The nation’s agency for military veterans has agreed to stay out of religious refereeing for now, backing down from its attempt to tell a minister how to craft a prayer for a Memorial Day invocation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Hindrichs told federal District Judge Lynn Hughes that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will not demand that Memorial Day prayers at Houston National Cemetery Monday be as non-denominational as possible.
“(The agency) will let the prayer go on this Monday,” Hindrichs told Hughes.
The change of heart came one day after the judge granted the Rev. Scott Rainey a temporary restraining order against the agency after officials told the pastor to edit his prayer to make it as general and non-denominational as possible. Rainey’s prayer, submitted for review at the agency’s request included the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and thanked Jesus Christ, the Christian savior, in closing.
“The … prayer/message is specific to one belief,” wrote Arleen Ocasio, director of the Houston National Cemetery.
“I’ve never said a prayer in my life that didn’t end with Jesus Christ,” Rainey said after Friday’s hearing. “It was unrealistic expectation for me not to include the name of Jesus Christ.”
Veterans Affairs officials informed Rainey that if he wanted to give the invocation, he would have to keep the language in his prayer “general” and “non-denominational.”
Rainey filed a lawsuit against the agency Thursday, claiming the government was censoring his speech and asked the judge to stop the agency from doing so.
Judge warns agency
Hughes granted a temporary restraining order which will stay in place through Monday’s Memorial Day. The judge said that while he was not doubting the government’s word, he was “an experienced optimist” who didn’t want to leave room for the government to change its mind before Monday.
Yesterday, the judge warned the agency it had stepped too far, saying officials were essentially “decreeing how citizens honor their veterans.”
“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.
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. 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.
This year, however, the cemetery director asked to see the prayer beforehand. She then asked Rainey to edit it.
“… While it is very well written, I must ask you to edit it,” Ocasio wrote on May 19. “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.”
Rabbi Roy Walter, senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu El, said he agrees with Rainey’s free speech position.
“I do believe the government doesn’t have the right to tell him what he can and cannot do,” Walter said.
But the rabbi said Rainey’s prayer doesn’t reflect that all veterans are not Christians.
“I don’t think it’s sensitive to the fact that a great many people who are veterans, who gave their lives or lived through service, are not Christian.”