The Department of Veterans Affairs announced this week that it was revising its regulations to allow “religious literature, symbols and displays at VA facilities to protect religious liberty for Veterans and families while ensuring inclusivity and nondiscrimination.”
The agency said it was making the change to “simplify and clarify” its policies to clear up different interpretations that have been taken by different VA facilities which the VA said led to some “unfortunate incidents.”
Examples it cited were a report from 2014 in which former Congressman Jeff Miller (R-FL) had accused the VA of disrespecting Christians, citing allegations that some facilities had taken actions such as banning high schoolers from singing Christmas carols or prohibiting handing out gifts that had wrapping paper that read “Merry Christmas.”
Another instance the VA cited involved a dispute at the Salem VA Medical Center over whether or not a Christmas tree could be on display. After a very tense debate over the issue, the tree was allowed “so long as they [Christmas trees] were accompanied by the respective symbols of the two other faiths that celebrate holidays during this holiday season – namely symbols commemorating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.”
“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,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “These important changes will bring simplicity and clarity to our policies governing religious and spiritual symbols, helping ensure we are consistently complying with the First Amendment to the U.S.Constitution at thousands of facilities across the department.”
According to the VA, the new policies, which went into effect on July 3, 2019, will do the following:
- Allow the inclusion in appropriate circumstances of religious content in publicly accessible displays at VA facilities.
- 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.
- Allow VA to accept donations of religious literature, cards and symbols at its facilities and distribute them to VA patrons under appropriate circumstances or to a patron who requests them.
The VA cited a recent Supreme Court decision as part of its announcement about allowing the religious displays which it said “reaffirmed the important role religion plays in the lives of many Americans and its consistency with Constitutional principles. This includes the following values: a display that follows in the longstanding tradition of monuments, symbols and practices; respect and tolerance of differing views; and endeavors to achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination.”
The Supreme Court decision involved a cross erected in Maryland by the American Legion which the court said could remain in place.