MADISON, Wis. — The Department of Veterans Affairs' increasing use of religion in treating ailing veterans does not violate the separation of church and state, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge John Shabaz dismissed a lawsuit by the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and defended the agency's practices in his Jan. 8 decision, saying religion can help patients heal and is legal when done on a voluntary basis.
The foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics which has challenged the Bush administration's mix of government and religion, said it was the first time a judge had upheld the constitutionality of the VA's use of religion in treating millions of veterans. The ruling averts a trial that was scheduled to begin later this month.
The group's president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said yesterday that it would appeal Shabaz's ruling to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She and other group members filed suit last year against top officials of the VA claiming they were using tax dollars to advance religion.
"I think the public will be startled to learn that if you're a VA patient and you want a referral to the eye doctor, you have to have a spiritual assessment in order to do that," Gaylor said.
The lawsuit challenged the agency's practice of giving most patients spiritual assessments that ask a series of questions about faith such as how often they attend church and how important religion is in their lives. Agency officials say the assessments help them determine patients' needs.
The suit also targeted VA drug- and alcohol-treatment programs that incorporate religion, the integration of its chaplain program into patient care and the expansion of chaplain services for outpatient veterans instead of just those at VA hospitals.
The agency, which treated 5.3 million people at its facilities in 2005, acknowledged it believes spirituality should be integrated into care but said it allows patients to decide whether that involves religion.
Shabaz agreed in a 32-page ruling in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Nicholson, saying none of the agency's practices violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which bars the government from promoting religion.
Shabaz said the VA's programs do integrate religion and spirituality but they are legal because they serve valid secular purposes such as giving patients spirituality services and are voluntary.
"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 remain the private choice of the veteran," he wrote. "Accordingly, there is no evidence of governmental indoctrination of religion."
Jean Lin, a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer who represented the VA officials, declined to comment, and DOJ spokesman Charles Miller said the opinion speaks for itself.
Gaylor said the decision was misguided on several fronts. She said it was misleading to call the spiritual assessments voluntary since they are given to every patient and the ruling mistakenly accepts the notion that religion "is a panacea for illness."
Her group has had success in overturning Shabaz in the past. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments next month on a case that challenges President Bush's faith-based initiatives. Shabaz initially said the group had no standing to sue but the appeals court reinstated the suit. The administration has appealed to the high court.