FFRF Sues VA over Religion

In its seventh major lawsuit challenging the faith-based initiative,” the national Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit on April 19, challenging the pervasive integration of “spirituality” into health care by the Department of Veteran Affairs.

The lawsuit may be the Foundation’s most far-reaching challenge to date of government promotion of faith. Ira C. Lupu, a law professor at George Washington University and co-director of legal research for the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, called it “an important case that presents very serious issues.”

The Foundation complaint alleges that the VA “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.

Defendants named are: 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 Freedom From Religion Foundation is a plaintiff. Also named as federal taxpayers are Foundation co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, and Anne Nicol Gaylor, president emerita.

They are represented by attorney Rich Bolton, who has won five previous faith-based challenges for the Foundation. (Two other lawsuits are ongoing, including a federal lawsuit against religion in prisons filed late last year in New Mexico, and the Foundation’s challenge of the White House office of faith-based initiatives.)

The Veterans Health Administration is the nation’s largest integrated health system, with an annual medical care budget of more than $30 billion, serving a nationwide network of more than 157 hospitals, 870 outpatient clinics, 134 nursing homes and other centers.

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,” notes the Foundation’s legal complaint. 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.”

Since President George W. Bush ordered the VA to become part of the “faith-based initiative” in 2004, “spiritual/faith assessments” are routinely made of patients admitted into the VA medical system. These assessments often record in painstaking detail patient belief in God or a higher power, prayer, churchgoing, etc.

One example cited by the Foundation is the VA Medical Center in Sheridan, Wyo., whose initial “spiritual assessment” asks how often vets attend religious services, pray, read scriptural or spiritual literature and listen to such programs on radio or TV, how often they study the bible, and “experience the presence of the Divine.” The assessment scores patients on “spiritual injury.”

“How often do you worry about your doubts or disbelief in God?” is one of many questions on an assessment at another medical center.

“The VA’s holistic healthcare protocol is premised on the belief that good health care is incomplete without substantively addressing the spiritual dimension of each patient,” the Foundation legal complaint notes. Faith and spirituality are theoretically integrated in treatment from beginning to end.

The Foundation charges that VA chaplains wish to “create the appearance of increased value of chaplain services, so as to make more persuasive arguments for increased chaplain funding.”

Among examples of the runaway promotion of spirituality by the VA:

The VA Health Care Network Upstate New York requires a “pastoral visitation” of each patient within 24 hours of hospital admission.

It publishes prayers that do not involve patient treatment, as well as sample prayers, meditations and invocations, such as “Invocation for a Volunteer Luncheon.”

Some veterans receiving treatment at the VA are given a “Multilevel Spiritual Assessment Test” to “diagnose spiritual injuries” to be treated by VA chaplains. The MLSA test score becomes part of the veteran’s health care records.

If there is purported significant spiritual injury, an “intervention” of attending a “Spiritual Recovery Support Group” is recommended. The “operating premise of SRSG is that when God’s gift of spiritual faith and grace is applied, good medicine is received.”

The use of federal tax dollars to support the integration of religion into the VA’s medical treatment protocols violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and gives “the appearance of the government’s official support for and advocacy of religion,” charges the 6,700-member state/church watchdog group.

The Foundation encourages its many members who are vets to contact us if you have encountered proselytizing or “spiritual assessments” at the VA.

The case is before Dist. Judge John Shabaz, in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin. (Case No. 06C0212S).

Faith-based Lawsuit Update

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s significant lawsuit against creation of faith-based offices by the White House and many Cabinets, which was reinstated by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in January, is in limbo awaiting another appeal. The Administration asked the entire panel of the 7th Circuit to hear the case (“en banc”). The Foundation replied, and is awaiting word on the court’s decision.

The lawsuit names Jim Towey, among others, who, in April, announced his departure as White House “faith czar.” Towey headed the White House office of faith-based initiatives for four years.

He will become president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Penn. Towey said he felt he had been working “for the glory of God.” In announcing his plans, Towey praised Bush:

“I thank God he’s our president.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation