Children can’t deliver handmade Christmas cards to veterans in a VA hospital in Dallas, if the cards say “Merry Christmas” or include sentiments like “God bless you.”
That’s what the students at Grace Academy in Prosper, Texas discovered the Friday before Christmas. They had labored over their handmade cards, but when Susan Chapman, a math teacher at the school, called the VA to arrange for the children to deliver their cards, she was told that cards with the prohibited inscriptions could not be distributed.
“I told him my students made cards, we’d like to bring them down for the veterans,” Chapman told the television station. “And he said, ‘That’s great. We’re thrilled to have them, except the only thing is, we can’t accept anything that says ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘God bless you’ or any scriptural references because of all the red tape.'”
A VA official quoted the policy which is in the Veterans Health Administration handbook:
“In order to be respectful of our veterans’ religious beliefs, all donated holiday cards are reviewed by a multi-disciplinary team of staff led by chaplaincy services and determined if they are appropriate (non-religious) to freely distribute to patients. We regret this process was not fully explained to this group and apologize for any misunderstanding.”
Note about this the following:
1. The VA attempts to leave the impression that its policy has the imprimatur of the chaplaincy, by referring to the Dallas VA censorship committee as a multi-disciplinary team “led by chaplaincy services.” Call it chaplaincy-washing.
That’s a cheap rhetorical dodge. Ownership of the policy belongs with the VA leadership, which is not controlled by the chaplaincy, nor is its discretion subordinated to the chaplaincy’s influence. Responsibility for this policy lies with the leadership of the Veterans Administration, which is a political entity making political decisions about a government agency.
2. Implicit in the statement of VA policy is the premise that it is disrespectful to give someone a greeting with a “religious” sentiment.
I think we all understand the thought process that is supposed to lie behind this formulation. Speaking about one’s own religion to another could be considered offensive, and is therefore disrespectful.
But this has never been an accepted premise in American life. America does not consider religious speech, in a public venue or in a private one, to be inherently offensive, or to have, in itself, the potential to be offensive. There is no authority for our law and practices from which we can derive this principle.
The vague implication that religious speech may offend some people is simply a convenience for the project of driving particular speech out of shared venues.
3. Contrast this effort with the effort to get “non-religious” speech and activities admitted to military-sponsored religious venues, on the same principle as religious speech and activities.
At the VA, religious expression is being treated like a toxic substance (see also Renee Nal’s report on Tuesday), from which veterans must be protected by government watchdog policies. Given these restrictions, it might seem odd for atheists to be so anxious to participate in military-sponsored venues on the same basis as the religious faithful. Why opt in to an enterprise so suspect?
Yet atheists not only seek to use military chapels for atheist gatherings, but are proposing to establish an “atheist chaplaincy.” In pursuit of these goals, the convenient excuse of a desire for “equality” is invoked:
[Army Sergeant Justin Griffith] and others are working to get non-theists recognized as faith groups within the military, a status that would allow them to collect donations and meet regularly on base.
“We want to use the chapels,” Griffith said. “We won’t burn them down. We just want to be inside.”
So, to be clear: religion is inherently offensive, and should not be anywhere outside a chapel, including in a Christmas carol, or on a Christmas card delivered to a hospitalized veteran. But non-religion wants to be inside the chapels, on a logic-mocking principle that non-faith should be considered, by military authorities, to be the same thing as faith, at least for the purposes of using facilities and “collecting donations.”
4. If it’s not obvious yet that everything goes in one direction here, consider the encounter of two military chaplains with an instructor in a program for VA chaplains in San Diego.
The chaplains, one a Navy lieutenant commander and one a retired Army major, were enrolled in the VA’s Clinical Pastoral Education Center program in 2012. Both Baptists, they reported being angrily attacked in the classroom by VA instructor Nancy Dietsch, formerly a chaplain at the VA hospital in Dayton, Ohio (and accredited by the United Church of Christ). Among the allegations:
1. Dietsch told the chaplains that it was the policy of the VA in general and her in particular that chaplains should not pray in the name of Jesus.
2. During a classroom discussion on faith, Firtko said “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Dietsch told the chaplain he was not allowed to quote from the Bible in her classroom.
3. In October 2012, Dietsch told the class she believes God could be either man or woman. When Firtko referred to “The Lord’s Prayer,” she “angrily pounded her fist on the table and shouted, ‘Do not quote Scripture in this class.’”
4. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting, Klender mentioned during a group discussion on counseling that he would tell a parent that “there is evil in the world.” Dietsch retorted, “You don’t actually believe that do you?”
5. In January 2013, she told the chaplains “there is no room in the program for those who believe they are right and everybody else is wrong.”
6. Later that month she told students that there are many ways to heaven and that one religion cannot be right, while others are wrong. Firtko objected to that statement by quoting Jesus who said “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” Dietsch told him to stop quoting from the Bible, then stated, “If you believe your beliefs are right, and everyone else’s is wrong, you do not belong in this program.”
The point here isn’t, properly, whether you agree with Dietsch or with the Baptist chaplains on the questions of belief. The point is whether an agency of the United States government has any business taking a position on disputable theological topics.
A chaplain who prays or teaches isn’t doing that. In executing his duties of religious ministry, he isn’t acting in a position of military or state authority. But a government-appointed instructor who invokes government policy to overrule or silence a student on questions of belief is, in fact, taking such positions on behalf of the government.
Dietsch didn’t tell the two chaplains merely that she didn’t propose to dispute beliefs in her classroom. She told them it was VA policy, and hers, not to pray in Jesus’ name, and that if they quoted from the Bible and thought their beliefs were right (as opposed to her beliefs, which she apparently thinks are right), they didn’t belong in the program.
One of the chaplains ended up leaving the program in February 2013. The other was dismissed from it a week later. This outcome is, of course, the opposite of tolerance. It is state-enforced intolerance.
In 2009, according to Department of Defense data, out of 1,407,580 uniformed personnel in the military, 1,097,960 (about 71.6%) identified themselves as members of Christian denominations. Of the remaining 399,620, the overwhelming majority – 371,328 – were of undeclared or unknown religious affiliation. Some number of them were presumably Christians who declined to state a denominational preference, given that the prevalence of Christians in the general American population has been between 75% and 80% for a number of years. The next largest declared religious-preference group in the U.S. military was Jews, who numbered 4,697.
Have veterans in the VA hospitals, in the Christmas season of 2013, been allowed to have general gatherings at all in which the name of Jesus was used, or the word “God”? I don’t know the answer to that. There’s a chapel in every VA hospital, but, of course, not all vets can make it to the chapel. Some can’t even make it out of their rooms. Many can get to the common areas only if someone pushes them, in a wheelchair or on a mobile hospital bed.
Many have family who are there almost all the time. But quite a few don’t. Even those whose families are there throughout the holidays – and the rest of the year – are encouraged by knowing that others from the community remember them and want to bless them.
They are encouraged as well by group celebration. A private visit from a chaplain is one thing, but virtually all of us grow up anticipating our major religious festivals as times when people get together to celebrate, and enjoy such things as the sound of young people singing, and the faces and blessings of our fellows. Vets want to do that too.
In a VA hospital, the celebration has to be brought to them. And there are plenty of people out in the community keeping them in mind during the holiday season, and wanting to do exactly that: bring the celebration to them. Celebrate Christmas, as any holiday is celebrated, for what it’s there for: the birth of Jesus, whom a supermajority of Americans, including veterans, continue to believe in as their Savior.
In at least two places this year – Dallas, TX and Augusta, GA – the VA prevented that service of the heart from being performed for veterans. This isn’t political correctness run amok. This is abuse. When is Congress going to do something about it?