Houston, we have a prayer problem

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

WASHINGTON — In what appears to be a case of religious correctness gone wild, the director of the Houston National Cemetery has been taken to court for banning religious expression — not once, but twice, in just over two months.

In late May, Liberty Institute, a legal advocacy group, sued director Arleen Ocasio and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for attempting to censor Pastor Scott Rainey’s invocation at a Memorial Day ceremony sponsored by a private group at the Houston cemetery.

After a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order, the Rev. Rainey was allowed to pray in the name of Jesus – and cemetery officials wisely chose not to challenge the ruling.

This week Ocasio is back in court, facing new allegations of hostility toward religious speech. Various veterans’ groups charge cemetery officials with prohibiting prayers and religious language during the burial rituals performed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion — unless the bereaved family submits a prayer request in writing.

Moreover, volunteers from the National Memorial Ladies are allegedly instructed not to use “God bless you” or other religious language in condolence cards or when speaking to veterans’ families on cemetery grounds.

If the latest charges are true (and that’s for a court to determine), then officials running the Houston National Cemetery have seriously misread the First Amendment.

It’s true that the establishment clause of the First Amendment requires government to be neutral among religions and between religion and non-religion. And it’s commendable that cemetery officials want to be inclusive of families from various faith traditions or no tradition — if that, indeed, is the misguided motive behind these policies.

But what reasonable person would confuse VFW volunteers with the government? And does it really rise to the level of state “establishment of religion” when the National Memorial Ladies put “God bless you” in a condolence card?

Families can always decide to modify — or not use — the burial rituals provided by veterans’ groups. They don’t need cemetery officials to pre-sanitize the ceremony by excluding religious language.

National cemeteries shouldn’t be religion-free zones where grieving families need to apply in writing in order to offer a prayer. And they shouldn’t be places where volunteers are afraid to utter the G-word.

Let’s hope the overreaching prayer policies of the Houston National Cemetery don’t reflect how other national cemeteries do business. Otherwise, the Department of Veterans Affairs has some First Amendment work to do to get religion right at the very places where people need it most.

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