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VA secretary moves to permit public display of religious symbols

A Bible is part of a memorial table display at the veterans hospital in Manchester, N.H.

KRISTIN PRESSLY/MANCHESTER VA MEDICAL CENTER VIA AP

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 3, 2019

WASHINGTON — Citing a need to protect religious liberty, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie issued new policies Wednesday permitting displays of religious and spiritual symbols in VA facilities.

Religious symbols will now be allowed in public areas of VA facilities, including lobbies, public entrances, security and information desks and nursing stations. In directives sent to VA facilities nationwide, Wilkie clarified that displays “should respect and tolerate differing views” and “should not elevate one belief system over others.”

“We want to make sure that all of our veterans and their families feel welcome at VA, no matter their religious beliefs. Protecting religious liberty is a key part of how we accomplish that goal,” Wilkie said in a statement. “These important changes will bring simplicity and clarity to our policies governing religious and spiritual symbols, helping ensure we are consistently complying with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at thousands of facilities across the department.”

An official announcement about the new rules cited a recent Supreme Court decision in which a 40-foot “Peace Cross,” a tribute to World War I dead, was permitted to remain at a public intersection in Maryland. The court rejected the argument that the cross was an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity, but justices didn’t reach an across-the-board consensus about how to handle religious imagery on public property.

About the case, the VA wrote: “The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the important role religion plays in the lives of many Americans and its consistency with constitutional principles.”

In addition to permitting public displays of religious symbols, the changes allow VA facilities to accept donations of religious literature and symbols, which can now be provided to patients and their families.

The VA’s announcement Wednesday included references to “unfortunate incidents” of conflict caused by Christmas displays at VA hospitals.

In 2015, then-Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., wrote a letter to the VA complaining about the department’s restrictions on carolers and Christmas cards and gift-bags that contained the phrases “Merry Christmas” and “God Bless You.”

At the VA hospital in Salem, Va., that year, management initially forbade the display of Christmas trees. After outcry from employees, managers allowed the tree with the caveat that symbols commemorating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa also be displayed.

Wilkie encouraged local VA leaders to form committees – comprising representatives from different faith groups – to discuss the public displays of religious symbols. If there are questions or concerns about the displays, local leaders are being asked to contact VA headquarters for guidance.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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