A federal judge ruled Thursday that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can’t keep a pastor from saying “Jesus Christ” in a Memorial Day prayer at Houston National Cemetery, The Houston Chronicle reports.
“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,” U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes wrote in his order. “The right to free expression ranges from the dignity of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches to Charlie Sheen’s rants.”
Rev. Scott Rainey, lead pastor at the Living Word Church of the Nazarene, has delivered a Memorial Day invocation at the cemetery for the past two years, to honor fallen U.S. soldiers. While the cemetery is public property, the event is sponsored by a private group, the National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston. Rainey’s prayer has included the Lord’s Prayer and a passage that reads “While respecting people of every faith today, it is in the name of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, that I pray.” About a month ago, Rainey was asked to submit his prayer for this year’s ceremony for review. On May 19, cemetery director Arleen Ocasio emailed Rainey.
“While it is very well written, I must ask you to edit it,” Ocasio wrote of the prayer. “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.”
Veterans Affairs attorneys in Washington backed Ocasio, who wrote that the “invitation extended to him to participate in this VA program is entirely within our agency’s discretion,” so Rainey and his attorneys asked a federal court to grant a temporary restraining order.
In a statement to the Chronicle after the judge’s ruling, Ocasio wrote that national cemeteries “are places for all veterans, of all beliefs. We cannot be exclusive at a ceremony meant to be inclusive for all our nation’s veterans.”
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Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com