- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

A Vietnam combat veteran was fired from his job as an honor guardsman at a New Jersey veterans cemetery after he said the phrase "God bless you and this family" during a burial service last fall.

Patrick Cubbage, 54, of Philadelphia, says his supervisor told him not to offer the religious blessing because it might offend families who are not Christian. Mr. Cubbage, who is an evangelical Christian, insists that he was operating within the federal rules for honor guards and is challenging his dismissal.

"Were one nation under God," Mr. Cubbage said. "Youre going to tell me millions and millions of people cant have God present with them because one person might be offended? Thats ludicrous."

Mr. Cubbages attorney, John Whitehead, president of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, said the situation is nothing more than "political correctness run amok."

"Mr. Cubbage got fired for saying the same words President Bush said in his address about the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia," said Mr. Whitehead, whose institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization. "Patrick Cubbage was terminated for following U.S. Department of Defense protocol. He did nothing wrong."

Mr. Whitehead said he plans to discuss a settlement with the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs but would not give details of what Mr. Cubbage is seeking.

Officials at the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs did not return calls seeking comment. But Lt. Col. Roberta Niedt, a spokesman for the department, told the Philadelphia Inquirer last month that the cemetery has a "standard phrase for each service."

She said Mr. Cubbage was dismissed for deviating from the standard presentation protocol, not for saying the blessing.

Pentagon officials said they had heard about Mr. Cubbages firing, but they said the Defense Department has not gotten involved in the case because it is a state matter.

Officials with the Military District of Washington, which oversees Arlington National Cemetery, said a chaplain, not an honor guardsman, offers a religious blessing at the Arlington burials.

According to a 1986 field manual on Drill and Ceremonies, the following phrase should be said when an honor guardsman presents the flag to the grieving family:

"The presenter uses an expression similar to that which has become standard at Army Funerals: 'This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation, as a token of our appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one."

Mr. Cubbage was hired for part-time duty in October 2001 as an honor guardsman at the Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Burlington County, N.J., near McGuire Air Force Base.

Working between 20 and 30 hours a week, Mr. Cubbage participated in about 2,000 burial services during his employment at the cemetery.

As part of his regular ceremonial duties, Mr. Cubbage would present a folded American flag to the deceaseds next of kin. In accordance with protocol, Mr. Cubbage would say, "This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved ones honorable and faithful service."

Mr. Cubbage also regularly said, "God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America." Mr. Cubbage said he got the words from the Flag Presentation Protocol, a pamphlet given to him by the Department of Defense when he started his job.

After other honor guards objected to the religious blessing, a supervisor told Mr. Cubbage in mid-October that he no longer could say the blessing unless the deceaseds family formally requested it.

Mr. Cubbage pointed to the section in the protocol that said "if the next of kin has expressed a religious preference or belief, add God bless you and this family and God bless the United States of America."

Still, Mr. Cubbage followed his supervisors orders and stopped saying the blessing until Oct. 31, when at the request of a deceased veterans relative, he offered the blessing at a graveside presentation. He was fired that day.

Since then, state officials have offered Mr. Cubbage his job back, but only if he no longer offers the blessing, Mr. Whitehead said.

The agreement also called for Mr. Cubbage to reapply for his position as though he were a rookie and required him to say that he violated the federal policy on military funeral honors.

Mr. Whitehead called the agreement "insulting" and is seeking back wages, a clean file, an apology and the same seniority with the department Mr. Cubbage had before he was fired.

Mr. Whiteheads institute has posted an online petition, www.rutherford.org, to enlist support for its case and to urge Mr. Bush and Congress to take a stand on the issue. So far, the institute has collected nearly 5,000 signatures, he said.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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