- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2023

The Department of Veterans Affairs quickly removed a metal cross incorporating emblems of the military branches from public display in its Austin, Texas, VA Clinic roughly 90 minutes after a watchdog group raised a complaint.

William Negron, spokesman for the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, told The Washington Times the cross “has been taken down” following a demand letter from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

The group said the display violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, agency regulations and Defense Department rules on the use of the emblems.

The cross had been affixed to a column in the clinic lobby. It bore the emblems of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard, along with the image of a bugler and the words, “Remember Our Veterans.” No other religious symbols were displayed along with the cross.

Michael L. Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, in a letter to Michael Kiefer, director of the regional VA unit, called the cross a “nonsecular display of Christian triumphalism and supremacy.”

Mr. Weinstein wrote that the cross “visits a nontrivial amount of hurtful exclusion, marginalization, prejudice, hatred and bigotry” upon VA clients who find the display objectable.

A Jan. 31, 2020, Veterans Affairs department directive said religious symbols could be used “in a passive display” in public areas of VA facilities, but “should respect and tolerate differing views and should not elevate one belief system over others.”

Mr. Weinstein’s letter said the cross’ stand-alone displayed in the facility’s lobby was “to the utter exclusion of all other faith and non-faith traditions,” and thus violated the Constitutional mandate that the state should not “establish” a religion, as well as the 2020 agency directive.

Speaking to The Times, the MRFF executive said the Austin clinic’s cross has “been up for at least four or five years” and caused distress to 19 patients who’d contacted the group.

“It’s excellent that the VA took this down within 90 minutes of the demand,” Mr. Weinstein said in a telephone interview. “While we are gratified that the VA did the right thing … it is still unsettling to know that the command climate there … is such that patients are afraid to bring the concerns themselves without coming to an outside civil rights organization.”

Mr. Weinstein said the 19 veterans “feared just the most horrible type of revenge and retribution” if they had complained directly.

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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