7th Circuit: Freedom from Religion Foundation lacks standing to challenge “pastoral care” provided by the VA’s Chaplain Service

A unanimous 7th Circuit panel has issued a ruling in Freedom from Religion Foundation v. Nicholson, No. 07-1292 (7th Cir. Aug. 5, 2008):

Before RIPPLE, ROVNER and TINDER, Circuit Judges.

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge. Plaintiffs, including Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. and three individual federal taxpayers (collectively, “Freedom From Religion”), commenced this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the defendants, five high-level employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs (collectively, the “VA”), were violating the Establishment Clause. The complaint sought both declaratory and injunctive relief. The district court granted the VA’s motion for summary judgment. Freedom From Religion filed a timely appeal.

For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we vacate the judgment of the district court; the case is remanded to the district court with instructions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction based on lack of taxpayer standing . . .

Freedom From Religion does not challenge the overall existence of the VA’s Chaplain Service; rather, it objects to four specific aspects of the chaplaincy: (1) the clinical focus of the Chaplain Service; (2) the spiritual assessments that the VA gives to its patients; (3) the provision of pastoral care to VA outpatients; and (4) the integration of spirituality/religion into VA treatment programs.

According to Freedom From Religion, the historical focus of the Chaplain Service was sacramental in nature and involved caring for the seriously ill and dying patients, leading worship and administering the sacraments. In the past ten years, however, the Chaplain Service has shifted to clinical, direct patient care—termed “pastoral care.” The VA believes that the spiritual dimension of health must be integrated into all aspects of patient care, research and healthcare education. The Service has been reorganized to reflect this change, and current VA policy requires that the chaplaincy maintain a clinical focus. Under this reorganization, VA chaplains must be educated professionally in Clinical Pastoral Education (“CPE”) and endorsed ecclesiastically by a particular faith tradition.