Sec­re­tary stands up for ail­ing veter­ans’ right to re­li­gion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY CHRISTO­PHER VONDRACEK

Robert Wilkie, the soft-spo­ken and man­age­rial-minded sec­re­tary of Veter­ans Af­fairs, went public in a big way this sum­mer when he said he re­fused to be “bul­lied” by a fed­eral law­suit claim­ing a Bi­ble on dis­play at a New Hamp­shire VA hospi­tal vi­o­lated the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state.

In an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Times in his of­fice at the Depart­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs, Mr. Wilkie said dis­play­ing a Bi­ble in a VA hospi­tal is a mat­ter of lib­erty and that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion erred in try­ing to elim­i­nate re­li­gious sym­bols from the veter­ans health care sys­tem.

“The last ad­min­is­tra­tion … had a very ahistoric ap­proach [to veter­ans],” Mr. Wilkie said. “They did not know the makeup of the force. They did not know the his­tory of this coun­try when it came to re­li­gious foun­da­tions, the re­li­gious sup­port for those in uni­form.”

He said he grew up in a military fam­ily in North Carolina and be­lieves the vast ma­jor­ity of veter­ans “iden­tify them­selves re­li­giously.”

Mean­while, a fed­eral judge in New Hamp­shire will soon de­cide whether a Bi­ble in a bolted-down dis­play case in the lobby of a Manch­ester hospi­tal funded by tax­payer dol­lars rep­re­sents con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tected speech.

A group of veter­ans, with sup­port from the Military Re­li­gious Freedom Foun­da­tion, filed a law­suit in May to re­move the Bi­ble.

“The place­ment of the Chris­tian Bi­ble, here, is in vi­o­la­tion of that fun­da­men­tal pro­scrip­tion, that the gov­ern­ment may not es­tab­lish any re­li­gion,” the law­suit states.

Mr. Wilkie, not­ing the depart­ment’s murky di­rec­tives on re­li­gious mem­o­ra­bilia, said he em­pathized with VA ad­min­is­tra­tors who ini­tially re­moved the Bi­ble dec­o­rat­ing the POW/MIA me­mo­rial ta­ble be­fore re­plac­ing the book. The Bi­ble was do­nated by a World War II vet­eran who had sur­vived a Ger­man pris­oner of war camp.

“I think the lead­er­ship of the VA hospi­tal was still not sure how to act given the di­rec­tives of the last ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Mr. Wilkie said.

The VA sec­re­tary ac­cused the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of ban­ning the Army Chap­lain Corps — which cur­rently num­bers 800, in­clud­ing stu­dent chap­lains — from dis­tribut­ing re­li­gious ma­te­ri­als, in­clud­ing Bi­bles, To­rahs and Ko­rans, to veter­ans, even those who re­quest them.

The pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion, he said, even for­bade revel­ers from singing Christ­mas car­ols in VA hos­pi­tals.

“The un­der­ly­ing no­tion here is that there is a group of peo­ple who want to elim­i­nate all in­di­cia of re­li­gion and spir­i­tu­al­ity from the public square,” Mr. Wilkie said. “And they’ve used the military as their hobby horse, and that, to me, is a great disservice to the vast ma­jor­ity of those who served.”

Michael L. We­in­stein, a lawyer and founder of the Military Re­li­gious Freedom Foun­da­tion, said his or­ga­ni­za­tion is look­ing forward to its day in court.

“I find it very ironic that VA Sec­re­tary Wilkie be­lieves that up­hold­ing the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state re­gard­ing re­li­gious dis­plays in VA fa­cil­i­ties rep­re­sents the in­ter­est of only a nar­row num­ber of peo­ple,” Mr. We­in­stein said via email. “The Veter­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion is what is called a ‘state ac­tor’ and there­fore must com­pletely com­ply with the No Es­tab­lish­ment Clause of the First Amend­ment of the Bill of Rights of our U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion.”

The VA has a num­ber of poli­cies on re­li­gious ex­pres­sion. A 2016 in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port found no ev­i­dence that those poli­cies contribute­d to re­li­gious in­sen­si­tiv­ity, and Sec­re­tary David J. Shulkin at the time wrote that poli­cies “gen­er­ally aligned” with ap­pli­ca­ble fed­eral laws.

How­ever, the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port noted that the VA had not ad­e­quately up­dated a va­ri­ety of poli­cies re­lated to re­li­gious ex­pres­sion, in­clud­ing di­rec­tive 0022 on re­li­gious sym­bols. In one in­stance, the in­spec­tor gen­eral found that a VA guid­ance on main­te­nance at na­tional ceme­ter­ies hadn’t been up­dated in 22 years.

Ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple press re­ports at the time, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion adopted rules meant to cur­tail re­ported in­stances of pros­e­ly­tiz­ing at military bases and hos­pi­tals. Mr. Wilkie’s staff said those stric­tures will stay in place.

“I also want to make clear that a lot of peo­ple will try to say that [the VA’s memo on Bi­bles and public dis­play] con­sti­tutes pros­e­ly­ti­za­tion,” said John Mash­burn, a se­nior adviser to Mr. Wilkie. “[But] the VA kept in places its pro­hi­bi­tion against pros­e­ly­ti­za­tion.”

Mr. Wilkie had served as a le­gal aide to var­i­ous Repub­li­can mem­bers of Congress, in­clud­ing Jesse Helms and Trent Lott, be­fore his March 2018 pro­mo­tion from an un­der­sec­re­tary post in the Depart­ment of De­fense to head of the Depart­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs. He was named act­ing VA sec­re­tary be­fore the nom­i­na­tion of pres­i­den­tial physi­cian Ronny Jack­son was scut­tled by re­ports that Dr. Jack­son cre­ated an abu­sive work en­vi­ron­ment and drank on the job.

The sec­re­tary said the spir­i­tu­al­ity of veter­ans is inseparabl­e from the task of heal­ing, es­pe­cially dur­ing a cri­sis of de­pres­sion, ad­dic­tion and suicide.

“What I con­sider to be the bizarre ar­gu­ment that men and women who’ve been sent to the most dan­ger­ous cor­ners of the Earth, the most mis­er­able places on the planet, would walk by a Bi­ble on a ta­ble ded­i­cated to miss­ing men and go to pieces by the sight of that Bi­ble when so many of them have been un­der fire in Iraq, Afghanista­n, So­ma­lia, Liberia, [just] goes counter to all logic,” Mr. Wilkie said.

The VA sec­re­tary noted that the Army Chap­lain Reg­i­men­tal Corps crest reads “Pro Deo et Pa­tria.” He said any de­ci­sion to re­move the Bi­ble in New Hamp­shire would di­min­ish that motto.

“For veter­ans, we’re not go­ing to de­prive them of that [spir­i­tual] com­fort dur­ing what is of­ten a very, very try­ing time,” he said.

“The last ad­min­is­tra­tion … had a very ahistoric ap­proach [to veter­ans]. They did not know the makeup of the force. They did not know the his­tory of this coun­try when it came to re­li­gious foun­da­tions, the re­li­gious sup­port for those in uni­form.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Veter­ans Af­fairs Sec­re­tary Robert Wilkie says the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion erred in try­ing to elim­i­nate re­li­gious sym­bols from the veter­ans health care sys­tem and that dis­play­ing a Bi­ble at a VA hospi­tal in New Hamp­shire is a mat­ter of lib­erty.

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