Jan 7, 2014 / 00:08 am
A Veterans' Affairs hospital in Georgia was wrong to bar Christmas carolers from singing religious songs, a religious liberty legal group has said.
"By banning these Christmas carols, the VA is trampling the very religious freedoms our veterans have sacrificed so much to defend. Contrary to what hospital officials are claiming, they are disrespecting--not respecting – constitutionally protected religious freedoms," Jeremy Tedesco, senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said Dec. 30.
A group of high school students visiting the federally-run Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga. on Dec. 20 were told not to sing religious songs.
They were given a list of 12 Christmas songs the hospital's pastoral service "deemed appropriate for celebration within the hearing range of all veterans," the Athens Banner-Herald reports.
Hospital spokesman Brian Rothwell announced the ban the Monday before Christmas, saying military veterans "represent people of all faiths." He said VA policy is "welcoming but respectful of all faiths and the protection of each veteran's right to religious freedom and protection from unwelcomed religious material, to their religious beliefs."
He said the hospital regrets "any inconvenience or misunderstanding."
Alleluia Community School principal Dan Funsch told the Athens-Banner Herald that his students were welcomed in 2011 and 2012.
"This is not a religious proselytizing, evangelistic issue," he said, noting that the songs are broadcast on radio stations and retail outlets.
Tedesco said that while veterans have faced dangerous threats, but "children singing Christmas carols is not among them."
The Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter to the hospital Dec. 30 saying that federal courts have determined that allowing religious Christmas carols to be sung "fully complies with the First Amendment."
It urged the hospital to rescind the policy.
Fusch, the principal, said Christmas and Christmas carols are intended "to celebrate and honor the birth of Jesus, and if that goal is taken from us, it is an issue we do not want to be a part of."
"We do not think it is a good idea to systemically weed out religious Christmas songs from being sung in certain places."
Other VA hospitals have adopted restrictive policies around Christmas activities. The VA hospital in Dallas said that homemade Christmas cards from elementary students at Grace Academy in Prosper, Texas could not be delivered to veterans because they violated policy. Some children had planned to hand deliver some cards, Fox News commentator Todd Starnes reports.
A VA official cited the Veterans Health Administration handbook, saying a chaplaincy services-led team must review donated cards to determine "if they are appropriate (non-religious) to freely distribute to patients." He said the policy was "in order to be respectful of our veterans' religious beliefs."
The cards were instead sent to Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio and to a private veterans' facility in Louisiana.