Several incidents at Veterans Affairs medical centers over the holidays have prompted the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman to question whether VA has violated the civil rights of veterans in its care.
In separate events at VA hospitals in December, administrators limited private donors, schools and veterans organizations from delivering Christmas-specific holiday cards, singing religious carols publicly and delivering gifts wrapped in Christmas paper.
The incidents sparked outcries from conservative groups and now have attracted the attention of at least two Republican lawmakers, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida and Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama.
Each has sent letters to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asking him to look into the incidents and provide copies of VA policies regarding the distribution of religious material and gifts.
In his letter to Shinseki on Friday, Miller argued that because Christmas is a federal holiday and also a religious day, VA may be violating veterans rights by denying them the right to celebrate a government-approved holiday as well as their own religious traditions.
He noted that President Obama celebrated Christmas publicly by lighting the National Christmas Tree with “well-chosen words” recognizing the lessons of Jesus Christ without “proselytizing or seeking to impose” them on anyone.
“In taking it upon themselves to restrict Christmas cards, carols and gifts in certain locations, VA officials clearly ignored longstanding federal government traditions, basic common sense and possibly a 2011 federal consent decree that ordered VA not to ban religious speech,” Miller wrote.
The consent order Miller referred to is a 2011 judge’s ruling that forbade VA officials at a Houston cemetery from “editing, controlling or excising … the content of private religious speech and expression by speakers at VA-sponsored or non-VA-sponsored special ceremonies or events.”
The ruling resulted from a lawsuit in which a pastor and several veteran families alleged they were told by the cemetery director that prayers at official cemetery events had to be nondenominational.