Image: Honor guard at Houston cemetery
Michael Stravato  /  for The New York Times
A volunteer honor guard performs its duties during a funeral at Houston National Cemetery on Friday.
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updated 8/30/2011 6:06:27 PM ET 2011-08-30T22:06:27

Every week, thousands of veterans are buried at national cemeteries, often to the sorrowful sound of a bugle. Yet even for families that quietly mourn their dead, these can be the most public of private affairs, taking on deep meaning — about politics, war and religion — to others, particularly other veterans.

So it is that in Houston, with one of the nation’s busiest national cemeteries, controversy exploded when the new cemetery director began enforcing a little-noticed 2007 policy that prohibits volunteer honor guards from reading recitations — including religious ones — in their funeral rituals, unless families specifically request them.

The new enforcement outraged members of local veterans organizations who have long infused their ceremonies with references to God. This summer, they filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs that has turned the national cemetery into a battleground over the role of prayer in veterans’ burials.

The plaintiffs, aided by a conservative legal group, the Liberty Institute, contend they should be allowed to use a Veterans of Foreign Wars script dating from World War I that refers to the deceased as “a brave man” with an “abiding faith in God” and that seeks comfort from an “almighty and merciful God.” The institute has publicized the dispute nationwide with slick videos and a Web site declaring that “Jesus is not welcome at gravesides.”

“In all these years, we’ve not had one complaint,” said Inge Conley, a retired Army master sergeant who is commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, District 4, one of the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit, which alleges religious discrimination by the government, and the videos have generated angry letters and Internet commentary against the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as demands from members of the Texas Congressional delegation, mostly Republicans, that the Obama administration fire the Houston cemetery director, Arleen Ocasio.

NYT: Read honor guard scripts for veterans' funerals (PDF) 

Department of Veterans Affairs officials say that the original policy, enacted under President George W. Bush, resulted from complaints about religious words or icons being inserted unrequested into veterans’ funerals. They noted that active-duty military honor guards, including the teams that do funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, say almost nothing during their ceremonies.

“We do what the families wish,” said Steve L. Muro, the under secretary for memorial affairs. “I always tell my employees we have just one chance to get it right.”

Though two of the largest veterans organizations, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, have criticized the Houston National Cemetery, some veterans’ advocates have risen to the department’s support. Those advocates say that families who want prayers can have them and assert that the Liberty Institute has blown the dispute out of proportion to embarrass the Obama administration.

Lawyers with the Liberty Institute deny that.

Jim Strickland, a Vietnam-era veteran who runs a blog called VAWatchdogtoday.org, said that he had not heard of similar problems at other national cemeteries and that the fight in Houston boiled down to a local power struggle over funeral rituals.

“The message was that the people in Houston should not do this V.F.W. ritual uninvited, and they did not want to hear that,” Mr. Strickland said.

The veterans department buries 110,000 people — most of them veterans, but some family members as well — each year in the 131 national cemeteries it oversees. To be eligible for burial in one of those cemeteries, a veteran cannot have received a dishonorable discharge or been convicted of treason or a capital crime.

At a family’s request, the Defense Department is required to send uniformed service members to a veteran’s funeral, usually two. But many families ask local veterans organizations to send volunteer honor guard teams, which are larger and can perform more elaborate rituals that may include special recitations and the playing of taps on real bugles.

Vote: Who's right in national cemetery prayer dispute?

For that reason, come rain or shine, blistering heat or bone-numbing cold, honor guards — usually graying World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veterans — arrive at national cemeteries almost every day, steady as postmen. Dressed in faded military uniforms or somber suits, black berets or V.F.W. caps, they shoulder rifles and tuck old-fashioned bugles under their arms before each ceremony.

George J. Weiss Jr., who served with the Marine Corps in World War II, formed a volunteer rifle squad in Minnesota 32 years ago when the family of a deceased friend could not find an honor guard to perform at his funeral. What started with six people has grown into a squad of 130 volunteers who attend services every day at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis, 40 miles from Mr. Weiss’s home.

Since starting the squad, Mr. Weiss, a former Ford assembly plant worker, said he had attended funerals almost every Friday, missing only a handful because of snowstorms. “We enjoy the camaraderie,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s a closed club. There’s not that many people that can join us.”

Mr. Weiss said that unlike the Houston V.F.W. team, his squad says almost nothing during its ritual, except to express gratitude to the family upon presenting it with a flag.

“We try to make it as fast and as dignified as possible,” he said.

In Houston, Felix J. Sivcoski, 84, has been the chaplain for the local V.F.W. honor guard for seven years. He says that he modified his script at the request of families, but that people who request the V.F.W. ritual generally understood that it includes a prayer.

“I’m helping my deceased veterans be buried with dignity,” said Mr. Sivcoski, a retired oil field worker who served in the Navy during World War II.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the American Legion and a group called the National Memorial Ladies, which says it has been barred from giving crosses or condolence cards with religious greetings to veterans’ families without prior consent.

The disputed 2007 directive says that “the deceased’s survivor(s), and only they, will identify the text to be read” at services in national cemeteries. The plaintiffs assert that Ms. Ocasio has interpreted that passage to mean that the veteran’s groups cannot discuss their ritual with veterans’ families. And if families do not specifically ask for religious prayers, none are allowed, they say.

NYT: Read honor guard scripts for veterans' funerals (PDF)

“If the government would just go away and get out of it, everything would be fine,” said Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for the Liberty Institute.

The Department of Veterans Affairs said funeral directors, rather than the veterans themselves, should tell families the details of the V.F.W. rituals or other ones, to give those families room to make their own decisions on what is recited.

“If the family wants prayers, the family will get them,” said John R. Gingrich, the department’s chief of staff.

This article, "Houston National Cemetery in Prayer Dispute," first appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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