On a hot summer day in Houston, Texas, one woman prepared to bury the last of her four brothers. His final request was that he be buried in a memorial service at the local Veteran cemetery with all four of his brothers who had served in the military—two in World War II and the other two during the Vietnam War. On the day of the service, there were full military honors with the Patriot Guard lining the streets and the military color guard with the full 21-gun salute. Military was an important part of this family. Religion was also important to them, so their pastor was on hand to conduct a religious service. Unfortunately, in my hometown of Houston, freedom of speech and religion have recently come under attack by none other than the federal government. This authoritarian behavior and attack on the First Amendment rights of our veterans is deeply troubling.
This week I met with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who shared other disturbing stories with me about the aggressive and hostile censorship of religion and speech that is occurring at the nation’s second largest cemetery for Veterans. The director of the Houston National Cemetery, Arleen Ocasio is accused of attacking the constitutional rights of our military who have fought and died for our country. The thought that someone would have the audacity to censor religion and speech anywhere in this country is despicable. Censoring the funeral services of the veterans who spent their lives protecting the First Amendment is particularly malicious and simply unforgiveable. Director Ocasio is an unelected bureaucrat, non-veteran who is clearly out of touch with our veterans and the constitution. It is unbelievable that she has been put in charge of this sacred burial ground in Houston.
Director Ocasio has acted with authoritarian zeal in her quest to remove Christianity and religion from funeral services. She has banned the words “God” and “Jesus Christ” in the burial ceremonies of deceased veterans. It is the very utterance of the word God that has Director Ocasio in a tizzy – so much so that she wants to personally approve each prayer (which are subject to her censorship) in advance of a burial service. With an average of 60 burials of veterans at the Houston National Cemetery each week, that’s an awful lot of systematic, bureaucratic and unconstitutional action. The list goes on. She has apparently removed the Bible and the cross from the chapel. Shortly after she arrived at the cemetery, she shut down the chapel and turned it into a “meeting facility.” It is not the business of the federal government to be engaged in anti-religious activity, especially at what is considered by many to be a religious ceremony—the burial of one of our veterans. The philosophy behind such policies is anti-Christian, anti-religion and anti-American. According to the Constitution, it is the job of the federal government to protect speech and religion, not assail it.
The First Amendment comes first in the Constitution because it is the most important. Our forefathers founded this nation on the belief that our rights are endowed by our creator, not by the government. The Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, was an indictment of King George III by the people for his failure to recognize these rights. From the very beginning, it has been the people of this country who have always come to the rescue when freedom is threatened. That is the same reason why the Founding Fathers included the protection of speech and religion in the First Amendment of the Constitution. These inalienable rights guaranteed to all Americans in this sacred document are what set our nation apart from other countries where people cannot speak out or openly practice their religion. The cemetery does not belong to the federal government it belongs to the veterans of America and their families.
Americans are irate about this government attack on religion. I have heard from veterans and their loved ones all over the country who are shocked that this government official has chosen to attack the constitutional rights of American veterans and their families. One man in particular stood out to me who called my office in tears because his father (a World War II veteran) was days away from death, set to be buried in Houston National Cemetery. His father does not want to be buried there anymore because he will not be able to have the funeral service that he wants and deserves. It is no wonder that so many are shocked by the actions of Director Ocasio, after all we do not live in the old Soviet Union, we live in the United States of America.
The First Amendment is sacred; funerals are sacred, and when our veterans are buried, that soil becomes sacred. If these allegations are true, the director of the Houston National Cemetery should be terminated. The Houston National Cemetery is the final resting place for thousands of veterans who fought in places all over the world. The government’s attack on the very freedoms that they lived and died for is a blatant violation of the freedom of speech and free exercise of religion promised to all Americans in the Constitution.
And that’s just the way it is.
Rep. Ted Poe is a Republican representing Texas' 2nd Congressional District.