A Crusade and a Holy War in the VA


May 8, 2007 – An Orthodox Jew and former petty officer in the US Navy said his civil rights were violated after a chaplain and officials at a Veterans Administration hospital in Iowa City, Iowa, tried to convert him to Christianity while he was under the VA’s care.

David Miller, 46, who is on full disability, said in an interview that his physician at the VA hospital told him last week to go home and pray or meditate in place of using medication to relieve the pain he was experiencing from kidney stones. When Miller complained to VA staffers that his physician suggested he turn to God to treat his medical condition and refused to prescribe pain medication, VA officials provided him with a new doctor.

“My doctor said that since I am a religious Jew, I should try prayer or meditation to deal with the pain,” Miller said. “I was shocked that a medical doctor would make such a suggestion. I immediately raised hell and was assigned a new physician.”

Kurt Sickels, a spokesman for the Iowa City VA Medical Center, said that he could not comment on Miller’s specific allegations against the hospital, but he said the VA does not try to convert patients to Christianity.

“We respect all religious preferences and beliefs, and we make every effort to accommodate what those beliefs may be,” Sickels said.

If that’s the case [that officials tried to convert Miller], Sickels said, the hospital staff is not adhering to its policy.

Miller dresses in the traditional attire required for Orthodox Jews. He started receiving treatment for a heart condition and kidney stones at the Iowa City VA hospital after moving back to his hometown two years ago. Since then, he said, a chaplain on duty at the hospital has tried on numerous occasions to convert him to Christianity.

“The first two visits by the Protestant (Assembly of God) chaplain were all about trying to convert me, trying to convince me that I needed Jesus, that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews too,” Miller said. “My medical records clearly indicate that I am Jewish. However, with each admission, I have informed the nursing staff both verbally and in writing that I require kosher food and that I do not wish to be visited by anyone from the chaplain’s office. I requested they contact my rabbi, and I provided them with his name and telephone number. Despite these instructions, during all three of my hospitalizations, I have been denied kosher food and have had to endure my entire hospitalizations without eating.”

The chaplain, Miller said, provided him with a copy of a scripture from the New Testament, despite Miller’s protests that he be left alone.

After filing complaints with the hospital’s patient advocacy board, Miller and his rabbi met last week with hospital officials and the chaplain who tried to convert him. He said the hospital has agreed to provide him with kosher meals in the future, suggesting that he be more assertive in resisting the next time the VA chaplain attempts to push Christianity on him. That, Miller said, was the last straw.

Late last month, Miller contacted Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, about the issue. Harkin wrote a letter to Barry Sharp, the director of the Veterans Administration hospital in Iowa City, to inquire about Miller’s allegations against the VA.

“A Jewish constituent has complained that each time he is admitted to [Veterans Administration Medical Center] Iowa City, a Catholic chaplain is sent to his room to counsel ‘pray and offer communion,'” Harkin wrote. “The patient has repeatedly advised staff that he does not want a chaplain to visit. He is also concerned that he is not offered and cannot get kosher meals. Additionally, he mentioned that when new patients arrive and are given orientation, the session is conducted in a church/chapel. I would like to know the national policy regarding these issues. If this is an isolated incident or miscommunication, that guidance should be given to the … management and staff.”

In an email response to Harkin, a copy of which was obtained by Truthout, the hospital said when a patient is admitted to the VA hospital he or she is queried about religious preference at registration.

“There is a standard list which, includes Jewish as one of the religious preference options,” Sharp said in his response to Harkin, without specifically addressing Miller’s claims. “The admissions clerk should be checking with the patients to ensure that their preference or no preference is accurately indicated on the admission registration forms.”

Sharp said that in accordance with Department of Veterans Affairs guidelines, “pastoral counseling to patients” is not limited to a specific faith.

“The spiritual aspect of health and wellness is recognized by all caregivers and addressed in all patient care settings,” Sharp wrote.

In addition to contacting Harkin, Miller enlisted the help of the nonprofit Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whose founder, Mikey Weinstein, a former White House counsel who defended the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra probe, has been waging a one-man war against the Department of Defense for what he says is a blatant disregard of the Constitution. He recently published a book on the issue: “With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military.” Weinstein is also an Air Force veteran and a graduate of the Air Force Academy. Three generations of his family have attended US military academies.

Since he launched his watchdog organization 18 months ago, Weinstein said he has been contacted by more than 4,000 active duty and retired soldiers, many of whom served or serve in Iraq, who told Weinstein that they were pressured by their commanding officers to convert to Christianity.

Weinstein said Miller’s case is just the latest example of how the military has been hijacked by a right-wing fundamentalist Christian agenda, in what appears to be a clear-cut violation of the constitutional separation between church and state, which has rippled across all four branches of the military under President Bush.

“The rise of evangelical Christianity inside the military went on steroids after 9/11 under this administration and this White House,” Weinstein said in an interview. “This administration has turned the entire Department of Defense into a faith-based initiative.”

On Thursday, Weinstein said he intends to push back. He plans on holding a news conference in Des Moines to discuss Miller’s case and draw attention to the broader issue of “religious fanaticism” plaguing the military. Weinstein added that his organization would likely file a lawsuit against the Veterans Administration hospital for violating Miller’s civil rights.

“We will rapidly explore all legal options available, and I fully intend to file a lawsuit against the VA for massive constitutional violations against Mr. Miller,” Weinstein said. “We will look at the law and lay down a withering field of fire at the feet of the VA to stop this tidal wave of unconstitutional destruction.”

Weinstein, who is Jewish, said that VA chaplains, as federal government employees, are not supposed to “proselytize or rescue souls.”

VA chaplains “are not supposed to view the VA hospitals as their own personal mission field, or the veterans as low-hanging fruit,” Weinstein said. “The VA is not the Southern Baptist Convention. In this country, we have a separation between church and state. The religious right views the separation of church and state as a myth. There is no difference between the VA hospital and a US Air Force fighter squadron. They’re both part of the federal government. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Orthodox Jew, a Buddhist or an atheist.”

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