Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Protecting veterans’ religious liberty

Religious Liberty | The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs updates its policy for VA facilities across the country
by Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted 7/09/19, 04:09 pm

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs updated its policies last week to better protect the religious liberty of U.S. military veterans and their families. The revised rules, effective last Wednesday, assure that religious displays and pastoral care remain accessible and protected from discrimination.

“We want to make sure that all of our veterans and their families feel welcome at VA, no matter their religious beliefs,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. “These important changes will bring simplicity and clarity to our policies governing religious and spiritual symbols, helping ensure we are consistently complying with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at thousands of facilities across the department.”

In the announcement, the department gave examples of times the rules had been inconsistently applied, particularly around Christmas. In 2013, a VA facility in Georgia stopped a student choir from singing Christmas carols. That same year, a VA hospital in Iowa told American Legion representatives they couldn’t pass out presents that were wrapped in paper with “Merry Christmas” or other religious references on it, and a VA hospital in Dallas wouldn’t receive handmade Christmas cards from schoolchildren because they had religious language. In 2015, backlash from veterans and employees led a VA facility in Salem, Va., to reverse its ban on Christmas trees. The revision is intended to clear up the confusion and inconsistency that led to the limitations on Christmas celebrations. It also specifically mentioned that veterans must be allowed access to religious literature when they request it.

The revision should help defend against lawsuits like one filed against a New Hampshire VA hospital in May. The Northeast POW/MIA Network had sponsored a Missing Man table honoring missing veterans and prisoners of war at the entrance of the Manchester VA Medical Center. Air Force veteran James Chamberlain sued the center’s director, arguing the display’s inclusion of a Bible carried by a World War II prisoner of war violated the Constitution. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation also complained about the display.

Mike Berry, director of military affairs for First Liberty Institute, which has defended similar cases, told me the firm sent a letter to Wilkie at the end of May asking for just such a revision of its policy. While researching the issue, Berry discovered that the VA policy originally delegated decisions about religious symbols to local directors, leading to piecemeal implementation as outside organizations complained to individual facilities, like in the New Hampshire case. The new rules, he said, create one uniform standard for all VA facilities.

“First Liberty Institute is very encouraged by this development, and we commend the VA for taking this step and we look forward to seeing a dramatic reduction in these lawsuits and religious harassment by outside activist organizations,” Berry said. “We were thrilled to see them enact a new policy that is going to be good for religious liberty and really, quite frankly, good for our veterans.”

The announcement also pointed to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Bladensburg Cross, a World War I memorial in Maryland that some wanted taken down, arguing the decision sets a precedent for the government to recognize the important role of religion in the lives of Americans.

Facebook/University of South Dakota Facebook/University of South Dakota University of South Dakota campus

Isn’t more diversity a good thing?

Concerns that left-leaning universities are stifling free speech led to the implementation this week of a South Dakota law promoting intellectual diversity on college campuses.

Liberals have long outnumbered conservatives among higher education faculty—a trend that has accelerated in the last 15 years. South Dakota’s new intellectual diversity law, sponsored by Republican lawmakers and signed into law by Republican Gov. Kristi Noem in March, requires public universities and community colleges to encourage free expression of ideas from across the political spectrum. The law bars universities from viewpoint-based discrimination against students and student organizations when allocating funds or permitting use of facilities. It also prohibits schools from overriding requirements that student leaders adhere to a student organization’s mission or beliefs.

At a June 26 meeting of the South Dakota Board of Regents billed as an “Intellectual Diversity Public Conversation,” the board, which oversees the state’s six public universities, received oral testimony and written comments on how best to follow the law. Many argued for adoption of the Campus Intellectual Diversity Act, a slate of initiatives proposed by the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center to foster intellectual diversity in teaching, hiring, and funding. The American Civil Liberties Union was less enthused, raising concerns about the law having a chilling effect on the speech of faculty and students, overmonitoring, and stigmatization of marginalized groups.

A letter from legislators who sponsored the new law argued for dismantling campus diversity offices “used to promote social justice causes associated with the political left such as safe zone training, the biannual drag show, and social justice training.” Legislators also advocated reformed hiring practices for faculty to ensure a broad range of ideological viewpoints.

One regent, John Bastian, questioned whether universities would lose accreditation from national groups if they gutted diversity offices, The Washington Times reported. Board President Kevin Schieffer, chafing at the new requirements, told state Rep. Sue Peterson, a Republican and a sponsor of the bill, “You’re the ones who set the law, and we’re supposed to follow it, and we’re trying to do it.”

While some states such as North Carolina have adopted laws addressing restrictive campus free speech zones, South Dakota is the first to promote campus intellectual diversity with a law.

Will it succeed? Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, thinks so. “I predict the diversification of expression will have a tangible effect within two years of its creation,” he told the board of regents. “As students who are quick to take offense are exposed to alternative opinions, their illiberal reactions will diminish.” And academics, Bauerlein said, “will breathe a long sigh of relief.” —Steve West

Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. Follow Rachel on Twitter @Rachel_Lynn_A.

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  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Fri, 07/12/2019 06:27 am

    Finally, a college is bold enough to assert that intellectual diversity is more desirable than some, state-defined, superficial diversity - which in reality is no real diversity at all. Centralized definitions of diversity are no more than excuses for grabs for power by groups that are NOT diversified intellectually at all. Furthermore, they lead to unnecessary costs and fly in the face of hundreds (thousands) of years of western tradition which brought about enlightenment in learning and culture.