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HOUSTON, June 28, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Today, Liberty Institute, on behalf of the Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4, The American Legion Post 586, and the National Memorial Ladies, returned to federal court with new allegations of religious hostility and unlawful censorship by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its director of the Houston National Cemetery. Last month, Liberty Institute successfully represented Houston pastor Scott Rainey in the same federal court after Houston VA officials tried to prevent him from praying in Jesus’ name at a Memorial Day ceremony.
“The hostile and discriminatory actions by the Veterans Affairs officials in Houston are outrageous, unconstitutional and must stop,” said Jeff Mateer, Esq., 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.”
Today, Liberty Institute amended its original lawsuit that states the Department of Veterans Affairs and its Director of the Houston National Cemetery, Arleen Ocasio, are engaging in religious viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, by adding new incidents of religious hostility including:
VA Forbids Mention of God at Funerals for Veterans and Requires Families to Submit Prayer for Approval to the Government: For 30 years, the VFW District 4 burial team, at the request of the family of the deceased, has honored veterans by performing the VFW burial ritual during private burial services at the Houston National Cemetery. For 20 years, The American Legion Post 586 has honored our veterans by performing its burial ritual for fallen veterans. On at least four separate occasions, government officials told the burial teams 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. Government official Jose Henriquez also told the VFW Honor Guard Commander, Junior Vice Commander and Chaplain that the word “God” is forbidden.
VA instructs the VFW and a Private Funeral Home that they may not present the option of prayer to families: American Heritage Funeral Home, which sits next to the Houston National Cemetery and specializes in veterans’ funerals, was instructed by government officials that the funeral home may not inform the families that they have the option of requesting prayer in the VFW burial ritual.
VA Tells Volunteers to Remove “God Bless” from Condolence Cards to Grieving Families: About a year ago, Director Ocasio instructed the president of the National Memorial Ladies that the words “God” and “Jesus” are forbidden and that “God Bless” could no longer be written in condolence cards to families. Volunteers also were banned from speaking a religious message when talking directly to veterans’ families on cemetery grounds.
VA Closes Cemetery Chapel; Uses it for Storage: The chapel where families used to gather, pray and reflect has been closed and is now called a “meeting facility” and used for storage. The chapel cross and Bible have been removed and the bells that once used to chime are no longer used.
“On March 15, Director Ocasio told me that I couldn’t say ‘May God grant you grace, mercy and peace’ to grieving families,” said Nobleton Jones, Honor Guard Junior Vice Commander. “Today we ask the government to make it right.”
“All we wanted was to give honor to fallen soldiers,” said Inge Conley, incoming VFW District 4 Commander.
Today’s hearing took place before Federal District Judge Lynn N. Hughes who had granted the original temporary restraining order preventing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from censoring Pastor Rainey’s prayer in May. Judge Hughes gave the government until July 15 to respond to the new allegations and set a status hearing for July 21.
Liberty Institute works to uphold First Amendment freedoms in the courts, legislature and public square. Stay up to date on this case at www.libertyinstitute.org.
SOURCE Liberty Institute