U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes told the director of the Houston National Cemetery and Department of Veterans Affairs officials that they could not block Houston pastor Scott Rainey from invoking the name of Jesus Christ in a Memorial Day prayer.
Rainey sought a restraining order against federal officials after he was given guidelines about how he could pray, according to Houston radio station KHOU.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes said, according to CNN, that 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.”
Pastor Rainey had offered an invocation during Memorial Day ceremonies at Houston cemetery for several years. This year, however, cemetery director Arleen Ocasio informed Raney that she wanted to see a copy of the prayer ahead of time. Rainey’s prayer included the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and thanked Jesus in closing. Ocasio returned the prayer to Rainey, saying it was inappropriate.
“While it is very well written, I must ask you to edit it,” Ocasio informed him. “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.”
She informed Rainey that if he wanted to give the invocation, he would have to comply.
“I’ve never said a prayer in my life that didn’t end with Jesus Christ,” Rainey said. “It was unrealistic expectation for me not to include the name of Jesus Christ.”
So, he sought an injunction against the agency, claiming the government was censoring his speech. He asked the federal court to stop officials from dictating how he could pray.
According to United Press International, Rainey argued in the federal hearing that how he prays is protected by the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech. The federal judge agreed with him.
Hours after the judge sided with him, the government backed off. Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Hindrichs assured Judge Hughes verbally that veterans officials “will not demand that Memorial Day prayers at Houston National Cemetery be as non-denominational as possible,” reported Terri Langford in the Houston Chronicle.
“The agency will let the prayer go on,” Hindrichs told the judge.
Nevertheless, Federal Judge Hughes granted the temporary restraining order. Hughes said that while he was not doubting the government’s word, he was “an experienced optimist” who didn’t want to leave room for the government to change its mind before the Memorial Day ceremony.
The judge warned the agency it had stepped too far, saying officials were essentially “decreeing how citizens honor their veterans.”
Attorney Jeff Mateer who represented Pastor Rainey, applauded the ruling.
“The judge rightly and strongly ruled that the VA’s attempt to censor Pastor Rainey’s prayer violates the Constitution and dishonors the veterans Memorial Day is meant to honor,” he said. “We are glad that the government conceded that its position against Pastor Rainey’s prayer is wrong.’
Pastor Rainey said that while he was disappointed that it took legal action to enforce his position, “I am glad that the judge agreed that removing Jesus’ name from my prayer is unconstitutional. I am honored to be allowed to pray in the name of Jesus at this somber remembrance of our nation’s fallen.”