Fundies and FOX News Invent False Charges Against Cemetery

Jul 25 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

The Wall of Separation, the blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, examined last week a sordid tale of lies and distortions put into circulation by fundamentalist Christians about events at Houston National Cemetery.

Stories of Christians being relegated to “second class citizen” status receive wide circulation and endorsement in fundamentalist circles. It’s strange to think that being prohibited from treating other people like second class citizens (the LGBT community, women, Muslims, atheists, pagans, etc) would make the would-be persecutor a second class citizen but that seems to be the logic here, if logic it can be called.

This meme makes stories like that which follow easier for the base to accept and embrace. After all, it just reinforces their already existing sense of persecution. Here, in the words of Rob Boston at AU, is the situation in Houston:

According to the Religious Right, an official with the Department of Veterans Affairs named Arleen Ocasio has ordered volunteers with an organization called the National Memorial Ladies to stop saying “God bless you” to families at funerals and sending them religious sympathy cards. Furthermore, Ocasio is accused of closing a chapel at the Houston National Cemetery and even stripping it of Christian material.

Wow, sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Bad enough Christians say they’re not allowed to say “Merry Christmas” during the holiday they stole from Pagans! But now they can’t even say “God bless you” and Ocasio plundered a chapel like a Heathen Viking of old? You can imagine the righteous indignation! Problem is that it’s false indignation. It’s not true.

It’s a serious issue. As AU reveals, “The Liberty Institute, a Texas-based Religious Right outfit, has filed a lawsuit. Local veterans have held rallies to express their outrage. Emotions are running high, and some are calling for Ocasio to be fired.” FOX News of course ran with the persecution meme:

“The hostile and discriminatory actions by the Veterans Affairs officials in Houston are outrageous, unconstitutional and must stop,” said Jeff Mateer, an attorney with Liberty Institute, which filed the original lawsuit on behalf of the veterans groups. “Government officials who engage in religious discrimination against citizens are breaking the law. Sadly, this seems to be a pattern of behavior at the Houston VA National Cemetery.”

Conservative bloggers have also run wild with the story. for example used the headline, “VA to Veterans – No God at Military Funerals, Cemetery” and claimed that “the United States Department of Veterans Affairs appears to be banning Jesus, God Bless You, and prayer at funeral ceremonies at the Houston National Cemetery.”

In other words a witch-hunt; a fundamentalist favorite. Identify an enemy, excoriate him and destroy him. Make no attempt to get to the bottom of things, simply stoke the outrage, fear, and hatred.

Fortunately, there are still calm heads out there. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) reveals that the VA has issued a response to these charges:

* The VA’s guidelines “seek to ensure that the religious preferences, if any, of families of deceased Veterans are fully respected, and they specifically say that the honor guards may read scripture or a brief prayer if the family makes such a request to the honor guard team and the family does not provide its own clergy….”

* Guidelines “reflect that committal services are private in nature and VA volunteer honor guards must respect the wishes and religious preferences of the families of deceased Veterans. If a family decides that it only wants to have clergy provide the service, which includes a reading of scripture and prayer, the family’s preference should be respected.”

* Specifically at the Houston National Cemetery, guidelines permit the use of “religious recitations at private committal services if the family of a deceased Veteran so chooses. Defendants believe that it should be the family’s choice and decision what to have read in accordance with their faith tradition, if any, because it would be improper for others to impose their own religious preferences on a Veteran’s family, especially during this meaningful event.”

AU tells us about another calm head who troubled himself to look for the facts (unlike FOX News):

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, took some time recently to look into this matter. Jason made a few phone calls and learned some facts that have been conveniently omitted from the Religious Right’s version of events. Mainly, that families have the right to have whatever kind of religious or non-religious service they want for their fallen loved ones. It’s up to the families to request religious content for memorial services.

In other words, fundamentalists are complaining that not being allowed to say “God bless you” to those who might, say, be atheists, is persecution. They’re not being allowed to force their religious beliefs on others.

Worst perhaps of all is the lie about the chapel. AU puts that falsehood to rest in no uncertain terms: construction.

Yes, construction. Not persecution, closed the chapel, which remained open until September 2010 when a “major construction project” forced closure of the chapel “because of fumes and noise.” The chapel was to reopen on July 5, 2011 and to “remain in use as a non-denominational place of prayer and contemplation…” The symbols were not “stripped” but kept in storage where they are always kept, to be “brought out when appropriate.” As Rob Boston points out, “This is an inter-faith chapel, after all.”

It sounds like somebody needs to tell the fundamentalists that.

What’s clear to sane people is that the determination to be persecuted does not make you persecuted. Feeling persecuted does not make you persecuted. Not being allowed to persecute other people is not itself a form of persecution – it is the price of living in a free society that recognizes the equal rights of all its citizens.

Again and again fundamentalist opposition to the U.S. Constitution and to the First Amendment in particular is revealed in not only their words but their actions. Bryan Fischer recently claimed that the First Amendment was written only for Christianity and that it does not, and was not meant to, apply to any other religion. David Barton, likewise, claims the goal of the First Amendment was to establish Christianity as the official religion of the United States!

Despite it being entirely at odds with the evidence of history, this seems to be becoming a more a widely accepted view in fundamentalist circles. It stands to reason then that effort to limit the rights of Christians to do what the Constitution ordains them to do would be explained as a form of persecution. It’s absolutely absurd but it has a sort of internal logic that the base can grasp and rally around.

Rob Boston at AU offers a bit of parting advice: “There’s a lesson we can learn from this: Don’t believe everything you read – especially if the source is a Religious Right group.” I would say this is good advice but I would add something to it:  don’t believe what they’re saying, but do try to understand it, because you can’t fight back against an enemy you don’t understand.

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