Officials at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem, Va., sent an email to employees in November banning Christmas trees in public areas, only to quickly reverse their decision after a backlash from veterans and employees.
The email, obtained by local NBC affiliate WSLS, asserted that when the public—including veterans—accessed the building, they should be assured the government was not endorsing a particular religion. It went on to make clear public areas could be decorated in a “winter season” theme only.
“Trees (regardless of the types of ornaments used) have been deemed to promote the Christian religion and will not be permitted in any public areas this year,” the email stated.
It also noted employees could use religious decorations in their “personal work areas,” but any music playing out loud had to be secular and non-religious, as “music travels.”
Administrators also warned visitors hoping to entertain vets with Christmas carols about the new rules. John Sines, pastor of Rock Pick Baptist Church, told Fox News an official informed him he could only sing “holiday songs.”
“They told me I could sing ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ but I couldn’t sing about Christ,” Sines said. “I couldn’t sing about anything that had the word Christmas in it.”
But the administration received an immediate backlash from veterans and staff, according to The Washington Times.
Veteran Vicki Jackson told NBC the Christmas season is a difficult time of year for many veterans and Christmas decorations help bring hope and encouragement.
“I don’t look at the tree as the birth of Christ, I don’t,” Jackson told NBC. “I look at it as a tree being decorated with ornaments.”
After management held a private lunch meeting on Friday with about 150 employees, administrators agreed to allow Christmas trees in public areas—as long as the spaces included Kwanzaa and Hanukkah decorations, as well. All decorations are paid for with donations and not government funds, NBC reported.
The VA Medical Center posted a “Happy Holidays” memo on its webpage today. The opening statement read like an invitation to all religious groups: “May your organization or church group visit VA hospitals over the holiday season to sing Christmas carols for our veterans? Sure. What about the Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths? You are welcome. May you donate cards and gifts if they have a religious message? Of course.”
The memo said the Department of Veterans Affairs desires to protect the First Amendment freedoms of an “increasingly diverse” nation, including its citizens’ expanding religious affiliations and belief systems.
Brian Sipp, the medical center’s public affairs officer, released an official statement on the Christmas tree decision, explaining the VA’s goal was to be careful to not promote one holiday over another.
“This compromise allows for the Salem VAMC to be in full compliance with federal mandates that prohibit U.S. government facilities, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, from ‘favoring one religion over another’ while providing the diversity and flexibility for employees and veterans to celebrate the holidays according to their individual faith structure,” Sipp said.
— by Sarah Padbury