After heated debate, Salem VA Medical Center allows Christmas tree after all

Christmas-Holiday-Tree-Ligh

UPDATE: A letter from the Salem VA Medical Center to all employees stating Christmas trees will not be allowed in public areas this holiday season ignites a debate. But, after a heated meeting Friday afternoon — management is going to deck the halls and light the tree after all.

Christmas trees have always been a part of Christmas at the Salem VA Medical Center.

For veteran Vicki Jackson, the tree symbolizes overcoming a hard time in her life.

“It brought me over a big hump, because Christmas is hard for me, it’s real hard for something that happened years ago,” said Jackson. “And, to see that tree gone it’s not Christmas.”

It’s not just Jackson; it’s a message that provoked Salem VAMC employees, veterans and others in the community.

And, after a closed meeting between management and up to 150 staff members; now, a tree will stand tall this holiday season at the Salem VAMC.

“It was very tense in there with the director and amongst the employees,” said Jckson. “I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I went anyhow.”

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.

The decision comes after a letter from the Salem VAMC to employees which read, “trees have been deemed to promote the Christian religion and will not be permitted in any public areas this year.”

“I don’t look at the tree as the birth of Christ, I don’t,” said Jackson. “I look at is as a tree being decorated with ornaments.”

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

Surprising perhaps in light of the fact that today — even the White House is bringing in a tree for the holidays.

Regardless, Jackson like others are happy to have their tree back.

“It’s like going home and just to see that tree in the lobby is a god sent to me,” said Jackson.

Some veterans said a simple tree adds sparkle and cheer to a place some consider a second home.

Official Statement from Salem VAMC Public Affairs Officer, Brian Sipp:

“In an effort to find an appropriate balance between compliance with Federal regulations which govern holiday displays in Federal facilities and the desire of our employees and Veterans to be able to decorate for the holidays, namely by placing a Christmas tree in the public lobby, the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) Director, Dr. Miguel LaPuz, invited all Salem VAMC employees to a lunchtime discussion group Friday to hear their opinions and views on how this balance could be achieved.

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).

VA Directive 0022, titled “Religious Symbols in Holiday Displays in VA Facilities”, clearly states that “Religious symbols may be included in a holiday display in a public area of a VA facility if the display does not favor one religion over another, and conveys a primarily secular message.  By placing diverse holiday symbols together in the public places of its facilities, VA gives no preference to one holiday above another.  Prominently displaying a sign or banner containing a secular message such as ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Seasons Greetings’ assists in achieving [that] primarily secular message.

This compromise allows for the Salem VAMC to be in full compliance with Federal mandates that prohibit U.S. Government facilities, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, from “favoring one religion over another” while providing the diversity and flexibility for employees and Veterans to celebrate the holidays according to their individual faith structure.

It should be noted that government funds are not appropriate for the purchase of holiday decorations. Salem VAMC will continue to rely on donations for any future displays.”

Original:

After meeting with employees Friday afternoon, the Salem VA Medical Center said it would allow Christmas trees this holiday season.

SALEM (WSLS 10) – Christmas trees will not be allowed at the Salem VA Medical Center this holiday season in public areas.

“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,” reads an email sent to employees. “Employees are permitted to engage in private religious expression in their personal work areas that are not regularly open to the public. Religious expression will be permitted as long as it does not interfere with carrying out of official duties and responsibilities.”

An employee sent WSLS 10 a copy of the email sent to employees
An employee sent WSLS 10 a copy of the email sent to employees

The letter explains “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.”

Brian Sipp, a Salem VA spokesman says after the initial message was sent out they received a lot of backlash and emails and now they are trying to find a balance between celebrating the holidays and federal law.

“This is still very new and nothing is defined and definite yet,” said Sipp.

There is an employee meeting today.

Several employees and veterans have called WSLS 10 with their concerns.

The email reads:

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.

Employees are permitted to engage in private religious expression in their personal work areas that are not regularly open to the public. Religious expression will be permitted as long as it does not interfere with carrying out of official duties and responsibilities. Items must be displayed in a manner such that the viewing public would reasonably understand the religious expression to be that of the employee acting in their own personal capacity and not of the government itself. If an employee’s supervisor has previously granted them permission to listen to music in their personal work area, they should be reminded that music travels and should be secular (non-religious) and appropriate to the work environment.

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