HOUSTON, Texas – Today, Liberty Institute announces a great victory for veterans and freedom in the Rainey v VA case after months of negotiation. Federal District Judge Lynn N. Hughes signed a consent decree ordering the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to stop banning prayer and the word “God” at national cemeteries, to revoke national policies hostile to religion, and to reopen the Chapel at the Houston National Cemetery.
“We are thankful that after almost five months of litigation, the government is finally doing the right thing by entering into a consent decree and ending religious hostility at the Houston National Cemetery,” said Jeff Mateer, general counsel for Liberty Institute. “The decree not only impacts religious freedoms in Houston, but at all VA cemeteries nationwide because the government has agreed to modify two national policies hostile to religion.”
The two national VA policies, which must be changed are the NCA Director 3170 and the November 1, 2007 NCA memorandum issued by Under Secretary William F. Tuerk. The order requires the VA to change NCA Directive 3170, which restricts speakers at events held at national cemeteries, like Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Specifically, the VA must delete the requirement that speech and prayers at such events be “inclusive and non-derogatory.” See Consent Decree, paragraph 7.
The order also requires the VA to change its national policies regarding volunteer honor guards as set forth in the Tuerk memo requiring the VA to amend paragraphs 1, 2, and 3 of this policy. See Consent Decree, paragraph 18. These changes will now allow: (1) the reading of “Thirteen Fold” Flag Recitations unless the deceased veteran’s family request otherwise; (2) volunteer honor guards to provide their own texts of recitations to the funeral homes for the funeral homes to offer those options to the deceased veteran’s survivor(s) for consideration; and (3) the VFW and American Legion honor guards to work independently with funeral homes to coordinate provision of volunteer services at the committal services scheduled at the cemetery without interference from the government.
“I am glad to see the VA overturn these policies, which will allow us to perform the entire VFW burial ritual,” said Inge Conley, a 20-year veteran with the U.S. Army who served two tours in Korea and is now the Commander of VFW District 4 in Houston. “We should be able to include prayers, mentions of God, and the phrase, ‘May God grant you, grace, mercy and peace,’ to grieving families laying American soldiers to rest.”
The Rainey v VA case began last May when Houston National Cemetery Director Arlene Ocasio told Pastor Scott Rainey that he could no longer pray in Jesus’ name at Memorial Day ceremonies there. Liberty Institute obtained an emergency restraining order from Judge Hughes allowing Pastor Rainey to pray, but after further investigation, uncovered additional gross First Amendment violations made by Ocasio and other VA officials such as: telling volunteers with the National Memorial Ladies to remove the word “God” from their vocabulary; requiring grieving family members to submit prayers in writing for approval when burying loved ones; closing the Chapel and using it as a storage facility.
This Summer Liberty Institute amended its original complaint adding the VFW District 4, American Legion Post 586, the National Memorial Ladies, and widows Lisa Ward and Geri Lakey, who were all negatively impacted by the Department of Veterans Affairs censorship of religious expression.
For more information on this and other cases impacting freedoms, visit www.LibertyInstitute.org.
Liberty Institute is a public policy and non-profit legal firm working to uphold First Amendment freedoms in the courts, legislature and public-square.