Friday, May 27, 2011

Judge orders Veterans cemetery to allow Jesus...

VA changes position pastor's invoking 'Jesus' in public prayer

Houston pastor fought in court after being told to edit a Memorial Day invocation

Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs informed a federal judge in Houston today the agency has reconsidered its position on religious-specific prayer at Houston National Cemetery, agreeing a pastor can utter "Jesus Christ" during his Memorial Day prayer.

"(The agency) will let the prayer go on this Monday," Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Hindrichs told U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes.

Hughes slapped down the agency 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," 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."

Another view

Rabbi Mark J. Miller, of Congregation Beth Israel, called Rainey's prayer "beautiful" but said that "it is a prayer to which I and many others cannot say 'Amen.' "

"When we, as a religious community, join together at special moments like Memorial Day, our strength will only increase if we can stand united before God," he said.

Ocasio, who did not return the Chronicle's call for comment, issued a statement and referred questions to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"Our national cemeteries are places for all veterans, of all beliefs. We cannot be exclusive at a ceremony meant to be inclusive for all our nation's veterans," Ocasio wrote. "Due to ongoing litigation, we cannot discuss this matter further."