MADISON, Wis. — Taxpayers cannot sue the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for incorporating religion into its health care programs for the nation's veterans, an appeals court has ruled.
A unanimous three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 5 that the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and three of its members have no legal standing to bring the case.
The group was trying to end the department's practice of asking patients about their religion in "spiritual assessments," its use of chaplains to treat patients, and drug and alcohol treatment programs that incorporate religion. The group claimed those practices violated the separation of church and state.
But the 7th Circuit ruled in Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Nicholson that federal taxpayers cannot challenge those expenditures. The 7th Circuit cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year in which the same group was not allowed to sue over President Bush's faith-based initiative.
In that case, Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, et al., the high court ruled 5-4 that the executive branch cannot be sued by taxpayers for expenses which allegedly promote religion. Cases can be brought only when the questionable expenditures are explicitly authorized in a congressional spending bill, the Supreme Court ruled.
Congress never authorized spending on the chaplain services, pastoral care and other programs challenged, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation's co-president, criticized the ruling but said an appeal to the Supreme Court was unlikely. She said the group would look for VA patients who object to their treatment to be potential plaintiffs but said such a case would still be difficult to win.
"The courts are moving to the position where government can fund religious activities and endorse religion without restraint," she said. "It's really very disturbing."
The veterans agency, which treated 5.3 million people at its facilities in 2005, says it believes spirituality should be integrated into care, but it allows patients to decide whether that involves religion.
Its spiritual assessments ask patients a series of questions about their 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.