A non-profit legal group wants to make sure the Salem Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center makes good on its promise to allow religious expression over the holidays so employees don’t have to fear reprisals.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) sent a letter to Salem VA medical center Tuesday asking management to reassure employees they will not be punished for putting up Christmas decorations or saying “Merry Christmas” outside of personal workstations.
Salem reversed its initial ban on Christmas trees after taking heat from numerous employees. According to spokesman Brian Sipp, the center will now display a Christmas tree in a public area. That display will also feature a Jewish Menorah and a decorative mat celebrating Kwanzaa in order to avoid the impression the federal government endorses one religion over another. (RELATED: Salem VA Backs Down On Prohibition, Allows Christmas Trees After All)
But for ADF, the allowance of a Christmas tree doesn’t go far enough to assuage fears of religious persecution, and the statement from management leaves much to be desired in terms of which activities are either allowed or prohibited. This leads to a chilling effect on employees.
“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,” ADF senior counsel Erik Stanley says in a statement. “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.”
The initial email sent to employees banning the public display of Christmas trees also says music played in personal workstations must be exclusively secular. The center has not clarified whether this prohibition on music is still in play, making the ADF letter timely.
“By enforcing a strict and intolerant regime, the Salem VA is muzzling the very religious diversity it purportedly promotes,” says 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 one case, Tucker v. State of California Department of Education, the court ruled 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.”
This is precisely what Salem VA management attempted in its initial email to employees.
Salem VA did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Caller News Foundation.
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