Texas Tall Tale?: VA Lays To Rest Religious Right Distortions About Cemetery Censorship

What's really going on at the Houston National Cemetery?

Religious Right activists love to spread tales of outrage about alleged attempts by government officials to censor religion. These stories are great for fund-raising and stirring up the faithful, but over the years I’ve learned to be skeptical of them.

Consider a case under way in Houston. According to the Religious Right, an official with the Department of Veterans Affairs named Arleen Ocasio has ordered volunteers with an organization called the National Memorial Ladies to stop saying “God bless you” to families at funerals and sending them religious sympathy cards. Furthermore, Ocasio is accused of closing a chapel at the Houston National Cemetery and even stripping it of Christian material.

The Liberty Institute, a Texas-based Religious Right outfit, has filed a lawsuit. Local veterans have held rallies to express their outrage. Emotions are running high, and some are calling for Ocasio to be fired.

That’s the Religious Right’s version of events. What’s really going on?

As our friends at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) noted recently, the VA has issued a 21-page legal reply to these charges. As the BJC put it, the reply “emphasizes VA policy that all burial ceremonies are to respect the family’s wishes with respect to the inclusion or exclusion of religious text. Volunteers are trained not to insert their own religious beliefs in lieu of the family’s request.”

Here are some highlights from the legal filing:

* The VA’s guidelines “seek to ensure that the religious preferences, if any, of families of deceased Veterans are fully respected, and they specifically say that the honor guards may read scripture or a brief prayer if the family makes such a request to the honor guard team and the family does not provide its own clergy….”

* Guidelines “reflect that committal services are private in nature and VA volunteer honor guards must respect the wishes and religious preferences of the families of deceased Veterans. If a family decides that it only wants to have clergy provide the service, which includes a reading of scripture and prayer, the family’s preference should be respected.”

* Specifically at the Houston National Cemetery, guidelines permit the use of “religious recitations at private committal services if the family of a deceased Veteran so chooses. Defendants believe that it should be the family’s choice and decision what to have read in accordance with their faith tradition, if any, because it would be improper for others to impose their own religious preferences on a Veteran’s family, especially during this meaningful event.”

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, took some time recently to look into this matter. Jason made a few phone calls and learned some facts that have been conveniently omitted from the Religious Right’s version of events. Mainly, that families have the right to have whatever kind of religious or non-religious service they want for their fallen loved ones. It’s up to the families to request religious content for memorial services.

Torpy, a former Army captain, also notes that the members of the National Memorial Ladies are volunteers. As such, they have no right to officiate at services or use them to promote their religious beliefs. As Torpy points out, some of the families who received religious sympathy cards or heard religious language might not have wanted that.

What about the claims that Ocasio closed the chapel?

The VA legal document responds to that as well. The answer turns out to be just a bit mundane: The chapel was open until September 2010, at which point “the Cemetery began a major construction project on the premises that involved the renovation of several buildings and the construction of new buildings. Due to the construction project, the chapel was closed because of fumes and noise.” Even after it was closed for construction, “arrangements were made to allow the chapel to reopen on July 5, 2011, and to remain open for use as a non-denominational place of prayer and contemplation, and as a location in which to hold committal services.”

Finally, the chapel was not stripped of Christian symbols. Christian and Jewish symbols are kept in storage there and are brought out when appropriate. They are not permanently displayed. This is an inter-faith chapel, after all.

The military includes men and women of many different faiths, as well as some people who have no specific beliefs. We honor the service of fallen service personnel by respecting the wishes of their loved ones. We do not respect fallen warriors by assuming that a grieving family wants religious language or religiously themed condolences when they may not.

There’s a lesson we can learn from this: Don’t believe everything you read – especially if the source is a Religious Right group.