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Judge orders VA cemetery to allow Jesus


A federal judge slapped down the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday, saying it can’t stop a pastor from using the words “Jesus Christ” in his Memorial Day invocation at Houston National Cemetery.

“The government cannot gag citizens when it says it is in the interest of national security, and it cannot do it in some bureaucrat’s notion of cultural homogeneity,” U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes wrote in his order, granting the Rev. Scott Rainey’s motion for the court to intercede. “The right to free expression ranges from the dignity of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches to Charlie Sheen’s rants.”

Rainey, lead pastor at the Living Word Church of the Nazarene, asked Hughes to prevent the cemetery’s caretaker, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, from telling him what he can say in a prayer on Memorial Day after the agency asked him for the first time to submit the prayer for review.

“I was shocked,” Rainey said. “I’ve heard of this happening in other states and other locations.”

For the past two years, Rainey has given the Memorial Day invocation at the cemetery to honor U.S. soldiers who have fought and died. And each year, he’s mentioned Jesus Christ, without complaint. The invocation is sponsored by a private group, the National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston, but held at the Houston National Cemetery, which is public property.

Told to edit prayer

Rainey’s prayer, less than a page long, includes the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and closes with one reference to Jesus: “While respecting people of every faith today, it is in the name of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, that I pray. Amen.”

Rainey was instructed by the cemetery to submit his prayer for review a month ago. Cemetery director Arleen Ocasio then emailed Rainey on May 19, informing the pastor that the prayer was still in need of editing.

“… While it is very well written, I must ask you to edit it,” Ocasio wrote. “The tone of all messages must be inclusive of all beliefs, need to be general and its fundamental purpose should be specific to those we are honoring, and non-denominational in nature.”

Rainey and his attorneys at Plano-based Liberty Institute took the matter to Veterans Affairs attorneys. But on Wednesday, the cemetery director’s stance was backed by her bosses in Washington. Rainey’s attorneys were notified by John H. “Jack” Thompson, deputy general counsel for Veterans Affairs, that the “invitation extended to him to participate in this VA program is entirely within our agency’s discretion.”

Thompson asked Rainey’s lawyers to have their client notify Ocasio no later than 3 p.m. Thursday whether he “agrees to modify the message he wishes to deliver” so Ocasio may arrange for a substitute.

Instead, Rainey asked the federal court to grant a temporary restraining order to prevent Veterans Affairs from censoring the prayer. He claims the agency violated his civil protection from being told by the government how to express his religious beliefs.

“It’s private speech that happens to be on public land,” said Hiram Sasser, Rainey’s attorney. “The Supreme Court has said on five occasions that the government has no business censoring religious private speech on public land or in a public venue.”