First Liberty Institute sends follow-up demand letter urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to curb unlawful discrimination against veterans who practice Native American faith—or face a lawsuit . . .
This week, First Liberty Institute sent a follow-up demand letter to Leigh Bradley, Office of General Counsel at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The letter seeks restoration of the religious liberty rights of veterans who are members of an official Native American Sweat Lodge established in 2008 as part of religious services offered at the Robert J. Dole Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas. The letter states that due to the medical center’s actions, the Sweat Lodge, which holds religious services central to Native American faith, has been unable to meet three out of the past five months.
The follow-up letter, sent after the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to respond to First Liberty Institute’s initial inquiry regarding the matter, requests a response by noon on July 22, 2015 and warns that if the Department of Veterans Affairs fails to do so, First Liberty Institute will file a lawsuit to protect the veterans’ religious liberty.
“The egregiousness of the VA Medical Center’s unlawful discrimination against and hostility toward our clients and others of the Native American faith has only increased,” says First Liberty Institute Deputy Chief Counsel Hiram Sasser in the letter. “The VA Medical Center’s total disregard for the religious liberty of those who adhere to Native American faith traditions forces us to prepare for litigation.”
A TIMELINE OF HOSTILITY: CURTAILING RELIGIOUS EXERCISE OF VETERANS OF NATIVE AMERICAN FAITH
First Liberty Institute’s letters expose the medical center’s discrimination against veterans who practice Native American faith—discrimination that has included medical center employees referring to the Sweat Lodge’s Spiritual Leader as “heathen,” “Injun,” and “chief.” A timeline of the hostility is outlined below:
- 2008: The VA medical center sets up a permanent Sweat Lodge after a trial period the previous year met with success. A substance abuse counselor at the medical center—one of the few people remaining who are qualified to lead a Sweat Lodge—was appointed to be the Sweat Lodge’s sole Spiritual Leader. The Sweat Lodge holds religious services that include a religious meal once a month and has served and benefited many veterans in the area.
- MARCH 2015: An interim VA supervisor at the medical center who was recently placed over a division that oversaw the Sweat Lodge told the Spiritual Leader the Sweat Lodge could not conduct its services anymore. She gave no explanation for the decision. A policy review was initiated that caused the Sweat Lodge to be unable to meet in March.
- APRIL 2015: After members of the Sweat Lodge complained, the medical center agreed to reopen the Sweat Lodge. However, the same interim supervisor then told the Spiritual Leader that the Sweat Lodge could no longer hold its religious meals in the place it had done so for many years. The supervisor also told the Spiritual Leader 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. In addition, despite the fact that other employees were allowed to display objects honoring other religions, she ordered the removal of Native American religious items from the spiritual leader’s office.
- MAY 2015: In a meeting that included several medical center officials, including the director of the medical center, the Spiritual Leader was told that the religious meals and storage of the Sweat Lodge’s supplies in his office could continue.
- JUNE 2015: However, the day the spiritual leader returned from a yearly ceremony important to the Native American faith, the medical center suspended the Spiritual Leader 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 are aware of the Native American faith’s requirement that the Spiritual Leader be present in order for the Sweat Lodge to conduct religious services. As a result of the suspension, the Sweat Lodge was not able to hold religious services in June.First Liberty Institute sent an initial letter bringing the matter to the attention of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and seeking action to protect the veterans’ religious liberty. In addition, Congressman Tim Huelskamp of Kansas sent a letter of inquiry to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in support of the veterans’ religious liberty rights.
- JULY 2015: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs failed to respond to First Liberty Institute’s letter, and the medical center once again prevented the Sweat Lodge from conducting its service. The medical center instead offered to replace the Sweat Lodge’s religious service with an activity that originally was to include watching the movie Trail of Tears (an “offensive attempt to pacify a clearly disregarded religious minority,” Sasser later called it in First Liberty Institute’s follow-up demand letter). On July 14, First Liberty Institute sent its follow-up demand letter to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs promising a lawsuit if the Department of Veterans Affairs did not act to resolve the matter.
PROTECTING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOR VETERANS OF ALL FAITHS
First Liberty Institute is dedicated to protecting the rights of veterans of all faiths to exercise the freedom they fought to defend. The largest legal organization dedicated solely to defending religious liberty in America, First Liberty Institute will continue working to ensure that the Sweat Lodge is allowed to operate and defending the veterans’ right to freely exercise their faith.
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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 www.Firstliberty.org.