Biden Administration Denies Permit to Celebrate Long-Standing Memorial Day Mass in National Cemetery

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Sometimes it's baffling why a given government agency does what it does. In one such, the National Park Service - which, as part of the Executive branch, falls under the control of the Biden administration - has denied, for the second year, a permit for the Knights of Columbus to celebrate a Memorial Day mass in Virginia's Poplar Grove National Cemetery:


Attorneys for the Knights of Columbus filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against the National Park Service in Petersburg, Virginia, on Tuesday, after officials refused to grant a permit for the religious service at the Poplar Grove National Cemetery.

This is the second year in a row the religious group has been denied a permit at the Virginia national park where they had been holding the Memorial Day mass for the past 60 years.

"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," McGuireWoods attorney John Moran, who is suing the NPS on behalf of the Knights, said in a press release. "We urge the court to grant our restraining order and allow the Knights to hold their service this Memorial Day."

One would think that this long-standing event would be perfectly allowable under the First Amendment if, given that the Poplar Grove National Cemetary is a government-controlled facility, all denominations were allowed to receive permits for their own ceremonies honoring the nation's fallen. That is, after all, the purpose of  Memorial Day.

The National Park Service (NPS) disagrees:.

"National Cemeteries are established as national shrines in tribute to those who have died in service to our country, and as such any special activities within the cemetery are reserved for a limited set of official commemorative activities that have a connection to military service or have a historic and commemorative significance for the particular national cemetery," Alexa Viets, superintendent of the Petersburg National Battlefield, told the Times.

Religious services and vigils have been classified as "demonstrations" since at least 1986, according to the park website, and are prohibited in national cemeteries. 


The NPS may have had an argument if they had stopped issuing the Knights of Columbus (or any other group affiliated with any religion) permits when that classification changed in 1986, but the Knights were still issued such permits until 2023.

What gives?

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Tempting as it is to blame Joe Biden for this, it's certain that this is the decision of a lower-level flunky somewhere in the National Park Service or the Department of the Interior, of which the NPS is a part. Were the President even cognizant of his own doings, much less the doings of his immediate staff, he wouldn't be bothered by something as far down the line as a local permit for a mass in a public cemetery.

But policy, supposedly, flows from the top down. Someone decided to end this decades-long practice, and it wasn't for First Amendment reasons; the First Amendment is fine with allowing a Catholic mass in this space, so long as the issuance of such permits is available to all denominations, meaning that if a Bokononist group wished to hold a ceremonial boko-maru on the grounds, they should also be free to receive such a permit.

Also, it's not as though the Knights of Columbus were a partisan group. High-ranking officials and politicians of both parties have been members.


The National Park Service is just plain wrong here. An orderly religious ceremony is in no way a "demonstration" - that's a perfectly ridiculous assertion - and the Knights should be permitted to conduct their Memorial Day mass as usual. We could scarcely blame them for defying this unfair refusal and holding their ceremony regardless of government permission.


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