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Veterans Affairs' funeral policy inflames area veterans

When Chester Prinkey presents a flag to a veteran's next of kin at a funeral, he says, "May God bless you and your family."

According to a national policy, he needs consent from the deceased's family before doing so.

The policy has ignited controversy and a lawsuit in Houston over how a national cemetery director enforced it this year. The Veterans Affairs policy, adopted under President Bush in 2007, prohibits religious recitations in volunteer honor guards' funeral rituals without prior family consent. The policy came about after families complained about religious words being said during services without requests for them to be included.

Western Pennsylvania veterans and some congressmen who are watching the Houston case are appalled.

"There are no atheists in the foxhole," said Prinkey, 66, of Connellsville. He is a member of the Mountain Honor Guard, made up of members of VFW Posts 265 in Farmington and 12019 in Normalville. Members of the guard -- sometimes a dozen at a time -- attend about 10 military funerals a year where they offer a rifle salute and play taps before presenting the family with a flag.

In the pending federal lawsuit in Texas, Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4, American Legion Post 586 and the National Memorial Ladies accuse Veterans Affairs officials at the Houston National Cemetery of censorship. The Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal group, is helping represent the groups in court.

The lawsuit 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 the use of words such as "God" or "Jesus."

Jo Schuda, a VA spokeswoman in Washington, said the allegation that the department banned religious words is false. She defended the policy.

"It allows families to determine what they want to have said," she said. "I don't believe anything's been done that shouldn't have been done."

Some veterans see it as an attack on their freedom of speech.

"Personal freedom is one of the many noble ideals that our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines fight for," said Mike Mauer, 50, quartermaster of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 914 in West Mifflin, which has an honor guard. "Nobody fights to protect uncaring bureaucratic rules."

In a written statement, VA spokesman Josh Taylor said the agency "would like to emphasize that we care deeply that the First Amendment rights of the families of those patriots who are interred in our national cemeteries, and the rights of all who visit these national shrines, are fully respected."

In July, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and 25 other members of Congress signed a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki calling for the removal of Houston National Cemetery Director Arleen Ocasio.

"Families of all denominations and religious beliefs, particularly at a time of grieving, are afforded under the Constitution the right to express their religion and find comfort in expressions of their faith," Murphy said. "For a government agency to restrict that constitutional right of those who died fighting for it is particularly egregious."

The cemetery referred a request for comment from Ocasio to the VA.

Ronald Hestdalen, director of the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Cecil, said his staff "does not interfere with individual's rights to express religious beliefs."

"We only ask that everything is done with honor and dignity," he said.

At the cemetery, families can request full military honors from the Department of Defense, which do not include religious references. Representatives from VFWs and American Legions often work in conjunction with them, he said. Cemetery officials are not privy to what will be said during the service beforehand, Hestdalen said. It is up to the family to request that anything be omitted from any ritual.

Kirk Leopard, regional director for the National Cemetery Administration's northeast region, said the 33 cemeteries in his jurisdiction have "never had this problem."

"Just like in the military, we don't get into a family's religious preference," he said. "We do what the family wants to do."

Prinkey, a Vietnam War veteran, said the elimination of religious words "takes away from the message" of the VFW's funeral rituals. Fifteen years ago, Prinkey found himself the survivor of a veteran when his son, Barry, died at 30 from a brain tumor.

Barry Prinkey had followed in the footsteps of his father, as well as his World War II veteran grandfather, and enlisted in the Navy before completing school. He is buried in Grafton National Cemetery in West Virginia.

Prinkey said he would have been "appalled at the idea" of honor guards needing his permission to use religious words at his son's funeral. At that time, banning words like "God" from a service was "something nobody ever would have thought about," he said.

"There wasn't a question about it," he said.

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