Arleen Ocasio seems to be setting herself up for a second rebuke from a federal judge. Ocasio has been, since 2009, the director of the Houston National Cemetery, which, at 419 acres, is the second-largest cemetery administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, exceeded in size only by Arlington. Houston National has somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 men and women interred there, including several Medal of Honor winners and the congressman who worked to have the cemetery built and recognized as a national one. It is, like all such places, a scene of both sorrow and celebration, of patriotism — and prayer.
Recently, however, Ocasio, the cemetery’s Obama-appointed director, has been credibly accused of engaging in a pattern of censorship directed against private religious expression. The chapel has allegedly been closed, its cross and Bible removed, and it is now said to be used as a “meeting space” when it is unlocked at all. The carillon in the 75-foot bell tower no longer tolls on a regular basis. And members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and the National Memorial Ladies, attending upon the bereaved families and friends at veterans’ funerals, say they have been required to have their prayers pre-approved by Ocasio’s office, and have been told that the words “God” and “Jesus” are not to be used by them if they wish to continue their volunteer service at the cemetery.
This isn’t the first episode of such trouble. In May, with the approach of Memorial Day — always a day of proud and sorrowful reflection at veterans’ cemeteries, typically characterized by invocations of God’s mercy and His blessings on our country — Ocasio required that the ministers who planned to speak at the cemetery submit their proposed prayers to her in advance. Pastor Scott Rainey of Living Word Church did so, and was told to revise his prayers to be more “inclusive” — by excluding specific reference to his own religion. Appealing to the VA in Washington, Rainey was referred to a deputy in the general counsel’s office, who backed Ocasio.
Rainey took his case to federal district court in Houston, where Judge Lynn Hughes sharply rebuked the VA and Ocasio, issuing a restraining order against them on May 26. As Hughes said in his opinion, “the government cannot gag citizens” in the name of “some bureaucrat’s notion of cultural homogeneity.” Judge Hughes further wrote:
The government’s compulsion of a program’s inclusion or exclusion of a particular religion offends the Constitution. The Constitution does not confide to the government the authority to compel emptiness in a prayer, where a prayer belongs. The gray mandarins of the national government are decreeing how citizens honor their veterans. . . .
These people say that remarks need to be content-neutral messages. The men buried in the cemetery fought for their fellow Americans — for us. In those fights, they were served by chaplains, chaplains of two faiths and many denominations, chaplains in the field. They ministered to men who needed them — to all — not only to their personal calling. No deputy general counsel of the Department of Veterans Affairs was in the Ia Drang Valley . . .
Judge Hughes’s restraining order applied only to the Memorial Day ceremony, but “cautioned” the government that “interferences for this suit’s having been brought would be a further Constitutional violation.”