News Column

Religious Speech Not Stifled at Houston Cemetery: PolitiFact

August 13, 2013

An image posted on Facebook by the conservative group For America says, "The Houston National Cemetery is preventing Christian prayers from being said at military funerals!"

For America, which according to its website is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Reston, Va., urges Facebookers to "like" the image "if you agree this is wrong!"

Turns out it is wrong -- just not in the way For America meant.

"That's an old story," Houston National Cemetery director Mat Williams told us. "We got a bunch of calls about that. But it's not true."

For America spokesman Keith Appell told us the image and an accompanying blog entry posted July 11 were based on an item posted the day before on the conservative Breitbart.com website and a July 9 report from the Family Research Council, a Christian group based in Washington.

The Breitbart item and the council's report said that on July 26, 2011, U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, "determined that Houston National Cemetery was preventing Christian prayers from being said at military funerals."

Such allegations about the 430-acre cemetery in northwest Houston resulted in legal action in 2011 that drew national attention, according to Houston Chronicle news stories from the time.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes granted a temporary restraining order May 26, 2011, that allowed a pastor to deliver his Memorial Day invocation as written after the clergyman said then-director Arleen Ocasio told him not to say "Jesus Christ" in the service held at the cemetery.

As The New York Times put it at the time, Ocasio "began enforcing a little-noticed 2007 policy that prohibits volunteer honor guards from reading recitations -- including religious ones -- in their funeral rituals, unless families specifically request them." U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials said the policy originated after "complaints about religious words or icons being inserted unrequested into veterans' funerals," the Times story said.

Later that year, the Chronicle reported, the VA settled a lawsuit alleging that officials had told local veterans and volunteers not to use religious words such as "Jesus" and "God" during funerals at the cemetery.

In the settlement, the VA did not admit fault but agreed not to interfere with religious speech at funerals unless relatives objected.

Since then, current cemetery director Williams said, "We haven't had any incidents; no problems." U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, and a Culberson aide have visited the cemetery, he said, and veterans are there every day. "If there was anything like that, they would be in an uproar. But no, it's a phony story," he said.

Veterans' families aren't restricted from practicing any religion, Williams said. "It's their service; they can do any religious ceremony they want."

Leaders of Houston volunteer groups that were plaintiffs in the 2011 lawsuit gave us similar accounts.

"Everything is running very smooth there. There are no problems," said Cheryl Whitfield, director of National Memorial Ladies, whose 34 members sometimes are, she said, the only mourners during funerals at the cemetery. "We attend all of the burials at Houston National Cemetery every day. And we give our condolences to the family," Whitfield told us. "We use God's name; we use Jesus' name; we're able to say anything to help console the family."

Her group finds out in advance about relatives' wishes regarding religion's role in the funeral, she said. "We pretty well know ahead of time if they have an issue with us saying, 'God bless you' or anything."

Our ruling: For America said the Houston National Cemetery "is preventing" Christian prayer at military funerals. The group based its claim on recent online references to a congressman's claim in July 2011. We found no current restrictions or even proof that anyone was stopped from saying a Christian prayer in the past. To the contrary, volunteers and the current cemetery director told us Christian prayers are welcome. We rate For America's statement False.

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