VA’s Treatment Of ‘Spiritually Injured’ Veterans Upheld

A federal judge has dismissed a legal action challenging the Department of Veterans Affairs’ heavy use of religion in its health-care system.

A Wisconsin-based First Amendment advocacy group sued the VA, arguing that several of its outpatient treatment programs unconstitutionally combine medicine and religion. For example, the VA’s Dayton, Ohio, medical center features a chaplain-run “Stages of Faith” program that deals with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) also challenged the VA’s use of a “spiritual assessment” of patients. That test asked patients, among other things, how often they attended religious services in a year and whether and how God is a source of strength and comfort for them. The VA compares the patients’ response to a “Religious Source Index,” and those with low scores are considered “spiritually injured” and referred to a chaplain.

On Jan. 8, U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ruled against the FFRF, lauding the VA’s use of religion and concluding that it does not violate the separation of church and state.

“The choice to receive spiritual or pastoral care, the choice to complete a spiritual assessment, and the choice to participate in a religious or spiritually based treatment program always remains the private choice of the veteran,” Shabaz wrote in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Nicholson. “Accordingly, there is no evidence of governmental indoctrination of religion.”

The group said it would appeal Shabaz’s decision.