Addressing Reports on the Houston National Cemetery

You may have read recent news reports about the Houston National Cemetery allegedly censoring religious speech during burial services. I don’t know all the details yet, but I do know that meticulous care and professionalism is inherent in the work of the National Cemetery Administration (and according to independent sources, they routinely outperform corporations and other government agencies in customer satisfaction). Still, nothing is perfect (especially in government), and it’s possible that mistakes and misunderstandings can happen.

So,  I wanted to share some words offered yesterday by Keith Ethridge, the Director of VA’s National Chaplain Center:

“VA values and respects every Veteran and their family’s right to a burial service that honors their faith tradition. VA employs nearly one thousand chaplains who, every year, preside over thousands of religious burial services, representing Veterans of all faiths, in VA National Cemeteries across the country.

“Prayer is a very personal and sacred moment. To honor Veterans as they are laid to rest, VA Chaplains always pray and preside over religious services according to the Veteran’s faith tradition and the family’s wishes.”

As we get updates on the situation, we’ll post them here.

UPDATE 6/30 3:40 PM ET – VA spokesman Josh Taylor has just added this:

“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 committal services unless requested to do so by the deceased’s survivor(s).”

UPDATE 7/1 4:00 PM ETAn update on the situation at the Houston Chronicle.

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31 Comments to “Addressing Reports on the Houston National Cemetery”

  1. Kenan Lott says:

    Our Vererans have fought and died for the freedoms that are alledged to have been taken away by the director of the Houston National Cemetery, Arleen Ocasio. Of course, as an American citizen she too has rights. She has the right to answer the charges of prohibiting the practice of religious prayer and the opportunity to defend herself of these charges. However, if she is found guilty of prohibiting the use of any religious references, she should be relieved of her position.
    America was founded on Christian principals and in God we still trust. As a Christian, I am sad to see the subversion of the so called “Church and State” portion of the Constitution, by those who believe that seperation means the elimination of any reference to God and Jesus Christ.

    I sincerely hope that America finds it’s way home, and we can once again join hands as Christian, Jew, Budist, Hindu or whatever path of peace you choose to follow.

    Our forefathers did not want Congress to establish a National religion nor did they want government to interfere with the practice of ANY religion.

    No one should be asked to turn their back on their God in order to be buried in the Houston National Cemetery.

  2. MSG AJ Himel says:

    My suggestion; ” Every Faith will be honored, the use of their Higher Being will be allowed for each indivual service. Our own personnel will use the Families version for their services. The US Government will not be liable for any service preformed in any National Cemetery. Honors that may be included are Color Guard, Taps played and a Officer or NonCommisioned officer for presenting the Flag to the family.”

  3. Gerald Windham says:

    It is not possible that VA employs chaplains to cover all of us veterans due there are no Wiccan chaplain/ not even in the army. So not all of us are represented. This reminds me of the issue at the cemetary in Arizona. Where the administration of that one said they would not put the pentagram on the wiccan headstone and respect the wishes of the family and veteran.
    eventhough this is a recognized religion from the army and government.
    since iraq has claimed more and more of our brothers and sisters, more and more problems like these are popping up in multiple states.
    mostly due to the religious views of the cemetary directors and administrators.
    more of them need to be investigated.

    • Brent Otter, MA, SFC USA Ret says:

      @Gerald

      I am not sure you are correct in stating that the Armed Forces recognize Wiccan as a religion. I believe they do not. This would be the obvious reason why a Wiccan symbol is not allowed on a headstone. Personally, I do not have issue with any person’s choice of faith or way of worship so long as it does not harm others.

      • edSp says:

        The WICCAN symbol and many other religious symbols allowed can be found at the following website.
        http://www.cem.va.gov/CEM/hm/hmemb.asp

      • Raven Lee says:

        U.S. Department of the Army, “Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains,” University Press of the Pacific, (2001)
        http://www.religioustolerance.org/wic_usbk.htm

        ————————-
        Military Courts of Justice in the U.S. have also found Wicca to be a valid religion, deserving of protection under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In United States v. Phillips, (42 M.J. 346) in 1995) the concurring opinion by Judge Wiss stated: “First, Wicca is a socially recognized religion. It is is acknowledged as such by the Army. See Dept. of the Army (DA) Pamphlet 165-13-1, Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains (April 1980), revising A Pamphlet 165-13, “Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains” (April 1978). Further, it is acknowledged as such in courts of law.” 7
        http://www.religioustolerance.org/wic_rel.htm

  4. Jim Savage says:

    Congress should abolish the position of the judge who made this erroneous decision and let her go without any benefits. She should be fired. The VA should disregard such. This is a clear abuse of judicial discretion. Judges cannot change the law – they can only interpret such if they have the facts and correct law to help them.

    • I ask just because of your lack of faith, does that mean that others should not be allowed to show signs of their faith. I know that you feel that the judge overstepped his authority, I on the other hand do not. I do believe that this director is a political appointee, and is showing the perfect example of trying to control other peoples thoughts and actions. Just as a pawn of big brother would do. I feel this administrator should loose her position. As we all can see there is no transparency in this part of the government.

  5. Chap. Mikel Ryuho Monnett, BCC says:

    As a Buddhist who’s also a Board Certified Chaplain (BCC) I can attest that old prejudices against non-Judeo-Christians are hard to overcome, despite stated policies and proffered procedures. And the labyrinthian procedures the VA has for getting onto their prospective chaplains list would discourage all but the most obstinate or masochistic individuals from going through the process. Still, thanks to individuals around the country (like some Federal judges) things are beginning to change.

    I look forward to the day when the VA indeed “values and respects every Veteran and their family’s right to a burial service that honors their faith tradition.” All veterans who have served their country deserve no less than that.

    • Brent Otter, MA, SFC USA Ret says:

      While on active duty I had funeral duty for many veterans interned in both national and state cemetaries. Being in Hawaii, there were a significant number of Buddhist ceremonies, and these were all performed with equal solemnity and dignity. The funeral of every veteran was of equal importance, and the wishes of the family for the ceremony were always respected.

  6. I have been reading and following all of this, trying to get all the information I can get. It would seem that Ms. Ocasio would want to be available for comments while all of these things are being said about her. After reading the lawyers statements in the courtroom Tuesday and the Judges questions that the lawyer, if he was earning his pay, should have been able to answer. As a 100% service connected veteran, I deal with the Veterans Administration frequently. In general and I mean almost all of the situations in which I have had to deal with the VA they have been courteous and kind and I am glad to know these people and know that they have my best care in interest. But there has been the occasional person, who gets into a position of power and they abuse it. I can happily say that it is the rare occasion but I have seen it happen. I truly and honestly believe that Ms. Ocasio should be relieved of duty pending a complete and impartial investigation by a third party preferably. You do not have that many honorable veterans who are there to honor their comrades and brothers in arms, making these accusations without some merit to it. Please consider the situation and figure out what is attempting to stain the honor of our servicemen and the VA which is very important to me and my family.

  7. Len Griffin says:

    The problem is that one Cemetery Director took it upon himself to define the guidelines of the government. Well it bit him. I am a Patriot Guard Rider, I ride for the person….not their religion. If I find the service offensive to my up bringing then I bite my tongue out of respect. The words and ceremony are for the person and their family, not me. I honor the person and fought in Vietnam for his right to be buried the way he wants.

    • Ernest Kinnamon says:

      TO: Len Griffin
      Thank You Sir for your Honor and your Service, as a true brother in arms and American, you continue to heed the call to duty even after your tour was completed. You will find there are others of us still giving the meaning “Honor” back to the soldiers who did not return. Ours is a silent but never ending respect for the fallen, and if they or their families wish it, it shall be done. I have been in the Honor Guard when I served and thought it was the most important duty I was given, and the Family was cared for by the unit as family should. My family is proud to know of soldiers such as you. Salute!!
      Ernest Kinnamon, SGT, USARMY Ret.

    • You guys are making pronouncements and assumptions without even reading this story–and it’s apparent. The director is a “she” not a “he.”

  8. henry beghtol says:

    i agree with most of the things i have read about the seperation of church and state in our constitustion but how can you unload on our government on this matter and not on all the other constitutional rights they have been taking away over the last several years freedom of speach the right to bare arms our rights to life liberty and the persute of happyness our so called government has been taking them away a little at a time if you realy want to to something elect NEW ONE’S

  9. sonda says:

    Unfortunately, it’s getting to the point in our country where only athiests and anti-Christians can enjoy the liberties of the first amendment. The first amendment is based on free speech and the liberty to chose our religion of choice. Obviously, some organizations are too short-sited to recognise that these liberties are to be shared among all of us Americans, whether we are Buddist, Hindu, Catholic, Jewish, pagan or which ever we chose to be. To tell an American veteran family that he or she cannot share their faith tradition for their loved ones at burial is an assault on our constitution and complete disrespect for our veterans. it’s an outrage. Our veterans made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms and their family members should be treated with honor. So, the least our country can do for them is to honor their religion.

  10. I found this posted under the Rural Health Care Blog.

    Bob
    June 30th, 2011

    According to MyFoxHouston.com has reported that Cemetery’s Director, Arleen Ocasio has banned saying of “God” at funerals and requires prayers be submitted in advance for government approval. What kind of an idiot is this Ocasio anyway? This smacks of what goes on in Communist China when it comes to religion. Is Ocasio a Communist working in our government? Ocasio certainly does not respect the fallen soldiers family right to have burial services that honors their faith tradition. I am appalled and angry that our fallen comrades should be treated with such disrespect. Were I in a position to, Ocasio would be immediately fired or transferred to someplace where she would feel more at home, probably communist China.

  11. Joe Average Vet says:

    The VA has a long standing history opposing the conservatives and is finally getting around to making it public. The massive Union presence at the VA ensures that the left wing propaganda will be shoved down both VA employees and Veterans throats, and, of course the liberal President and Secretary see nothing wrong with this violation of Veterans and employees rights.
    I am really pleased the VFW “blew the whistle” on this VA practice of religious discrimination.
    We can now expect the VA to use money which is supposed to go to Veterans Benefits to fight the conservatives, further depriving Veterans of their benefits so the VA can promote their liberal agenda. What else is new at the VA?

  12. Barry Pollack says:

    Bad call, bad decision, The air must be cleared. The Lords and Jesus’s name should be used. These warriors were fighting for God and Country !

    • Pete Lister says:

      Barry, Please understand that not al Americans are Christians. I’m Jewish, and I most certainly would NOT want Jesus’ name used at my funeral. My 23 years of military service were for my country, not my religion. VA policy is clearly respectful of the family’s choice for religious signifigance. IF this individual stepped over the line (and I’m leery of jumping to conclusions. Conservatives have a tendency to blur the line between patriotism and truth.), and IF there has been any valid investigation by competent authority, and IF it is determined that she did, in fact, step over that line, then I have no doubt the situation will be rectified. All the attempts on this blog to assume horrendous vilations of these policies by the Obama administration without trying to ascertain the truth are just more of the same lying and inderhanded knee-jerk reactions so prevalent in today’s public discourse.

  13. Samuel R. Sheppard says:

    Our Armed Forces, past, present and future have fought for our rights of speech,religion, and freedom. Either love or leave the country that gives you these rights. KMA, those non-belivers, God bless the USA

  14. John Roane says:

    If all this is so what action, if any, will be taken with the VA personnel who restricted free speech and religious free speech at that and why?

  15. BMS says:

    It is time for all to step back and take a calm look at the news reports and see that something is missing. As a retiree of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery Administration (NCA), please allow me to discuss some of the possibilities not being shared.
    All honor guards except for DOD honor guards are volunteers of the Department of Veterans Affairs, so when they provide services at a funeral, they are representing the Department of Veterans Affairs. Let’s consider that the honorably discharged veteran being buried is an atheist, agnostic or of a belief that does not believe in God or Jesus and the honor guard makes remarks when presenting the flag or the spent bullets that include God or Jesus – the family is offended and files a complaint with the VA, it is the responsibility of the VA/NCA to provide a dignified service to all honorably discharged veterans and their families. Offending the family during a service is not providing a dignified service and the administration has only one recourse and that is to ask the volunteer group involved in the complaint to not include words/phrases that could be offensive. This situation occurs occasionally and normally the correction is accepted and understood without further incident.
    At no time does NCA censor or place restrictions on private services arranged by the family, the family minister can reference any religious belief in message or prayer. NCA does have responsibility to monitor what is said by VA employees and volunteers, as these people have no way of knowing the family belief.
    Since we have not heard the whole story, I suggest that restraint would be considered a virtue at this time. Asking for the removal of this cemetery director, who has successfully served the veteran populations in many cemeteries across this nation for a number of years without all the facts is not in keeping with any Christian belief known to me.

  16. katherine says:

    I want God mentioned in my buriel and I don’t care who knows it.

  17. RICHARD HICKMAN says:

    i MYSELF FEEL THE DIRECTOR OF THE HOUSTON NATIONAL CEMETERY HAS STEPPED OVER THE LINE. TELLING THE LOVED ONES OF OUR FALLEN HEROS THAT THEY CANT HAVE A RELIGIOUS SERVICE IN THE CEMETERY. AND TO TURN THE CHEPEL INTO A MEETING HALL AND NOT USE IT FOR WHAT IT WAS BUILT FOR IN THE FIRST PLACE? MY FATHER WAS A VETERAN OF THE KOREAN WAR,I MYSELF AM A GULF WAR VETERAN. I THINK THAT THE VETERANS ORAGANZATIONS IN HOUSTON AREA AND AND ALL OVER THE COUNTRY SHOULD PUT THIS WOMAN THAT WHAT SHE DID IS TOTALLY UNCALLED FOR. AND THAT SHE SHOULD STEP DOWN. BECAUSE IT APPEARS THAT SHE DOES EVEN CARE ANYTHING ABOUT THE VETERANS INTERNED AT THAT CEMETERY AND THEIR LOVED ONES

  18. Joe Average Vet says:

    BMS comments are rather typical VA propoganda and spin. While it is unclear whether he is speaking in his official capacity of the VA or not, the message is the same: When The VA cant fix the problem, they can fix the blame. This time, the VA chooses to blame the Veteran’s family for widespread religious discrimination.

    Has it ever occurred to the VA that they should ask the Veterans family what type of burial service they think would honor their lost Veteran? As long as the VA complies, fully, with the type of service the family desires, there should be no complaints from the family.

    Is it really too much to ask the VA cemetary employees to comply with the Veterans family’s request?
    I see no need for the VA to “bully” the family into requiring pre approval to use the words “God” and “Jesus” in the service. The VA has been a bully far too long, bullying Veterans into compliance with their laws, so at the funeral its about time the Veteran gets the type of service he (or his family) so elects, and not a funeral service that the VA has control over.

    • BMS says:

      BMS is not speaking in an official capacity but as a private citizen and retired person who served this great nation and her veterans for 39 years before retirement and still serves as a volunteer in veteran related activities.
      In no way did I blame anyone, I simply gave a possible explanation based on years of experiences working with veterans and their families.

  19. Ron Bremner says:

    Perhaps in some news reports, there is missing detail. However, a large amount of information is available on-line, including the lawsuit documents.

    The suit is published on line, and includes a significant number of details. Veterans groups (who are suing) from Houston are specific in their complaints, and give details and dates of when they were told to no longer use the words ‘God’, ‘Jesus’, etc. and other restrictions.

    A judge has also ordered the lawyer for the VA to answer specific questions, which that lawyer was not able to do. The judge responded that a single telephone call could have answered these questions.

    Ms. Ocasio has not denied these charges, which would certainly be the first, most obvious thing to do. More information will certainly come out, but the comments by many above are not necessarily made in ignorance. There appears to be a significant number of veterans who serve in honor guards, and have been given specific instructions not to refer to ‘God’, ‘Jesus’, etc.

  20. Stone Peterson says:

    Arleen Ocasio must resign. She is a disgrace to all Americans and has embraced evil.

  21. Arleen Ocasio and any other organization, government or otherwise, should be forced to read the constitution out loud and then explain the rational, or lack thereof for their decision to prevent freedom of speech at military funerals. Perhaps they should be required to spend a few months in Combat. I assure you they would find an immediate understanding of the power of prayer. Wiccan, Jew, Christian, Muslem, Buddhist or any other faith or non-faith should be allowed to express their faith at the departure of their loved ones who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Arleen and any other opposing authority responsible for this decision should be removed from any position of authority and required to move to any country that does not allow freedom of speech or religion. I am a veteran with a 70% service connected disability from service in Vietnam. I find it abhorant that this practice was ever even considered to be initiated.