National Park Service changes course, will allow Knights of Columbus Memorial Day Mass

A Knights of Columbus chapter praying before an event in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2021.
A Knights of Columbus chapter praying before an event in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2021. | Screengrab: YouTube/Knights of Columbus Supreme Council

The National Park Service will allow a chapter of the Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus to host a Memorial Day service at a Virginia cemetery after initially prohibiting the gathering. 

The First Liberty Institute and the international law firm McGuireWoods LLP released a statement Thursday announcing that NPS gave a permit for the Knights of Columbus Petersburg Council 694 to hold its annual Memorial Day Mass at the Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg. 

"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," FLI Senior Counsel Roger Byron said in a statement. 

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FLI and McGuireWoods filed a motion on Tuesday for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against NPS.

"Defendants are unlawfully refusing to allow the Knights to hold their traditional Memorial Day event in the Poplar Grove National Cemetery, as they have done for generations," claimed the filing. 

"The Knights are likely to succeed on the merits of their claims, including that Defendants' refusal violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution; the Knights will suffer irreparable harm absent a TRO and preliminary injunction; and both the balance of equities and the public interest favor a TRO and preliminary injunction." 

Last year, the chapter was told by the NPS that it could no longer hold a Mass at the cemetery on Memorial Day, which they had done since the 1960s.

At issue was Policy Memorandum 22-01, issued by NPS Director Charles Sams in August 2022. The policy restricts the circumstances in which special events can be held at national cemeteries.

"Activities that take place in national cemeteries are limited to those that are consistent with applicable legislation and that are compatible with maintaining the solemn commemorative and historic character of these areas," stated the memorandum in part.

"Many activities that may be appropriate and even facilitated or supported elsewhere in the National Park System are inappropriate in national cemeteries because of their protected atmosphere of peace, calm, tranquility, and reverence." 

Virginia Attorney Gen. Jason Miyares filed an amicus brief Thursday supporting the Knights of Columbus chapter. Miyares, a Republican, called the Biden administration's actions a "blatant act of unlawful discrimination."

In a social media post Thursday, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin called Virginia "the birthplace of religious liberty" and applauded Miyares for "standing side by side with the @KofC to protect this important and worthy tradition."

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