A lawsuit filed in Washington, DC in November 2013 alleging religious harassment by a leader of a San Diego-based Department of Veterans Affairs chaplain training program against two chaplain participants endorsed by CBAmerica was settled out of court through Federal Mediation in December 2015.
The original suit alleged that the leader of a San Diego-based Department of Veterans Affairs chaplain training program severely mocked two Christian participants because of their faith. One of the chaplains, an active duty Navy chaplain with combat experience, eventually left the program voluntarily because of the mistreatment; the program leader eventually ejected the other participant who was a retired Army chaplain and combat veteran.
Military-Veterans Advocacy filed the original suit against Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki (later Robert A. McDonald) on behalf of the Conservative Baptist Association of America (CBAmerica), the organization that acted as the endorsing agency for the two Chaplains.
"No American choosing to serve in [and with] the Armed Forces should be openly ridiculed for his Christian Faith, and that is most obviously true for chaplains participating in a chaplain training program." said Commander J.B. Wells, U.S. Navy (Ret.), executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy, "Not only was the treatment these men received inappropriate, it was also a violation of federal law and the religious freedom guarantees of the First Amendment."
The original Lawsuit Conservative Baptist Association of America v. Shinseki, filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, explained that all administrative options had been exhausted and that the harassment that the chaplains endured violated the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Administrative Procedures Act, and the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
Both parties agreed to enter a formal federal mediation process to resolve the issues presented. After an initial face-to-face meeting between CBAmerica representatives, Rev. Mark Hoeffner, President, Rev. Andrew Meverden, Director of Chaplaincy, and attorney John Wells; and Department of Veterans Affairs' counterparts in DC, the process unfolded electronically. Through a series of exchanges, the VA National Chaplain Center (NCC) proposed a series of actions and clarifications designed to prevent future recurrence of such situations; to which CBAmerica agreed. A summary of these actions and clarifications include:
- Standardization of endorser orientation and frequent communication from and by the VA NCC
- Annual orientation training for new endorsers through the Endorser's Conference for VA Chaplaincy (ECVAC) anticipating first delivery in 2016
- Exploration of a core curriculum for VA Pastoral Education (CPE) programs with Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), Inc., to develop national minimum course standards.
- Development and delivery by NCC of an annual training (webinar or teleconference) for VA CPE Supervisors on the topic of professional ethics, EEO, diversity, and conflict resolution with ACPE CPE programs. The first session to be held in 2016.
- The NCC further reiterated the complaint process for all VA Chaplains or CPE students, working from the lowest level up. It further clarified that should this complaint process be followed to no avail, and the endorser is contacted, the endorser's point of contact in the process is the Director of the National Chaplain Center. Upon receiving such a communication, the NCC staff will initate contact with the VHA facility regarding the expressed concerns and will seek to facilitate an open dialogue among the facility leadership, the endorser, the complaining individual, and the NCC staff to resolve the issues.
Upon review of the content and tone of the Veterans Administration National Chaplain Center's response, CBAmerica Director of Chaplaincy, Andy Meverden writes: "Although it was a challenge to enter into a legal process already under way. I quickly recognized the serious nature of the situation experienced by our two chaplains, and the need to advocate, not only on their behalf, but also the seven other chaplains endorsed by CBAmerica currently serving in the VA System, as well as all members of the VA Chaplain Corps. I appreciate the sincerity of Keith Ethridge, Acting Director of the NCC, in confronting this issue seeking systemic change to prevent its recurrence."
Meverden further states: "My research shows that the VA health system has grown from 54 hospitals in 1930 to include 171 medical centers today. The VA website publishes: over 1,700 sites of care, serving 8.76 million Veterans each year... making it the largest integrated healthcare system in the US." Setting standards of care, and the protocols and procedures to meet them is foundational. Whether it's in the medical , behavioral, or spiritual realm, the constitutional rights of both patient and provider must be respected, It is my hope and prayer that this agreement will contribute toward that end."
Rev. Mark Hoeffner, President of CBAmerica: " On behalf of CBAmerica and our Chaplains it has been both my privilege and responsibility to participate in the resolution of this lawsuit through mediation. I am pleased with the stated outcomes that have been agreed upon in the mediation process and will continue to work with our endorser and chaplains to provide highly trained chaplains who perform their duties with moral excellence. We look forward to building a healthy professional relationship with the Veteran's Health Administration as we go forward with mutual respect."