God, Chapels, and the VA

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God, Chapels, and the VA

Scott Rainey is the lead pastor of Living Word Church in Houston, Texas.  As he has in the past on other occasions, this year Pastor Rainey was invited to give the blessing before a Memorial Day event at Houston National Cemetery, a private event sponsored by the National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston.  The Director of the Houston Department of Veterans Affairs, Arleen Ocasio asked that Pastor Rainey send to her a copy of his invocation, and he promptly did so.

This is where it turned bad.  According to her:

The above prayer/message is specific to one belief. As you know, on Memorial Day we will be commemorating veterans from all cultures and religious beliefs. The tone of all messages must be inclusive of all beliefs, need to be general, and its fundamental purpose should be specific to those we are honoring, and non-­‐denominational in nature.


In other words, yes, you can give the prayer, but God (Yahweh, Allah, Great Spaghetti Monster) forbid you should mention a specific religious message in your religious message.

Unsurprisingly, the court that would later hear this case took exception to her views on the State with regard to Freedom of Religion:

The Government’s compulsion of a programs inclusion or exclusion of a particular religion offends the Constitution.  The Constitution does not confide to the government the authority to compel emptiness in the prayer, where a prayer belongs.  The gray mandarins of the national government are decreeing how citizens honor their veterans.  This is not a pick-up-your-trash sign; this is a we-pick-your-words sign.

These people say that remarks need to be content-neutral messages.  The men buried in the cemetery fought for their fellow Americans – for us.  In those fights, they were served by chaplains, chaplains of two faiths and many denominations, chaplains in the field.  They ministered to men who needed them – to all – not only to their personal calling.  No deputy general counsel of the Department of Veterans Affairs was in the Ia Drang Valley.  The veteran may be Jewish and his friends may be Christians – or Christians, atheists, Moslems, pagans, Shinto, and Sikh.  “Friends” of course, means all who appreciate what they did.


That should have ended all debate, but as The American Legion reported last week, it only marked the genesis of what could be long litigation.  In a new lawsuit,

[i]t is claimed that on at least four separate occasions, government officials told Legion and VFW post burial teams in Houston that prayer and religious speech could no longer be included in burial rituals unless the family of the deceased submits a specific prayer or message in writing to Director Ocasio for her approval. One government official reportedly also told the VFW honor guard commander, junior vice commander and chaplain that use of the word "God" is forbidden in unapproved ceremonies.

"The hostile and discriminatory actions by the Veterans Affairs officials in Houston are outrageous, unconstitutional and must stop," said Jeff Mateer, general counsel of Liberty Institute. "Government officials who engage in religious discrimination against citizens are breaking the law. Sadly, this seems to be a pattern of behavior at the Houston VA National Cemetery."

The VA for their part defend on a few grounds, first, from the Legion article:

Keith Ethridge, director of the VA's National Chaplain Center, responded: "VA values and respects every veteran and their family's right to a burial service that honors their faith tradition. VA employs nearly one thousand chaplains who, every year, preside over thousands of religious burial services representing veterans of all faiths in VA national cemeteries across the country.

"Prayer is a very personal and sacred moment. To honor veterans as they are laid to rest, VA chaplains always pray and preside over religious services according to the veteran's faith tradition and the family's wishes."

Further, from an email I received from the VA directly which attached several policy documents:

Attached are National Cemetery Administration policy documents. Both documents reiterate in policy that “NCA will allow the reading of recitations at the committal services, but will do so only if such recitations are requested by the deceased’s survivors.”   The Houston policy also says, under #7: “Religious Services: On occasion, a family may request that a member of the Clergy provide a brief religious service.  This may include a reading from scriptures or a brief prayer.  If the family provides their own clergy, the honor team will not provide this service.”  It also says, and most importantly, under 8c that “NCA employees, including VA sponsored Volunteer Honor Guards, will not be selective in determining which recitations will be read.  The deceased’s survivor(s), and only they, will identify the text to be read.  Subject to paragraph d, NCA will accept for reading at its committal services any such texts including those which reflect any, all or no religious traditions on an equal basis.

Paragraph d then says the only limitations on texts, which do not include religion: “VA will not accept for reading any texts that would, as determined by the cemetery director, have an adverse impact on the dignity and solemnity of a cemetery honoring those who served the Nation.  Among the texts that would not be read would be those that are obscene, racist, are “fighting words,” or are coarse, abusive, or politically partisan.” 


When I first got an email alert on this lawsuit from Fox News (I do read their page, but do not watch the TV Channel) I figured it was simple hyperbole.  Turns out, I was VERY wrong on that one.  Look at some of the instances cited in the new case:

On at least three separate occasions, Government Officials informed VFW District 4 that prayer and religious speech could no longer be included in the burial ritual unless the family submits a specific prayer or message in writing to Director Ocasio for her approval.

On the morning of May 5, 2011, Director Ocasio instructed incoming Commander Inge Conley, Junior Vice Commander Jay Sanders, and Commander Julia Rosenbaum, that prayer/religious speech could no longer be included in the VFW burial ritual unless the family of the deceased submits the prayer/religious speech to Director Ocasio in writing for her approval.

On May 19, 2011, Government Official Jose Henriquez told VFW District 4 Honor Guard Commander Gus Sivcoski, Honor Guard Junior Vice Commander Nobleton Jones, and VFW District 4 Chaplain Felix Sivcoski that they were allowed to say the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, but no other prayers or religious speech. Mr. Henriquez informed Chaplain Sivcoski that the word ―God‖ was forbidden, which is not included in the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm. Mr. Henriquez then came back and told VFW District 4 burial team members that no prayers or religious messages are allowed, including the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, absent prior approval.

Houston National Cemetery official policy governing volunteer honor guards additionally states that if the family of the deceased veteran has a member of the clergy recite a prayer or read from scripture that the volunteer honor guard may not also read scripture or recite a prayer.


The claims go on in this vein for quite a while.  But, there are other things alleged in the complaint that are truly troubling:

Director Ocasio only unlocks the [Cemetery] Chapel doors when meetings or training sessions are held at the building. Furthermore, it is no longer called a ―chapel― but a meeting facility.  The back pews are filled with boxes, making the building appear more like a storage facility than the Chapel for which it was originally intended.

There seems to be HUGE confusion on the issue of Religious Freedom.  Specifically, a shocking number of people think that Jefferson’s letter to the Connecticut Baptists is somehow legally binding.  There is no “wall of separation between Church and State”.  No Court has held that there is.  The applicable tests are too lengthy to go into in this venue, but you can read about the Lemon Test and its progeny at Wikipedia.

The short story on this as far as the Supremes are concerned are analyzing whether there is:

1. The government's action must have a secular legislative purpose;
2. The government's action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
3. The government's action must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

The first one is easy, as they’ve found that memorializing in a religious manner also serves as secular.  The problem for the VA is #2 and #3.  If they are mandating certain things be either included or excluded, they run afoul of both #2 and #3. 

Looking forward to sharing The American Legion’s Amicus Brief as soon as I get it.  Apparently it is being written now!

Posted in the burner | 38 comments
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Fire Ocasio. Hire a disabled Vet for her job. For the life of me, I can't understand how anyone who's never worn a uniform gets to be a National Cemetery director. That ought to be a non-waivable requirement for the job.

Fire Ocasio. Hire a disabled Vet for her job. For the life of me, I can't understand how anyone who's never worn a uniform gets to be a National Cemetery director. That ought to be a non-waivable requirement for the job.

It seems as if we now have another "Madeline Murray O'Hare" on our hands. No person should be able to dictate what an ordained minister of any faith says during the final commital service of a veteran. Remember there are no atheists in foxholes, and there should be none in cemerteries or the final resting place of a Veteran. "God Bless all who have served, and God Bless America."

I am an atheist. Right now I am writing this from Afghanistan. I was in Iraq operating in the Ramadi area back in 2006 to 2007. As an atheist I find no bigoted remark more offensive then the age old "There are no atheists in foxholes" lie. By the way that is exactly what it is, a lie plain and simple. There are plenty of atheists in foxholes.

Thank you, David, for your service.

I don't understand the Bigotry of or organization, after all the country we fought for, the Constitution we pledged to protect and defend, did not specify any particular religion, sexual preference. The founding fathers, gave us a secular country, Thank Goddess

There are plenty of atheists in foxholes and cemetaries. But the decision about prayers at memorials services belong to the families. Public services should respect that service members come from all sorts of backgrounds and not pretend that everyone is a white Christian.

I am a veteran and I am outraged by what I read in the God, Chapels and the VA article. I don't know Director Arleen Ocasio of the Houston Dept. of Veterans Affairs but I feel that she is wrong in excluding reference to God in graveside prayer ceremonies by clergy or VFW representatives who are covering funerals of U.S. veterans. It seems that the gov't is acting intrusively by screening prepared religious texts to be presented at funeral ceremonies of deceased veterans. These deceased veterans served their country to protect amongst other things; Freedom of Religion! It would only seem fitting that when they are laid to rest, their respective families could enjoy being consoled, upon burying their loved ones, by hearing the word of God in the context of their deceased veterans' particular religious preference.

This country was founded by our forefathers on a principle of religious freedom for all. There are numerous references to God and Creator throughout many of our country's founding documents. There is reference made on the Liberty Bell and our currency. Were the founding fathers all wrong? Are we losing sight of where we came from and how we evolved into "One Nation Under God"? I believe that Ms. Ocasio needs to back off and keep her nose out of where it does not belong. I also feel that the U.S. Government and the current administration need to review/monitor this entire matter and make the proper adjustments to correct the problems that they have caused. In God We Trust!!!!!

How would you handle a Muslim soldier? Would you force the family to sit through a Christian prayer, or would you allow them the 'freedom' to have whatever prayer they wanted?

I am sick of hearing that "no athiests in foxholes". The US Military is a recruiting ground for religions, mainly "christian". Should not be this way. I am athiest, been in a foxhole, and there are plenty of us. We do not believe in any supernatural supreme being/s and religion should not be allowed in ANY Military/Government setting, unless wanted by family. Prayer in our Congress is wrong also. Religion and its recruiters have infiltrated (no pun) our system.

I fail to see how it's anybody's business other than the hero being laid to rest, and his or her family/survivors. The faith (or lack thereof) of the mourners, or honor guard, or the people driving by in their cars should have no bearing on the deliverance of faithful prayer at a funeral service.

I agree with Jody Stomper above, that Arleen Ocasio should be fired. Ocasio is a bureaucrat who is the embodiment of the old Power Corrupts saying. She has let the authority of her position go to her head, without actually understanding what the authority of the position encompasses. This is a position that obviously requires more understanding of the service and sacrifice made by the men and women being laid to rest.

It seems to me that little by little we are allowing the godless minority to run our lives. This country is supposed to be established under Christian principles, but we are losing a very important freedom, Freedom of Worship, perhaps, the most important in these trying times. This country is becoming a Police State. The freedoms which I and millions of other citizens have fought and died to preserve are going down the drain. It saddens me that I gave 30 years of my life to the preservation of our freedoms and little by little see those freedoms disappearing. If the people who really care for the future of our children and grandchildren don't take a stand and take back our country we probably won't have any freedoms left and live like zombies the rest of our lives.

God was not put on money until the 50's. Our founding Fathers were mostly Diest's. Not Christian. Study history people.

While it may be true that "under God" was not put on our currency until the 50's, the signers of our constitution, with the exception of 4, were all Christians. This has been verified by church records and records of documents these men had written. You are the one who needs to go back and study your history!

Truman, your remark makes me chuckle. Church records lie. According to church records I am a christian. Why? My mother and father are both atheists, but my grandmother on my moms side is a devote christian so I was baptized and sent to bible school just to get her to shut up. So according to church records both me and my mom are christian. I assure you nothing is farther from the truth.

If you want to know someones religion, listen to what that person says, not the church.

What church records are you referring to? If you were baptized when you were an infant that hardly counts. If, on the other hand, you have been a member of a particular denomination, then there would be a record of your membership.
Most of the founding fathers were members of various Christian denominations and your blatant statement that church records lie is in and of itself a great lie. Only people can lie and you, sir, seem to be among the greatest of liars because you have no compulsion not to lie by your lack of a guiding religious principle.

Are you saying that if you weren't a Christian, you wouldn't be able to keep yourself from lying? That's a pretty weak self viewpoint.

This story is a mess. The first part of it seems to refer to a Memorial Day service and later to private memorials. I'd leave the "invocation" out of the Memorial Day service entirely, but if you've got to have it, maybe it should be more general that Evangelical Christian.

Yes, the first part dealt with the Memorial Day service, and then when the judge dumped on that, the VA continued in a different vein later on. Sorry, thought I made that clear in the transition paragraph.

It's pretty muddled. Is your point that we should have denomination specifice invocations at public events or that families should be able to have whatever they deem appropriate at private memorials? These are far from the same issue.

My point is neither of those.  But, if a chaplain is invited to do the invocation, then the Gov't abrogates any rights to editting, altering or anything else.  That's what the Constitution means when it says that we have freedom of religion.

As for what families want, yes, they should have whatever they want and deem appropriate, wholey separate from what the Gov't wants.  If the family does not want a religious service, they are perfectly entitled to have none.  If they want a wiccan ceremony, or a Pastafarian ceremony, they should have it.  But what should not happen is the Gov't requiring that the family submit in writing what they want, complete with an entire script.


On the first point, we are in total disagreement. In fact, the government has an obligation under the Lemon ruling to keep public ceremonies non-denominational. Would you still think no guidelines are appropriate if the invited chaplain were Baha'i or Sikh?

On the second point, I could not agree with you more.

The problem I have with the article is that these two very separate issues are mashed together as if it were one giant outrage.

Is this obligation rooted in law?  If so, how does one jibe that with the fact that the House and the Senate open each day with a prayer given by a different denomination each time? 

And yes, the invocation could be given by a minister of the First Church of the Holy Spongebob and it would be subject to the same guidelines.  I've had a TON of military chaplains that were not of the same denomination as me, it didn't keep me from listening to what they had to say.  If we censor words in prayers, then how could a baptist minister, a catholic priest or a Jewish Rabbi give an invocation without mentioning their god?

And, they are the same case.  The first one was filed, a restraining order was issued, and then the second part here is merely an expansion of the charges, all with the same plaintiff and defendant.  So, they aren't separate issues, it is literally one case.  Rainey v. VA I believe is the title.

BTW, here is the court case that deals with why it doesn't run afoul of the Lemon Test if you are interested.



Same case perhaps, but two totally different issues. I will never agree that invocations that espouse a particular religious point of view are appropriate for a public ceremony. Personally, I don't think that the House and Senate should open with a prayer. Lawmakers are there to legislate, they should pray on their own time.

It is amazing what lengths Christians will go through to bend over backwards and twisting themselves into pretzel shapes of hypocrisy. They SCREAM "freedom of religion" when it's directed at their particular fairy tale delusional beliefs, but "God" forbid that anyone seek to include any other group besides their own made-up, fictional beliefs.

This is exactly why I quit the American Legion. You don't take the OATH to protect and defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States. In this same issue, you are STILL trying to overlook the fact that DADT was judged UNCONSTITUTIONAL - and are fighting that.

The American Legion has PROVEN it is not upholding the Constitution. This organization is TRAITOROUS and its leadership are all treasonous bastards who should be HUNG for their treason.

HUNG BY THE NECK UNTIL DEAD. And then - we should take a huge dump on their still twitching bodies.

Then the Christians can pray over them (for all the good it will do).

Ha, now that is funny. 

Perhaps the motto of the Legion "For God and Country" is what threw you off.  Maybe it was the fact that a different article here was also praising the forthcoming inclusion of the Jewish Chaplain on the 4 Chaplains memorial.  Perhaps that part about the Oath is you missing my point above about jurisprudence with regard to the Supreme Court.  And clearly you missed the DADT discussion where we noted it was a lower court that ruled so, and not the Supreme Court, meaning it is valid in the 9th circuit only.  And that it was merely the 1 court.  

But, I am glad you could be rational, and not like, hysterical calling for dumps to be taken on people.  Oh wait, you did that too.

I'm absolutely 100% certain I served more recently than you, and yes, I took the actual oath, which did not contain anything about dumping on still twitching bodies.

Sounds like something straight out of the mouths of Joseph Stalin or Nikolai Lenin to me. Communism definetely did not die with them. God Bless you anyway, A. Mauck!

I think I would provide the VA with five paragraphs of blah, blah, blah, say what I want in the ceremony, and DARE the VA to take any adverse action. It would be most amusing to watch them in court try to defend their "rules" by violating the First Amendment. As we are Americans, any religion, even atheism, is OK by us. We'll give yours the proper respect, and you'll return the courtesy.

The more pressing issue, though, is---How is it that someone who has never worn a uniform, much less fought, or even counted toilet paper in a supply depot, a: comes to a posiiton of power in the VA, or b: dares to instruct citizens whose dues were (very much) paid. Doesn't anybody in D.C. notice that it's a VETERANS' administration?

What happened to freedom of speech ? What happened to freedom of religion? It sounds to me that our government, no matter which department, should look up the word freedom before setting policy about it. We all should be thankful our forefathers thought about these issues so we can practice our religious rites, or no religion at all, or recite jabberwocky, without repression.

I served in WWII (Cpl), Korea (Lt) and Vietnam (LTC). Military pay and benefits for dependents remains sub-standard as usual. No amount of money can compensate for the discomfort, stress, and risks of military service. We serve.

The first I heard of the discussions regarding military pay reducion was when I read that Admiral Mullen had stated that military pay must be reduced eventually to bring the Defense budget into line. I assume this to be the way budgets are negotiated by offering a solution one is certain to be refused in order to gain a more favorable negotiating position. I doubt seriously that any military leader would promote pay reductions for military service people no matter whether we have a volunteer or a draftee force.

I believe the President, The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and others in the midst of the budget negotiations believe that a tax increase is necessary to maintain the kind of United States of America that we fought, and continue the fight, to preserve.

Currently our tax rates are about the same as we paid during the Eisenhower administration. We fight 20 years of war with a tax rate of 60 years ago??? USA citizens are spending billions of dollars on illicit drugs, paying $2,500 at the superbowl for a seat where they cannot see either the field or the televisions. People paid as much as $600 for a seat at the El Paso, Tx Sunbowl college game between Notre Dame and Miami. Those people can afford a tax increase.

The President, and certan democrats, want to eliminate or at least curtail government subsidies for oil companies. The Tea Party republicans (some of them) want to continue the subsidies because they claim the elimination of the subsidies amounts to a tax increase. The corporate tax rate is far from excessive. ExxonMobil made a profit (not a gross income - - a profit) of five million dollars an hour, 24 hours a day for the entire year of 2010. They do not need a tax payer subsidy!

I saw a bumper sticker today that said something to the effect that the one advocating abortion was not aborted. We have many folks who will take the opposite view of anyone. They LOVE to argue and be antagonistic. It's the road to anarchy. A 'true' Christian loves...as God loves. He loves the 'creation' and NOT necessarily a person's behavior. Our freedom is God-given, NOT man given, and whether one 'chooses' to believe or NOT believe is his or her choice. Only God can judge the heart of another. God's call to us is to love...as He loves. ...Not to hate one another...but to love one another. But first we must love ourselves. Many folks don't know the true meaning of love. It's not self directed...it's directed to others. As a Christian I believe Christ died for the forgiveness of 'sin'. When we turn our backs on God...we sin. We might be able to fool others...but we can't fool God. Some day we all will have to answer for our actions...including Arleen Ocasio, "He who honors me...will be honored in heaven." I believe it. We ALL need to honor our 'creator'. If we make HIM first in our lives...and do as he tells us to do...'to loveone another as I have loved you' ...our world would not be in the mess that it is. God's blessings on all those who read this. May you come to know the greatest love there is...the love of God. You were SO important...from the beginning of time...that he put you INTO His plan...and you came to BE...at the 'appointed time'. Love God...and love your fellow man...and you'll do just fine in THIS life...and in the life to come!

Like many others, I was upset when I first heard about this. Having read the article, I get the feeling that something may have happened in the recent past in which someone said something that upset the family or guests at a ceremony, and they complained to the cemetery officials. The officials being the intelligent and dedicated Guberment employees that they are swiftly did a knee jerk reaction. Not knowing the appropriate action, they over reacted. Being told that they are wrong by members of a non-Guberment organization, they over reacted some more. Director Ocasio and most of her staff should be looking for new jobs, but at most they might get transferred with a bump up in pay.

Least we forget that when most patriotic men and women were called for service they do so for the purpose of keeping thier freedom's intact. Freedom from what you say? Government say so on who we worship,or not; freedom of speech, and most importantly to vote for laws that keep those mentioned and more alive so that America can stay a free nation. I hope that the American cititzen's of this land rise up and take back thier rights that are being systematically thrown out by the liberal people who have the agenda to do so. GOD BLESS AMERICA

The time is now for civil disobedience. Exercise your first amendment right and say whatever prayer you wish, using whatever references to God you desire.

I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do." ~ Robert A. Heinlein

"If we censor words in prayers, then how could a baptist minister, a catholic priest or a Jewish Rabbi give an invocation without mentioning their god?" Mothax, I want to tell you that "the baptist, cathoilic and jewish clerics" have the same God.
Also the Constitution was made solely for the bennefit of the citizens of the United States, not theor government. In no way does it say that the government gets this and that.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.