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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