VA Immune from from Challenge over Religion

Appeals Court Denies FFRF Taxpayer Standing over VA’s Incorporation of Religion in Healthcare

A 3-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago ruled on Tuesday that the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its three taxpayer plaintiffs do not have standing to challenge the incorporation of religion into all aspects of healthcare by the Veterans Administration.

The Foundation is interested in retaking the challenge with patient plaintiffs and would like to hear from any veterans who have encountered unwelcome religious promotion at the VA.

The Foundation had challenged the VA’s formal shift over the past 10 years to incorporate pastoral care” into patient care, using “spiritual assessments” for all patients. The Foundation also challenged the promotion of chaplain services for outpatients, who are 80% of VA patients, but do not suffer any “free exercise” burden, as hospitalized patients may.

The appeals court, in denying jurisdiction, cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year in which the Foundation and its taxpayer plaintiffs were not allowed to sue over Pres. Bush’s faith-based offices.

“The Courts are rapidly moving to the position that government can fund religious activities, and endorse religion, without restraint,” said Richard Bolton, the Madison, Wis., attorney who has represented the Foundation in most of its faith-based challenges.

“We are gravely concerned over the fact that administrators and the executive branch who violate the constitutional separation between church and state are increasingly immune from court scrutiny,” said Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-presidents.

“The VA believes that the spiritual dimension of health must be integrated into all aspects of patient care, research and healthcare education. The Service has been reorganized to reflect this change,” wrote Justice Ripple, joined by Justices Rovner and Tinder.

The VA conducts “spiritual assessments” to measure each patient’s religious characteristics, and disseminates sample assessments which ask such questions as “How often do you attend religious services during the year?” “How much is religion (and/or God) a source of strength and comfort to you?” “How often do you privately pray?” “How often do you read the bible or other religious literature?”

The appeals court admitted that the spiritual assessment recommended by the VA includes a scoring index in which a low score indicates the patient should be referred to chaplain services.

The Foundation lawsuit additionally pinpointed abuses at four particular VA facilities: the use of a religious “lament” (prayer) to treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder at the Dayton VA Medical Center; the use of a “Spiritual Recovery Support Group” for veterans deemed to have “significant spiritual injuries” as measured by a Multi-Level Spiritual Assessment” at the Sheridan VA Medical Center; a “Spirituality in Substance Abuse Detoxification Treatment” at the VA Medical Center in Gainesville, and a similar program in Detroit.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is the largest national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), with more than 12,000 members, which has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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