For those who have attended a military funeral in the United States, or even watched one on television, you know there’s certain traditional ceremonial actions taken. The folding and presentation of the flag, the firing of a 3-volley salute, and the playing of Taps are all standard. In addition to these standard elements, there are several volunteer support and advocacy groups who often provide additional services to the family of the bereaved. Three of those organizations, The National Memorial Ladies, The American Legion, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars are all now embroiled in a controversy raging in Texas over what kinds of religious speech are allowed, without permission, at military funerals. Local branches of those organizations, along with a local pastor, are currently litigating against Department of Veteran’s Affairs officials at the Houston National Cemetery for allegedly “banning” mention of God and Jesus at military services.
The lawsuit filed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4, the American Legion Post 586 and the National Memorial Ladies says VA officials barred prayer and religious speech in burials at the Houston cemetery unless families submit a specific prayer or message in writing to the cemetery’s director. The lawsuit also accuses VA officials of not allowing them to use religious words such as “God” or “Jesus.” [...] Fred Hinrichs, one of the attorneys for the VA, denied there was religious discrimination or limits on people saying “God” or “Jesus” at soldiers’ funerals in Houston or anywhere around the country. “The VA wants to do what the family wants,” he said. “If the family wants a (religious) recitation read, they provide it for somebody to read it.”
The case is being represented by the conservative Christian Liberty Institute, who have set up a special advocacy website called “Don’t Tear Us Down” that accuses “Obama administration-backed officials” of making it so that “Jesus is not welcome at gravesides.” These accusations are being repeated by Texas politicians, who are demanding a probe into the allegations.
“The Obama administration continues to try to prevent the word ‘God’ from being used at the funerals of our heroes,” said. Rep. John Culberson [...] “It’s unacceptable and I’m going to put a stop to it as fast as humanly possible,” Culberson told Fox News Radio.
However, this case of government trampling the rights of Christians takes on a different hue once you ask veterans and soldiers who aren’t Christian about the situation. Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, says that what’s really happening is that these groups are “promoting special Christian privilege in government activities.”
“Imagine you are at a funeral for a fallen veteran, possibly your husband or wife or uncle, and cemetery volunteers begin publicly praying to their god despite the fact that your family doesn’t share their beliefs. [...] The nation remembers Richard Tillman, who jumped on stage to stand up for his brother Pat Tillman’s wishes. The Veterans Affairs Cemetery Administration protects the family when it restricts the religious speech of volunteers, and volunteers can opt out of funerals where the family has not requested a religious service consistent with the religious interests of the volunteer. Volunteers are given access to funerals to support the family, not to promote personal religious beliefs.”
In another editorial atheist and soldier Kathleen Johnson notes that “success” by these politicians and advocacy organizations could mean “that several Christian groups would have a central part in the funerals of potentially every military veteran. Atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim veterans being buried in Texas: this means you!”
My funeral will not be religious. Do I not deserve respect? Does the Constitution I fought for not deserve respect? Nothing is anti-religious about this policy. You are actually anti-consent and anti-permission slip. But that wont sell, will it?
Alex DiBranco at Alternet draws parallels between tactics in this curent fight and the “War on Christmas” that’s resurrected every Winter by the usual collection of culture warriors. These activists, in DiBranco’s view, are “selling it as discrimination against them and infringement on their religious rights, without any consideration for non-Christian beliefs.”
“Christian groups that want to push a religious agenda have figured out that an effective way to do so is by pretending to be the victim and heading off non-Christians’ complaints of discrimination by capturing that narrative first. And as American Atheist VP Kathleen Johnson indicated — this works. Once people buy into the narrative and feel the knee-jerk reaction that Christians are being wronged, it makes it more difficult to bring them around to recognizing the true victims. It’s a topsy-turvy situation — and a testament to the Religious Rights’ prowess at narrative manipulation — when the strangers imposing unwanted religious ceremonies succeed in presenting themselves as the wronged party.”
It all comes down, as Jason Torpy noted, to Christian privilege. When Christianity, or even ceremonial Deism, isn’t the default, it is seen as an infringement of rights, or oppression and discrimination against Christians. This situation all but forces non-Christians of all stripes to make sure they opt-out of this default, and even then they may not get what they want. Where are these bold defenders of religious liberty when military Pagans, who have served and died for this country, want to have their sacrifices properly honored? Instead of fighting to see that all religious and philosophical views held by military personnel and their families are protected and acknowledged, they mock and demean the needs of non-Christians who serve. By fighting to preserve a Christian “default” these groups are inflicting the very hurt they claim is to too much for any Christian family to bear, to make their religious preferences known. Our thanks should go out to the VA for working to protect “veterans’ families’ rights to pray however they choose at our national cemeteries,” and this campaign should be seen for what it is, a move to enshrine a certain kind of religiosity at military services whether asked for or not.