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megimoo
06-28-2011, 06:31 PM
Local veterans and volunteer groups are accusing Department of Veterans Affairs officials of censoring religious speech — including banning the word "God" — at Houston National Cemetery.

In one example cited in documents filed this week in federal court, cemetery director Arleen Ocasio reportedly told volunteers with the National Memorial Ladies that they had to stop telling the families, "God bless you," at funerals and that they had to remove the words "God bless" from condolence cards.

The new allegations of "religious hostility" by VA and cemetery officials follow on the heels of a controversy over a prayer in Jesus’ name by Pastor Scott Rainey at a Memorial Day service in the cemetery.

U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes ruled May 26 that Ocasio couldn’t stop Rainey from using the words "Jesus Christ" in his invocation.

Attorneys with the nonprofit Liberty Institute, which represented Rainey, filed an amended complaint this week after allegedly finding other instances of religious discrimination by cemetery officials against members Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4, The American Legion Post 586, and the National Memorial Ladies, a volunteer group that attends funerals of fallen service members.

The complaint accuses VA of "a widespread and consistent practice of discriminating against private religious speech" at the cemetery.

Ocasio is on vacation and could not be reached for comment. Her assistant, Amanda Rhodes, said the cemetery had no comment.

According to court documents, Ocasio banned members of the groups from using certain religious words such as "God" or "Jesus," censored the content of prayer, and forbade the use of religious messages in burial rituals unless the deceased’s family submitted the text to her for prior approval.

Court documents also describe the closure of the cemetery’s chapel after Ocasio’s appointment as director two years ago.

"The doors remain locked during Houston National Cemetery operating hours, the cross and the Bible have been removed, and the Chapel bells, which tolled at least twice a day, are now inoperative," the complaint reads. "Director Ocasio only unlocks the Chapel doors when meetings or training sessions are held at the building. Furthermore it is no longer called a ‘chapel’ but a ‘meeting facility.’"

"It’s just unfair that somebody would ask us to take God out of our vocabulary," said Cheryl Whitfield, founder of Houston National Memorial Ladies.

"I could’ve kept my mouth shut and let things happen, but when it comes to standing up for your belief in God and giving comfort to the families, I don’t want to regret not saying anything," Whitfield said. "We all had to stand up for what we believe in.

A standing-room only crowd jammed a federal courtroom in Houston this afternoon for a status conference on the case.

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/7630537.html