Last week, a federal judge approved a settlement agreement that will help ensure that religious freedom is respected at the Houston National Cemetery and other national cemeteries around the country.
Several veterans groups, represented by the Texas-based Liberty Institute, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) agreed to a consent decree that requires the VA to acknowledge the religious freedom rights of veterans’ groups and families and allow the inclusion of religious language and prayers in military burials.
The rifle salute, the solemn playing of Taps, and the presentation of the folded flag to family members are important, iconic rituals of a military funeral. During many veterans’ burials, volunteers from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) also include recitation of a prayer and express condolences to the families of the deceased. At the Houston National Cemetery, however, mere mention of such unauthorized religious sentiment has been met with increasing official hostility and censorship.
The VFW District 4 performs the core elements of a traditional military burial during dozens of veterans’ funerals at the Houston National Cemetery each month. Recently, however, the cemetery’s administrators have balked at the VFW’s recitation of a prayer that has been part of the burial ritual for almost 100 years. According to the new cemetery policy, only family members could request that a prayer be said at a burial, and even then, the cemetery’s director must approve the recitation.
Likewise, the cemetery’s administrators have prohibited volunteers from the National Memorial Ladies (NML) from handing out condolence cards to families that include the phrase “God bless you.” The NML is a recently formed nonprofit whose members attend burials to, in their own words, “honor veterans and console their families.” Antagonism by cemetery administrators to religious sentiment forced at least one woman to move her husband’s funeral to a private chapel so that the VFW could perform the full burial rites.
This wasn’t the first time the Houston National Cemetery found itself in hot water over prohibiting religious expression. Earlier this year, it took a court-ordered injunction to allow Pastor Scott Rainey to include the words Jesus Christ in a prayer at the cemetery’s Memorial Day service.
Frustrated by the religious censorship of the cemetery’s leadership, the local chapters of the VFW, the American Legion Post, and the NML joined the Rainey suit against the VA this summer. The final settlement seeks to ensure that the cemetery allows groups to honor the sacrifice of fallen soldiers with prayers for them and their loved ones.
Among the 50 decrees ordered this week, the VA agreed “not to edit, control, or exercise prior restraints on the content of private religious speech and expression by speakers” at Houston National Cemetery. As Jeff Mateer, general counsel for Liberty Institute, points out, “The decree not only impacts religious freedoms in Houston, but at all VA cemeteries nationwide because the government has agreed to modify two national policies hostile to religion.”
Altering those national VA policies specifically seeks to prevent encroachments on the religious freedom of speakers at special ceremonies and events at any VA cemetery.
Attempts by government administrators to whitewash any religious sentiment from the funeral services of veterans, especially when family members expect the full burial ritual, distort the design of American religious freedom and misconstrue the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of—not from—religion.
As Heritage’s Jennifer Marshall explains about the American model of religious freedom:
Far from privatizing religion, it assumes that religious believers and institutions will take active roles in society.… In fact, the American Founders considered religious engagement in shaping the public morality essential to ordered liberty and the success of their experiment in self-government.
Nowhere is the recognition of that religious liberty more appropriate than at the memorials of those who served to sustain this self-governing society.