Honorable Ted Poe
Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member McNerney and other Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to speak on behalf of HR 2720.
On June 28th of last year, constituents of mine came to meet with me about a big problem at the National Cemetery in Houston.The National Cemetery in Houston is the second-largest in the nation and the place where four Medal of Honor winners were laid to rest. These constituents were members of the VFW, American Legion, and the Houston branch of the National Memorial Ladies who had been serving veterans and their families as they laid their loved ones to rest. They said the Director of the Cemetery was not letting them exercise their First Amendment rights. They claimed the VA was censoring free speech and preventing the free exercise of religion at the National Cemetery in Houston. They said the chapel at the cemetery was closed. The Bible, the cross, and the Star of David were removed, and the chapel became a storage shed. They also said the Director of the cemetery, who was not a veteran, censored prayers and prohibited the religious ceremony during burial of veterans.
The Director defended herself by saying she was simply enforcing VA regulations that all speech be “inclusive.” That meant this was not just an isolated incident, but a problem at the very highest levels and one that could be repeated unless a stop was put to it. The VFW sued the VA, and the VA naturally denied the whole thing. Recently, a Federal judge approved and agreed to an order requiring the chapel to be reopened, the Bible, the cross, the Star of David to be returned, and said that the VA must not interfere with free speech or the free exercise of religion at burials. Since then, the VA refused to fire the Director, instead choosing to transfer her back to Washington DC.
I am a cosponsor of HR 2720 because if passed, it would make sure travesties like the one I just described do not happen again. The bill is clear that the VA cannot limit the freedom of speech of our veterans, must provide veterans a place where they can worship, make sure that VSOs like the ones that came to me are allowed to serve veterans, and require that all cemetery directors are veterans.
It is ironic that Americans who have gone to war and fought for the principles of the Constitution, come home to face government hostility and the denial of their First Amendment rights. To deny anyone of their right to free speech or freedom of religion is unacceptable, but to deny our veterans, those who fought for those very freedoms we enjoy today, is inexcusable. The fact that this was done at funeral services, when families were saying goodbye to loved ones, makes it even worse. The First Amendment is sacred, funerals are sacred and when our veterans are buried, that soil becomes sacred. It is the constitutional duty of the federal government to protect speech and religion, not prohibit it. I urge this subcommittee to support HR 2720. That’s just the way it is.