunteers begin publicly praying to their god despite the fact that your family doesn't share their beliefs. 

The nation remembers Richard Tillman, who jumped on stage to stand up for his brother Pat Tillman's wishes.  The Veterans Affairs Cemetery Administration protects the family when it restricts the religious speech of volunteers, and volunteers can opt out of funerals where the family has not requested a religious service consistent with the religious interests of the volunteer.  Volunteers are given access to funerals to support the family, not to promote personal religious beliefs.

The Houston Chronicle reports that some Christian groups have filed suit against the constitutional policies of the VA cemetery administration:

Court documents allege that "the content of prayer forbade the use of religious messages in burial rituals unless the deceased's family submitted the text for prior approval," that the [Houston] "VA prohibited volunteer honor guards from providing optional recitations to families," and that "a government official monitors what is said."

The target of the lawsuit is Houston VA cemetery director Arleen Ocasio, who is accused of preventing volunteers cemetery workers from sending "God bless" prayers to families who haven't asked for them. The article indicates that the Liberty Institute, like the Alliance Defense Fund before it, is getting assistance from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion in promoting special Christian privilege in government activities.  The following key points are missed in the Chronicle's treatment of the issue:

  • the cemetery administration rightfully maintains a secular ceremony in the absence of family requests;
  • the choices for a burial ceremony are not "religious" or "secular," but rather "secular" or the family's choice among hundreds of different religious traditions;
  • the cemetery administration rightfully allows for religious messages, symbols, and rituals only according to the family's wishes (not the volunteers' wishes);
  • volunteer speech is rightfully limited as their speech is government speech rather than private speech when volunteering at the cemetery;
  • volunteers may provide religious commentary only when consistent with the family's specific; sectarian wishes and only when approved by the presiding chaplain;
  • veterans organizations should advocate for all veterans and avoid misusing their position to promote special Christian privileges;
  • the true victims in this situation are the families who have lost loved ones, not the volunteers who want a government platform for their religious beliefs

The Veterans Administration should explicitly state that government-provided ceremonies are secular unless the family requests a specific kind of religious ritual, and that volunteers must avoid religious language unless the presiding chaplain confirms their intended prayers are consistent with the family's wishes. 

The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers has confirmed directly that cemetery director Ocasio supports the rights of families to have religious services in the manner that they the family desire.  Although the chapel is still under construction, it is nonetheless open and operating as an interfaith chapel facility.  Christian and other religious materials and symbols are available for those that request them (not on permanent display) and volunteers may provide religious speech when authorized by the presiding chaplain or when directly requested by the family (not whenever the volunteer wishes).

Pro-Christian media and local groups have run wild with the initial story.  Protests at the cemetery, press conferences, and follow-up stories have called for the resignation of the cemetery director.  This story also builds on a recent Liberty Institute lawsuit fighting for the right of a Christian to pray to Jesus at an official government Memorial Day event (thus providing special privilege to one form of Christianity), rather than to provide a ceremonial, non-denominational prayer (that only discriminates against atheists).

The Liberty Institute and the volunteers at the cemetery fail to understand that participating in a veteran's memorial service is a privilege that comes with the responsibility to serve the family, not one's personal evangelical interests.  In accepting a part in the ceremony, the volunteer becomes subject to the family's wishes.  If the family has not requested a certain type of religious ceremony, then volunteers who pray at them are violating the trust and confidence of the family.  Would these volunteers, during their burial ceremony, appreciate being told "Allahu Akbar" from a well-meaning Muslim?  Maybe the family would be offended and maybe not, but the government and its representatives, those volunteers, do not have the right to impose on the family a religious viewpoint without the family's permission.  This is not private religious speech or even public religious speech.  These are comments from volunteers duly appointed by the National Cemetery Administration.  Cemetery volunteers engage in government speech, not private speech, and so it is restricted to the wishes of the family.

The Chronicle
reported on Nobleton Jones, a volunter who has provided shell casings to grieving family members, adding his own personal prayer, "We ask that God grant you and your family grace, mercy and peace."  How many grieving family members have had their memorial ruined by Jones's disregard for their beliefs?  Isn't one family member too many?  Even if the number is zero, Jones has overstepped his authority by inserting his personal religion into a government activity.  If the family did not request a minister, then the volunteer has no right to stand in.  If the family did request a minister, presumably they trust the minister rather than the untrained volunteer to offer the prayer.  Only if the family requested a specific religious ceremony and the volunteer received approval from the presiding chaplain should the volunteer feel comfortable imposing their beliefs on the family's memorial service.

One lost message among many in the "censoring God" rhetoric is that religious speech and religious ceremonies are entirely authorized by the national cemetery.  MAAF absolutely defends the right of veterans and their families to request religious emblems on their grave markers, to have ministers and attending volunteers offer sectarian prayer, to have religious symbols and rituals as part of burial ceremonies at government cemeteries, and to have government officials (presumably cemetery chaplains) review and control volunteer actions and speech in their official duties.  The key guideline for speech, symbols, and the entire burial ceremony is:  Only at the request of the family and only in the manner prescribed by the family.

While the facts are still coming in, MAAF is concerned this is one more collaboration by veterans organizations like the VFW and Legion and radical Christian lawyers like Alliance Defense and Liberty Legal to apply veteran's service to secure special privileges for Christianity, such as posting Christian symbols on public land, stopping non-Christians from having the same privileges, and praying to Jesus during government ceremonies.  The VFW, Legion, volunteers and other Christian advocates should redirect their efforts away from responsible officials like Ocasio and instead respect the wishes veterans' families.

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they no longer watned young volunteers because they only land them in trouble with the police or are extra work because staff have to babysit them to ensure they dont get into trouble. Still considering the huge amounts of good work that volunteers (the sensible ones) have done in the past and continue to do, I have high hopes for volunteerism. My only plea to those of us that assist in any way to get young volunteers abroad is that we should ensure they undergo some sort of cultural orientation that emphasises 1)respecting others' culture and laws no matter how strange they seem ( Eeeuw! as half my students would say) 2)Being aware of how helping across cultures can make or break stereotypes and that they are a part of it and 3)Particularly for their mental well-being, also realising that they cant change the place in one trip so not to be too hard on themselves. I have of course contributed to this discussion mostly from what I'm familiar with. Western volunteers in developing countries. Well prepared volunteers may indeed be one small contribution towards fairer international co-operation. Particularly the young whose ways are not set and who are future leaders
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I am so disappopinted I didn't see this sooner. I hate to burst so many peoples bubbles, but Ocasio didn't do anything wrong, as a volunteer you are no longer a private citizen. Just like people who volunteer to serve in the military are no longer private citizens. Upon volunteering you give up your righst as a private citizen. And how did so many people misread this article, she isn't getting fired, and nothing in the article points that direction, she is following guidelines that are perfectly defined to control what happens during the ceremony, and she didn't write them, they've probably been compiled over the years to create a water-tight method to control volunteers, some people need to pull their heads out of their collectives asses and think about how long the gonverment has been controling the people of the US, they probably have a template they use to create rules in nearly every circumstance, all they have to do is change the names.
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bye bye Arleen. I hope you can find other work. I also hope you don't try to play God at your next job.
If these people volunteer and disrespect grieving families by saying prayers that do not agree with the family's beliefs, doesn't that defeat the purpose of being a volunteer at a funeral?
Lying for your god? tsk tsk.
Iv'e been a follower of the Olde Religion, or the religion called Wicca for over 40+ years. I was a follower through out my time in the military. I would NOT want a christian prayer said at my funeral, any more than a christian family would want me to say a Wiccan prayer at theirs. These so called volunteers, in my eyes, are just trying to force their beliefs on everyone else. Whether its wanted, appreciated, or not. We have put up with these people interupting our ceremonies and Rites long enough. Its not a matter of free speech. Its a matter of freedom of religion.
Anon: Good to know you support unrestricted freedom for religious speech. I'll be sure to take this opportunity to volunteer for funeral services so I can let the families know how proud they should be that their fallen soldier relatives have served Satan in life and in their deaths. The families shouldn't be offended; it's private, free religious speech, providing them wisdom and a viewpoint that the government wants to tell me I can't give them, based on some silly idea like... courtesy or respect. Satan loves you, Anon. Most especially loves people like you.
So, anonymous, if I were to volunteer at a funeral and insisted on loudly proclaiming my own atheism against the wishes of the family, you'd have no problem with that. Good to know.
here is the problem: instead of this staying as a purely secular problem (she limited the volunteers free speach, which goes against the first amendment) it has become more of a "she hates god and is therefore bad" argument. her intentions were good (wouldnt you be angry if somebody said praise allah at you extremely christian funeral) though apparently misguided (now as an atheist i hate to say if but) this proves that the road to hell is paved with good intentions
Even a week late I feel the need, as a veteran and an atheist, to point out to you the fact that you are the one who does not understand the 1stA of the Constitution. With the right of "free speech" (and all other "rights") there is a responsibility to act in a reasonable, respectful, and legal manner; you seem to be saying otherwise. You also obviously don't know anything at all about the guidelines that almost all volunteers have to follow when working for their chosen organization; in this case the federal gov't. As a matter of fact, I have never seen any organization which uses volunteers not have some sort of training/indoctrination before allowing the volunteers to represent them; most of them now use a "volunteer agreement" which amounts to a legal, and therefore binding, contract between the particular organization and its volunteers. If you don't like the guidelines, don't volunteer; simple.
It's not about anti-Christian anything. It's about a Federal appointee overstepping her authority and attempting to limit free speech. Director Ocasio has forbidden private citizens rom exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech, and also the First Amendment right to freedom of religious expression. NONE of the familes were subjected to anything: all families involved were asked beforehand about their religious preferences and the volunteers' remarks were tailored accordingly. What Director Ocasio has stated is that the families can no longer be asked if they wish ANY type of religious ceremony for the Veteran, and has also directed funeral homes that they cannot correspond with families regarding individual religious preferences. So, a Federal Government appointee attempting to restrict private citizen's First Amendment rights as well as attempting to dictate to private businesses what they can and cannot do is okay with you? Really? And you justify this disregard of the Bill of Rights by hiding behind a religious argument? I expected nothing less. Volunteers are not and cannot be construed as Government employees based on where they choose to volunteer. You really should become more versed in employee law as opposed to spouting nonsenical drivel.
These Christian groups should consider whether they want to give their infamous brethren of the Westboro Baptist Church (the ones of "God Hates America" and "God Hates Fags" notoriety) yet another open invitation to interject their hateful slogans at military funerals. How? By volunteering. At heart, this is a matter of decency and respect. If a person volunteers to participate in a funeral service, and does so under the auspices of any entity, public or private, this is an implicit agreement to abide by the reasonable rules of that authorizing body. If some zealot cannot follow a rule to respect the wishes of the family grieving a lost loved one, then that person needs to walk away. This outrageous lawsuit would instead codify intrusive religious bullying of the most inconsiderately self-righteous variety.
Volunteering is work without pay for a cause or organization. Whatever happened to respecting the beliefs and values of our fellow citizens? It seems that the cemetery has taken the right course.

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