Over the summer, Wild Hunt reported on a federal court case that originated in Texas called Rainey et al. versus U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs et al. The plaintiffs (Rainey et al.) filed in June and argued the case was about Freedom of Speech.* The defendants (USDVA) argued it was about Freedom of Religion. As I’ve mentioned before, this princess is a constitutionalist through and through. So this case had me at the get go. A fight between two tenets of the First Amendment?! Now that’s a throw down I had to look up!

The Associated Press summed up the plaintiff’s case nicely:

“The lawsuit filed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4, the American Legion Post 586 and the National Memorial Ladies said VA officials barred prayer and religious speech in burials at the Houston cemetery unless families submitted a specific prayer or message in writing to the cemetery’s director. The lawsuit also accused VA officials of not allowing the groups to use religious words such as “God” or “Jesus” at the cemetery.”

Interestingly, if you ask the Oracle (Google) about this case, lots of sites sum up the plaintiff’s case nicely. You’ll be hard pressed to find a site sympathetic to the defendant (save the aforementioned Wild Hunt article).

In short, the the VA was prohibiting all religious context at military funerals in the absence of written requests. In the absence of written requests — this is the heart of the plaintiff’s argument. They were upset because they have long been able to provide Christian memorials at military funerals without having to do anything special. They felt like, all of the sudden, the VA was requiring them, and the families they serve, to do something special — have the family provide a written request for Christian services. To the plaintiffs, this was a gross violation of Freedom of Speech and Expression because it required a form of “active consent” for religion (Christianity) at military services.

I did find one non-Pagan article that mentioned the defendant’s point of view on the case:

“Keith Ethridge, director of the VA National Chaplain Center, insisted that his agency “values and respects every veteran and their family’s right to a burial service that honors their faith tradition.” He pointed out that the VA has nearly one thousand chaplains who preside over thousands of religious burial services every year, “representing veterans of all faiths in VA national cemeteries across the country.” Ethridge affirmed that prayer “is a very personal and sacred moment. To honor veterans as they are laid to rest, VA chaplains always pray and preside over religious services according to the veteran’s faith tradition and the family’s wishes.”

The way I read this, the defendant’s intention was to require everyone to conform to the same process in order to have a faith-based military funeral. The “active consent” measure was in place to ensure a level playing field. If you were a Christian, you could submit a letter to the funeral director and and request Christian services. If you were a Buddhist, you could submit a letter to the funeral director and and request Buddhist services. If you were a Pagan, you could submit a letter to the funeral director and and request Pagan services. Different religions. Same process. This was the defendant’s way of working towards Freedom of Religion. A way of respecting family and veteran’s wishes for faith to be or not to be included in their military funeral.

Until this case, Christian services were essentially the default military funeral for veterans.** If families requested otherwise, then so be it. I mean, I guess. I haven’t read anything that says the plaintiffs were showing up at non-Christian services and promoting their faith. There was a report that some of the plaintiffs were telling families “God bless you” at funerals and distributing condolence cards that read “God bless.” But again, I didn’t see any reports this was happening at non-Christian services.***

To verify this last point, I called the Houston National Cemetery (which was at the center of this legal storm) and asked about faith-based services. I identified myself from Austin as a member of the Austin Pagan community.❆ I asked how the religious service preferences of a soldier / veteran were given to the funeral home. The woman on the line, I’ll call her Miss Houston, said funeral services are decided by soldiers / veterans and their families — there was no codified system for service requests (like a form of some kind). I asked what families should do if they want a non-religious or non-Christian ceremony. Miss Houston said they need only tell the funeral director and the funeral home will advise the plaintiffs not to attend the service. In Miss Houston’s experience, the plaintiffs have honored families’ requests in this regard.❆❆

Well, that made me feel better. A little. I understand the plaintiffs concerns that having to submit a letter to the VA to include religion (Christianity) in funeral services feels like to asking for permission. Which is lame. But I deeply admire the VA for trying to create a system where all religions were treated equally.

So, how did this case resolve?

Well, the judge presiding over the case signed the settlement this week. His office was kind enough to respond to my email inquiry and sent me a copy of the 11cv1992 Consent Decree. The plaintiff’s got what they wanted. Under the settlement, the VA promised:

  • Not to interfere with prayers during burial services,
  • Not to edit or control the speeches of speakers at ceremonies or events at the cemetery,
  • Not to ban religious speech or words like “God” or “Jesus” in condolence cards,
  • To pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees in the amount of $215,000.

What does this mean? It means everyone but Christians has to submit “active consent” in order to have a non-Christian military service. The court reestablished Christian as the default funeral service at national cemeteries. This stinks. I’m glad there is a system in place for me and mine to have a Pagan ceremony. But it irks me that Christians are exempt from the process. And that a federal court recognized Christianity as the default religion for military services. *sigh* I know that makes demographic sense. Most Americans identify themselves as Christian, which I suppose makes the judgement representative. But that doesn’t make it constitutional. And it’s certainly not @#%ing fair.

What do you think realm? Was the resolution to this case fair?

For your viewing pleasure, The Saga of Biôrn. A lesson in how religious context matters!

I tried to create an image to show a benign scenario from both points of view (benign because I believe there was an absence of malice in this case). I'm not trying to diminish the case by making a cartoon. I’m trying to convey how I see both sides and a cartoon was as innocuous as I could get. I’m not sure I have succeeded, though. Please post a comment if you can think of a way to improve this cartoon to represent Pagans and Christians fairly.

* Rainey et al. is Scott Rainey (a preacher in Houston), the Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4, the American Legion Post 586, the National Memorial Ladies, Lisa Ward (a woman who — during the kerfuffle — had to move her veteran husband’s funeral from the Houston National Cemetery to a private chapel so she could include the VFW ritual in the service).

** This is part of what Jason Pitzl-Waters at Wild Hunt calls “Christian privilege.”

*** Jax and I both had it in our minds that the VA started to restrict religious language at services because the plaintiffs showed up at a ceremony where they were not welcome. I could not find any story that verified this happened. Most of the reports on this case from the secular point of view (like this one) talk about how it would be upsetting if that happened, but not that it did happen. If you have any evidence to the contrary, please share it and I will update this post!

❆ I did not think to say I was writing a blog post, so I won’t quote anyone — because I didn’t get their permission to do so. Honestly, I was surprised they took my call. Kudos to them! Most places don’t stay on the line when you identify your self as a Pagan with questions about a “religious discrimination” case.

❆❆ I did email the National Memorial Ladies to ask for their policy on this — on showing up to non-Christian services. They did not respond.

+ Featured image “The Bill of Rights”.