The Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix has improvements such as better imaging equipment and a new parking structure. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com

Dental assistant says Bible distribution in Phoenix VA medical center violated separation of church and state.

A Department of Veterans Affairs employee says he was humiliated and led away by VA police last week after he questioned unlawful religious proselytizers who were handing out Bibles at the federal hospital in central Phoenix.

Jesse Gonzales, a dental assistant at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center, says he was on a break Oct. 20, walking down a corridor, when three men at a table offered him a free Bible.

Gonzales, an Air Force veteran, says he politely refused and proceeded into the canteen to purchase a snack. However, when he was solicited again on the return trip, Gonzales says he asked whether the group was authorized to promote religion on federal property.

As Gonzales tells it, the youngest solicitor reacted angrily, using the “F” word and claiming to have VA authorization as well as a legal right to pass out scriptures.

Gonzales, who is affiliated with a national group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, says a crowd gathered as the argument erupted into shouted expletives on both sides.

‘Like some sort of criminal’

Two VA police officers showed up, Gonzales says, escorted him away and insisted he leave while the religious handouts continued. “These guys weren’t even supposed to be there,” Gonzales says. “And here they were yelling at me? I believe in the Constitution. … But then the police hauled me away.”

A hospital spokesman said the Bible distributors represented Native American Marriage Enhancement, a Pentecostal ministry. The group’s website says it is operated by John and Doris Knoles in affiliation with Dream City Church, formerly Phoenix First Assembly. Knoles did not immediately respond to telephone and email messages.

Gonzales says he tried to lodge a complaint internally, then contacted Mikey Weinstein,founder and president of the Religious Freedom group. Weinstein’s bio says he is a former White House lawyer and author of a book, “With God on Our Side,” about efforts to combat unauthorized evangelizing in the armed forces.

Weinstein says he was stunned by Gonzales’ experience, and contacted the hospital’s then-acting director, Shawn Bransky, who agreed the incident was not handled appropriately.

Gonzales says Bransky apologized, noted that the Bible group was unauthorized and promised to issue an explanatory email to VA employees.

Gonzales says he was thrilled at the positive response — until he saw the message Bransky circulated Wednesday. It notes that the Bible distributors were denied a solicitation permit by the Phoenix VA Employees Association and “did not act in good faith.” It also offered regrets from the association to anyone “inadvertently offended.”

But Gonzales says the message amounted to a “slap in the face” for him and other upset veterans because it did not address his embarrassment at being treated “like some sort of criminal.”

Religious solicitations at VA hospital

Paul Coupaud, a VA spokesman for the hospital, said the government agency cannot endorse vendors or solicitors. Because those rules do not apply to the private organizations, he explained, the employee group schedules and approve events in the medical center that might benefit veterans. Those who obtain permission must display placards indicating their presence does not imply VA endorsement.

Coupaud said Bransky chose to address Gonzales’ complaint personally while publicly apologizing for the controversy and letting employees know the vendors ignored a permit denial.

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Weinstein said the problem goes deeper because other religious organizations also solicit inside the Phoenix VA hospital, including at least one Christian university. “This does not appear to be an isolated incident,” he said. “You can’t engage the machinery of the state — the awesome power of federal government — to push your faith.”

Coupaud said a Christian university distributes non-religious educational program materials, like other public and private academic institutions.

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