Kansas VA Hospital Curtails Religious Exercise of Military Veterans of Native American Faith

July 10, 2015

First Liberty Institute sends demand letter to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs seeking protection of veterans’ religious liberty rights. Member of Congress also presses for answers . . .

Our nation’s veterans have served and sacrificed for freedom—including free exercise of religion as guaranteed in the First Amendment. That’s why it is crucial that someone fight for veterans when their religious freedom is denied, including when it is denied by the government agency directed to serve them.

For that reason, in late June First Liberty Institute sent a demand letter to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of military veterans who are members of an official Native American Sweat Lodge at the Robert J. Dole Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas. The Sweat Lodge serves and benefits many veterans in the area.

A Sweat Lodge and its ministers are an essential part of Native American faith, and a blatant disregard for the religious liberty of those whose worship is centered around the Sweat Lodge is not only a violation of these veterans’ religious liberty rights, but sets an ominous precedent for the religious freedom of veterans of any faith.

 First Liberty Institute’s letter brought to the attention of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs the hostile actions of an interim supervisor at the medical center that caused the Sweat Lodge to be unable to hold religious services two of the past four months—stating that those of Native American faith were the only religious group at the center to experience such harassment.

The letter sought action by the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure the protection of the veterans’ religious rights. It also informed the department of First Liberty Institute’s continuing investigation of whether the interim supervisor’s discriminatory actions toward those of Native American faith is a symptom of a “larger, systemic problem” in the medical center in Wichita and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The persistent and unlawful hostility and discrimination leveled against the Sweat Lodge is a direct violation of our clients’ fundamental rights to the free exercise of their religion,” says Hiram Sasser, Deputy Chief Counsel for First Liberty Institute in the letter. “If the VA Medical Center continues its unlawful treatment of [the Sweat Lodge’s spiritual leader] and prohibits him from conducting the religious services of the Sweat Lodge, the religious services will cease and the Sweat Lodge will die.”


Since 2008, the sweat lodge at the VA medical center in Wichita has been led by Randy Hilderbrand, a substance abuse counselor at the medical center and the sole spiritual leader of the Sweat Lodge and one of the few Native American spiritual leaders remaining who are qualified for that position. The Sweat Lodge holds religious services, which include a religious meal, once a month. In addition, in order for the Sweat Lodge to hold services, the Native American faith requires that the spiritual leader be present.

However, in March 2015, an interim VA supervisor recently placed over a division that oversaw the Sweat Lodge told Mr. Hilderbrand that the Sweat Lodge could no longer conduct services. She gave no explanation as to why, and a policy review was initiated that caused the sweat lodge to be unable to meet in March.

After members of the Sweat Lodge complained, the VA medical center agreed to reopen the lodge in April. However, the same supervisor then told Mr. Hilderbrand that the Sweat Lodge could no longer hold its religious meals in the place it had done so for many years and that he could not store a small amount of supplies needed for the Sweat Lodge—made up of disposable plates and a few towels—in his office. She also ordered the removal of Native American religious items from his office, despite the fact that other employees were allowed to display objects honoring other religions.


In a May meeting with VA medical center officials, Mr. Hilderbrand was told that the religious meals and storage of the Sweat Lodge’s supplies in his office could continue, First Liberty Institute’s letter stated.

But on June 16, 2015, the day Mr. Hilderbrand returned from attending a yearly religious ceremony central to the Native American faith, the supervisor suspended Mr. Hilderbrand and ordered him to stay away from the VA medical center for at least 14 days. He was also forbidden from contacting members of the Sweat Lodge even to inform them of his suspension—though the supervisor and the VA medical center were aware that the Sweat Lodge could not conduct services if Mr. Hilderbrand were not present. As a result of the suspension, the Sweat Lodge was not able to hold religious services in June.

First Liberty Institute’s letter stated:

“These unlawful actions constitute a substantial burden on our clients’ free exercise of religion under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act . . . for which there is no compelling interest. The least restrictive means of implementing any such asserted interest certainly is not shutting down the Sweat Lodge and retaliating against its Spiritual Leader by adverse employment actions. We believe the Supervisor is engaging in blatant religious discrimination in violation of federal law. Unless her unlawful actions are curtailed, we will assume that she is acting pursuant to an official Department of Veterans Affairs policy of systematic discrimination against and hostility toward Native American faith traditions.”


U.S. Congressman Tim Huelskamp of Kansas also sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs seeking the protection of the veterans’ religious liberty. In his letter of inquiry, he noted the “serious allegations of religious hostility” against the medical center and wrote that he hopes “this incident does not reflect a systemic problem within the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Congressman Huelskamp, who is a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, also described the medical center’s lack of responsiveness to his office’s inquiries for further information after his office was given the impression that the matter was resolved. He then stated:

“I kindly request a copy of any updated policies issued by the VA relating to this matter to ensure the religious freedom of our veterans are protected in accordance with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).” 


Our nation’s military veterans have sacrificed so that people of all faiths can freely exercise their religious beliefs—whether in a VA hospital, a workplace, a church, a public school or elsewhere across America. First Liberty Institute is confident its clients’ religious liberty rights to practice the Native American faith will be protected and restored at the Robert J. Dole Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas.


Please click here if you would like to give a donation to help defend and restore religious freedom.

Other stories:

UPDATE: Freedom From Religion Foundation Continues Attack Against Tenth Mountain Division Veterans Memorial

POST-SUPREME COURT MARRIAGE DECISION: Where Do People of Faith Go from Here?

About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit

Social Facebook Social Instagram Twitter X Icon | First Liberty Institute Social Youtube Social Linkedin

Terms of UsePrivacy PolicyState DisclosuresSitemap • © 2024 Liberty Institute® is a trademark of First Liberty Institute