FFRF Sues Veteran Affairs Department Over Religion

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit April 19, 2006, in federal court, challenging the pervasive integration of "spirituality" into health care by the Department of Veteran Affairs. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin, names VA Secretary R. James Nicholson; Undersecretary for Health Jonathan Perlin, M.D.; Hugh Maddry, director, and A. Keith Ethridge,deputy director, of the National Chaplain Center; and Jeni Cook, program manager of the Spiritual Health Initiative.

The lawsuit alleges that the Veterans Health Administration, the nation's largest integrated health system, "has deeply committed to integrate faith, spirituality and religion into the substantive protocol of its medical treatments," in a manner which unconstitutionally promotes, advances and endorses religion.

The complaint observes that the VA now "provides pastoral services not as an accommodation to veteran's free exercise rights" but because it "deems pastoral services for all patients, including veterans receiving outpatient medical services, to be a necessary part of medical treatment." The VA encourages all patients "to tap into their alleged spiritual resources of faith," with VA chaplains involved as "part of the treatment team for all patients." The VA now plugs in chaplains to outpatients (making up 80% of patients) whose religious needs do not require special accommodation.

Read the legal complaint in full for FFRF v Department of Veterans Affairs (Case No. 06C0212S)
Read the initial news release

In September 2006, Judge Shabaz ruled against a VA motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which contended FFRF had no legitimate Establishment Clause claim. Shabaz ruled that if the facts are as alleged, there is merit in the lawsuit and it may proceed. Read the news release, which contains a link to the judge's Memorandum.

Judge John Shabaz ruled on Jan. 8, 2007, that the integration of religion and "spirituality" into all aspects of medical care is permissible because it is ostensibly "voluntary." The Foundation, which contends coercion is not necessary to show an Establishment Clause violation, appealed the decision to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The government asked to stay the case pending the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in FFRF v. Hein, deciding whether citizens have standing to sue over so-called discretionary spending that violates the Establishment Clause by the Executive Branch. This stay was granted, despite the fact that standing was never raised as an issue at the district court level and had not been contested.

Read the District Court decision - FFRF v. Nicholson, 06-C-212-S
(pdf)
Read FFRF News Release on lower court decision

The government's motion to stay the appeal, pending the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hein v. FFRF, was granted by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

FFRF VA Appeal Brief, April 2, 2007 (PDF)
Motion to Stay Appeal/Government Affidavit/Stay Order by 7th Circuit (PDF)
Brief of Appellants & Appendix (PDF)
Appeals Court reply, Nov. 16, 2007 (PDF)

Oral arguments were heard in January 2008.

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