VA Settles with Veterans Groups Over Prayer At Houston Cemetery

Volunteers place wreaths on graves at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. The VA recently settled a lawsuit over the use of religious terminology during funeral services at the cemetery.: Photo by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Over the summer, Veterans groups in Houston, Texas, accused the Department of Veterans Affairs of interfering with ceremonies at the Houston VA cemetery – specifically by prohibiting religious speech on cemetery grounds during services.

The concerned Veterans groups filed a lawsuit against VA. Recently, the parties agreed to a settlement. While the parties have filed a consent decree outlining their resolution, it still awaits judicial approval. The agreement was reached through mediation by former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips. The parties are not commenting on the agreement until a judge signs off on it.

According to the consent decree, VA agreed, among other provisions, to:

  • Not ban, regulate, or otherwise interfere with prayer or other religious speech during services, unless there is an objection by the family.
  • Allow any religious or secular services requested by the families, as long as they comply with VA security, safety, and other regulations.
  • Not condition a speaker’s participation in a ceremony or event at the cemetery on the requirement that no religious speech or prayer is made.
  • Not ban religious speech or words, including “God” and “Jesus” from condolence cards sent by cemetery volunteers.
  • Restore the legacy Bible, white cross, and Star of David to an open shelf at the side of the chapel for use by families if desired.
  • Pay the plaintiffs $215,000 in attorneys’ fees and expenses.

One issue not addressed in the agreement – the status of the cemetery director, Arleen Ocasio. Many had urged VA to terminate her, but her employment status in not discussed in the agreement. VA has not given any indication whether she will remain the cemetery’s director or not.

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