He says he followed orders, but he still got fired – in the name of God. But a civil-liberties organization vows to change that and to protect the right of all Americans to proclaim “God bless America!”

As first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, military honor guardsman Patrick Cubbage maintains he was sacked for invoking the name of God during burial services for deceased veterans.

“God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America,” the Vietnam combat veteran and evangelical Christian used to say as he presented a folded flag to the fallen verteran’s family.

“They were always very grateful – and sometimes very moved. People would even grip my hand and say things like ‘Thank you so much,'” Cubbage told the Inquirer.

But while the recipients of the blessings may not have objected, one of Cubbage’s fellow honor guardsmen complained. So in October, his supervisor at the Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery in North Hanover, N.J., ordered him to stop giving the blessings.

Cubbage was told the blessing could offend Jews and Muslims.

Cubbage believes he was only following orders and cited the federal flag presentation protocol detailed in training literature he was given when he began working as a part-time guardsman at Doyle in October 2001.

The protocol calls for the honor guard to fold an American flag into a triangle and say to the appropriate family member: “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

The protocol then calls for the honor guardsman to hand the flag to the deceased’s kin.

“If the next of kin has expressed a religious preference or belief,” the protocol instructions continue, “add: ‘God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America.'”

The incident apparently sparked a review of the flag-presentation protocol. A week after being told to skip the blessing, Cubbage received a letter from the affirmative-action officer for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Government employees “must not engage in activities or expression that a reasonable observer would interpret as government endorsement … of religion,” a staff member wrote.

Unless the next of kin expresses a religious preference “one way or another,” the letter continued, “then the protocol would be to omit the saying, ‘God bless …,’ portion of the presentation. This is not optional.”

Cubbage said he always abided by the religious preferences of the deceased’s family and only offered the blessing when the deceased’s family specifically requested one.

On Oct. 31, 2002, the son of a deceased veteran asked that Cubbage include the blessing in his graveside presentation. Shortly afterwards, a fellow honor guardsman reported the incident and Cubbage was fired for “disregard for stated policy” later that day.

Lt. Col. Roberta Niedt, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, told the Inquirer the cemetery has a “standard phrase [for the flag presentation] for each service” and that Cubbage was dismissed for departing from the standard presentation protocol.

“I just don’t get it,” said Cubbage. “When you give people that flag, you see them look into it and remember a whole time in their loved one’s life. So why in God’s name did they fire me? Because in God’s name, they did fire me.”

“Patrick Cubbage was terminated for following U.S. Department of Defense protocol. He did nothing wrong,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute.

The international, nonprofit civil-liberties organization has agreed to provide Cubbage free legal services to mount a defense.

It posted an online petition to enlist support for its case and to press the White House and Congress to take a stand on the issue “once and for all.”

“It’s a dark day in the life of our nation when an American can’t ask God’s blessing on this country,” reads the petition.

“It’s even more tragic when a war veteran who has put his life on the line to protect our American freedoms and way of life is punished simply for asking God’s blessing on the United States of America,” the petition continues. “America is supposed to be a land where freedom and faith go hand in hand, but for Patrick Cubbage … it seems to bear little resemblance to the framework our founding fathers established to protect our rights to religious freedom.”

The institute reports 1,026 people have added their electronic signatures to the petition.

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