MADISON, Wis. - The Department of Veterans Affairs' increasing use of religion in treating ailing veterans does not violate the separation of church and state, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge John Shabaz dismissed a lawsuit by the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and defended the agency's practices in his decision Monday, saying religion can help patients heal and is legal when done on a voluntary basis.
The foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics which has challenged the Bush administration's mix of government and religion, said it was the first time a judge upheld the constitutionality of the VA's use of religion in treating millions of veterans. The ruling averts a trial that was scheduled to begin later this month.
The group's president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said Tuesday it would appeal the ruling.
"I think the public will be startled to learn that if you're a VA patient and you want a referral to the eye doctor, you have to have a spiritual assessment in order to do that," Gaylor said.
The lawsuit challenged the agency's practice of giving most patients spiritual assessments that ask questions about faith, such as how often they attend church and how important religion is in their lives. Agency officials say the assessments help them determine patients' needs.
The suit also targeted VA drug and alcohol treatment programs that incorporate religion, the integration of its chaplain program into patient care and the expansion of chaplain services for outpatient veterans instead of just those at VA hospitals.
The veterans' agency, which treated 5.3 million people at its facilities in 2005, acknowledged it believes spirituality should be integrated into care but said it allows patients to decide whether that involves religion.
Shabaz said the VA's programs do integrate religion and spirituality but they are legal because they are voluntary and serve valid secular purposes such as giving patients spirituality services.
"The choice to receive spiritual or pastoral care, the choice to complete a spiritual assessment, and the choice to participate in a religious or spiritually based treatment program always remain the private choice of the veteran," he wrote. "Accordingly, there is no evidence of governmental indoctrination of religion."
Jean Lin, a U.S.Department of Justice lawyer who represented the veterans' officials, declined comment. DOJ spokesman Charles Miller said the opinion speaks for itself.