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Federal judge backs VA's use of religion in treating veterans

By The Associated Press

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.

VA can't be sued by taxpayers for using religion in vets' care
7th Circuit cites Supreme Court ruling in Hein in deciding that Freedom From Religion Foundation has no legal standing to bring case. 08.07.08


7th Circuit reinstates challenge to faith-based initiative

Panel says Freedom From Religion Foundation does have standing to sue over church-state constitutional issue. 01.17.06

Religious-hiring proposal stripped from Head Start bill
House approves funding for education program, rejecting GOP attempt to allow participating religious groups to take faith into account in hiring. 05.05.07

Orthodox Jew accuses VA hospital of pushing Christianity
David Miller, who has had three operations in Iowa facility in last two years, says he went hungry because hospital wouldn't serve him kosher food. 05.15.07

Ind. state agency cuts chaplain program targeted by lawsuit
Social services spokesman says legal challenge had no bearing on decision to eliminate program, but attorney for atheists' group disagrees. 08.17.07

Hein ruling has 'quick and dramatic' effect on church-state cases
Some legal observers startled by fallout in cases claiming government violations of establishment clause. 11.09.07

'Faith-based' case tests establishment-clause lawsuit standing
By Tony Mauro Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation doesn't address meaning of religion clause, but could affect whether taxpayers can sue over government efforts to accommodate religion. 12.04.06

Christian Embassy at the Pentagon: Too close for comfort?
By Charles C. Haynes There's nothing wrong with religious groups volunteering to provide spiritual support for military personnel — unless they are being sponsored or favored by officials. 08.19.07

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