The Department of Veterans Affairs cannot bar a Houston pastor from invoking Jesus Christ in a Memorial Day prayer, a federal judge ruled in a case that is yet another illustration of anti-Christian animus in the country.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes told the department it was “forbidden from dictating the content of speeches – whether those speeches are denominated prayers or otherwise – at the Memorial Day ceremony of National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston.”
“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,” the judge wrote. “The right of free expression ranges from the dignity of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches to Charlie Sheen’s rants.”
In his order, the judge noted that the Rev. Scott Rainey, the lead pastor of the Living Word Church of the Nazarene, was likely to prevail on his claims should the case reach trial.
“The Constitution does not confide to the government the authority to compel emptiness in a prayer, where a prayer belongs,” he said. “The gray mandarins of the national government are decreeing how citizens honor their veterans. This is not a pick-up-your-trash sign; this is a we-pick-your-words sign.”
The case was brought on Rainey’s behalf by Texas’ Liberty Institute, a non-profit devoted to protecting freedoms and strengthening families.
Liberty Institute General Counsel Jeff Mateer did not know what prompted the government to step into the matter, adding he was told by another minister that the Memorial Day prayers have been going on for over 20 years with the mention of Jesus without incident. Why it occurred with likely remain a mystery as the government conceded the issue at a Friday hearing.
“There certainly is a climate in our country that precipitates these types of actions,” Mateer said. “Secularists and separationists are trying to push an agenda that is telling government that you can’t have any religion in public.”
Rainey had given the Memorial Day invocation at the cemetery for the past two years and in each case mentioned Jesus Christ without incident.
The event at the public Houston National Cemetery is run by a private group, the National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston. This year, the director of the council, Arleen Ocasio, asked Rainey to submit his prayer for review. He sent a draft to Ocasio.
The seven-paragraph prayer spent the first five speaking of God in a non-denominational way, invoking “almighty God” and including the words, “We pray for peace among nations around the world. We pray for peace in the homes of families who have lost loved ones in these great battles. We pray for peace in the heart of every person present today as we seek you with our whole heart.”
The prayer closed with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the line, “While respecting people of every faith today, it is in the name of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, that I pray. Amen.”
Ocasio said that Rainey would not be allowed to pray unless he removed references to one religion. Rainey appealed to the general counsel of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Deputy General Counsel John Thompson sided with Ocasio, telling the pastor “the ceremony will commemorate veterans of all cultures and beliefs, and the tone of remarks must therefore be inclusive.”
“I am very disappointed that the Houston National Cemetery would take such an anti-freedom stance,” Rainey said upon filing suit. “This is my third year to be invited to deliver the invocation, and I have never been asked to edit the content of my prayer. While I consider it an honor to lead such a somber gathering in prayer, I will not forsake my religious beliefs.”
The suit sought a temporary restraining order that would allow the prayer as written. The judge on Thursday granted the request.
“While I am very disappointed we had to take legal action, I am glad that the judge agreed that removing Jesus’ name from my prayer is unconstitutional,” Rainey said. “I am honored to be allowed to pray in the name of Jesus at this somber remembrance of our nation’s fallen.”