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Published On: Mon, Nov 30th, 2015

ADF warns VA of religious discrimination over Christmas expression in work areas

Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Salem, Va., medical center after it issued a Christmas memo to its employees that explained they are only “permitted to engage in private religious expression in their personal work areas that are not regularly open to the public” in an effort to extend “a happy holiday season in a manner that is welcoming to all.” The wording of the memo leaves open the possibility that employees could be punished for Christmas decorations or “merry Christmas” greetings to veterans except in personal workstations that are out of public view.

Reportedly in the wake of complaints from employees, the VA rescinded the memo’s ban on Christmas trees, saying that they are allowed but only if accompanied by other symbols of the season; however, the VA has not clarified its position on religious expression.

Photo Brandon Jones

Photo Brandon Jones

“It’s ridiculous that people have to think twice about whether it’s okay to celebrate Christmas as Christmas rather than some watered-down winter holiday,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley. “The courts have never ruled that government employees must hide any hint of religious expression. To the contrary, the courts have clearly stated that any such requirement demonstrates an unconstitutional hostility toward religion. If government bureaucrats are afraid of causing offense, they should realize that rules like this offend both the First Amendment and the overwhelming majority of Americans, 95 percent of whom celebrate Christmas.”

“It is a fundamental principle of constitutional law that government officials may not censor speech simply because the speech is religious or contains a religious perspective…,” the ADF letter explains. “In Tucker v. State of California Department of Education, for example, the federal court struck down as unconstitutional a policy that prohibited government employees from displaying any religious artifacts, tracts, or materials outside their offices or cubicles, and also prohibited any oral or written religious advocacy in the workplace.”

The court concluded that “banning the posting of all religious materials and information in all areas of an office building except in employees’ private cubicles…is not a reasonable means of achieving the state’s legitimate ends.”

“In short, the email directive you sent infringes upon your employees’ First Amendment rights…,” the letter states. “Please respond to this letter in writing with assurances that the Salem VA will respect the rights of its employees and veterans it services.”

“By enforcing a strict and intolerant regime, the Salem VA is muzzling the very religious diversity it purportedly promotes,” said ADF Legal Counsel and Director of Military Affairs Daniel Briggs, a former Air Force JAG officer. “If the VA truly seeks diversity, it must be genuine in its pursuit and recognize the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of public employees to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs without coercion from the government.”

In its ruling last year in the ADF case Town of Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court explained, “Offense…does not equate to coercion. Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views.”

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