By Jack Minor
The Veterans Administration in recent months has tried to prohibit Bibles at its military hospitals and ban the use of the word “God” at military funerals, and now there are members in Congress who say enough is enough.
So HR 2720 has been introduced, stating emphatically that “no official of the federal government, including the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, may interfere with the content and creed of the funeral, memorial service, or ceremony of a deceased individual, as expressed by the last will and testament of the individual or as determined by the family or agent of the individual, as provided under state law.:
The resolution also requires federal officials to provide access to health care facilities, cemeteries and other facilities if access is requested by either veterans or their families.
The proposal came about because of a series of events that took place last year where veterans and their families were prohibited from exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
It was then that officials at Walter Reed Medical Center issued a regulation telling families they would not be permitted to bring in Bibles to read to their loved ones. The memo stated that “no religious items (i.e. Bibles, reading material, and/or artifacts) are allowed to be given away or used during a visit.”
When news of the ban was made public, the hospital quickly backpedaled and rescinded the policy.
Just this week, on the anniversary of D-Day, Kelly Shackelford, president and chief executive officer of Liberty Institute, testified before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs about the importance of the bill.
It was May of last year that Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit against federal officials after Arleen Ocasio, of the Houston National Cemetery, attempted to edit and censor a prayer that was to be offered by Pastor Scott Rainey at a Memorial Day service. Ocasio told Rainey that his prayer needed to be submitted to her for approval and its contents needed to be “non-denominational.”
While Liberty Institute was presenting its argument to the court, officials learned of several other instances where religious freedom was being suppressed.
Ocasio had instituted a policy titled, “Houston National Cemetery Honor Guard Guidelines.” The guidelines required volunteer honor guards to omit any and all religious elements from their rituals, unless the family specifically requested otherwise.
“Instead, they could only do what she described as the ‘four core elements,’ the folding of the flag, the presentation of the flag, the rifle salute, and the playing of taps,” Shackelford said. “Ocasio stated that the VFW District 4 Honor Guard members could not provide texts of prayer to the family for consideration. She also stated that if family members wanted a certain prayer read, they would have to submit the prayer to the cemetery in writing and cemetery officials would then give the prayer to the VFW District 4 Honor Guard to read.”
A representative from the cemetery went even further and told the VFW District 4 Honor Guard that they would not be permitted to conduct the burial ritual because the word “God” was included.
“The cemetery representative did state that they could say the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm since the word ‘God’ is not included in those texts. When questioned regarding the source of the authority for these pronouncements, the cemetery representative responded ‘by my supervisor’s orders.'”
While it could seem as if the guidelines were reasonable since it claims the family can request the full burial ritual, Shackelford says the reality is that families were denied that right.
“At least on three occasions, cemetery officials interfered with families of deceased veterans in their making arrangements for burial service,” he said.
James Haycraft, Geri Lakey and Lisa Ward, representing families of deceased veterans, each claimed the cemetery interfered with and precluded their wishes in honoring their loved ones.
“Mr. Haycraft’s brother did not receive the burial service he desired, being prohibited from having the VFW honor guard perform the entire VFW burial ritual. In the case of Ms. Lakey, cemetery officials attempted to stop her husband from receiving the entire VFW burial ritual. But for the actions of her husband’s VFW post commander (a former judge), his final wishes would have been thwarted,” he testified. “Ms. Ward had to have her husband’s burial service at a private funeral home rather than the Houston National Cemetery so that the honor guard could perform the entire VFW burial ritual, as she desired. Nevertheless, because of the cemetery’s restrictions, her desire to have the service at the cemetery was denied.”
In December, the VA settled the lawsuit by agreeing to stop interfering with the religious content of military funerals and to censoring the speech of clergy at any type of ceremony.
Despite prevailing in the suit against the government, Shackelford told Congress the very fact it needed to be brought in the first place showed the necessity of passing the resolution.
“There is a real threat to religious liberty at national cemeteries. This legislation will further protect the religious freedom of veterans and those who seek to serve and honor them,” he said. “They deserve nothing less.”