- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2019

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.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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