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Witness Testimony of The Honorable John Culberson, Congressman, U.S. House of Representatives (TX-07)

The Houston National Cemetery holds an annual Memorial Day ceremony to honor the service and sacrifice of our fallen soldiers. During last year’s ceremony a pastor from the Living Word Church of the Nazarene in Houston, Texas, was invited to give the prayer. Prior to the service, the cemetery director, Ms. Arlene Ocasio, requested that the prayer be submitted to her for pre-approval. It included the Lord’s Prayer and closed by stating: “in the name of Jesus.” Ms. Ocasio asked the pastor to remove this language because the prayer was written “specific to one belief” and “on Memorial Day we will be commemorating veterans from all cultures and religious beliefs.” Therefore, “the tone of all messages must be inclusive of all beliefs, needs to be general, and its fundamental purpose should be … nondenominational in nature.” The pastor had said a prayer at this same ceremony in both 2009 and 2010 and had not been subjected to such religious censorship then.

Following this event, I began receiving reports from my constituents and members of veteran’s organizations concerning additional and deliberate acts of religious censorship at the cemetery.  Censorship escalated to such a point that Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). They reported that Ms. Ocasio prohibited VSOs from including prayer or religious speech in funeral rituals unless families submitted the prayer or religious speech in writing to her prior to the committal services. Also under Ms. Ocasio’s direction, the cemetery chapel was closed and used for storage and the carillon bells were no longer being used. When questioned about these actions, Ms. Ocasio stated that she was simply enforcing existing VA policy for funeral services. After personally investigating their claims, I introduced H.R. 2720 to clarify the role of the VA in providing funeral services for veterans. Limiting the free speech of any American is outrageous and unconstitutional, but it is especially offensive to restrict the First Amendment rights of veterans when they have fought and sacrificed to defend those rights.

I personally wrote to VA Secretary Shinseki to express my outrage with the events and demanded that the VA remedy this problem immediately. Additionally, I, along with 27 other members of Congress, wrote a separate letter to Secretary Shinseki requesting the removal of the Houston National Cemetery Director, Ms. Arlene Ocasio. Under her direction, the cemetery restricted the free speech of patriotic members of VSOs as they joined in mourning the loss of the service members. We also requested assurance that the cemetery chapel remain open permanently and that any religious objects or symbols that were removed from the chapel be restored to their original location. Finally, we asked for her assurance that the chapel’s carillon remain in operation, fulfilling its original purpose.

On July 8, 2011 I personally attended a funeral service at the cemetery and was horrified to witness the censorship firsthand. Members of the honor guard from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) were there performing the funeral ritual. Cemetery officials instructed the commander of the honor guard to confront a grieving widow as she approached her husband’s grave site to reconfirm that she wanted the word God mentioned during the service. He quite correctly said, as a Texan and a man of honor and integrity, “I’m not bothering that poor woman at this most terrible time of her life. We’re going to do the ritual.” Right in front of me, VA officials deliberately attempted to prevent the VFW from doing their magnificent, spiritual ritual over the grave of this fallen hero.

Ms. Ocasio denied these allegations and said she told the VA Voluntary Services trainees that they needed to ensure that their military funeral honors were reflective of the desires of the families of the veterans being honored, that there is no “do over” for a committal service, and that no veteran’s family should ever leave offended or unhappy with the services provided by the cemetery staff or the registered VA volunteers. I agree that there is no “do over” for a committal service, which is why I strongly believe that a veteran’s family should have the freedom to choose the language of the funeral ritual. The family should also have the opportunity to hear from the VSOs as to what ritual options are available so that they can knowledgably choose what is best for them.

The VA has repeatedly declared that they did nothing wrong. In fact, the VA Deputy General Counsel, John H. (Jack) Thompson, in a letter to the Liberty Institute, wrote that directors of national cemeteries can apply whatever limitations they deem reasonable. VA officials strongly denied they banned any religious speech and offered support for Ms. Ocasio. I vehemently disagree. I fail to understand how this could possibly be the correct interpretation of VA policy when the issues at Houston National Cemetery did not arise at any other veteran cemetery in the country.  No individual or government agency has the authority to restrict the constitutional rights of American citizens.

In September 2011, the lawsuit was mediated between the VSOs and the VA. Ms. Ocasio has since been removed as cemetery director.  However, this does not make up for the pain, suffering and religious censorship the families endured during Ms. Ocasio’s tenure.  It is deeply disappointing that it took a lawsuit and congressional action to force the VA to do the right thing.  H.R. 2720 ensures that no veteran or veteran’s family will ever suffer such religious censorship at the behest of our federal government again.

This bill prohibits the federal government from interfering with the content of funeral services. It will require that any new VA Cemetery Director is a veteran and can therefore relate to the circumstances of those interred there. It will limit the role of the VA to provide only services that are supportive of veteran burials and removes the risk of religious censorship. It will also require the VA to ensure that a chapel is provided at the cemetery and accessible to the deceased family and that any requested honor guard or other nongovernmental group is provided access. I urge your support of H.R. 2720, a bill to clarify the role of the Department of Veterans Affairs in providing a benefit or service related to the interment or funeral of a veteran.