On Monday, hundreds showed up at Houston’s National Cemetery demanding their Constitutional right to free speech and freedom of religion.
Houston radio station KTRH reported the crowd showed up “not just to honor our fallen military heroes this July Fourth, but also to protest against the cemetery director’s ban on ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ during military services.”
According to KTRH, Pastor James Clark of the First Baptist Church in Tomball helped organize the Independence Day event.
“There is nothing more meaningful then when the Honor Guard from the American Legion or VFW walks over with the brass casings and places it on top of that flag and says ‘Ma’am God bless you for your husband’s service,’ he told the crowd.
“Everyone who’s buried here, every single one of them, the first thing they did to get into the United States military was take an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” said Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), a veteran of the U.S. Navy.
“And yet,” Olson said, “they are not being afforded those rights.”
At issue is the right of Christians to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, or to mention God in services held at the Cemetery, something not allowed by the cemetery director, Arleen Ocasio.
In May, a pastor was told by the director he could not use those phrases in a Memorial Day service at the Cemetery, but a federal judge stepped in and overruled the director.
“Our national cemeteries are places for all veterans of all beliefs,” Ocasio wrote. “We cannot be exclusive at a ceremony meant to be inclusive for all our nation’s veterans.”
Other veterans and veterans’ groups have been the victims of Ocasio’s apparent anti-Christian bigotry as well, according to an article at KTRH:
Attorney Jeff Mateer represents the Liberty Institute; he says the cemetery director won’t allow the use of “God” or “Jesus” unless the family submits the prayer in writing for her approval.
“In addition, director Arleen Ocasio has stated the National Memorial Ladies cannot tell families ‘God Bless,’ they cannot communicate in writing or orally,” says Mateer. “And that violates the U.S. Constitution.”
Marilyn Koepp is with the National Memorial Ladies. “I would have been appalled if when the VFW did my father’s funeral in 2004, if they could not have said ‘God,’ what is happening to our country?” she asks.
The Houston Chronicle reported that Ocasio reportedly told volunteers with the National Memorial Ladies they had to remove the words “God bless” from condolence cards, in addition to not telling families “God Bless.”
66-year-old Nobelton Jones of Houston, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War, hands out shells from the 21-gun salutes to families. Jones said Ocasio is trying to censor him as well.
“On March 15, she (Ocasio) said that at the District 4 ceremony, that I could not say ‘We wish that God grant you and your family grace, mercy and peace,’ she specifically said that,” Jones claimed.
“I did all this for my country and you are going to tell me what I can and can’t say?” Jones asked.
As a result of Ocasio’s outrageous behavior, attorneys with the non-profit organization Liberty Institute filed a complaint in late June accusing the Veteran’s Administration of “a widespread and consistent practice of discriminating against private religious speech” at the national cemetery.
Ocasio could not be contacted for comment, and a VA spokeswoman said they could not comment due to ongoing litigation.
The two sides are set to reappear in court later in July.
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