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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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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.

 
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