The Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center tried to play it strictly by the book.
Instead, it provided a textbook example of overreacting.
The week before Christmas, officials at the hospital’s Downtown campus put their collective foot down in enforcing a policy of banning carolers from singing religious Christmas music in the hospital’s public patient areas. As a result, high-school students from Augusta’s Alleluia Community School decided not to perform their annual caroling.
We don’t know the precise religious makeup of the local VA’s patient population. But we would guess that the hospital’s complaint box isn’t stuffed with indignant comments from patients who don’t want to hear Christmas songs. The Alleluia group reported no problems when it caroled at the VA’s Uptown campus in 2011 and 2012.
The hospital seems to be adhering to a Veterans Health Administration handbook policy that, as stated in one subsection, requires chaplains to ensure “that religion is not imposed on any patient either overtly or subtly.”
But the word “imposed” seems to imply that religious content would be forced on a patient, or that a zealous proselytizer would take advantage of a patient by demanding his or her attention. Do hospital officials really believe that the distant sound of caroling grabs patients by their hospital gowns and compels them to convert to Christianity?
It’s merely singing. As a form of religious expression, that can be very mild. Does the chime of a ghanta meditation bell somehow “impose” Hinduism or Buddhism on the listener?
In other instances, the government bends over backward to honor veterans’ freedom of religion. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs even approved the hammer of Thor as one of about 60 religious symbols that can be inscribed on veterans’ government-issued gravestones and memorial markers.
But do veterans really have to be protected from certain holiday singing? Caroling scarcely qualifies as imposing religious persecution. For a sense of perspective, read recent news stories about the bloody, violent purge of Christianity in other parts of the world. On Christmas Day, 15 Christians died in a church bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, where Christianity has been practiced since the first century A.D.
It appears that the VA is trying to outlaw being offended. But after word of the Augusta caroling decision hit national news wires this week, the hospital inadvertently cast a wider net to offend many more people.
Alleluia students have caroled before at the VA without incident. This year’s VA decision marked a disproportionate response to something that never appeared to have been a problem.