Home Petersburg: Park Service denies Knights of Columbus request to hold Memorial Day Mass

Petersburg: Park Service denies Knights of Columbus request to hold Memorial Day Mass

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For more than 60 years, the Petersburg Knights of Columbus have held a Memorial Day Mass in a national cemetery.

This year, the National Park Service denied the Catholic group’s request to honor the nation’s veterans on grounds that religious services are prohibited on Park Service property, according to a new federal government policy memorandum.

The Knights have requested a temporary restraining order filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (Richmond Division). The Washington Times reported that the Knights of Columbus Petersburg Council 694 has held a service at the Poplar Grove National Cemetery since at least the 1960s. Memorial Day is Monday, May 27, 2024.

“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,” John Moran, partner at McGuireWoods LLP in Washington, D.C., said.

The Knights sued officials at the Petersburg National Battlefield when, for the second year, the group was not permitted to hold a cemetery Mass. PNB allowed use of a site next to the cemetery.

“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, which includes the cemetery, said.

Viets told The Washington Times that federal regulations prohibit hosting special events in National Cemeteries so as “to protect the atmosphere of solemnity, quiet contemplation and tranquility within this space.”

The NPS is promoting on its website a Knights council’s annual Memorial Day Mass at Andersonville National Cemetery in Georgia.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares filed an amicus brief today in support of the Petersburg Knights of Columbus’.

“The Biden administration’s treatment of this Catholic group is a blatant act of unlawful discrimination and violates their First Amendment rights,” Miyares said. “It’s shameful that the federal government is denying this small group the opportunity to gather to pray for and mourn the loss of military personnel who died while serving our nation. I demand that this Catholic group be welcomed at the Poplar Grove National Cemetery this Memorial Day.”

A hearing was scheduled for today at 1:30 p.m. regarding the temporary restraining order. In the amicus brief, Miyares argues that the National Park Service policy is unlawful and that the First Amendment protects the right of the Knights of Columbus to hold their Memorial Day Mass gathering.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.