The VA’s New Policy About Religious Symbols Will Still Lead to Legal Problems July 4, 2019

The VA’s New Policy About Religious Symbols Will Still Lead to Legal Problems

The Supreme Court recently ruled that a Giant Christian Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland could remain on public land because the supposed war memorial had been there for a really long time and had effectively become a secular monument. (Don’t think too hard about that logic. It doesn’t make sense.)

But the bigger question now is how that law will be applied. Is it limited to crosses like this one or would the Christian Right take it even further — and if so, how?

Now we’re getting an answer.

Yesterday, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie announced new policies that would allow VA hospitals to put up religious displays, citing the Bladensburg ruling as justification.

According to the VA, the new policies will:

  • 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 US Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the important role religion plays in the lives of many Americans and its consistency with Constitutional principles,” the release said.

The second two bulletpoints were never a problem. But that first one suggests a made-up resolution to a problem of the VA’s own creation. For years now, several hospitals have put up “Missing Man” tables by the front entrances. Those displays are dedicated to prisoners of war or those missing in action… but the display often includes a Bible, suggesting that POW/MIAs were only Christian, and that atheists and people of other faiths didn’t make the same sacrifices as other soldiers. (After complaints from church/state separation groups, the Bibles tend to be removed or replaced.)

With the new policy, you can see how VA officials could come up with a justification to permit a Bible in those displays… After all, if a Giant Christian Cross on public property is now legal, why not a Bible in a VA hospital display?

But those are completely different. The Bladensburg Cross is permitted, according to the Supreme Court, because it’s been there for nearly a century and it’s “indisputably secular.” You can’t say either of those things about the Bible — and you would think Christians would be offended by the notion that their Bible is some generic secular symbol and not a holy book.

The whole notion of the VA permitting “religious content in publicly accessible displays” is a joke, too, since the problem only ever occurs when Christians are involved. You don’t see Buddhists getting bent out of shape to push their beliefs on other soldiers. It’s purely a Christian phenomenon.

And what qualifies as “appropriate circumstances”? Who gets to decide? Is it just whenever Christians want to proselytize? Are Satanists and atheists in the military allowed to do the same thing — because I promise you they will.

Church/state separation experts already see the problems coming down the pipeline:

Richard B. Katskee, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the Trump administration was contorting the court’s decision to “justify the government putting up new religious displays.”

“The Supreme Court’s Bladensburg Cross decision did not change our country’s fundamental premise of church-state separation: The Constitution states that the government cannot favor certain religious beliefs over others, or favor religion over nonreligion,” Katskee said. “The government should allow residents of VA facilities to practice their faith as they choose; it should not coerce a captive audience of veterans and their families to observe the beliefs of the government’s choosing.”

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which successfully changed many of those “Missing Man” displays, has already issued a strong condemnation of the new policy. According to MRFF Founder and President Mikey Weinstein:

Today’s announcement from the Veterans Administration regarding its craven implementation of
so-called ‘religious materials display and distribution policies’ is both tragic and predictable in this hyperdangerous era of an ignorant, fundamentalist Christian lapdog cum coward as our Commander in Chief. These brand new VA policies… are 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. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation looks forward to aggressively prosecuting our current case in Federal Court against the VA in Manchester New Hampshire where the VA has literally BOLTED a Christian Bible to the POW/MIA table display in their main entrance.

What’s clear is that the new policy doesn’t change the First Amendment — and any reasonable judge ought to see that the Bladensburg ruling doesn’t open the door to other attempts to shove Christianity in people’s faces. What was illegal before is still illegal now.

To pretend otherwise — to ignore the First Amendment — is a slap in the face to the soldiers who fought to protect those rights.

(Top image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)

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