Houston National Cemetery

A pastor and family members of deceased veterans have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the Houston National VA Cemetery is discriminating against their religious freedoms after the cemetery administrator banned using God’s name in memorial services.

The suit alleges that cemetery administrator Arleen Ocasio required Pastor Scott Rainey to edit a Memorial Day prayer so that the prayer was “general, and its fundamental purpose” was “nondenominational in nature.”

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WND reported in June that the Houston Area Pastor’s Council demanded that Ocasio be removed from her position.

Liberty Institute President and Chief Counsel Kelly Shackelford represents the families and he says the legal challenge has been launched.

“The plaintiffs believe their First Amendment religious liberties have been
violated and a lawsuit has already been filed,” Shackelford said.

“Our attorneys have deposed Arleen Ocasio who is the director of the Houston VA Cemetery where a number of these instances occurred,” Shackelford said.

The Liberty Institute president says the litigation’s purpose is simple.

“We’re going to declare these policies unconstitutional and if we do, they’ll never be able to have these policies again,” Shackelford said.

Shackelford says the plaintiffs and his organization are prepared to continue the fight.

“There will be more depositions to follow unless they sign the consent decree at some point.” Shackelford said.

The consent decree Shackelford mentioned was the first legal action taken. Shackelford’s team went to a federal judge in Houston and asked the judge to sign the decree.

Shackelford explains what’s involved with such a decree.

“Basically it would involve them stopping what they’ve been doing to all of the veterans. In particular and most importantly it would involve them changing the written policies that are in place that are leading to discrimination,” Shackelford said.

The Liberty Institute lawsuit is based on the First and Fifth Amendments to the U. S. Constitution. The suit is also based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Listen to Shackelford:

The suit’s request is for an injunction that would order the VA and the Houston National Cemetery to cease the alleged violations, and it is based on the legal precedent set by the court case, Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

The policies Shackelford references are in the VA regulations covering the NCA (National Cemetery Administration). NCA Directive 3170, Appendix D states that, “Any invocation or benediction must be inclusive and non-derogatory.”

Another section in the policy requires that the “ceremony or special event must be nonpartisan, inclusive, and non-derogatory in nature.”

Shackelford explains that both parties and the judge would have to reach an agreement before the consent decree can be issued.

“They would have to agree to what we agree to, and then the judge would sign it and we would be done. As of this point, they’re looking at it very seriously but they haven’t completely agreed to all points,” Shackelford said.

“But we’re still in negotiations over it,” Shackelford added.

If the decree is signed, the VA will voluntarily change its regulations.

The Veteran’s Administration has not responded to WND’s request for comment.

Shackelford says some of the families are very vocal about this case and have agreed to tell their stories on video. Some of those stories can be seen on Liberty Institute’s Don’t Tear Us Down website.

Shackelford says the feelings of those family members point to a major problem. The cemetery has banned God’s name because someone may be offended by mentioning God.

“And the problem is almost all of the major burial rituals, the VFW and all of them, have mentions of God in them. In ways like ‘God and country,’ and then I think the VFW one ends with ‘May God grant your family, grace, mercy and peace,” Shackelford said.

“The fact of what they are doing is that they are banning the burial rituals that have been said for over a hundred years,” Shackelford said.

The complaint filed in the Texas federal court states that during negotiations over the issue, the cemetery administrator said she was following VA regulations.

“During a meeting in which counsel for all parties were present, Director Ocasio stated that she was enforcing VA policy that all prayers need to be ‘inclusive’ and ‘non-denominational’ when editing Pastor Rainey’s Memorial Day prayer. She further stated that she believed her interpretation of this VA policy was correct and would still be in effect for future special events such as Memorial Day,” the complaint said.

The Liberty Institute conducted an investigation prior to filing its complaint in Houston federal court and discovered that the Houston VA cemetery has allegedly committed other acts of religious discrimination.

“During its investigation, Liberty Institute confirmed that Houston National Cemetery officials, including Ocasio, are discriminating against the private religious speech and expression of the Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4, The American Legion Post 586, and the National Memorial Ladies. Liberty Institute also confirmed that the cemetery chapel has been closed and its Bible and cross were removed,” the complaint stated.

The suit also alleges that Ocasio has told volunteer groups that mention of God is forbidden in condolence cards, that gifts by the National Memorial Ladies to family members are prohibited and that private funeral homes may not offer the option of prayer to families of the deceased.

The VFW District 6, the American Legion Post 586, the National Memorial Ladies also are plaintiffs in the case.

Another plaintiff is Rainey, whose prayer was the subject of Ocasio’s complaint, and James Haycraft, who buried his brother Ernest Paul Edgell at the cemetery.

Other parties in the lawsuit are Lisa Ward, who buried her husband Richard Ward, a 30-year military veteran, and Geraldine Lakey, who buried her husband Danny, a military veteran and a lifetime member of Tomball, Texas, VFW Post 2427.

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