Trump administration affirms religious symbols at VA centers

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WASHINGTON – The debate about religious freedoms at VA locations was reignited in a speech to the American Legion on Wednesday by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.  Mr. Pence made the claim that the Veterans Affairs hospitals had removed access to Bibles under the Obama administration.

“During the last Administration,” Mr. Pence tweeted, “the VA was removing Bibles & even banning Christmas carols to be politically correct, but under President [Trump], VA hospitals will NOT be religion-free zones.”

The comments are a re-affirmation of recent policy changes at the Veterans Administration. Rules changes about the display of religious symbols were announced by the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, in July.

The VA issued new policies allowing for the public display of religious symbols at its facilities nationwide.  In a statement, the VA wrote, “Effective July 3, these changes will help ensure that patrons within VA have access to religious literature and symbols at chapels as requested and protect representations of faith in publicly accessible displays at facilities throughout the department.”

The new policy allows for the use and inclusion of religious material in publicly accessible areas of VA facilities. In addition, patients and their guests may request and be provided with religious materials, including symbols and sacred texts as well as related literature, when visiting VA chapels and during their stay and treatment at VA facilities.

The VA press release cites a U.S. Supreme Court decision, American Legion et al. v. American Humanist Association, from October 2018, noting that the “The U.S. Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the important role religion plays in the lives of many Americans and its consistency with Constitutional principles.”

Bladensburg Peace Cross [Ben Jacobsen, Wikimedia Commons, CC SA 3.0]

The Legion decision involved the display of the Bladensburg World War I Memorial in Maryland, commonly known as the “Peace Cross,” which was constructed in 1925 to honor 49 men from Prince George’s County who died during the war.  The Peace Cross was briefly maintained with public funds on public land, a practice deemed unconstitutional by the Fourth District Court of Appeals in October 2017. The Supreme Court heard arguments the following October and ruled 7-2 on June 20, 2019, in favor of keeping the cross on public land.

Justice Alito, who wrote the majority decision, noted that the cross symbol in its use in this location had become secularized because of its history and presence in Bladensburg.  He noted that the “cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent [and that] destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.”

Justice Ginsburg read her dissenting opinion from the bench, noting that the Latin cross is exclusively Christian.

The VA suggests that the Peace Cross decision opened the way for the use of religious material in VA locations. Most controversially, the VA claims this grants permission for the organization to accept donations of religious material, including literature, pamphlets, and symbols, at its facilities, as well as to distribute them to VA patients and patrons under appropriate circumstances. Such materials would also be available to patients and their guests and families, should they request them.

In an interview with the Washington Times, Mr. Wilkie said that “The last administration … had a very ahistoric approach [to veterans].”  He added that “They did not know the makeup of the force. They did not know the history of this country when it came to religious foundations, the religious support for those in uniform.”

Even still, Mr. Wilikie conceded that VA policies remain murky about the presence of religious paraphernalia at the locations. He noted that he “empathized” with previous decisions about removing objects that are both religious and historical. “I think the leadership of the VA hospital was still not sure how to act given the directives of the last administration,” he said.

As to the Obama administration’s behavior about the curtailing of religious materials and activities at VA sites, CNN reports, “There are a handful of instances in which Bibles were removed from displays at VA hospitals during the Obama administration, and at least one instance of religious carols being banned in the public area of a VA hospital. But these instances, some of which were reversed after protests, were the result of decisions by local staff, not directives from the Obama administration.”

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has joined a lawsuit filed in May of this year by a group of veterans in New Hampshire. The lawsuit concerns a Bible on display in the Manchester, New Hampshire, VA medical center that was donated by a 100-year old veteran who served in WWII and was a German POW. The Bible is bolted to a table at the entrance of the medical center.

The lawsuit states that the “placement of the Christian Bible, here, is in violation of that fundamental proscription, that the government may not establish any religion.” A decision on the lawsuit is expected soon.

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