Arlington Cemetery Confirms Secular Policy
At the end of July, foxhole atheist and WWII Pilot John Hormuth was interred in a humanist ceremony along with his wife at Arlington National Cemetery. Unfortunately, an Arlington Lady provided verbal blessings and a written religious card officially on behalf of the Chief of Staff of the Army. This was done against the explicit wishes of the family.
But there is good news. After coordination by the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers on behalf of the Hormuth family, Arlington has responded. Col. Ronald Tuggle, Chief of Staff of the Army National Cemeteries Program, called MAAF to address the problem.
After an investigation, Col. Tuggle issued a letter to the family apologizing for the incident.* He conducted group training with cemetery administrators and the Arlington Ladies to reinforce the importance of including religious content only when requested by the family and only in the manner requested by the family. The two individuals involved were also counseled directly. COL Tuggle has also initiated efforts to better standardize and enforce procedures to maintain a line between personal religious statements and official government policies.
While the family will remember the problem at the ceremony, they can be consoled that the Arlington cemetery administration has taken action to correct the problem. Col. Tuggle stands with Arleen Ocasio, director of Houston Cemetery Administration who stood up to sectarian interests to protect the Constitution and the wishes of families utilizing the cemetery. It is also relevant to note that the family had no trouble in requesting a humanist service, humanist celebrant, and humanist headstone. MAAF applauds these officials for protecting the rights of families and for protecting the neutrality of government in religious matters.
These are two positive stories, but Christian organizations continue to instigate protests and litigation. Political Christian organizations are pushing for their “rights” to pray at someone else’s funeral despite, as American United have explained, there is no legal standing for such rights. Justin Griffith, Military Direct of American Atheists has started a petition to encourage the Veterans Administration to stand strong against this fabricated controversy. Arlington National Cemetery is the only US-based cemetery run by the Army. The rest fall under the Veterans Administration.
* Update 9/24/2011: The family has received the letter, which included an unqualified apology, acceptance of responsibility, and a promise to prevent the issue in the future through immediate attention and future procedural improvements. MAAF will continue to follow up about the final decision on new procedures at military cemeteries.