FFRF Sues Veteran Affairs Department Over Religion

Pervasive Emphasis on Spirituality by VA Challenged

(MADISON, WIS.) In its seventh major lawsuit challenging the “faith-based initiative,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit yesterday 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.

Plaintiffs are the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) working to keep state and church separate, Foundation co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, and Anne Nicol Gaylor, president emerita, as federal taxpayers. They are represented by attorney Rich Bolton.

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 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.

“The integration of religion and spirituality into the medical services provided by the VA is intended to promote religion and belief, rather than to accommodate free exercise rights of veterans who are otherwise limited by their hospitalization from freely exercising religious choices,” the Foundation’s legal complaint notes.

A “spiritual/faith assessment” is made of each patient admitted into the VA medical system, and VA chaplains determine whether there is “spiritual injury or sickness.” These assessments routinely record in painstaking detail patient belief in God or a higher power, prayer, churchgoing, etc.

For instance, the Sheridan WY VA Medical Center initial “spiritual assessment” asks how often they 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.” The Big Spring VA Medical Center’s assessment includes this leading question: “How often do you worry about your doubts or disbelief in God?”

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’s holistic health care protocol is premised on the belief that good health care is incomplete without substantively addressing the spiritual dimension of each patient,” the complaint notes, so faith and spirituality are 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.” For instance, “if the chaplain becomes part of the medical chart, the chaplain is deemed more deserving of funding.”

The complaint cites various 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 Augusta VA Medical Center, Georgia, prints monthly devotions for the Southeastern Paralyzed Veterans Association newsletter, written by chaplains to signify the “alleged integral role of spirituality in health and healing,” the complaint says.

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 6,600-member state/church watchdog group.

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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