VA Centers Must Remain Neutral On Religion, AU Tells Officials

The Department of Veterans Affairs has the right to require chapels at VA medical centers to be open to all faiths, Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently advised federal officials.

The issue surfaced in North Carolina recently where a chaplain retired after officials removed Christian symbols from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fayetteville.

Archie Barringer, a Southern Baptist minister, said he disagreed with that decision and insisted that non-Christians should find another room to pray in.

“I felt that it was a slap in the face to our veterans and their families and a betrayal of the trust of the people in Fayetteville and Cumberland County who have supported that chapel over the years,” Barringer told the Fayetteville Observer. “And I would not be a part of that.”

VA chapels are expected to be open to members of many faiths, a concept Barringer had trouble grasping. Christian symbols may be displayed during Christian worship but are not supposed to be displayed permanently.

“It wasn’t dedicated to all faith groups to be generic,” Barringer insisted. “Our nation was founded as a Christian nation. Our forefathers established the country on biblical concepts or precepts. And I feel that if our forefathers knew how we were interpreting the First Amendment, they’d probably roll over in their graves.”

Bruce Triplett, director of the medical center, said he was told to remove the Christian symbols by officials at the VA’s National Chaplain Center. Triplett also added that the center received a complaint after a service memorializing the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“During that service, a chaplain gave a very pro-Christian speech, and at the end of the speech, they said if anyone in the audience was a Muslim, a Buddhist or believed in the Dalai Lama, that they could get out of the chapel,” Triplett said. “And that did generate some problems.”

Triplett added, “What I really want people to understand is that our primary mission is to provide health care. It’s not to provide religious services, although we do that as part of our holistic approach to health care, and I think we do that as well as any hospital in this area.”      

The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based conservative legal group, has threatened to sue on Barringer’s behalf. Last year, the Institute wrote to the Medical Center attacking its policies.

Americans United responded in March. In a four-page letter to A. Keith Ethridge, acting director of the National Chaplain Center, AU attorneys wrote, “Much of what the Rutherford Institute wrote is incomplete, incorrect or potentially misleading, so we write to clarify the pertinent legal principles.”

The AU attorneys asserted that the VA is under no obligation to provide chapels exclusively for Christian use and that VA hospitals may tell chaplains to refrain from proselytizing.

“Based on the information that we have gathered, we believe that the VA has made appropriate efforts to ensure that its chapels are available for patients of all faiths to exercise their right to worship, while remaining free from official proselytization,” wrote the AU attorneys. “The Rutherford Institute’s suggestion that more is required, or that Christian veterans and volunteers deserve special privileges denied to others, is irreconcilable with clearly established law.”