Fact Check

Obama Orders VA Chapels to Cover Christian Symbols

Rumor: President Obama ordered a VA chapel in Michigan to hide Christian symbols behind a curtain.

Published Jan. 30, 2015


Claim:   President Obama ordered a VA chapel in Michigan to hide Christian symbols behind a curtain.


FALSE: The Obama administration has ordered all VA chapels to remove or cover Christian symbols.
TRUE: A VA chapel in Michigan hid Christian symbols behind a curtain in order to comply with religious neutrality regulations established under previous administrations.

Examples:   [Collected via e-mail, January 2015]

An email just came in to me regarding Obama ordering the VA Chapels to cover up all items having to do with Christianity and covering up the stained glass windows because they represent things Christian. Was wondering if this is just a rumor or if it is indeed happening. I don't want to send anything out unless I know for sure it's true.

Has the Veterans Administration (VA) ordered that religious symbols and statues no longer be allowed at facility chapels?

Curtain around alter at Madison, Wi VA alter and Christian artifacts at VA chapel because of Obama order. Is this correct that President Obama or someone else is ordering the cover-up of all things Christian in the VA hospital chapels?


Origins:   On 30 May 2014, the Iron Mountain, Michigan Daily News published a letter to the editor titled "Stop This Insanity" that referenced a recent change to a chapel at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center. According to that letter, the VA (Veterans Administration) chapel had hidden all its Christian symbols behind a curtain in response to an order from the Obama administration to "cover everything in all the VA Chapels across the country":


I went to the VA Hospital in Iron Mountain today on business. While there I stopped at the Chapel and found pinky-purple curtains with mesh at the top, covering the altar. (You know the type. They use them between sick patients in the hospital).

I stopped in my tracks, shocked at what I saw. I peeked behind the curtain, and found what used to be the welcoming part of the chapel, the Cross, a picture of Jesus, and other Christian icons familiar to the majority of Americans.

I found Chaplain Bob Mueller, to ask what the meaning was of this change. This is what he told me.

"A couple of months ago, an order came down from Washington DC to cover all things associated with Christianity in the VA. Their solution is to cover everything in all the VA Chapels across the country."

Chaplain Bob went on to say, "A few weeks ago an official from the Madison VA came down here to tell me to 'stop talking about Jesus, and to stop reading Scripture out loud.'"

Chaplain Bob also said that the rest of the Obama plan is to send more curtains to cover the rest of the stained glass windows, because there are Christian symbols on the stained glass.

These photos reveal future plans by the White House.

To use the same phrase President Obama so 'eloquently' used concerning other matters at the VA, 'I'm mad as hell ..."

As Americans, we need to stand together to stop this insanity.

However, the issue had nothing to do with regulations imposed by the Obama administration: The VA chapel in Iron Mountain had been found to be in non-compliance with Spiritual and Pastoral Procedures that were established by the Department of Veterans Affairs and most recently revised in July 2008, well before the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Those procedures require chapels at VA facilities be maintained as "religiously neutral" whenever they are not being used by chaplains for services associated with a particular faith:

The chapel, or a room set aside exclusively for use as a chapel, must be reserved for patients' religious and spiritual activities, such as: worship, prayer, meditation, and quiet contemplation. Such chapels are appointed and maintained as places for meditation and worship, and when VA Chaplains are not providing or facilitating a religious service for a particular faith group, the chapel must be maintained as religiously neutral, reflecting no particular faith tradition.

At the conclusion of a religious worship service, the chaplain, or designee, must prepare the chapel for the succeeding service, if one follows immediately. Otherwise, the chapel is to be arranged for private use by patients, and all sectarian symbols must be removed or covered from view.

The construction of a chapel for the exclusive use of a particular religious or spiritual group is prohibited. No permanent (non-moveable) religious symbols are to be incorporated in the construction or renovation of chapels.

The intent of the procedure was to ensure VA chapels should present as welcoming and inclusive to all patients, families, and other visitors — that, for example, Jewish visitors should be not required to utilize a chapel filled with Christian symbolism and icons, any more than Christian worshipers should have to utilize a chapel displaying symbols and icons associated with Judaism, Islam, or any other faith.

The Spiritual and Pastoral Procedures provided an exemption for VA chapels that were constructed prior to 1945 and incorporated "permanent religious symbols" into their designs, provided those facilities maintain all-faith chapels as well:

The only exception to the policy on maintaining chapels as religiously neutral are the chapels at VA facilities which were built with permanent religious symbols in the walls or windows before the establishment of the Veterans Administration Chaplain Service in 1945. Only these chapels and those permanent religious symbols that pre-date the Chaplain Service are allowed to remain because of their historical, artistic, and architectural significance. In these cases, the VA Medical Center Director must also designate a room or construct an all faith chapel, which is maintained in accordance with current VHA policy.

The chapel at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center was found to be in non-compliance with the VA's religious neutrality policy due to its permanent display of statues of Jesus and Mary, an altar, a crucifix, and Christian-themed stained glass windows. Officials at the medical center opted to bring the chapel into compliance with regulations not by removing the items in question (at least at first), but by concealing them from view behind a moveable curtain:

The curtains can, of course, be pulled aside when the chapel is being used for religious services by Christian denominations, but they must be put back in place after the completion of such services.

Four days after the Daily News printed the now widely-circulated "Stop This Insanity" letter, the newspaper published a response to that letter (and other articles on the topic) from Brad Nelson, the medical center's Public Affairs Officer, which sought to clear up misunderstandings about the issue:

There has recently been some misunderstanding regarding the chapel at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center. The most recent national VA policy dating back to July 2008 states that "chapels are appointed and maintained as places for meditation and worship, and when VA Chaplains are not providing or facilitating a religious service for a particular faith group, the chapel must be maintained as religiously neutral, reflecting no particular faith tradition." This means that the Christian symbols and

statues are not hidden when the chapel is used for Catholic Mass or protestant services or by groups or individuals that identify with the Christian faith.

The federal government recognizes the wide diversity of different faith groups in existence. The VA policy on Spiritual and Pastoral Care is to "uphold the free exercise of religion by all medical, domiciliary, and nursing home patients in the health care facility. This includes providing or facilitating appropriate worship opportunities." It also requires that the chapel be available for all faiths for prayer, worship, meditation, etc. and therefore be religiously neutral when not used for services or by Christian-based groups. This allows for our patients and their families who do not identify with Christianity to use the room for prayer, meditation or reflection.

To facilitate this policy, curtains have been installed for the time being that can be opened for chapel services or when used by specific Christian faith groups or individuals for Bible study or prayer and drawn closed when the chapel is not used for these purposes. We are also checking with other VA medical centers to see how they comply with this policy while still honoring our heritage.

In a recent letter to the editor, it was also mentioned that our chaplains may not read scripture or talk about Jesus. Chaplain Mueller, who was quoted, told me that was not accurate. There are no prohibitions on chaplains reading scripture, talking about Jesus or praying in his name at chapel services, during ceremonies or when providing spiritual care to patient and families that identify with the Christian faith.

We do understand and appreciate the concern by people in our community regarding religious freedom, and we hope this provides some clarification.

That same day, the newspaper also published an editorial on the subject by staff writer Evan Reid:

Here are some public comments made under an online story about the recent controversy at the Oscar J. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain concerning Christian icons hid behind a curtain in the hospital's chapel:

"The hidden agenda here is not to offend Muslims."

"Why is my religious freedom being stifled? You don't agree with the Christian icons, don't go in the chapel."

"Why should my symbols and icons be covered up because of loudmouthed minorities? Get your own space if my God 'offends' you."

I think it's worth stating that "loudmouthed minorities" did not bring the curtain to the chapel. The curtain was installed after the National Chaplain Center alerted VA administration that it was not in compliance with a religious neutrality policy, most recently revised in July 2008.

It's also worth (re)stating that the curtains are only used when the chapel is not in use by Christians. Some versions of the story downplay this, but it's true. Any Christian who desires to use the chapel, as an individual or with a group, will be allowed to do so — with the curtain pulled back and with icons in full view.

It's true that a majority of people in the area identify as Christian, but the VA isn't a local entity. Policies like this are not meant to attack one religion, but to prevent the exclusion of any faith.

This is not part of a vast Marxist conspiracy to "take God out" of American culture. If that was really the goal, the chapel probably wouldn't be there at all.

Besides, the policy in question dates to the last months of the Bush administration. I'm doubtful that W. would have allowed a Marxist agenda to infiltrate the VA.

I understand that people are upset about this situation, but it doesn't seem to me like an assault on religious freedom. I don't see how anyone is being prevented from practicing their faith in this chapel.

And who's really "offended" here? The loudmouthed minorities, or the people that get upset at the idea of recognizing religious beliefs other than their own?

Last updated:   30 January 2015

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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