Lawsuit Questions VA’s “Voluntary” Spiritual Assessment

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A federal judge has ruled that the Madison, Wisconsin Department of Veterans’ Affairs does not violate the separation of church and state by its use of religion in treatment. Last week, U.S District Judge John Shabaz dismissed a suit brought by the Madison chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, saying that the use of religion is helpful in the healing process and does not violate the Constitution when it is voluntary.

The problem, according to the Foundation, is that religion is hardly presented as “voluntary” at the Madison VA Hospital. Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation president, said: “I think the public will be startled to learn that if you’re a VA patient and you want a referral to an eye doctor, you have to have a spiritual assessment.”

These assessments, which VA officials say help them determine patients’ needs, include questions about church attendance and how important religion is in patients’ lives. Another concern was the incorporation of religion into the VA drug and alcohol treatment program (something that occurs whenever Twelve Step programs are used, despite ongoing protests that a “higher power” has nothing to do with God), and the integration of chaplain services into patient care.

The Madison Freedom From Religion Foundation is appealing Judge Shabaz’s ruling.

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In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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