FFRF Lawsuit Against VA Proceeds

A major lawsuit filed in April by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, challenging the pervasive integration of spirituality” into health care by the Department of Veteran Affairs, has merit and may proceed. Judge John C. Shabaz, U.S. District for the Western District of Wisconsin, in a Sept. 5 ruling, refused the VA’s motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit.

The VA’s “holistic” approach is premised on the belief that “good health care is incomplete without substantively addressing the spiritual dimension of each patient.”

“Spiritual/faith assessments” are routinely made of VA patients, including outpatients. VA chaplains, on the basis of the assessment, may determine whether there is “spiritual injury or sickness” and refer patients to religious counseling.

The VA and its defendants asked Shabaz to dismiss the case, saying the Foundation had failed to state a claim for an Establishment Clause violation upon which relief could be granted. Significantly, defendants did not dispute the Foundation’s facts or the standing of its taxpayer plaintiffs. The defendants argued that if the VA’s spiritual and pastoral care exceeds what is demanded by the Free Exercise Clause, then such care is simply “benevolent accommodation.”

The Foundation charges that the VA has gone far beyond the “accommodation” traditionally offered to hospitalized patients, by extending aggressive chaplaincy services to outpatients–who are free to worship and need no such accommodation.

The Foundation complaint observed that the VA now “provides pastoral services not as an accommodation to veterans’ 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.”

In his Memorandum, Shabaz summarized the legal history of Establishment Clause precedent requiring “a course of neutrality favoring neither one religion over another nor religion generally.”

Shabaz added, “Plaintiffs’ complaint contains allegations which if proven would demonstrate that VA favors religion generally,” is impermissibly advancing religion and is excessively entangling religion and government.The fact that the Foundation has not alleged coercion “is not fatal to plaintiffs’ claims,” Shabaz wrote, because direct governmental compulsion is not necessary for an Establishment Clause violation.

Shabaz concluded that “the Court does not possess sufficient factual information to conclude that as a matter of law VA’s chaplaincy practices do not violate the Establishment Clause.” The case will proceed to summary judgment.

The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., Anne Nicol Gaylor, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker v. R. James Nicholson, Jonathan Perlin, Hugh Maddry, A. Keither Ethridge and Jeni Cook (06-C-212-S).

Freedom From Religion Foundation