Monday, July 25, 2011

Is the Department of Veteran's Affair's banning the use of God at Military Funerals?

I found this headline on Facebook early this morning:

"Stop the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from banning the Word 'God' from Military Funerals"

The long and short of this appears to involve the Director of Houston National Cemetery, Arleen Ocasio, who has allegedly "banned" the use of God during Military Funerals. Finding this to be more than a little outrageous, I dug deeper. Here's what I've learned from some quick research...

1) The matter appears to have begun about a year ago when a family burying a loved one had specifically requested no references to Christianity be used on the grave marker.

2) There are volunteers called the "Memorial Ladies" who assist the Cemetery during its many Military Funerals. Apparently, members of this group, in offering its condolences used the word God and the family involved was offended and complained to the Facility.

3) Director Ocasio instructed the volunteers to refrain from using Christian terms unless they knew the families faith. From a VA letter released last Friday, "...Subsequently, defendant Ocasio asked the Memorial Ladies to endeavor to respect particular family members religious preferences, and to provide only general condolences without religious reference unless the Memorial Ladies were aware of a family's religious preference and expressions of a specific religious nature would be appropriate."

4) The Liberty Institute has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a local VFW and American Legion, as well as the Memorial Ladies in Federal Court, seeking to alter the policy in Houston. 

5) VA Press Secretary Josh Taylor released the following statement: "Invoking the name of God or Jesus is not only allowed, it is common at VA National Cemeteries across the country. However, VA's policy is that VA-sponsored honor guards should not make recitations at commital services unless requested to do so by the deceased's survivor(s.) Taylor also directed FOX 26 to a little known policy dated 2007. It says Honor Guards "shall not provide texts of any such recitations to the deceased's survivors for consideration."

6) According to the Fox report, this appears to be isolated to the Houston Cemetery. In the United States, there are 131 National Cemeteries, with an additional thirty-three similar facilities, soldiers lots or memorials.

So, what does this all mean?

This fuss seems to have started when a family burying a loved one at the Houston National Cemetery complained that their wishes were ignored with regard to no references to Christianity being a part of their ceremonies that day. Someone from one of the volunteers groups assisting with the funeral said something that included a reference to "god" which offended the family. They complained to the Veteran's Administration.

The VA, in response, basically said let's err on the side of caution. On those very rare occurrences where we don't know the wishes of the family or we've been told to leave references to Christian symbols out of that family's funeral, we'll use a generic expression of condolence.

Which is exactly what they should do.

I think reasonable people would agree the most important thing on the day of a funeral is that the wishes of the family are followed as closely as possible. It appears sincere efforts are made by cemetery and VA personnel to achieve this. "I get" that most of the volunteer groups assisting with these funerals will be of the Christian faith. This isn't about them, however. If the wishes of the deceased and their families are paramount on that sad day, then on those fairly rare times when they don't want any references to Christianity, those wishes should be observed. Period.

I've heard a lot of talk about Christians being oppressed by our Government recently. The people at Liberty Institute have filed charges of religious discrimination. How can this be? If a family doesn't want any Christian references, should they be forced to tolerate them anyway because the volunteer groups feel its their right to express their Christianity, regardless of how politely or well-meaning they do so? Isn't that a form of oppression?

When you post the above headline on a social media platform like Facebook, its eye-grabbing. The resulting Google search for info on this reveals a lot of repetition, but also a good dose of anti-Government contempt. I saw charges that President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta are behind this. From what I can see, in 2007, under the Bush Administration, the VA sent out a memo saying that VA sponsored Honor Guard, "shall not provide texts of any such recitations to the deceased's survivors for consideration." This is reasonable because a grieving family should not be subjected to any religious content they don't want. 

Any family that wants extra Christian based readings, comments, prayers associated with their funerals may have them. Nothing I could find suggests that a single request has ever been denied. The VA strives and I say succeeds in being as accommodating as they can be. The most recent American Consumer Satisfaction Survey ranks the VA as tops in the Country. Did the Director of the Houston Cemetery do anything wrong? Based on what I know currently, no she didn't. Is the family who complained being over-sensitive? Perhaps, but I'm not inclined to be critical of such a request from any family at that time. Are the volunteer groups off base? You bet. This isn't about them, its about the burial of our fallen heroes and their families. To exploit these ceremonies and hurl baseless, wildly exaggerated charges against the Government Agency who has provided these services for years is selfish, classless and un-American. The facebook headline suggests some massive Government conspiracy to take away people's religion freedoms. Apparently over 13 thousand people have joined "the cause." Its disgusting to play on people's fears like that. It reminds me of the story that made the rounds recently about the American Civil Liberties Union trying to ban Crosses at all Military Cemeteries. People see a sexy headline, do little to no homework or research on it, yet spread it around the internet and before you know it, its everywhere. We even have Congressmen weighing in on this like some grave injustice has happened. I say the over/under on Right Wing talk radio picking up this is mid week. Thursday at the latest. Pandering at its most pathetic.

There's a lot of people pounding their chests these days about religious freedom and liberty. That's all well and good unless your idea of what religion is about or how you choose to express your liberty is in a way someone else disagrees with. Then it gets a little sticky. If the volunteers want to serve their Country by assisting at Military funerals, that's terrific. They don't however get to decide what gets said at these ceremonies. What happens to a fallen Atheist soldier? Do their funerals have to have Christian references just because the volunteers say so? Holy Hell, no. You honor their service. Honor their wishes. 

Not yours.


  1. Thanks for the reasonable discussion! I like it!

  2. Appreciate the reasonable approach to all things, especially this one. Too many out there are willing to believe what they see on the surface without doing thier research first. Thanks

  3. Thanks for reading...Please continue to follow...

  4. Your article makes a lot of sense and sounds very, um, reasonable -- until I checked the Liberty Institute's comments. Liberty's suit in court is not about what you are saying. You're presenting this as if everyone is getting their needs met equally. According to the suit, that is not the case. Families are not even able to be told that prayer is an option. Additionally, when a family requests a religious service -- even provided by their own pastor, apparently -- the request must go through director Arleen Ocasio to be approved. What?! As you said, the family's needs and wishes should be foremost at a funeral. But after I dig a tiny bit deeper, it sounds as if many families' needs and wishes are being hindered in order to be certain a few families are not offended. Either way is wrong. Forcing Christian references (or Muslim or other) on a family that doesn't believe is wrong, but censoring in any way, the ceremony of a veteran that wants Christian references is also wrong -- and it certainly sounds like that is happening.
    If a family believes there is nothing after death and wants to speak about that at their funeral, NO ONE should stop them (with exception of the wishes of the deceased). If someone wants to speak about reincarnation, pure silliness, Jesus, or Muhammad, there should be NO RESTRICTION. It's actually a simple and reasonable thing to print out detailed instructions (and to ASK the family for detailed instructions including religious preferences) and give it to the Memorial Ladies. It's also a simple thing to deal directly with the Lady who ignores such detailed instructions as needed (and I doubt it would ever be needed). There is no reason for this kind of overkill about a few famiies possibly

  5. The VA is not and has not banned the use of God during Military Funerals. It seems they have tried to close up a loophole where the families wishes weren't expressly communicated to all parties involved, and someone got offended when a participant made a remark invoking a religious notion they didn't appreciate.

    I would suggest that to cite as fact claims within the legal suit is not always reliable.

    It does seem there's an update to all of this:

  6. Cool blog Bill, I'll continue to follow. I saw someone posted a link on facebook about the VA not allowed the word God at funerals anymore. I assumed there was more to this, as usual, so I googled it. Your blog came up and provided a clear rational behind it. Thanks. Maybe I should share the link with the girl that posted the mostly incorrect article.

    1. Welcome aboard and feel free to share anything you wish. I try and be as fair as possible with the various issues I write about.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

  7. I came after receiving a fb request also. I shared your article. The machine never sleeps, does it?

  8. Welcome Allie, thanks for reading/sharing...