obama bans confederate flag

Claim: President Obama banned Christmas trees and the phrase “Merry Christmas” from Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities.

MIXTURE

WHAT’S TRUE: Salem VA Medical Center sent an e-mail to employees reiterating an extant VA policy regarding the display of religious symbols in the workplace, later permitting Christmas displays alongside displays of other faiths.

WHAT’S FALSE: The policy (originally issued in 2002) was new; that President Obama or his administration issued the guidelines.

Example: [Collected via e-mail and Twitter, November 2015]

Saw on Facebook a post claiming that the President has banned
Christmas trees at veteran centers.  I don’t believe it is true, can you
confirm.

_______________________________________________________________________

Is this for real?

President Barack Obama’s Department of Veterans Affairs has banned employees at its facility in Salem, Virginia, from saying “Merry Christmas” to veterans.

Origins: On or around 20 November 2015, two concurrent rumors about Christmas bans at VA facilities began circulating on social media. One held that President Obama (or an agency acting on his behalf) banned government workers from saying “Merry Christmas” to veterans, the other that the President or his administration prohibited Christmas trees from VA buildings.

On 20 November 2015, the web site Breitbart published an article titled “Obama’s VA Facility Bans ‘Merry Christmas,'” claiming:

President Barack Obama’s Department of Veterans Affairs has banned employees at its facility in Salem, Virginia, from saying “Merry Christmas” to veterans.

On 21 November 2015, the blog of Allen West followed up with a post titled “Unbelievable: Obama’s VA issues BAN on Christmas trees…this happens IMMEDIATELY”:

Sadly, we’ve come to expect attempts at “sanitizing” the Christmas holiday to strip it of Christian connotations that might offend the perpetually-offended, just as we’ve come to expect President Obama’s lack of respect both for our Constitution and the men and women who’ve valiantly served to protect it. But when the Obama administration combined these three fouls into one giant hat trick, it didn’t go over so well with veterans who wish to mark one of the biggest Christian holidays of the year.

West’s blog cited Breitbart‘s original claim as the source for their article; Breitbart in turn cited a 20 November 2015 WSLS article titled “After heated debate, Salem VA Medical Center allows Christmas tree after all.” That article originally reported that the Salem VA Medical Center in Salem, Virginia sent the following directive in an email to employees regarding religious neutrality in the workplace:

At this time of year, it is appropriate to be reminded of the various regulations for holiday displays in federal facilities.

When the public (Veterans and beneficiaries) accesses the Federal workplace, their reasonable impression should be that the government is not sponsoring or endorsing on religion over another.

The Salem VAMC Executive Leadership Team wishes to extend our wishes for a happy holiday season in a manner that is welcoming to all. To that end, public areas may only be decorated in a manner that is celebratory of the winter season. Displays must not promote any religion. Please note that 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.

Crucially, that directive came from the Salem VA Medical Center (and not President Obama or his administration). Moreover, it simply reiterated a long-standing military-wide policy of not endorsing any particular religion.

After the issue became a nationally notable battle in the War on Christmas, the Salem VA Medical Center amended the policy to allow Christmas trees alongside other symbols:

In a statement the Salem VAMC public affairs officer said, “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 symbols commemorating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Management explained their reasoning: a federal workplace should not give the impression that the government is sponsoring or endorsing one religion over another.

WSLS referenced VA Directive 0022 (titled “RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS IN HOLIDAY DISPLAYS IN VA FACILITIES”) as the impetus for the dispute. While its most recent date of issue was given as 26 February 2009, the directive was originally issued on 23 September 2002 (more than six years before President Obama was elected President). The most up to date version read:

This Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Directive revises authority and policy for including religious symbols in holiday displays at VA facilities. This ensures that holiday displays in public areas of VA facilities do not favor one religious faith group over another and do not appear to be an official endorsement of religion. This will also ensure that displays are made with knowledge of and sensitivity to our nation’s diverse religious traditions.

Neither President Obama nor his administration issued any direct orders to any VA medical centers about the phrase “Merry Christmas” or Christmas trees. A VA medical center in Salem independently reinforced guidelines pertaining to religious display and endorsement in VA facilities, and later revised their directive to allow for Christmas trees. The VA guidance upon which the e-mail was based was originally issued in 2002, several years before President Obama possessed the federal authority to properly cancel Christmas.

Last updated: 21 November 2015

Originally published: 21 November 2015