The VA hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota has a serious problem. Not with health-care—they’re one of the best in the nation—but with the US Constitution that the veterans they serve risked their lives to defend. And with the veterans whose rights they are trampling on. And the dead they are disrespecting.
A POW/MIA Missing Man display in the main lobby features a Christian Bible, despite a slew of complaints which the VA has not simply ignored, but made a mockery of, by replacing one Bible with another, thus pretending to “resolve your concerns,” in an email to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which is representing 21 VA patients who have contacted them with complaints.
As is normally the case, the majority of MRFF’s clients are Christian, while the totality includes a wide variety of faiths, as well as non-believers.
"Of the 21, 14 are Christians—so two thirds are Roman Catholic or Protestants,” MRFF founder and President Mikey Weinstein told Crooks and Liars. “The other seven are Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Native American and then atheist/agnostic."
The Buddhist member is a decorated Vietnam vet, with two purple hearts. He became a Buddhist partly as a result of that experience. “When I was over there, obviously there's a lot of telling and stuff like that, but I’d see Buddhist monks walking on the trail, sweeping it so that they wouldn't step on any life,” he told Crooks and Liars. “That really impressed me.” He spent 2 years each in Thailand and Korea, as well as Vietnam, and that prolonged exposure to practicing Buddhists convinced him of its value “just as a way of living,” he said.
But it wasn’t just his own personal faith that moved him. “I went to the VA, where I normally get my care,” he recalled. He’s “really appreciative” of the care they provide. But this time, he was in for a surprise.
“When I went in I saw the Missing Man table, which I thought was great, and then I saw there that they have a Bible, which I kind of thought was disrespectful of all of us who weren't Christians,” he said. “I personally know a couple who are listed as MIA, who were not Christian.”
He first tried to get the VA to correct it themselves, but he couldn’t even get an email address to communicate his complaint.
“I called the director's office to get an email to send an email complaint, and I was basically told by the secretary that she wouldn't give it to me, and that I should tell her my problem that she could take care of it,” he said. “But she wanted my name and everything else first.”
That’s a problem anywhere, as anonymity is essential for the complaint process to work, especially where religion is concerned, especially in a place like Sioux Falls. “It's a beautiful place, but the only trouble is, is also very insular and very Christian,” he said. “I’m fairly active in the veterans community here, and if it came out that I was doing this, my kids would be in trouble, I would be in trouble, probably drummed off of the few of the veterans things that I do…. There definitely would be some retribution.”
So he contacted MRFF, who also faced challenges getting a response.
“I served in combat in Vietnam with soldiers who are listed as MIA, and I know at least one of them was Buddhist. We served with many people of different religions or none at all. We didn’t care then, why does the VA care now?” he wrote in his initial email to MRFF.
"I started making phone calls, trying to get ahold of these people,” Weinstein said. “They have an acting director by the name of Barbara Teal, and not only would they not let me talk to her, but they wouldn’t even give any email addresses out," though he did get her email through one of his clients.
"I called Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, each time they said, 'Yeah, someone's going to get back to you.' And I waited, very nicely waited, and no one ever did,” Weinstein explained. He finally emailed Teal on Friday. That's when he got the response, claiming to have fixed everything.
“After consulting our legal counsel, we do not agree this display violates the U.S. Constitution, particularly the Establishment Clause,” Teal wrote, with no explanation for this extraordinary claim. But not to worry, she would go above and beyond:
In an effort to resolve your concerns, the Bible was removed from the enclosed historical Missing Man case on March 27, 2019 and replaced with a donated artifact belonging to a former WWII POW.
Artifact? “What kind of artifact”” you might wonder. Their Buddhist client provided the answer.
“Wow! They replaced a big Bible with a small one!” he wrote, via email, accompanying the picture to show the new display. “This totally renders all my concerns about denigrating all non-Christian service people moot!” he wrote, sarcastically.
“A Bible is still a Bible no matter the size or who carried it or where they carried it,” he continued. “I have a Buddha that I carried in Vietnam that means a lot to me. Let’s replace the Bible with it. To hell with the Christians, Jews, etc. After all, it’s an artifact !”
“How interesting that you didn’t describe the ‘artifact’ at all!?” Weinstein responded to Teal, shortly afterwards. “Let me just describe it for you then: it appears to be yet another sectarian Christian Bible.... That is manifestly preposterous!”
“This is not over…You can make that specious, fundamentalist Christian supremacy argument to me in this email exchange, but I wonder how well it will come across in another venue such as Federal court, Barbara…Our 21 MRFF clients, who are also your patients, will be disappointed and furious… You are violating their civil rights and we will not let that stand.”