Feds Ban Memorial Day Event to Honor Fallen Heroes From National Cemetery, Call it a ‘Demonstration’

Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg, VA.

Since the 1960s, the Knights of Columbus have held a Memorial Day event at the Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg, VA.

For the last two years, however, The National Park Service (NPS) has refused permission for the event due to a new policy prohibiting “religious services”  and calling the ceremony to honor this nation’s fallen heroes a “demonstration.”

The park service has instead said the event must take place in a nearby “free speech zone.”

The Knights and their attorneys say the decision by park officials violates the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

On May 13, 2024, First Liberty Institute and the law team at McGuireWoods sent a letter to the Chief Park Ranger asking to reconsider the decision, arguing that a 2022 policy on special events is being misapplied.

You can read the letter here.

“Our hope is that the National Park Service will immediately correct this error and grant the permit,” said John Moran, Partner at McGuireWoods.  “This policy and the decision to block the Knights of Columbus from continuing their long-standing religious tradition is a blatant violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Roger Byron, Senior Counsel at First Liberty, added, “Due to the religious nature of the Knights’ annual service to honor and pray for the nation’s fallen soldiers, they have been assigned a second class status and relegated to the proverbial back of the bus.  That is precisely the kind of unlawful discrimination and censorship the First Amendment was enacted to prevent.  Surely this decision was an oversight.”

The letter to the Park’s chief ranger states, “There is no reason under NPS regulations or Policy Memorandum 22-01 to deny the Knights a permit to hold the service within the cemetery. Indeed, even since the adoption of Policy Memorandum 22-01, the Park Service has authorized Memorial Day masses in other National Cemeteries.”  As the letter further explains, “it violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to discriminate against and censor the Knights’ activities solely because of their religious character.”  Further, the “prohibition of the Knights’ Memorial Day service due to its religious nature is not merely unlawful content-based discrimination on speech—it is textbook viewpoint discrimination, which is per se unconstitutional.”

Now, First Liberty Institute and the law team at McGuireWoods have filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against the NPS in Petersburg, Virginia, to allow the event to move forward.

You can read the motion here.

“The policy and the decision blocking the Knights of Columbus from continuing their long-standing religious tradition is a blatant violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” said John Moran, Partner at McGuireWoods.  “We urge the court to grant our restraining order and allow the Knights to hold their service this Memorial Day.”

Roger Byron, Senior Counsel at First Liberty, added, “The National Park Service is way out of line.  This is the kind of unlawful discrimination and censorship RFRA and the First Amendment were enacted to prevent.  Hopefully the court will grant the Knights the relief they need to keep this honorable tradition alive.”

The motion for a temporary restraining order states:  “The case for preliminary relief is simple: The Knights are likely to succeed on their claims that Defendants’ application of their policies to bar the Knights from conducting a ‘religious service’ in the National Cemetery—as they had previously done for generations—violates their right to religious free exercise under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  The Court should therefore grant the motion and enter an immediate temporary restraining order or issue a preliminary injunction allowing the Knights to continue their decades-long tradition of hosting a Memorial Day mass inside the Poplar Grove National Cemetery.”

 

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