A VA hospital in Austin, Texas, is facing criticism from GOP members after it removed a cross-shaped display honoring veterans from its lobby. Central Texas Veterans Health Care System (CTVHCS) removed the cross after receiving a letter from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) demanding its removal. MRFF founder, Michael Weinstein, shared that he had been contacted by non-Christian and Christian patients at the clinic, asking for his help in getting the cross removed. He shared that according to VA policy, “Religious symbols may be included in a passive display, including a holiday display, in public areas of VA facilities…” “This cross would not even be allowed as a permanent display in a VA facility chapel, let alone a lobby seating area. VA medical facility chapels are required to be ‘religiously neutral’ at all times when there is not an actual service taking place for a particular faith group, as is clearly stated in VHA Directive 1111,” wrote Weinstein on his website. In his letter to the hospital, Weinstein called the cross a symbol of “Christian triumphalism.” “This nonsecular display of Christian triumphalism and supremacy also visits a nontrivial amount of hurtful exclusion, marginalization, prejudice, hatred and bigotry upon our MRFF clients who came to us for help but concomitantly feared reprisal and retribution from you and your senior leadership if they brought the demand to remove the Christian crucifix in their own names to you.” The display was removed less than two hours after receiving the MRFF’s letter.
Soon after the cross was removed, 17 House GOP members, including Chip Roy of Texas, sent a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis R. McDonough demanding that CTVHCS return the cross. The group wrote that the removal of the cross “exhibits remarkable disregard for the First Amendment and hostility toward basic military history and the traditions of the United States. We call on you to immediately reverse this decision” and that “Attempts to sterilize the public square – in this case, a clinic that provides medical care to the veterans that sacrificed for our Republic – of all symbols of Christianity flies in the face of the very founding of our nation.” The letter also cited the display of two crosses at the Arlington National Cemetery. “If a cross can adorn the uniforms of the most heroic among us and can stand on the hallowed grounds of Arlington, it certainly should be welcomed and honored at the VA clinic in Austin,” they wrote. They concluded their letter by connecting the cross with the country’s traditions. “Out of reverence for our country’s military history and longstanding traditions — out of respect for the veterans who have borne the battle for this Republic, its principles, and the freedom it guards — we request that you immediately return the cross to its original display.” As of this writing, there has been no response to the GOP letter.