National Park Service Backs Down After Blocking Knights of Columbus ‘Religious’ Memorial Day Service

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The National Park Service has backed down after initially blocking the Knights of Columbus from holding a Memorial Day service at the Poplar Grove National Cemetery near Petersburg, Virginia.

The Knights have held a Memorial Day event there every year since at least the 1960s. But this year, officials had denied the group a permit to hold its annual service in the cemetery, citing a new policy prohibiting “religious services.” 

The non-profit legal group First Liberty Institute and the international law firm McGuireWoods LLP had fought back against that policy.

After the turnaround, First Liberty Senior Counsel Roger Byron said, “The Knights are thrilled that they will be able to exercise their religious beliefs and keep this honorable tradition alive.  We appreciate the tremendous support of Governor Youngkin and Attorney General Miyares in this case.”

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“We are grateful to the NPS for allowing the Knights to hold their service this Memorial Day,” said John Moran, Partner at McGuireWoods.  

According to First Liberty, National Park Service officials had been allowing other events to be held at the cemetery but made the decision this year to require the age-old tradition of hosting the annual Memorial Day mass to be held outside cemetery grounds. 

First Liberty and McGuireWoods sent a demand letter asking the Park Service to grant the Catholic fraternal service order its permit. At the time, Moran had argued, “This policy and the decision to block 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.”

According to the letter, the Knights of Columbus held a Memorial Day mass to honor and pray for the nation’s fallen soldiers at Poplar Grove for at least six decades. But last year, for the first time, the NPS denied the Knights a permit to hold the service in the cemetery, citing a new policy that designates “religious services” as prohibited “demonstrations.”

Under the new policy, the group would be forced to hold its service outside cemetery grounds in a designated “free speech” zone even though other events could be held inside the cemetery. 

First Liberty argued that denying the group’s permit was a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

“Due to the religious nature of the Knights’ annual service to honor and pray for the nation’s fallen soldiers, they have been assigned a second-class status and relegated to the proverbial back of the bus. That is precisely the kind of unlawful discrimination and censorship the First Amendment was enacted to prevent. Surely this decision was an oversight,” said Roger Byron, Senior Counsel at First Liberty.

Now that the National Park Service has backed down, a lawsuit against NPS filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia by First Liberty and McGuireWoods has been dismissed.

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