The Augusta hospital announced Monday that it's taking a stricter stance on its policy banning carolers from singing religious Christmas music in public patient areas.
Last week, the facility prevented a group of high school students from Augusta's Alleluia Community School from singing to its veterans a number of traditional holiday tunes that honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, such as Silent Night and O Come All Ye Faithful.
"Military service veterans, male and female, represent people of all faiths," hospital spokesman Brian Rothwell said in a statement. "It is out of respect for every faith that The Veterans Administration gives clear guidance on what 'spiritual care' is to be given and who is to give it."
Alleluia Community School Principal Dan Funsch said he was sad to hear that the Veterans Affairs hospital's "spiritual care" grants holiday exemption only to Frosty, Rudolph and the secular characters that make up the 12 Days of Christmas.
"This is not a religious proselytizing, evangelistic issue," said Funsch, arguing that Christmas songs are broadcast during the holidays on area radio stations and in local retail outlets. "The song Joy to the World is as much a part of the holiday spirit as the Christmas tree."
Funsch said the peculiar part of the policy is its recent enforcement.
Rothwell could not provide the date the VA's ban on religious Christmas songs took effect, but Funsch said that in 2011 and 2012 his students were welcomed without hesitation at the Augusta VA's Uptown campus as part of a yearly caroling the school does on its last day of classes before the holiday break.
This year, however, when they arranged to sing at the medical center downtown, an official from the hospital's volunteer services division told a high school senior that he and his classmates could perform only secular songs because of policy.
When Alleluia administrators tried to confirm the rule Thursday, the VA did not return their phone calls, Funsch said.
Instead, Funsch said, when he and his students arrived at the hospital Friday, they were handed a list of 12 Christmas songs the hospital's Pastoral Service had "deemed appropriate for celebration within the hearing range of all Veterans."
Rothwell said the students - like all groups who come to the VA - were offered the option of performing in a private chapel or day room where they could sing specific songs that might make veterans of other faiths uncomfortable.
"We regret any inconvenience or misunderstanding that this (policy) creates," Rothwell said. "VA policy is welcoming but respectful of all faiths and the protection of each veteran's right to religious freedom and protection from unwelcomed religious material, to their individual beliefs."
Funsch said that because of time constraints and unfamiliarity with some of the songs provided by the VA, his high school students decided - on principle - to forgo this year's caroling in hopes of finding a suitable location to sing their songs next year.
The principal said his students were disappointed with the decision but glad to see their administrators stood up for what they felt was right.
Funsch added that his middle school students were allowed to sing at Georgia Regents Medical Center with no problems.
"From our point of view, the purpose of Christmas and its carols is to celebrate and honor the birth of Jesus, and if that goal is taken from us, it is an issue we do not want to be a part of," he said. "We do not think it is a good idea to systemically weed out religious Christmas songs from being sung in certain places."
Information from: The Augusta Chronicle , http://www.augustachronicle.com
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