Christmas, Bible controversies prompt VA policies for ‘inclusive’ religious liberty

Washington D.C., Jul 9, 2019 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- New policies from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs permit religious literature, symbols, and displays at VA facilities in a way that protects the religious freedom of veterans and families while “ensuring inclusivity and nondiscrimination,” the department has said after some controversies over Christmas decorations, Christmas caroling, cards, and other religious displays.

“We want to make sure that all of our veterans and their families feel welcome at VA, no matter their religious beliefs. Protecting religious liberty is a key part of how we accomplish that goal,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said July 3.

The changes will help ensure consistent compliance with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he said.

The policies will allow religious content to be included in publicly accessible displays at VA facilities “in appropriate circumstances,” the department said.

They will “allow patients and their guests to request and be provided religious literature, symbols and sacred texts during visits to VA chapels and during their treatment at VA.” Further, they will allow the VA to accept donated religious literature, cards, and symbols and to distribute them to VA patrons “under appropriate circumstances or to a patron who requests them.”

The announcement linked to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 20 decision allowing a Peace Cross war memorial to remain on public land and to be maintained by public funds in Maryland.

The July 3 statement from the VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs said the changes aimed to “simplify and clarify” policies regarding religious symbols and spiritual and pastoral care, which have been “interpreted inconsistently” at VA facilities. Previous interpretations resulted in “unfortunate incidents that interrupted certain displays.”

Earlier this year, a lawsuit challenged a Bible that was part of a “Missing Man” table display set up to honor prisoners of war and missing soldiers, shown at the entrance of the Manchester Veterans’ Administration Medical Center in New Hampshire. The display, sponsored by an outside group called the Northeast POW/MIA Network, used a Bible donated by a World War II veteran who possessed it while he was held captive.

The lawsuit was filed by a Christian U.S. Air Force veteran after 14 veterans and patients of the medical center, of various religious backgrounds, filed complaints with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

After the complaints the Bible was initially removed, but the medical center received numerous complaints from patients and their families who asked that the Bible be put back. After seeking legal counsel, the medical center decided to put the POW Bible back on display, said Curt Cashour, press secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Cashour apologized to those who were offended by the facility’s “incorrect” removal of the Bible.

The new nationwide VA policies were welcomed by Mike Berry, Director of Military Affairs for the First Liberty Institute, which represented Northeast POW/MIA Network in defending its display’s presence at the VA facility.

Berry said the new policy is “a welcome breath of fresh air.”

“On the eve of our nation’s Independence Day, this is the perfect time to honor our veterans by protecting the religious freedom for which they fought and sacrificed,” he said. “The Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of religious displays with historic roots such as those commonly found in VA facilities,” he added.

The policy change drew criticism from Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

In a July 3 statement, Weinstein said the policy change was “nothing more than a transparent and repugnant attempt to further buttress and solidify fundamentalist Christianity as the insuperable official religion of choice for the VA, our Armed Forces, and this country.”

Weinstein claimed the VA announcement was “both tragic and predictable in this hyper-dangerous era of an ignorant, fundamentalist Christian lapdog cum coward as our Commander in Chief.”

He objected that the policies were “clearly based” on the Supreme Court’s “idiotic decision” regarding the Peace Cross.

The VA’s new policy announcement linked to news stories about various restrictions and bans that have drawn controversy.

A VA hospital in Georgia barred high school Christmas carolers from singing religious songs. The hospital required them to sing from a list of 12 Christmas songs its pastoral service deemed appropriate. The ban was enacted on the grounds that each veteran had the right to be protected from unwelcomed religious material.

In other facilities across the country, VA officials have barred gifts wrapped with wrapping paper or gift bags that used the words “Merry Christmas.”

A Dallas VA medical center refused a delivery of children’s handwritten Christmas cards because they used phrases like “Merry Christmas” and “God Bless You,” Fox News reported in 2014.

In November 2015, a VA medical center in Virginia backed away from an earlier announcement that it would not allow Christmas trees in public areas. It said it would allow the trees “so long as they were accompanied by the respective symbols of the two other faiths that celebrate holidays during this holiday season – namely symbols commemorating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa,” the Salem VA Medical Center public affairs officer said, according to the Virginia NBC television affiliate WSLS.

The controversies had already resulted in some changes.

Department of Veterans Affairs guidance released in 2016 said that once a VA facility director allows holiday singing in a designated location, the department “must remain neutral regarding the views expressed by the group or individual generally or in its holiday songs.”

The 2016 guidance said that Veterans Health Administration facilities may receive cards and gifts with religious messages for distributions to patients and residence in accordance with their individual preferences.

It also allowed veterans’ groups to set up displays with religious items on VA property.

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