Before they fire up the grill or jump in the pool at Memorial Day parties, many members of Knights of Columbus councils across the country take part in a more solemn event.

The Knights’ Memorial Day worship services honor fallen soldiers with prayer and reflection, commemorating sacrifices made during battles long past.

But this year, one such Memorial Day gathering is at the center of a growing legal battle, which pits the Knights of Columbus council in Petersburg, Virginia, against the National Park Service.

For the past two years, the park service has barred the Knights from holding a Memorial Day Mass in Poplar Grove National Cemetery, saying the religious service must instead take place in a nearby “free speech zone.”

The Knights and their attorneys say park officials have violated the First Amendment, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In a May 13 letter, they asked to be allowed back into the cemetery, arguing that a 2022 policy on special events is being misapplied.

“We assume that there must have been some kind of oversight or miscommunication, and that the park service is simply going to approve the permit. If they don’t, we’ll know that something else has happened — something that bears the unmistakeable marks of religious discrimination,” said Roger Byron, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, one of the law firms representing the Petersburg Knights of Columbus.

Religious services in National Parks

Before their event permit was unexpectedly denied last year, the Petersburg council had held a Memorial Day service in Poplar Grove National Cemetery every year since at least the 1960s.

The events were based on a published worship guide called the “Blessing for visiting the cemetery on Memorial Day.” That’s one reason why the Knights believe they actually need to be in the cemetery during the service, Byron said.

“They believe not being in there hinders their ability to pray,” he said.

National Park Service officials told the Knights that being in the cemetery is no longer possible due to a 2022 policy requiring “demonstrations” that will likely attract onlookers to take place elsewhere.

Although the policy allows events with a “special historic and commemorative significance to a particular national cemetery” to be approved, Poplar Grove officials don’t believe the Memorial Day Mass fits the bill.

The Petersburg council and its attorneys believe its worship services should be covered by that exemption, and say that, even if they aren’t, they’re covered by religious freedom protections.

“Under this policy, a historical reenactment of the first Memorial Day Mass would apparently be allowed,” but not a worship service, Byron said, adding that such an attitude toward religious events “falls well short of what the law requires.”

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Bladensburg Cross case

The conflict between the Knights of Columbus council in Petersburg and the National Park Service calls to mind similar battles involving faith-related efforts to honor fallen soldiers, including a 2019 Supreme Court case.

In that case, the justices were asked whether the government could use public money to fund the upkeep of a 40-foot-tall cross in Bladensburg, Maryland. The so-called “Peace Cross,” dedicated in 1925, honors those who lost their lives during World War I.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled 7-2 that the cross could remain standing, deciding that it didn’t improperly entangle the government with religion since it held historical significance in addition to religious significance, as the Deseret News previously reported.

“The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything that the Bladensburg cross has come to represent. For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans. … For others still, it is a historical landmark,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion.

The Petersburg Knights of Columbus made a similar argument in their May 13 letter, noting that the Memorial Day Mass is both religious and commemorative, since the service is focused on fallen soldiers.

“The most sensible thing to do — indeed, the right thing to do — is for NPS to approve the permit for the Memorial Day mass as an historically significant commemorative event,” the letter said.

Visitors walk around the 40-foot Maryland Peace Cross dedicated to World War I soldiers on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019 in Bladensburg, Md. | Kevin Wolf

What will happen next?

The letter also pointed out that other National Park Service officials have allowed Knights of Columbus-led services to continue after the 2022 policy was put in place.

For example, Knights in Andersonville, Georgia, will hold a Memorial Day Mass this year at Andersonville National Cemetery, just as they did last year.

The Knights in Petersburg hope to have their conflict resolved in time to do the same.

“I’m very confident with our position under the law,” Byron said, noting that park service officials should anticipate a lawsuit if they don’t change their minds.