(CNSNews.com) – A Veterans Administration hospital in Salem, Virginia has backed down from forbidding disabled veterans to have a Christmas tree, but is still banning “religious” Christmas carols and other Christmas decorations, earning it the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty's 2015 Ebenezer Award.
"Three cheers for taking the Christmas spirit from those who have fought for our freedoms - including (cough) religious freedom," the Becket Fund said in a press release.
“The Salem VAMC [Veterans Affairs Medical Center] Executive Leadership Team wishes to extend our wishes for a happy holiday season in a manner that is welcoming to all. To that end, public areas may only be decorated in a manner that is celebratory of the winter season,” the hospital instructed staff in a November email outlining what celebrations were allowed during the upcoming Christmas season.
“When the public (veterans and beneficiaries) accesses the federal workplace, their reasonable impression should be that the government is not sponsoring or endorsing one religion over another,” the email stated, adding that Christmas trees were taboo.
“Please note that trees (regardless of the types of ornaments used) have been deemed to promote the Christian religion and will not be permitted in any public areas this year.”
The leadership team, which includes VAMC director Miguel LaPuz, associate director Rebecca Stackhouse, chief of staff Anne Hutchins, and associate director for patient care services Teresa England, cited VA Directive 0022, Religious Symbols in Holiday Displays in VA Facilities.
However, employees pushed back on the Christmas tree ban and managed to get one approved for a public area of the facility as long as decorations for other religious were also present.
“After a lengthy discussion, it was determined that Christmas trees could be displayed in public areas so long as they were accompanied by the respective symbols of the two other faiths that celebrate holidays during this holiday season – namely the Jewish Menorah, or Hanukkah Lamp, and the Kwanzaa Mkeka (decorative mat) or Kinara (candleholder),” the hospital said in a statement.
“This compromise allows for the Salem VAMC to be in full compliance with Federal mandates that prohibit US government facilities, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, from ‘favoring one religion over another’ while providing the diversity and flexibility for employees and Veterans to celebrate the holidays according to their individual faith structure.”
The Christmas tree ban was “more about the budget,” Brian Sipp, VAMC’s public affairs officer, told CNSNews.com, also contradicting claims that the hospital censored Christmas carols and decorations with a religious theme.
"There is no censorship of Christmas decorations ... or First Amendment speech," he said. “We were never trying to ruin anybody’s Christmas.”
Asked why the Christmas tree had to be accompanied by a menorah and mkeka Sipp said: “We can’t possibly represent all religions, but these are the three that we celebrate this time of year. It’s a very emotional time for everyone.”
Sipp also told CNSNews.com that reports of the hospital banning employees from saying “Merry Christmas” were false. VAMC hosts caroling and none of the songs is censored, he said.
“They can sing whatever they want,” he said, agreeing that the law is ambiguous on this issue.
However, Pastor John Sines, Jr. of Rock Pike Baptist Church in Forest, Virginia, told Fox News that he was told he would not be allowed to sing any songs with the word “Christmas” in it. “They told me I could sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer but I couldn’t sing about Christ,” he said.
VAMC officials specified that although religious holiday music could be played in employees’ personal work spaces, “music travels and should be secular."
“All holiday cards meant to be distributed to veterans MUST be distributed through the office of Voluntary Service,” the email added. “There are no exceptions to this rule. Voluntary Service in conjunction with Chaplain Service will appropriately distribute holiday cards with religious content.”
Sipp said that the reason for this directive was to help the hospital avoid awkward situations such as accidentally giving a “Merry Christmas” card to a Jewish veteran.
In November, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) wrote a letter to Veterans Affairs’ Secretary Robert McDonald, telling him that he wrote to his predecessor regarding several other Christmas-related controversies at VA hospitals last year.
Referring to the Christmas tree ban at VAMC, Miller said, “Though the medical center has since repealed this decision, the incident demonstrates the persisting confusion regarding Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) stance on religious symbols and celebrations among its employees.
“We faced similar confusion last year,” Miller pointed out, recalling “multiple encroachments on VA employee and patient rights to celebrate Christmas.
“There is nothing disrespectful about celebrating Christmas. Furthermore, it is not up to the department to decide whether or not it’s appropriate for certain government entities, such as VA, to allow the recognition of Christmas,” Miller said.