The ongoing attack on religious expression at Christmas spilled into three Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals in Georgia, Texas, and Iowa last month. The hospitals claimed the VA’s handbook required them to censor Christianity out of Christmas in order to protect veterans.
Students from Alleluia Community School in Augusta, Ga., headed to Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in late December to sing Christmas carols for hospitalized veterans, just as they had done the previous two years. But when they arrived, a hospital representative handed them a list of 12 secular Christmas songs it had “deemed appropriate for celebration within the hearing range of all Veterans,” the Athens-Banner Herald reported. Hospital spokesman Brian Rothwell said the choir was offered the option sing its religious Christmas songs in a private chapel, so veterans of other faiths wouldn’t be offended. The disappointed group left without singing.
“Our nation’s veterans have time and again faced and defeated dangerous threats to the liberties we cherish as American citizens—children singing Christmas carols is not among them,” Jeremy Tedesco of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said in a statement. “By banning these Christmas carols, the VA is trampling the very religious freedoms our veterans have sacrificed so much to defend.” ADF sent the hospital a letter explaining it is unconstitutional to exclude religious carols from a public facility.
In Iowa City, Iowa, the VA hospital told American Legion representatives they could not pass out Christmas presents if the wrapping paper said “Merry Christmas” or had other religious references. In the end, the group “filtered” presents with religious wrapping through the VA chaplain.
An official at the VA hospital in Dallas refused to accept handmade Christmas cards from 52 school children hoping to encourage injured vets and thank them for their service. The reason for the ban: The cards had religious references like “Merry Christmas” and “God bless you,” and some had scriptural references.
Susan Chapman, the teacher in charge of the card giveaway, hired the Liberty Institute to look into “unlawful viewpoint discrimination.” Jeff Milligan, director of the VA North Texas Health Care System, responded by releasing a statement apologizing for the misinformation and affirming VA hospitals do indeed accept religious Christmas cards. “Our Chaplains distribute them by asking patients on a one-on-one basis if they will accept a holiday card with religious references,” Milligan said.
The Christmas conflict raised the ire of several veterans’ groups.
“First of all, VA’s decision to prohibit the delivery of Christmas cards that mention Christmas is ludicrous,” said American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger on the group’s website. “Second of all, VA has been down this road before, and recently. VA has been warned through a federal court decree to stop denying freedom of religious expression at its facilities.”
In 2011, a federal court banned the VA from religious discrimination, ordering it “not to ban religious speech or words, such as ‘God’ and ‘Jesus,’ in condolence cards or similar documents” given by non-VA volunteers. It also ordered the VA “not to ban, regulate, or otherwise interfere with the giving of gifts, including gifts that contain a religious message or viewpoint.”