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Christian Prayers at Non-Christian Military Funerals in VA Cemeteries

Should Christians Inject Their Religion into Other People's Funerals?


For some Christians, funerals are a means for them to evangelize and proselytize. Volunteers at a VA cemetery in Texas are suing the government, claiming their constitutional right to insert their religion into others' funeral ceremonies was infringed upon. Do they really have such a right?


Situation & Background: Funeral Ceremonies at a VA Cemetery

In Houston, Texas, VA cemetery director Arleen Ocasio ensures that the nature of funeral ceremonies conform to the wishes of the deceased and their families. If people want a religious ceremony they get a religious ceremony. If they want a secular ceremony, they get a secular ceremony. The initial default for funeral ceremonies is secular and civil; religion is added only if the families request it.

To enforce this policy, volunteer cemetery workers are forbidden from inserting their personal religious beliefs or doctrines into the ceremonies unless they are given approval by the families. Christian volunteers at the VA cemetery objected to this and filed a lawsuit.

The plaintiffs come from the Houston National Memorial Ladies. They are being represented by the Liberty Institute and are getting support from Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, two Christian military groups. They are also receiving encouragement from three Texas politicians: Ted Poe (R-TX) and John Culberson (R-TX), and Michael McCaul (R-TX).


Constitutional & Legal Issues for VA Cemetery Volunteers

The central question is whether the speech of volunteer cemetery workers counts as government speech or private speech. If it's government speech, then it's appropriate for the government to regulate it. If it's government speech, then the constitution requires that agents of the government not use their positions to promote their religion in any way.

On the other hand, if it's purely private speech, then it's inappropriate for the government to restrict what people can say. If it's purely private speech, then it's inappropriate for the government to hold private citizens to constitutional standards — the Constitution imposes restrictions and limits on the government, not on private actors.


Plaintiff Arguments - VA Cemetery Volunteers

The plaintiffs, who volunteer to help out during funeral ceremonies at the Houston, Texas, VA cemetery, argue that it's wrong for their Christian beliefs to be removed from other people's funerals. They contend that they have a constitutional right to inject their own religion into other people's funeral ceremonies even if the family has never expressed any interest in Christianity being a part of the ceremony.

Cheryl Whitfield, founder of Houston National Memorial Ladies, has been quoted as complaining "It's just unfair that somebody would ask us to take God out of our vocabulary."

Marilyn Koepp, secretary of National Memorial Ladies, told Fox News: "It's very hard for me to be at the funeral of one of our veterans ... and we just make that decision that we will say God bless you, and how can someone tell us, no you can't."

Texas Rep. John Culberson told Fox News: "It makes my skin crawl that liberals are attempting to drive prayer out of a funeral ceremony for our heroes. We're going to fix this so that no Obama liberal bureaucrat will interfere with the funeral of a hero."

Rep. Michael McCaul says: "This is shocking [and] really abhorrent to our veterans that they can't have a proper military burial and not refer to God or Jesus Christ."

Rep. Ted Poe says: "The federal government should not have a policy of being anti-religious especially at a religious ceremony - a burial of one of our veterans."


Defendant Arguments - Veterans Administration

Supporters of the current policy point out that no family is prevented from having Christian prayers or language at their own funeral ceremonies if they want. Claims to the contrary are flat-out lies.

The current policy is that the wishes of the deceased and their family are to be respected in all cases and this is how it should be. Since government must be secular, it's appropriate that a default government ceremony be secular and that religion only be introduced when those involved specifically want it.

The VA has says in their official statement: "The idea that invoking the name of God or Jesus is banned at VA national cemeteries is blatantly false. The truth is VA's policy protects veterans' families' rights to pray however they choose at our national cemeteries. Put simply, VA policy puts the wishes of the veteran's family above all else on the day it matters most -- the day they pay their final respects to their loved one."

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), says that "the true victims in this situation are the families who have lost loved ones, not the volunteers who want a government platform for their religious beliefs."

Kathleen Johnson, former military director and now vice president of American Atheists, says: "These Texas congressmen are sort of leading this charge in the publicity effort to frame this as a religious discrimination issue in which Christians are being discriminated against," Johnson commented, "when it's actually a religious discrimination issue in which everybody else is being discriminated against."


Conclusion: No Right to Insert Your Religion Into Others' Funerals

The current policy at the Houston, Texas, VA cemetery is exactly what it should be and it's exactly the sort of policy that we should have at every military cemetery in the United States. The default funeral ceremony should be civil and secular, not Christian.

Using Christianity for a default ceremony would send the message that Christianity is somehow a "default" belief system for all veterans and that Christianity is somehow representative of the military. Only a neutral, non-religious ceremony should be the starting point.

The introduction of any religious elements to funeral ceremonies, Christian or non-Christian, should only occur when specifically requested by the deceased for whom the ceremony is being performed or the by the family members who are attending. It certainly shouldn't be done by outside volunteers who present themselves as wanting to help grieving families when their actions say that they are simply trying to help themselves to an opportunity to evangelize and abuse their privileged positions.

Families who request Christian prayer or other Christian elements should get them. Adherents of other religions who request elements from their religious beliefs should get them. Everyone who doesn't request anything religious should be left alone; the last place non-Christians should be harassed by self-righteous Christians is at a funeral. This may be why supporters of the lawsuit are willing to lie when explaining what they are doing -- no self-respecting decent human being would ever agree with their position.

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