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VA secretary changes rules to allow displaying of religious symbols

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie delivers remarks during a conference with federal, state and local veterans leaders in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building November 15, 2018 in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie issued new policies Wednesday allowing religious symbols to be publicly displayed in VA facilities nationwide.

“Effective July 3, these changes will help ensure that patrons within VA have access to religious literature and symbols at chapels as requested and protect representations of faith in publicly accessible displays at facilities throughout the department,” the VA said in a statement.

Wilkie said the new directive is intended to help protect “religious liberty” as part of a broader effort to make sure “veterans and their families feel welcome at the VA.”

“We want to make sure that all of our Veterans and their families feel welcome at VA, no matter their religious beliefs. Protecting religious liberty is a key part of how we accomplish that goal,” he said. “These important changes will bring simplicity and clarity to our policies governing religious and spiritual symbols, helping ensure we are consistently complying with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at thousands of facilities across the department.”

According to the VA, the new policies will:

  • Allow the inclusion in appropriate circumstances of religious content in publicly accessible displays at VA facilities.
  • Allow patients and their guests to request and be provided religious literature, symbols and sacred texts during visits to VA chapels and during their treatment at VA.
  • Allow VA to accept donations of religious literature, cards and symbols at its facilities and distribute them to VA patrons under appropriate circumstances or to a patron who requests them.

In a press release, the VA also mentioned a recent Supreme Court decision that allowed a large cross to remain on public land at an intersection in Maryland as a tribute to those who died during World War I.

“The US Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the important role religion plays in the lives of many Americans and its consistency with Constitutional principles,” the release said.

The American Legion built the so-called “Peace Cross” in 1925 to honor 49 local men who died serving in World War I. Mothers of the fallen soldiers designed the memorial to mirror the crosses that mark graves in American cemeteries overseas.

The cross was deeded to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1961, after a highway was built around it. It stood without conflict until 2012, when nearby residents sued, arguing that they are offended by the government’s endorsement of religion and the fact that the cross is maintained with taxpayer money.

The Trump administration supported the American Legion and urged the justices to take a historical approach to the case.

Ultimately, the justices determined that while the cross is a symbol of Christianity, it can also have secular meaning in certain contexts, in this case, a WWI memorial.

“The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent. For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark,” the court’s opinion states.

But while the court ruled in favor of the cross, it did not reach agreement on how to more broadly address the issue of religious symbols on public property.

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