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Pastors: Fire VA cemetery chief who banned 'God bless'

Houston National Cemetery

Houston pastors have planned a July 4 protest calling for removal of the head of the city’s veterans cemetery for censoring religious expression at ceremonies, including the use of “God bless you” at funerals and praying in Jesus’ name.

Arleen Ocasio, director of the National Cemetery in Houston, has issued a general policy prohibiting religious expression at the cemetery.

The Houston Area Pastor Council, which says it represents a broad ethnic and denominational spectrum, says Ocasio’s actions are offensive “in every possible way” and should prompt the VA to fire her.

Speaking for the council, Pastor Willie Davis, an Army Special Forces veteran, said the pastors concur “wholeheartedly” with a call for dismissal by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, “for these egregious attacks on the sacred right of expressing religious faith on the hallowed ground of our National Cemetery on behalf of those who died to protect that right.”

“There can be no better way to spend a few minutes on Independence Day than to stand together as a community at the National Cemetery and make our voices heard,” Davis said.

The protest begins at 10 a.m., local time, Monday.

A pastor already has responded to the policy with a lawsuit.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the Veterans Administration from censoring Pastor Scott Rainey’s prayer in Jesus’ name at a Memorial Day service in the cemetery.

Rainey’s representative in the lawsuit, the nonprofit Liberty Institute, filed an amended complaint this week after allegedly finding other examples of religious discrimination by cemetery officials.

The complaint alleges the cemetery has “a widespread and consistent practice of discriminating against private religious speech.”

It says Ocasio banned members of the American Legion Post 586, Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4 and the National Memorial Ladies from using certain religious words such as “God” or “Jesus.” Along with censoring the content of prayer, the complaint asserts, Ocasio barred the groups from using religious messages in burial rituals unless the deceased’s family submitted the text for prior approval.

The lawsuit charges government officials were monitoring recitations by volunteer honor guards and burial teams conducting military honors.

Ocasio also shut down the cemetery’s chapel after her appointment as director two years ago, removing the cross, Bible and chapel bells, according to the complaint.

The chapel is now called a “meeting facility,” and the director unlocks its doors only when meetings or training sessions are held there, the lawsuit says.

VA spokeswoman Jessica Jacobsen told the Houston Chronicle that the chapel was closed because of construction and is scheduled to reopen in September when construction is complete.

But Liberty Institute general counsel Jeff Mateer says the chapel was closed before the construction was initiated.

In court Tuesday, Judge Hughes rebuked VA attorney Fred Hinrichs for being unable to answer her question about whether the chapel was open, noting a simple phone call to the cemetery could provide an answer.

Hinrichs told the judge some of the claims in the complaint were not true, but he could not give specifics, the Houston paper reported.

“I don’t know that they’re true,” the judge said, according to the Chronicle, “but an afternoon on Veterans Memorial Drive and you should be able to document most of this stuff.”

Hughes gave the government until July 21 to investigate and respond to the the complaint.

At a press conference held by Liberty Institute, Vietnam veteran Nobleton Jones – who has presented shell casings from the gun salute to grieving families for three years – said Ocasio censoring him.

After a March 15 ceremony, he said, Ocasio told him he could no longer say “God grant you grace, mercy and peace” to the families.

“All we wanted was to give honor to fallen soldiers,” said Inge Conley, incoming VFW District 4 Commander.

Jones said, according to the Chronicle, Ocasio’s censorship “makes me feel smaller, even after I spent my time in the military, fighting so that people should be able to say that.”

“I did all this for my country and you are going to tell me what I can and can’t say?”

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