Veterans Allege VA Placing Ban on 'Jesus,' 'God' in Cemetery Services

July 1, 2011
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Houston — Local veterans say the Department of Veterans Affairs is consistently censoring their prayers, banning them from saying the words “God,” and “Jesus” during funeral services at Houston National Cemetery.

Three separate organizations have come forward complaining the cemetery’s director and other government officials are violating the First Amendment. Members from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and the National Memorial Ladies all complain of “religious hostility” at the cemetery.

On Tuesday they told a federal judge what’s been going on there.

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“People are doing things out there that I feel like they shouldn’t be,” said Jim Rodgers, a Vietnam veteran.

“We are private citizens in a private organization, and yet we are restricted from saying what our ritual calls for,” said John Spahr, Veterans of Foreign Wars.

A 26-page complaint outlines the allegations. According to the court papers, the cemetery’s director, Arleen Ocasio, bans the word “God” and requires prayers to be submitted for government approval.

“We were told we could no longer say “God bless you” and “God bless your family,” said Marilyn Koepp, a volunteer with the National Memorial Ladies.

The group attends about 60 funerals a week to honor veterans and console families.

“How did I feel? I probably shouldn’t say how I felt because it was absolutely apalling that this woman would come aboard and tell us we can not say ‘God bless you,'” said Koepp.

Nobleton Jones felt belittled when he says a government official told him he couldn’t use the word “God” in his recitation to a family as he handed them a bag of shell casings from a gun salute.

“I tell the people, ‘We ask that God grant you and your family grace, mercy and peace,’ That forth has been censored,” said Jones.

Attorneys with the Liberty Institute began investigating last month after a local pastor won his fight to say his “Jesus” prayer at the cemetery’s Memorial Day ceremony.

“When we investigated we determined the government and the director are discriminating based upon religious viewpoint,” said Jeff Mateer, general counsel for Liberty Institute.

Ocasio couldn’t be reached for comment. Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Hinrichs told the judge:

“We’re in the process of going through the claims. Some are true, and some are not true.”

What’s more, the veterans allege the VA turned the chapel into a meeting room shortly after the director came on board two years ago.

They say they won’t back down from the fight.

“I am going to say ‘God bless you’ until I don’t know what would make me ever stop it,” said Koepp.

So far the complaints appear to be isolated to the Houston National Cemetery. The government has until the middle of next month to respond to the allegations.

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