The Fight For Christian Prayers at Non-Christian Veteran Burial Services

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.

Pagan headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.

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.

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About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Wesley Young

    It’s amazing how groups like hyper-conservative evangelicals can frame the debate this war, even here in TX where their cultural hegemony is so very clear. I think our most effective response might be to dissolve spiritual hegemony at every opportunity, even when it rears its head within our own community.

  • Todd McMillin

    It’s not surprising at all. I remember a fellow sailor (who was Buddhist) who passed away in 2003, his family made a huge deal about having a “Christian” Ceremony, and that he never wanted one. Instead it was supposed to be a simple memorial and that he was to be cremated instead.

    Asshole Pat Robertson got involved and complained to the CO and Base CO, because his parents were “followers” of his and donated to his vile organization. It was disgusting on many levels and that his memory and honor were besmirched my his parents that knew his personal wishes and ignored them without any regards. His wife told them to fuck off and that they can have a ceremony without her. She asked the First Class Association to perform the actual ceremony he wanted at the command away from the family and honored his request and desires.

  • Magaly Guerrero

    Glad the Sailor got what he wanted; too many have not.

  • Anonymous

    This is vile. I’m glad groups like these are being fought. Non-Christians should not be obligated to have Christian funerals. That’s ridiculous.

  • Cheryl Essary Nesselrodt

    When will these cries of “persecution” be seen for what they really are — an effort to turn this country into a theocracy?

  • Magaly Guerrero

    Probably never; I hope to be wrong. But this sounds like the cry of the poor rich kid to me. Pathetic.

  • Crystal Williams

    Ugh. Everything should be up to the families! Why can’t these groups just receive permission on an individualized basis, rather than crying foul? As the wife of a pagan veteran I would be offended if they presumed Christian prayer would be okay to add to my husbands funeral. It is disrespectful to not follow what the deceased would have wanted. It is disrespectful to their families.

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant framing by the Christianists. Any attempt to prevent them from exercising privilege over the rest of us is “discrimination.” I’ll be putting up a post later today about framing: important as we head into DC40 and Pagan Pride events.

  • Norse Alchemist

    That’s how it is with both the major Abrahamic religions. Let us rule, or we scream discrimination.

  • Magaly Guerrero

    I was thinking about the same thing. I’ll wait to see what you come up with and add if I can.

  • BlackJar72

    I’m not sure which amazes me more — the gall and manipulativeness of radical religious right groups too distort tolerance and “not in my house (but in yours is fine)” into supposed bans and attack on Christianity, casting pushes from freed…om and equality as attacks against it — or how many people actually fall for their rhetoric without bothering to ever check the fact, even being convinced to believe those who give the facts are also “attacking God.” Will it ever end?

  • Erynn Rowan Laurie

    I sure as gehenna don’t want a bunch of VA volunteer Christians praying over me at my funeral. Thanks for keeping up with this stuff. It’s vastly important, and just continues to show how much these people don’t give a crap about anyone else’s religions or families.

  • Anonymous

    All one need do is ask: Would Baptists be OK w/ Catholics showing up and praying at Baptist funerals? Would Christian fundamentalist be OK with Hindus demanding to show up and offer prayers at Christian burials? Here’s where the recent SCOTUS holding that crosses are just public memorial symbols begins to slide down the proverbial legal “slippery slope.”

  • Makarios

    I, myself, would like to be there when the Salvation Army shows up with a brass band at an Irish Catholic funeral.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve put up a post on framing at my little blog. As we deal with issues such as this one that Jason brings to our attention, as well as, for example DC40, we really need to understand how to use framing.

  • Ursyl

    Best book I’ve read on framing, well…only book actually, is “Don’t Think of an Elephant” by Lakoff.

    Short book, makes the point well. It’s not just the religious right that’s been framing the discussions so as to turn reality on its head.

  • Harmonyfb

    “Don’t Think of an Elephant” by Lakoff.

    My teenager’s American Government class is reading that this year. Should be interesting discussions at school.

  • Moma Fauna


    “Our thanks should go out to the VA for working to protect veterans’ families’ rights to pray however they choose at our national cemeteries…”

    Is there any way to do this formally? A contact or representative to address?

  • Richard Thomas, PhD

    I am a Veteran and I am an Atheist Witch! I am glad the VA is sticking up for people like me. I wouldn’t want Jesus or God mentioned during my funeral either… I also am one of those people whom are sick and tired of Christian thrusting their religion down my throat! I have rights just like everyone else, why is it that when I my religious rights are trampled on, Christians look the other way?

  • No Bod E

    Because they are the ones doing the trampling.

  • Lamyka L.

    At first I felt the understandable righteous anger but what I feel doesn’t matter, because it’s not about me–it’s about the family grieving and suffering over their loved one.

    Just two weeks ago I attended the funeral of a very dear family friend who had passed from cancer. I didn’t even know he was in the navy, in vietnam. As the military people did TAPS and handed over the re-wrapped flag to my Auntie I couldn’t help but be grateful that they were discreet, and only there FOR HER. You see, she herself has a brain tumor, and no one knew that Uncle had cancer–he didn’t want her to worry–so when the young navy man gave her the flag and spoke kindly to her… I felt a wave of gratitude at his respect FOR HER.

    To push your own agenda at someone ELSE’S funeral is beyond wrong, beyond any word for evil we have. I hope the VA crushes these scumbags in court.

  • Erynn Rowan Laurie

    Yeah, this isn’t unlike the Phelps bunch protesting at veterans’ funerals in terms of pushing an agenda at someone else’s funeral.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The position of these litigating groups is so outrageous I’m at a loss for an Internet icon for “sputter!”

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    I would like to point out that my husband is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, and I am a member of the Auxiliary. These are volunteer service organizations for veterans. This is distinctly different from the Veteran’s Administration, which is a publicly funded government organization.

    We have NEVER had anything of the sort ever happen to us at either volunteer service. organization. In fact, we’ve had respect and their assistance with the V.A.

    There are Christian chaplains at both the VFW and Legion who offer prayers at the family’s or veteran’s request. ONLY at their request. This is at funerals and graveside services, as well as events and hospital visits. There are also Buddhist and Muslim chaplains available here in Michigan; the only Pagan volunteer chaplains that I’m aware of are in Florida and Wisconsin. Again, they are volunteer service organizations, so if we want more Pagan chaplains, then some people have to step up.

    There are prayers offered at major ceremonies, such as Memorial Day, and we sit respectfully while they do their thing. Since the majority of veterans are older Christians, we don’t feel that’s negatively directed against us… it’s for others to enjoy. However, if we request that we do not wish sectarian prayers at our private events — such as my Mom’s funeral — nobody inflicted them on us against our will.

    I want to point out, both the VFW and the Legion spoke up for Pagans and Wiccans to have the Pentacle symbol on the headstones of soldiers who requested them, during the Pentacle quest of 2006-7. They both drafted resolutions which passed with overwhelming majority votes. These resolutions were sent to the VA in support of the Pentacle Quest.

    I want to further point out that the V.A., which is a government agency, actively blocked accepting the Pentacle as a symbol for deceased veterans. My husband has had serious trouble with the V.A., including denial of religious rights, not being taken seriously when listing his religion as Cymri Pagan, and even being accused of “Hearing Voices” when he spoke about spirit communication at an ancestor rite (He pointed out that Christians also hear voices, from a dead Jewish carpenter).

    It’s very bothersome when people who have never served their country, or done anything to help our country, are calling names in regard to members of the VA and VFW. Wouldn’t it be much more effective to politely, respectfully write to them, and say, “You have the right to pray and have Christian services, but I do not wish to have Christian prayers and services at my family members’ life events. Thank you”.

    I am certain that all of you computer-savvy people are perfectly capable of Googleing the national and Texas branches of the VFW and the Legion, and writing them a nice polite letter, asking them to respect minority religions.

  • Dave of Pagan Centered Podcast

    Yeah, but the VFW and Legion aren’t exactly friendly to non-Christians. They tried to impose Christian prayer in Paganistan in 2009:

    As a result of them not being successful at forcing Christian prayer – they punished the children by not rewarding $30 grand in scholarships they would have otherwise given.

    Contrary to the incendiary tone in which Jason wrote this article, I’d love to believe that they’ve gotten better and the world is a better place now – but I’ll need some decent proof of that.

  • Todd McMillin

    I addressed this already over on the VFW FB page. That the deal was that “Christian” extremists pastors were forcing their beliefs on other faiths (and even non-faiths) in TEXAS. The the Liberty Institute isn’t about personal liberty. It’s about violation of the wishes of the family and the veteran in question. That several fundies tried to say otherwise is a crock of shite!

  • Christopher Blackwell

    When we started to create a Vietnam Veterans of America organization in my small town we ran into this overt Christianity of the members. I pointed out that a lot of veterans were not Christian, in fact many lost their religion in the war. Push for a Christian prayer anyway, push to make an office for a Christian Chaplin only and you are telling these veterans that they are not welcome. Needless to say when I refused to take part I was dumped from the group. It is one of the main reason I have nothing to do with any of the veterans organizations because they think that they have a right to tell us what to believe and what we can do.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    Christopher, this is probably gonna make you upset, but… plowing ahead anyway. Quitting does not create effective change. What does create change is continuing to belong to the service organization and repeatedly asking for your rights to be honored, until you get what you desire. An alternative is to join an organization that is not so hostile, or to form your own chapter of an organization. Quitting does not solve anything.

  • Magaly Guerrero

    I agree 100%. The only thing we can guarantee by quitting or hiding is to never get anything accomplished. If we want something, we must fight for it, and very actively.

  • Adrian Hawkins

    The could simply ban volunteers from serving at military funerals. Then they could offend everyone equally

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    And that would suck, as the volunteers provide so many other valuable services than funeral services. Wouldn’t it be much more effective, and nicer, to tell them that you are requesting that they not offer Christian prayers at your family members’ service, and that you very much appreciate their other offerings of help. If you do not wish dependency on them, fine, but please don’t deny the needed services to other families. We have a right to not have established religions, but we cannot and must not “Prohibit the free exercise thereof”.

  • Adrian Hawkins

    I am sorry but any volunteer group should have to obey the rules and regulations of the group they serve or they should no longer be allowed to volunteer. What these people are doing is no less offensive and rude than what the Westboro Baptists do. They are using the religious services of others to advocate their own opinions and world views on a captive audience.

    I know that many volunteer groups who do great Service to the VA, and do it excellently. It would be just as potentially offensive for a pagan volunteer to erect a giant pentacle at the Service and offer prayers to Odin, Freya, or the valkyries with out prior consent of the family.

    It’s not their funeral or religious observance. THEY should not be making it so which is what they are trying to do.

  • Magaly Guerrero

    I was going to say that this bothers me, but that is a lie…

    It actually pisses me off. I had thought “enrage”, but that doesn’t quite describe the feeling. I spent almost 10 years being Other when it came to religion in the military. I doubt I would have ever been able to have Witch written on my dogtags. And if I had died… the idea of having anything other than what I wanted during MY burial ceremony would be beyond offensive.

    Too many people have given their lives to protect the right to be who they are, just to have the majority spitting on their sacrifice with gestures THEY believe are nice. Well, they aren’t. I don’t want to a “default” and I’m sure no one wants to go through life or death under that label. If the individual left no guidance and the family makes no request, it is a violation to pretend that anyone knows what’s best.

    I can’t even express how angry this make me. If anyone wants to be “nice” and giving and all the rest… they need to start thinking about saying things the person who died might have wanted to hear. And if they knew this individual so little that they have no idea what those words might be, then have the decency to not assume. Anything else would be ungrateful and, most likely, unwanted.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    Yes, you CAN have “Witch” on your dogtags.

    My husband and his best friend fought to have the words “Pagan” and “Wiccan” engraved on their dog tags, and won. This was in the late 80s during the first Persian Gulf war. One of Circle’s clergy told me that her husband fought as similar battle in the early 80s. Young friends who are currently serving in the military now have “Pagan”, “Asatru” and other polytheistic religions on their dog tags. Selena Fox was the person who created the entry for Wicca in the Military Chaplain’s handbook. Chaplains can and do honor Wiccans’ wishes.

    Yes, these service organizations are trying to be nice and helpful. It is up to us to say, “No, but thank you kindly” to religious services of another denomination being offered at funerals and hospital visits. If we were lactose intolerant, or on a gluten-free diet, we would not scream “NO!” to an offer of cookies, throw a tantrum, act nasty, or stomp on the cookies. That would be rude. Let us show other religions that we have grace and manners while firmly refusing their kind offers.

  • Magaly Guerrero

    How lovely! I worked for Headquarters Marine Corps Casualty for quite a while… in my times you couldn’t have Witch on your dogtags. I have a Witch friend, who like me isn’t Wiccan, who has have issues getting the word Witch on his tags, I’ll forward your comment and tell him to investigate further.

    And you are absolutely right, screaming is never the answer, a thanks, but no thanks works best. However, religious organizations can be very pushy on their goodness… I’m saying that because I have been at many bedsides making sure my boys and girls are not alone on their finals moments. The families are so hurt and confused because everything happens so fast and it is (most of the time) too ugly for one to think that it can happen to someone one loves, that by the time the family realizes what is going on, the seriously injured individual (or in worse cases deceased) has already have all kinds of niceties…

    The truth is that most people would welcome any kind of good wishes and positive energy. What I’m afraid of, and consider to be extremely dangerous, is the “default” bit. These kind of things seem to be used a lot when the grieving folks are too busy, well, grieving to make sure that certain details get taken cared of.

    I guess we should hope for the best…

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    It might be required that the member of the military contact a service organization such as Circle or Aquarian Tabernacle Church, both of which have military outreach organizations, for help with both dog tags and visits / services. There is another good Pagan military organization but the name escapes me right now… Anyone???

  • Adrian Hawkins

    I believe Covenant of the Goddess and Circle Sanctuarys Order of the Pentacle do as well. Aside from the dog tags the Px on Army bases sell an authorized stainless steal pentacle for 10.95. I wear that with my dog tags that say Wicca. :)

  • Adrian Hawkins

    Here is what they look like if anyone is interested.

  • AMH

    “Christian is a common euphamism for White” – Thandeka Learning to Be White. The author is African American and a Theologian. Her work is quite a read. I highly recommend it. As for the fallen Veterans, their families are responsible for the services. End of Story.

  • CyndiSimpson

    Thandeka is a Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian.

    —Thistle, UU Minister and Witch.

  • Makarios

    “Where there’s fear there is power.”

    I have no window to look into anyone’s conscience; but, cynical as it may seem, it would not surprise me if the people who are fomenting this nonsense do not, themselves, believe what they are saying. Their cries of “persecution,” however, may serve to instill fear in their followers. This, in turn, would strengthen their hold over them–and, of course, serve to keep the donations coming in.

  • Sym.Angela

    I do not understand …
    because people (military and otherwise) may not have the funeral they want?
    Why is denied this opportunity?
    Why can not a person who wants to have the funeral?
    I think the key thing is the respect and the will of the deceased, whatever it is.
    If a person does not want his funeral to running shoes (I had a trivial example), then out of respect for the dead, no one should wear running shoes.
    Why is there than this?
    I do not understand …

  • A. Marina P. Fournier

    I have sent the VA a letter of support for this policy.

  • TomTallis

    To the pushy, overbearing Christians, there is NO other belief system. They’re like spoiled, rather stupid children, who stamp their feet and hold their breath until they turn blue if they don’t get their way. Really, JC would puke if he could see them in action.

  • Lynn Mershon Calvin

    My dad was a WW2 vet, got the flag & the 21 gun salute. My dad was and my mom is agnostic/atheist all their adult married lives. (American military and civilian married in Germany in 1949 and it says right on the marriage certificate “ohne religion.” If they had tried that at my dad’s interment it would not have been pretty. An 83 year old newly widowed woman screaming at whoever was trying to bring god up.

  • Adrian Hawkins

    I believe Covenant of the Goddess and Circle Sanctuarys Order of the Pentacle do as well. Aside from the dog tags the Px on Army bases sell an authorized stainless steal pentacle for 10.95. I wear that with my dog tags that say Wicca. :)

  • son_of_pan

    They probably don’t even know about sgt stewart

  • vanmojo

    Welcome to the monoculture! You will be assimilated… or perhaps made into some nice reactor shielding.

    mojo sends

  • Kenneth

    One tactic I am finding to be helpful in trying to deflate the Christian victimization narrative is to challenge it whenever I see it in other forums. This narrative works because it is repeated dozens of times a day by Christian leaders to their people and the general public, and it rarely gets challenged. It’s become the conventional wisdom. These people have actually convinced themselves that things like legalized gay marriage are a harbinger of a Soviet-style campaign to eradicate their religion!

    My strategy is to call bullshit on it wherever I see it. Point out to them in a pointed but not too nasty way why is it clearly absurd for a group with a vast majority (78%) of the population and total control of our nation’s majority party to claim victim status. They won’t agree with you of course, but they also have no logical comeback against it either. It puts them on notice that what they’re doing is a sleazy and manipulative tactic to stoke fear and anger and that many of us can see it for what it is. Here’s a fairly typical example of what I’m talking about.

  • Guest

    When this stuff comes up, I always wonder what would happen if TPTB said, “Everyone will have a funeral centered around Buddah unless you opt out or request otherwise.”

    When I choose to marry at the local courthouse, it was because I was a Pagan and my fiance a Christian – since there was no religious service we could agree on, we choose a civil wedding instead. “Civil” being the idea – and I made perfectly clear to the local County Mayor that we wanted no religion in the service whatsoever – VERY clear. Yet the guy started with Adam and Eve and moved on from there, and after had the nerve to give us a typed copy of the ceremony he used so we would always have his religious words of wisdom at hand! Everything in me screamed to stop the wedding (and I should have) but there were our parents and siblings (the majority of whom are Christian) and frankly, I was embarassed and intimidated. A mistake I will never make again.

    I do not understand why anyone in this country is not able to intellectualize the idea that making an assumption about anyone’s religion or lack thereof is against the very principles we have fought for. I have always said that no 2 people will ever entirely agree on religion because everyone is an unique individual, yet there are still those out there who think lockstep is the answer. Are they just so weak in their beliefs that they cannot handle disagreement?

  • Mia

    “Are they just so weak in their beliefs that they cannot handle disagreement? ”

    Pretty much.

  • Guest

    I read the phrase ‘DC40’ and think how somebody is not only against DC state rights but wants to take them away from some who have?