Lawmakers respond to Salem VA Medical Center's Christmas tree ban

By Jenna Zibton - Anchor
Copyright by WSLS - All rights reserved

SALEM (WSLS 10) - The Salem VA Medical Center's Christmas tree ban caught the eye of lawmakers in Washington.

WSLS 10 first reported the letter sent to employees saying Christmas trees wouldn't be allowed in public areas this year because trees were considered religious symbols.  After a heated meeting with employees the medical center reversed the decision saying "After a lengthy discussion, it was determined that Christmas trees could be displayed in public areas so long as they were accompanied by the respective symbols of the two other faiths that celebrate holidays during this holiday season – namely the Jewish Menorah, or Hanukkah Lamp, and the Kwanzaa Mkeka (decorative mat) or Kinara (candleholder)."

The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller wrote a letter to the VA Secretary Robert McDonald saying: "Though the medical center has since repealed this decision, the incident demonstrates the persisting confusion regarding Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) stance on religious symbols and celebrations among its employees."

Chairman Miller asks for a "detailed plan describing the steps VA is taking to improve employee training so that no further confusion or controversy will persist" by December 2.

This isn't the first letter Miller has written to the VA about confusion.

In January 2014, Miller wrote to then Secretary Eric Shinseki about the need for change after he said there were reports of the following:

-VA officials in Iowa City, Iowa told American Legion representatives they could not hand out gifts to veterans fi the wrapping paper included the words "Merry Christmas"

-The Augusta, GA VA Medical Center banned carolers from singing Christmas songs contacting religious references in public patient areas, but approved caroling from a list of "government approved" secular songs

-Dallas VA Medical Center leaders prevented the delivery of handwritten Christmas cards from local school children to veterans because the cards contained phrases such as "Merry Christmas" and "God Bless You"

-VA personnel at the Montgomery, AL VA Medical Center prevented gift bags from being delivered to veterans because they included the words "Merry Christmas"

"There is nothing disrespectful about celebration Christmas. Furthermore, it is not up to the department to decide whether or not it's appropriate for certain government entities, such as VA, to allow the recognition of Christmas," wrote Miller in 2014.

Secretary Eric Shinseki responded saying "We will continue to work to ensure that VA staff members are familiar with and appropriately trained on the proper procedures for musical performances and accepting gifts and cards for our Veteran patients."     

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