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Christmas controversy at VA hospitals

Lawmakers question incidents that curtailed cards, carols & gift wrap

Jan. 3, 2014 - 05:42PM   |  
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Several incidents at Veterans Affairs medical centers over the holidays have prompted the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman to question whether VA has violated the civil rights of veterans in its care.

In separate events at VA hospitals in December, administrators limited private donors, schools and veterans organizations from delivering Christmas-specific holiday cards, singing religious carols publicly and delivering gifts wrapped in Christmas paper.

The incidents sparked outcries from conservative groups and now have attracted the attention of at least two Republican lawmakers, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida and Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama.

Each has sent letters to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asking him to look into the incidents and provide copies of VA policies regarding the distribution of religious material and gifts.

In his letter to Shinseki on Friday, Miller argued that because Christmas is a federal holiday and also a religious day, VA may be violating veterans rights by denying them the right to celebrate a government-approved holiday as well as their own religious traditions.

He noted that President Obama celebrated Christmas publicly by lighting the National Christmas Tree with “well-chosen words” recognizing the lessons of Jesus Christ without “proselytizing or seeking to impose” them on anyone.

“In taking it upon themselves to restrict Christmas cards, carols and gifts in certain locations, VA officials clearly ignored longstanding federal government traditions, basic common sense and possibly a 2011 federal consent decree that ordered VA not to ban religious speech,” Miller wrote.

The consent order Miller referred to is a 2011 judge’s ruling that forbade VA officials at a Houston cemetery from “editing, controlling or excising ... the content of private religious speech and expression by speakers at VA-sponsored or non-VA-sponsored special ceremonies or events.”

The ruling resulted from a lawsuit in which a pastor and several veteran families alleged they were told by the cemetery director that prayers at official cemetery events had to be nondenominational.

The same director also banned volunteer honor guards from having any religious elements in their burial rituals, according to the suit.

Miller’s letter called attention to at least two incidents: one at the VA North Texas Health Care System in which a group of schoolchildren were not allowed to deliver handwritten cards containing phrases including “Merry Christmas” and “God Bless You”; and the enforcement of a rule at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga., that bans volunteer choruses from singing religious-themed carols in public hospital spaces.

A VA spokesman said Friday that the department does accept religious cards and Christmas carols “for our patients who celebrate Christmas, as we do for veterans who celebrate religious holidays of all faiths.”

“Veterans entered the military to protect our freedoms, including the freedom to practice a religion of our choice. At VA, it is our duty to uphold and respect the honor and sacrifice of all Veterans, from all faiths and backgrounds,” spokesman Drew Brookie said.

According to VA officials, the incident at the Texas facility resulted from a miscommunication and the facility “thanks all the students who took the time during the holiday season to write Christmas cards for the veterans we serve.”

The Augusta, Ga., facility allows carolers to sing publicly from an approved list of songs and “is happy to provide more private areas for groups to sing [religious-based songs] for veterans who choose to participate,” VA officials said.

Roby wrote to Shinseki on Thursday with concerns similar to Miller’s, alarmed that one of her constituents had made more than 100 goodie bags and Christmas cards for veterans at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System but was only able deliver fewer than 20 because they were the only ones to meet the facility’s guidelines as secular gifts.

“My concern is that such a senseless policy exists to begin with, or, in the case that no such policy expressly prohibits mentioning Christmas in cases like this, that the culture of bureaucracy at the VA would encourage facility administrators to err on the side of suppressing religious expression and discouraging acts of kindness toward veterans,” Roby wrote.

Brookie said VA has received the letters and will respond.

“VA greatly appreciates holiday donations and volunteerism by students and organizations on behalf of veterans of all faiths and backgrounds,” he said.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is asking VA patients, employees or volunteers to report any perceived instances in which VA attempted to curtail the celebration of Christmas or other federal holidays to its tip line, varoi@mail.house.gov.

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