PALM HARBOR — The Citizens Commission on Human Rights presented itself as a group working to help veterans avoid suicide and asked to put inserts in the program for the annual Memorial Day service Monday at a local cemetery.
What the group didn't say was that it has ties to the Church of Scientology, and the fliers reflected the church's opposition to psychiatry by attacking mental health care for veterans and suggesting the federal government is responsible for "psychiatric drugging gone rampant."
The flier upset at least one guest and was inappropriate, said Keenan L. Knopke, the president of Curlew Hills Memory Gardens, the family-owned funeral home, crematory and cemetery at 1750 Curlew Road.
"It takes away from the event itself," Knopke said.
The Citizens Commission on Human Rights provided about 250 inserts, but didn't pay the funeral home anything, he said. About 500 people attended the event, Knopke said.
If he had known the group's background, Knopke said, he wouldn't have allowed the fliers in the program.
"It's become a political statement and viewpoint, and we try to keep our public events non-political in every way, shape and form," he said.
CCHR didn't respond to requests for comment at its Florida chapter and national headquarters.
Knopke said he just glanced at the insert and didn't read it carefully. When a guest approached him to complain, he advised the rest of the attendees in his opening remarks the insert "wasn't an endorsement."
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis' office contacted him to let him know the group would be reaching out to him, Knopke said. The Bilirakis staffer who contacted him didn't endorse the group, but Knopke said he assumed their materials were appropriate for the occasion since Bilirakis' office had become involved.
"Maybe I assumed some things," Knopke said.
Bilirakis' staff doesn't endorse groups. A veterans affairs liaison in the congressman's office just passed along to the funeral home that the group had asked about well-attended Memorial Day gatherings, said Elizabeth Hittos, a Bilirakis spokeswoman.
"It was certainly not an endorsement," Hittos said.
The C.W Bill Young VA Medical Center didn't want to comment on the contents of the flier, which was critical of the Department of Veterans Affairs, but a spokesman said it strives to provide veterans with the best possible care, including mental health.
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected]mpabay.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.