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FEMA blesses dead without permission


From The Staten Island Advance

FEMA needs to change policy of blessing the dead
Government policy is a violation of the principal of church-state separation
Friday, September 30, 2005

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's errors and blunders are by now well known, including those I personally witnessed in an early September visit to hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston's Astrodome.

But Newsweek magazine recently reported another, more hidden, problem, that FEMA requires chaplains to recite a blessing over the bodies of hurricane victims. The requirement also extends to civilian contractors involved in recovering the dead following Katrina and Rita.

Such a government policy is a clear violation of the historical American principle of church-state separation and represents a serious breach in the wall of separation between religion and state. Even though FEMA's blessing requirement comes at a tragic and vulnerable moment in our national life, it is no excuse to impose an uncalled-for "one prayer covers all" policy upon the dead and their grieving families.

A troubled Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, based in Washington, immediately shot off a letter to R. David Paulison, FEMA's acting director, seeking "clarification."

In his letter, Saperstein correctly notes that FEMA is currently facing "unparalleled challenges" in its recovery and reconstruction efforts, but he is concerned about the agency's reported policy of "blessing" recovered bodies. The rabbi wants to know if it is indeed FEMA policy to require a chaplain's prayer before a body can be removed and returned to the victim's family.

Saperstein also inquires whether the family's wishes are considered, and he wants Paulison's view of the serious "constitutional issues involved" when the government requires its contractors to perform a religious ritual.


"Newsweek" reported that when a FEMA official was questioned about the critical First Amendment issues raised by the "body blessing" policy, the reply was a mindless response that insulted both religiously committed people and those who affirm no spiritual faith: "A prayer is not necessarily religious. Everybody prays."

How arrogant for a government spokesperson to tell millions of Americans that "a prayer is not necessarily religious." A prayer uttered when confronting the death of a loved one is especially and profoundly "religious." The insensitive FEMA policy tramples on the sacred rights of American citizens.

Simply put, no government agency or official has the right to arbitrarily invoke or require any form of prayer for a dead person. That right is reserved solely for family, friends and the appropriate clergy. Our nation's tradition also provides for the constitutional right of people not to engage in any type of religious practice. Maybe FEMA doesn't know it, but "everybody" does not pray.


I wonder which specific religious traditions FEMA "chaplains" represent. Who appointed or anointed them for their task? Are they Jews, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, or Wiccan witches? What kind of "blessings" do they say when a hurricane victim's body is recovered? Is the blessing in English, Spanish, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, Vietnamese, Creole, Greek or one of the hundred other languages the victims may have known?

It is especially insulting to invoke a government-required prayer over the deceased when the dead are not able to protest. Whatever happened to the value of showing respect for the dead?

When I served in the Air Force in Japan, I was often "the on-duty chaplain" at our air base, and in that capacity I was sometimes the first religious responder to reach an airplane crash, auto accident, or other death scene. It was always clear USAF policy NOT to invoke any prayers -- Jewish, Christian, or any other -- over the body unless the deceased was clearly identified as a member of the chaplain's specific faith community.

The effort by FEMA to automatically bless hurricane victims flies in the face of demographic facts. The United States is increasingly multi-religious, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic in its rapidly growing population that is nearing the 300 million mark.

As I write these words, FEMA has not answered Rabbi Saperstein's letter. If the agency does explain its blessing policy, I will be happy to include that response in a future commentary.

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