U.S. Navy veteran David Miller said that when he checked into the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City, he didn’t realize he would get a hard sell for Christian fundamentalism along with treatment for his kidney stones.
Miller, 46, an Orthodox Jew, said he was repeatedly proselytized by hospital chaplains and staff in attempts to convert him to Christianity during three hospitalizations over the past two years.
He said he went hungry each time because the hospital wouldn’t serve him kosher food, and the staff refused to contact his rabbi, who could have brought him something to eat.
Miller, an Iowa City resident and former petty officer third class who spent four years in the Navy, outlined his complaints at a news conference in Des Moines on Thursday. The event was sponsored by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an activist group based in Albuquerque, N.M.
He described the Iowa City facility as an institution permeated by government sponsorship of fundamentalist Christianity and unconstitutional discrimination against Jews.
Miller has been classified as 100 percent disabled because of chronic painful problems with kidney stones, and he has repeatedly visited the center as a patient and outpatient.
The hospital’s chaplains and staff, Miller said, have the attitude that you either accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior and you are saved, or you are damned.
He said he has tried to resolve the problems with the hospital’s administration without success.
“I am not trying to get rid of the chaplain corps,” Miller said. “When I was in the Navy, I was a religious program specialist. I worked with Christian chaplains, and I believe in the value of the chaplain corps, but not using it to bludgeon people, for heaven’s sake.”
Kirt Sickels, a spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City, said the facility’s administrators take Miller’s allegations seriously.
“We will look into these concerns that Mr. Miller is talking about. The Iowa City VA respects the rights to religious beliefs for every patient. If they have a request for any kind of religious needs, we try to accommodate whatever those needs or beliefs might be.”
Kosher meals are available to Jewish VA patients in Iowa City, Sickels said.
Michael Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and an attorney who worked in the White House under President Reagan, said Thursday that he is preparing to sue the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in federal court over Miller’s treatment. He said he suspects other veterans have been treated similarly and that Miller’s case could become a class-action lawsuit.
“He has been in the situation where clearly his faith – which happens to be the Jewish faith – is the wrong faith for the [VA],” said Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate.
Miller, a divorced father with four sons, said his first two visits by chaplains involved attempts to convert him to Christianity. These visits occurred while he was suffering acute chest pains and was wired to a heart monitor, he said.
When he complained, he said a hospital official told him he simply needed to object more strenuously to terminate such proselytizing. Miller said he considered such a request to be ridiculous, considering his medical problems.
Over the past two years, Miller said, he has been asked over and over by the Iowa City VA medical center’s staff within its offices, clinics and wards, “You mean you don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah?” and “Is it just Orthodox Jews who deny Jesus?” He said one staffer told him, “I don’t understand; how can you not believe in Jesus; he’s the Messiah of the Jews, too, you know.”
Sickels said it is standard practice within hospitals nationwide to conduct a spiritual assessment of each patient upon admission. Ministry and pastoral counseling are available, but “it is always the patient’s right to decline any of these services.”
David Brown, an Assemblies of God minister who is a chaplain at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center, declined to comment when reached by a reporter Thursday afternoon.
Miller said the Christian influence at the Iowa City medical facility is so pervasive that he couldn’t even escape it in a patient waiting room. He described how an elderly couple played a keyboard and sang hymns, such as “The Old Rugged Cross,” much to the delight of Christian veterans waiting for doctor’s appointments.
“It was driving me nuts, and they were enjoying it. I was not going to go in front of all of these people and say, ‘Hey, will you stop?’ and then have all the other veterans turn on me. They were setting me up to be further ostracized. It was just ridiculous.”
Reporter William Petroski can be reached at (515) 284-8547 or firstname.lastname@example.org