Congress to Codify Religious Rights in Funerals

Last year a Houston Veterans’ Cemetery director was accused of banning all religious references from funerals occurring at her facility (as well as using the chapel as a storage shed, among other things).  A lawsuit was filed, and settled.  The consent decree prohibited the cemetery, then run by Arleen Ocasio, and the VA from interfering with or prohibiting religious references in the ceremonies.

This year, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) has sponsored a bill that would codify in law the ruling in that consent decree.

Problems arose in Houston when the cemetery director misinterpreted [the] law to prohibit all religious speech. 

Though the Houston dispute was rectified, Culberson and the conservative Christian law firm Liberty Institute want an ironclad legal protection for grieving families.

“This was all about the government not being neutral, but being anti-religious, hostile,” Liberty Institute president Kelly Shackelford said.

Shackelford argued that VA policy, even with changes after the Houston lawsuit, is not sufficient to guarantee free religious expression.

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) seemed to think this would allow outsiders to “force prayers” on grieving families. Rep. Timothy J. Walz (D-Minn) made a statement that sounds reasonable at first:

“I want to be very careful that we strike that perfect balance” between the First Amendment’s ban on established religion and its protection of free exercise of religion, Walz cautioned.

Acting appropriately under the Constitution is good.  Thinking that anything related to this bill is remotely related to the “ban on established religion” is ridiculous.  However, Rep Walz also said

the most important issue is ensuring that families can determine the religious content of a service.

And that — which is what was always in place before the Houston kerfuffle — is fair.

One comment

  • I have done funerals there. No one ever suggested any restrictions. This was the most mis-reported story ever.

    They simply wanted those veterans groups that are volunteers for the cemetery, and assigned by the cemetery to funerals, to follow DA protocol on military honors–and to omit the additional ceremonies and verbiage of the ceremonies of those organizations unless specifically requested by families. They wanted the ladies who greet the families to not offer religious language or blessings, and to respect the fact that lots of families are of different religions or of no religion. The family’s wishes is to be the deciding factor. No one ever claimed that a civilian pastor or a military chaplain was restricted in what he or she might say at a funeral.

    You get 20 minutes for a graveside ceremony at a federal cemetery in most cases. Ceremonies with incantations read over each fold, or blessings over presentations of shell casings, are not part of military honors. Those include: firing of volleys and folding and presentation of a flag with a specified formula of presentation. This was much ado about nothing.

    I’ve never heard of anyone doing a service in the chapel there. I didn’t even know there was a chapel.

    The director did overextend herself when she demanded the right to censor a minister’s prayer at the Memorial Day service. That was none of her business. Critics were right on that, I believe.

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