- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2024

The same Biden administration that has allowed a migrant encampment on National Park Service land is drawing the line at the Knights of Columbus.

For the second year in a row, the agency has rebuffed the Catholic fraternal organization’s request to hold a Memorial Day Mass at the Poplar Grove National Cemetery at the Petersburg National Battlefield in Petersburg, Virginia, interrupting a tradition that dates back more than 60 years.

Attorneys for the Knights of Columbus Council 694 urged agency officials in Petersburg to reconsider, requesting a response by Friday and warning of litigation unless the permit is granted.

“In 2023, for the first time in memory, NPS denied the Knights a permit to hold the service in the cemetery, citing a new policy which, you say, forbids a ‘religious service’ in the cemetery as a prohibited ‘demonstration,’” said the Monday letter from John Moran, attorney for the local council, and the First Liberty Institute.

The letter said that the Knights were offered a compromise: hold the Mass outside the cemetery in a “free speech” zone.

“You invoked the policy again this year as justification for denying the Knights a permit to hold this year’s service in the cemetery,” he said. “Instead, because the mass is religious, you insist that the Knights must hold their service, if at all, outside the cemetery walls in a designated ‘free speech’ zone. But to be clear, that is not an adequate substitute.”

Alexa Viets, Petersburg National Battlefield superintendent, said the request is under review.

“The National Park Service recognizes and respects the First Amendment rights of individuals and groups to express their views and assemble in designated park areas,” she told The Washington Times. “We are currently reviewing a permit request for the Knights of Columbus Memorial Day Service.”

The incident comes with the Biden administration under investigation by the House Natural Resources Committee for allowing a migrant encampment on the Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, which is managed by the NPS as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

In their letter, attorneys for the Knights traced the denial to an August 2022 policy memorandum from NPS Director Charles Sams, a Biden appointee, emphasizing that “demonstrations,” which include “picketing, speechmaking, marching, holding a vigil or religious service,” are prohibited in national cemeteries.

The guidance said the definition of “demonstrations” depends on two criteria: whether the event “involves communication or expression of views or grievances,” and whether it’s likely to “attract a crowd or onlookers.”

What’s puzzling is that the policy on “demonstrations” and “special events” at national cemeteries isn’t new. The regulations were implemented in 1986 and updated in the federal code in 2014, raising questions about why the administration has decided to enforce the rules more strictly than in the past.

The memo even gives a Memorial Day exception, saying that “official commemorative events may occur” on certain holidays “because they commemorate military service or historical events that have some connection to military service.”

Also puzzling: Another Knights of Columbus council has been cleared to hold its annual Memorial Day Mass on May 27 at the Andersonville National Cemetery in Andersonville, Georgia, an event being promoted by the NPS on its website.

Roger Byron, First Liberty Institute senior counsel, said he hopes the rejection was a mix-up that can be easily resolved.

“We’re assuming this is an oversight or some kind of miscommunication, so we’ve sent a letter simply asking them to grant the permit, like you’ve done for the last 60 years, and like you’re doing at Andersonville,” Mr. Byron told The Times.

“Now, if they don’t grant the permit, then we’ll know that something far more insidious is occurring here, something that bears the unmistakable marks and the unmistakably foul odor of religious discrimination,” he said. “At that point, our response will be far more aggressive.”

He said the 2022 guidance permits historical reenactments at national cemeteries, meaning that a reenactment of the first Knights of Columbus Memorial Day Mass would qualify for a permit “but the service itself would be prohibited because it’s religious.”

“Now that’s a glaring, blatant violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Reformation Act,” Mr. Byron said. “It’s absurdly so.”

The National Park Service manages 429 “units,” including 14 national cemeteries that lie within larger historical areas such as Petersburg National Battlefield.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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