HOUSTON (CNA) — The Liberty Institute has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs after it continuously tried to prevent veterans from including prayers in funeral services at the Houston National Cemetery.
“We do know that this is unconstitutional; this violates their rights. We have brought a federal lawsuit, and we hope the government will do the right thing and correct this policy,” said Erin Leu, attorney for the Liberty Institute, in an interview with CNA on June 30.
She said the institute was optimistic that the Southern District Court of Texas will rule in the veterans’ favor and find that the private groups have a “constitutional right to reference God and Jesus in their private speech.”
On June 28, the Liberty Institute went to court on behalf of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and the National Memorial Ladies.
Leu explained that the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American League were told by the Houston National Cemetery director, Arleen Ocasio, not to include prayer in funeral services, unless they received her personal approval by submitting a written copy of the prayer to her.
The National Memorial Ladies faced a similar setback: Ocasio said that the condolence cards given to the families of veterans could no longer include the words “God bless,” nor could the women verbally convey the same message to grieving the families during funerals.
“We are thankful that these groups are coming forward and fighting this unconstitutional suppression of their speech,” said Leu.
If the court rules against the Veterans Affairs’ Department, Leu believes that it will be “another clear message that the government cannot discriminate against religious speech.”
Federal district Judge Lynn Hughes presided over the June 28 hearing and gave the government an extension to respond by July 15.
Judge Hughes closed a previous case against the Veterans Affairs’ Department on May 26 with a temporary restraining order, barring the department from preventing
Pastor Scott Rainey from praying “in Jesus’ name” during a Memorial Day service.
In the temporary restraint document, Judge Hughes said, “The men buried in the cemetery fought for their fellow Americans — for us.”
“Beyond (the) narrow, practical proprietary interest, the government may not dictate what people say.”
Leu said the verdict was a “great ruling and a great victory.”
“Pastor Rainey’s case is a clear message that the government has no right to censor or discriminate his private religious speech,” she asserted.
Leu explained that the veterans think the censorship “is appalling, because they fought in wars, risked everything for our freedoms.”
“It’s so offensive that the government is saying that the freedoms fought for can no longer be practiced when honoring fellow soldiers,” she insisted.
“It’s like a slap in the face to veterans and their families.”