Catholic Group Sues National Park Service for Denying Memorial Day Mass at National Cemetery

Wim De Gent
By Wim De Gent
May 23, 2024US News
Catholic Group Sues National Park Service for Denying Memorial Day Mass at National Cemetery
Members of the Knights of Columbus stand at guard during the 2023 National Columbus Day Ceremony held by the National Christopher Columbus Association at the Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain at Union Station in Washington, D.C., Oct. 9, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

A Catholic service organization filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service (NPS) in Petersburg, Virginia, on Tuesday, after a request to host a Memorial Day mass inside a national cemetery was denied for the second year in a row.

Attorneys for the Knights of Columbus filed a motion for a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order against the NPS, which should allow them to hold the event coming Monday.

The Knights of Columbus’s Council 694 have hosted their annual Memorial Day mass inside Petersburg’s Poplar Grove National Cemetery since at least the 1960s, court documents said.

The First Liberty Institute, which represents the council, attributed the permit denial to a 2022 NPS policy update that categorized “religious services” as “demonstrations”—which were effectively prohibited on cemetery grounds in 1986.

Roger Byron, Senior Counsel at First Liberty, said the NPS was “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,” he said in a statement.

The Knights of Columbus, a worldwide Catholic fraternal service founded over 150 years ago, has a tradition of holding Memorial Day masses across the country for fallen soldiers.

Court documents show that when the Council’s application was denied a second time this year, they were told they could hold their mass outside the cemetery on a patch of grass near the parking lot that the NPS designated as a “First Amendment Area.”

When the Knights pointed out that NPS had permitted another Council to hold their annual Memorial Day mass inside the Andersonville National Cemetery in Georgia, the NPS swiftly revoked that permission.

“Defendants’ treatment of the Knights is unreasonable, unnecessary, and unconstitutional,” the lawsuit claimed.

On May 13, McGuireWoods LLP partner John Moran sent a letter on behalf of the Council urging the NPS to reverse its decision. He called the memorial mass consistent with NPS regulations, given that these do allow for “demonstrations” to be held when they are “commemorative occasions held on Memorial Day,” particularly where the event has a “special historic and commemorative significance to a particular national cemetery.”

“The Knights’ annual Memorial Day mass more than meets that standard,” Mr. Moran wrote, who further argued that the mass does not even meet the regulatory definition of a “demonstration,” given that it is not “reasonably likely to attract a crowd of onlookers.”

“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 (RFRA),” Mr. Moran added.

Tuesday’s motion cited from the NPS’s reference manual: “National Cemeteries provide the setting for patriotic services and ceremonies honoring those thousands of veterans interred therein as well as those buried elsewhere. The principal occasions for such observances are Memorial Day and Veterans Day.”

NTD has reached out to NPS for comment but did not receive a response by press time.

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