Federal attorneys at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center have decided not to respond to demands by a Christian-based legal group that the hospital rescind its policy prohibiting school children and other well-wishers from singing religious Christmas carols in public patient areas.
Spokesman Pete Scovill said this week that the facility’s local legal team will instead wait until the Alliance Defending Freedom files a lawsuit stating its case of why the hospital’s decision to exclude religious music violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
The decision to wait comes two weeks after the alliance’s deadline for the VA to respond to a letter it mailed hospital Director Bob Hamilton stating that the facility’s policy on caroling is illegal and appears to be nothing more than “political correctness run amok.”
Jeremy Tedesco, the senior legal counsel leading the alliance’s case, initially said if no action were taken, a lawsuit could be considered. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs has ordered a review of all VA policy preventing guests from wishing patients a “Merry Christmas” after letters, gifts and carols that contained religious phrases were prohibited from being sung or delivered in Augusta; Dallas; Montgomery, Ala.; and Iowa City, Iowa.
“We are still evaluating our legal options, but we are certainly pleased that the VA has come under public scrutiny by members of Congress for its trampling of these students’ First Amendment rights,” Tedesco said in an e-mail to The Augusta Chronicle on Thursday.
The caroling debate began Dec. 20 when Augusta’s downtown VA hospital told high school students from Alleluia Community School that they must choose different music if they want to perform in the public areas in light of a 5-year-old policy it was more strictly enforcing.
Despite facing no resistance at the hospital in 2011 and 2012, the students were given a pre-approved list of 12 nonreligious Christmas songs that the hospital’s Pastoral Service “deemed appropriate for celebration within the hearing range of all veterans.” They were told nonsecular songs could be sung in the hospital’s chapel.
In its defense, the VA administration cited last week a 2008 rule in the Veterans Health Administration Handbook, stating that its leadership “may restrict or prohibit any practice that it deems detrimental to the health or safety of patients.”