The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday concerns the freedom to worship as one chooses. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says plainly, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Yet, an agency of the federal government allowed some of its officials to strip all Christian emblems and reference from its domains.
According to Fred Lucas at The Daily Signal, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had inconsistent policies across the spectrum of facilities for veterans. Some facilities stripped Bibles from the chapels, Christmas cards from the veterans, and Christmas carolers from the hospitals.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has been in the office for a little over a year. As the son of an Army artillery commander, he grew up at Fort Bragg. He “served in both the Navy and Air Force reserves and as a Pentagon official.” He remembers singing Christmas carols at the VA hospital in Fayetteville, North Carolina as a child.
Wilkie says that Christmas caroling was no longer permitted under the Obama administration. He discovered upon a trip back to North Carolina that Bibles had been taken out of the chapel in the old VA hospital. Because of what he remembered as a boy and what he saw as the Secretary, he had a discussion with President Donald Trump about changes to the policies.
The revised directives now “permit religious literature, symbols, and displays at agency facilities.” Christmas carols, Christmas trees, and Bibles are no longer banned, and chaplains are no longer restrained on religious expression. The changes were specifically designed “to protect the religious freedom of veterans and their families.”
The new guidelines “went into effect last month,” and they refer “to the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing a cross-shaped memorial to World War I dead to continue standing on public land in Bladensburg, Maryland. The high court’s decision highlighted the important role that religious symbols play in the lives of Americans and their consistency with constitutional principles.”
In his service – “both in uniform and out of uniform” – Wilkie has “seen the effects of combat.” He recognized that the military culture once prioritized the “ability of our troops to worship, their right to worship, their right to have access to chaplains, and to be free to celebrate their faith.”
Now, moving over to VA, I consider the spiritual well-being of our veterans, their spiritual health, to be just as important as the medical competence and technical competence of our doctors and nurses. They should have that fundamental right available to them to access chaplains, to access their Bibles.
The new rules require “inclusion in appropriate circumstances of religious content in publicly accessible displays at VA facilities.” They allow “patients and their guests to request and be provided religious literature, symbols and sacred texts during visits to VA chapels and during their treatment at VA.” They also allow “donations of religious literature, cards, and symbols” to be given to the VA and to be distributed to VA patrons “under appropriate circumstances.” The new guidelines are not partial to any one religion and include “the Bible, the Quran, the Talmud, or any other religious text.”
The fact that this freedom is given to members of all religions does not mean that the new policies are unopposed. It is no surprise that the Freedom From Religion Foundation is against the new guidelines. They claim that the new policies undermine the Constitution because it “intentionally establishes a secular government in order to preserve religious freedom, a right enjoyed by individuals.” This organization believes that the VA should “keep its facilities free from government-endorsed religion.”
Since the VA based its policy on the recent Supreme Court decision, Wilkie does not “anticipate litigation over the policy.” He believes that Justice [Neil] Gorsuch’s statement “was absolutely on target.” “Because you might be offended doesn’t give you standing to stop other people from worshipping. For me, this is not only a military issue. It’s a religious liberty issue, and one that is vitally important to those we serve.”
I like that statement: “Just because you take offense at something I do, that does not mean that I must stop doing what I do.” The person who takes offense has the responsibility to move away from the offensive object or action – unless of course the action is vandalism, murder, or other gross crimes.
We can be assured that some people will still be offended by the sight of religious symbols and literature or by the sound of Christmas carols. It seems that we will always have such people with us. However, the VA guidelines seem to have been created on a firm foundation and should be able to withstand many storms.