Shabaz Rules FFRF Lawsuit Against VA May Proceed

Major Lawsuit Challenges Pervasive Spirituality” in Health Care

(MADISON, WIS.) Judge John C. Shabaz, U.S. District for the Western District of Wisconsin, ruled yesterday that 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.

The lawsuit challenges the “spiritual/faith assessment” made of VA patients, including outpatients, admitted into the VA medical system, so that VA chaplains may determine whether there is “spiritual injury or sickness.” 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.”

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 had 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.”

Shabaz ruled: “Dismissal is appropriate only if it appears beyond doubt that plaintiffs cannot prove any set of facts in support of its claim. . . “

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 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).

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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