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Texas Legislators and Christian Groups Fight to Insert God Into Vets' Funerals -- Against Families' Wishes

Christian military groups are suing the VA to force families to include prayer during the burial services of veterans.
 
 
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Shouldn't veterans and their families have the right to decide whether religion -- and what kind -- is welcome at their own funerals? The Department of Veterans Affairs says yes. But three Texas Congressman and Christian military organizations want to strip away this basic right. Instead, they want to be allowed to impose unwanted Christian ceremonies on the military funerals of everybody who has served the red, white, and blue.

Following the Families’ Wishes

Three organizations -- Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4, the American Legion Post 586, and the National Memorial Ladies -- have filed a lawsuit against VA officials at the Houston National Cemetery for banning references to God in a recent service. 

“It makes my skin crawl that liberals are attempting to drive prayer out of a funeral ceremony for our heroes,” Texas Rep. John Culbersontold Fox News, which has given significant airtime to the controversy. “We’re going to fix this so that no Obama liberal bureaucrat will interfere with the funeral of a hero.” In addition to supporting the lawsuit, Culberson has threatened to stop the salary of the cemetery director who enforced the no-consent-no-God rule and to hold hearings in the fall investigating the VA's anti-Christian stance.

Republican Texas reps. Culberson, Ted Poe and Michael McCaul portray the issue as denying American heroes the religious funerals they desire. In a post with the tongue-in-cheek headline “Texas Congressmen to force Christian prayer over my dead body,” American Atheists military director Justin Griffith accuses the trio of outright lying in order to use “military funerals for political gain.” The fantasy story they’re peddling certainly plays better than the truth: that they’re expending energy and resources fighting for the right to “use Christian themes, prayers, speeches without seeking consent in every single military veteran funeral statewide.”

While the VA couldn’t comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, it stated its support for the besieged cemetery director and provided an official statement slamming the broader accusations:

 

 

“The idea that invoking the name of God or Jesus is banned at VA national cemeteries is blatantly false. The truth is VA’s policy protects veterans’ families’ rights to pray however they choose at our national cemeteries. Put simply, VA policy puts the wishes of the veteran's family above all else on the day it matters most -- the day they pay their final respects to their loved one.”

 

 

If the VA has anything to say about it, it will continue to be up to veterans’ families whether or not to have a religious service -- and whether the religion is Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or a multitude of other faiths. The VA further confirmed that the changes advocated would mean imposing religious prayer against the wishes of the family.

Meanwhile, the groups filing the lawsuit are playing the victim, claiming their religious rights are being violated and complaining about how difficult it is to be prohibited from imposing their God on unwilling veterans’ families. Marilyn Koepp, secretary of National Memorial Ladies, a volunteer group that attends veterans’ funerals, shares her woes with Fox News: “It’s very hard for me to be at the funeral of one of our veterans ... and we just make that decision that we will say God bless you, and how can someone tell us, no you can’t."

But the feelings of volunteers like herself, strangers to the deceased veteran and their families, don’t matter in this situation. It’s not a ceremony for their loved ones. They’re volunteering to attend and honor late veterans -- and while this is a laudable act, it loses all of its positive impact if it involves ramming unwanted religious rhetoric down the throats of mourning family members.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), puts the narrative back on track by pointing out that “the true victims in this situation are the families who have lost loved ones, not the volunteers who want a government platform for their religious beliefs.” Moreover, though the blame for restricting religious influence may be targeted at the VA and the Obama administration because they cut less sympathetic figures than grieving relatives, it’s really the family members who make the individual decisions about whether to have a religious burial. It’s their rights that would be taken away if the VA was forced to change its policy. 

“Most people would agree that it is wrong for anyone to impose their religion on a veteran's family without their consent, especially during a deeply personal burial service,” the VA’s response statement continues, in a pointed jab at these meddling Christian groups. “Similarly, it is wrong not to respect a family’s request for a religious service. VA’s policy is in place to protect families – whatever their choice. Out of respect for the families, VA’s policy exists to prevent anyone from disrespecting or interfering with a veteran’s private committal service.”

What’s Your God Doing in My Government?  

The groups and congressmen fighting to force God on all military funerals not only disrespect atheist servicemembers, they also stomp all over separation of church and state. “As an atheist and as a soldier, I care deeply about our Constitution being subverted like this,” Justin Griffith writes at the American Atheist blog. “I am shocked that Texas’ U.S. Reps are attempting to ensure that my funeral is going to feature a state-sponsored Christian message.”

It shouldn’t be too surprising, though: Griffith points out that Rep. Culberson previously co-sponsored legislation to allow teacher- and coach-led prayer to indoctrinate students in public schools. So this is nothing out of character for the congressman from Texas.

The post concludes: “Some politicians want to sneak religion into government, and they want to do it at my funeral on your dime.”

Griffith could not be reached by phone for further comment because he’s currently deployed on active duty. But Kathleen Johnson, former military director and now vice president of American Atheists, did have something more to say.

Johnson, a veteran who works in Texas, laments that when the issue of imposing prayer on military funerals has come up, the “knee-jerk reaction” has been to side with the Christian groups. She credits their success in selling an utterly deceptive framing for this response. “These Texas congressmen are sort of leading this charge in the publicity effort to frame this as a religious discrimination issue in which Christians are being discriminated against,” Johnson commented, “when it’s actually a religious discrimination issue in which everybody else is being discriminated against.”

Both American Atheists and MAAF stated that they have no problem with religion being included in military funerals at the behest of the family. “Full freedom if the family asks,” says MAAF’s Jason Torpy. “That should be it, end of discussion.” In the absence of family preference, however, the government must not cross the line into promoting religion. 

Torpy points out that while the default is always that government speech is secular, the congressmen and groups bringing the lawsuit want religious underpinnings to be the default for all official services. He also rejects the claim that banning unwanted religion violates the free speech rights of the Christian groups’ volunteers. The Constitutional principle in jeopardy is separation of church and state: Torpy argues that volunteers’ speech becomes government speech when they decide to participate in the official service, and as such is beholden to the restrictions thereof. 

 

And while it’s really Christianity Culberson and his ilk are fighting for, Torpy believes their rhetoric often uses non-denominational theist interjections in order to avoid drawing the attention of other religious individuals, who might also want to protect their own religious freedoms and loved ones’ burials against Christian encroachment. If it’s just atheists being discriminated against, Torpy says, “they feel they can get away with it.”

The Army’s Ambiguous Arlington Policy

While the VA is under fire for protecting the rights of atheist veterans to have an official military funeral free from religion, Arlington Cemetery, the only Army-run cemetery in the United States, is raising concerns for including religion in ceremonies against families’ express wishes.

MAAF president Jason Torpy recently presided over a ceremony at Arlington for decorated WWII pilot John Hormuth and his wife Mattie. With children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in attendance, the Hormuths wanted to be remembered in accordance with their beliefs. But even though the family was explicit about not wanting any religious components to their service, these wishes were not met. In particular, a volunteer from the Arlington Ladies blessed the mourning family and presented a religious card “on behalf of the chief of staff of the Army.”

The Army and the Arlington administration have yet to respond to the family’s demand for action to end unwanted religious intrusions or to MAAF’s request for comment. “The Chief of Staff of the Army should ensure that the Arlington Ladies are not praying on his behalf,”MAAF stated in response to this incident. “The Army should ensure that Arlington National Cemetery includes religious content only at the request of the family and only under the supervision of the chaplains. MAAF applauds the care and dedication of the Arlington Ladies and other similar groups, but their care must not come at the cost of government-sponsored religious speech that is against a family’s wishes.”

Unlike the VA, which appears to be doing the right thing by atheists, the Army has not released a statement defending the right of veterans’ families to have a service in accordance with their beliefs. While Arlington Cemetery does allow families to request a humanist speaker and no chaplain interaction, an inquiry about the policy on having a ceremony completely free of references to religion or God remained unanswered at the time this article was filed.

Atheists in Foxholes

The interference with military funerals represents a particularly egregious example of attempted discrimination against atheists and Christians trying to force their beliefs where they don’t belong. The insistence on dictating the terms of a veterans’ burial, superseding the families’ wishes, goes to a callous and disrespectful extreme, yet the problems atheists in the military face are hardly confined to funerals.

There’s also simple neglect or ignorance of atheists in the military. To dispel the myth, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” MAAF spotlights the service of over 200 open atheists on its website. MAAF also has a campaign to increase the number of military humanist chaplains and to certify lay leaders to support religious chaplains, to address a lack of counseling and morale-building services for non-theist servicemembers.

Unfortunately, the discrimination against atheists takes a far more active turn as well. Kathleen Johnson relates that during her military service, she was harassed for being an atheist by fellow servicemembers, emailed threats, and even told by an evangelical commander that anyone who didn’t subscribe to her Christian beliefs would be downgraded on their evaluation. Johnson said that in her 10 years as military director for American Atheists, she’s heard countless stories of ostracism and harassment, incidents which many atheists were afraid to report to authorities due to concerns about retaliation.

Then there’s the direct promotion of religion in other aspects of military life. Johnson pointed to the Army’s mandatory “Spiritual Fitness” test, part of a $125 million Soldier Fitness program, as an example. In a recent Talk to Action article, Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) discusses the results of the organization’s investigation into this program and other methods of diverting Department of Defense money toward supporting religion. Rodda writes: “Paid for with taxpayer dollars are a plethora of events, programs, and schemes that violate not only the Constitution, but, in many cases, the regulations on federal government contractors.” Military money is thus funneled toward evangelical concerts (with Bible readings between Jesus-loving songs), private Christian retreats, religious youth programs, and more.

With this kind of behavior in the military, it becomes less surprising that chapters of national veterans groups would attempt to impose Christianity on all of their fellow servicemembers, even in death.

The “War on Christmas” Playbook 

“War on Christmas” is a phrase that has been used by the Religious Right to claim that their most sacred of holidays is being destroyed by immoral secular liberals, who outrageously demand that employees say “Seasons Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas.” Come Christmas time, if you listen to Fox News, you can usually hear dramatic stories of cashiers whispering their illicit greeting to shoppers to evade the notice of their managers.

This coverage usually leaves out the fact that companies are simply being respectful toward consumers who don’t happen to celebrate the birth of Jesus. 

Note the framing parallels with the current situation of prayer at military funerals. Christian groups, talking heads, and politicians jump on the bandwagon, selling it as discrimination against them and infringement on their religious rights, without any consideration for non-Christian beliefs. There’s no acknowledgement that being asked not to promote religion on the job doesn’t impact their ability to celebrate Christmas however they want in their private life.

Military funerals are much more serious than holiday shopping, and as government services, the promotion of Christianity is especially egregious. But it’s useful to recognize that this isn’t a new tactic -- it’s just being adapted to a new venue.

Christian groups that want to push a religious agenda have figured out that an effective way to do so is by pretending to be the victim and heading off non-Christians’ complaints of discrimination by capturing that narrative first. And as American Atheist VP Kathleen Johnson indicated -- this works. Once people buy into the narrative and feel the knee-jerk reaction that Christians are being wronged, it makes it more difficult to bring them around to recognizing the true victims.

It’s a topsy-turvy situation -- and a testament to the Religious Rights’ prowess at narrative manipulation -- when the strangers imposing unwanted religious ceremonies succeed in presenting themselves as the wronged party.

Alex DiBranco is an editor at Change.org.
 
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