The House Committee on Veterans Affairs has ordered a review of all VA policy prohibiting guests from wishing patients a “merry Christmas” after four VA hospitals – including Augusta’s – prevented letters, gifts and carols that contained religious phrases from being sung or delivered.
The committee chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, sent a letter this month to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki demanding an overview of the steps the Department of Veterans Affairs is taking to correct this “potential infringement of basic constitutional rights.”
The Florida Republican said he wanted to know by next Monday what actions are being taken to hold the VA employees responsible for the incidents. The request includes copies of all policy guidance related to the issue.
“Christmas was declared a federal holiday by our government in the 1800s, and it is not up to the department to decide whether veterans, their families, volunteers, and veterans service organizations should be free to sing Christmas carols or exchange Christmas gifts within VA facilities,” Miller said in a statement.
Miller’s remarks come after the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta told high school students from the city’s Alleluia Community School that they must choose different music if they want to perform in public areas.
In restricting the school’s caroling, VA administrators cited 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.”
Despite facing no resistance at the hospital in 2011 and 2012, the students were given a 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.
“I am delighted this policy is up for review, and I certainly hope that in the future there will be no religious discrimination towards people or groups invited to sing at the hospital,” Alleluia Community High School Principal Dan Funsch said.
The stricter stance against Christmas references is not only an Augusta problem, Miller said, but a nationwide issue.
Over the Christmas season, VA officials in Iowa City, Iowa, told American Legion representatives they could not hand out gifts to veterans if the wrapping paper included the words “merry Christmas.”
At the Dallas VA Medical Center in Texas, leaders prevented the delivery of handwritten Christmas cards from local schoolchildren to veterans because the cards contained phrases such as “merry Christmas” and “God Bless You.”
And personnel at the VA medical center in Montgomery, Ala., prevented gift bags from being delivered to veterans because they included the words “merry Christmas.”
Because of Augusta’s actions, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian-based legal group headquartered in California, sent a letter to VA Director Bob Hamilton on Dec. 30 stating that the facility’s decision to exclude religious music likely violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
The lawyer who wrote the letter, Jeremy Tedesco, gave the hospital until next Monday to respond and said that if no action is taken, a lawsuit could be in the works.
Hospital spokesman Pete Scovill said that the hospital has not responded but that he expects it to reply by the end of the week.
Miller said the incidents are “unacceptable.”
He said he is asking VA patients, employees, volunteers and veterans service organization personnel to report any instances in which the VA might have attempted to curtail the celebration of Christmas or any other federal holidays through the House Committee on Veterans Affairs tip line at firstname.lastname@example.org.