Veterans in Houston say the Department of Veterans Affairs is consistently censoring their prayers by banning them from saying the words "God" and "Jesus" during funeral services at Houston National Cemetery.
Three organizations -- the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and the National Memorial Ladies -- allege that the cemetery's director and other government officials have created "religious hostility" at the cemetery and are violating the First Amendment. According to court documents filed this week in federal court, the cemetery's director, Arleen Ocasio, has banned saying "God" at funerals and requires prayers be submitted in advance for government approval, MyFoxHouston.com reports.
"People are doing things out there that I feel like they shouldn't be," Vietnam veteran Jim Rodgers told the website.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said in a statement that it "respects every veteran and their family's right to burial service that honors their faith tradition." The department employs nearly 1,000 chaplains who preside over religious burials, according to the statement.
However, the new allegations come one month after a controversy surrounding Pastor Scott Rainey's prayer in Jesus' name at a Memorial Day service in the cemetery. U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes ruled May 26 that the government couldn't stop Rainey from using the words "Jesus Christ" in his invocation. Hughes issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs from censoring Rainey's prayer.
"The hostile and discriminatory actions by the Veterans Affairs officials in Houston are outrageous, unconstitutional and must stop," said Jeff Mateer, an attorney with Liberty Institute, which filed the original lawsuit on behalf of the veterans groups. "Government officials who engage in religious discrimination against citizens are breaking the law. Sadly, this seems to be a pattern of behavior at the Houston VA National Cemetery."
Judge Hughes gave the government until July 15 to respond to the new allegations and set a status hearing for July 21, Mateer said.
Ocasio couldn't be reached for comment on Tuesday, MyFoxHouston.com reports.
"We were told we could no longer say 'God bless you' and 'God bless your family,'" Marilyn Koepp, a volunteer with the National Memorial Ladies, told the website. "How did I feel? I probably shouldn't say how I felt because it was absolutely appalling that this woman would come aboard and tell us we cannot say 'God bless you.'"