By Laura Arenschield
Original article available here.
For more than five years, Archie Barringer had his dream job.
Barringer retired from the Army's chaplain corps in 1999, spent a few years working in Washington, D.C., and returned to Fayetteville in 2002 to be head chaplain of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Barringer, a Southern Baptist minister, was working with God and veterans in the town he called home.
"I loved it," he said. "I would have retired there."
Barringer did retire from the medical center, but at 57 instead of 62 -- more than four years earlier than he'd planned.
He left after administrators removed the Christian cross and Bible from the hospital's chapel, a decision that has caused debates throughout this community about religion and its place in government and society.
The cross and Bible were removed in September. Hospital administrators cited a federal regulation that requires federal chapels to be religiously neutral and open to all faiths.
Barringer, who until Wednesday had declined interview requests, said he asked to retire early because he could not agree with or support the decision to remove the Christian symbols from the chapel. He believes the symbols could have stayed if administrators had found a room for non-Christians to meditate or pray.
"I felt that it was a slap in the face to our veterans and their families and a betrayal of the trust of the people in Fayetteville and Cumberland County who have supported that chapel over the years," he said. "And I would not be a part of it."
Barringer applied for early retirement in November. His retirement was made final last month. Barringer said he wanted to wait to speak publicly about the issue until his retirement paperwork was complete.
He believes that Bruce Triplett, director of the medical center, would have found space for a meditation room without Christian articles had the VA's National Chaplain Center not gotten involved.
He said the national center sent someone to the Fayetteville hospital to remove the Christian symbols.
Barringer said that, in the 5 years he was chief chaplain at the hospital, no patients or family members complained that the chapel was oriented toward Christianity.
He said the chapel was originally dedicated as a Christian chapel and should remain as one.
"It wasn't dedicated to all faith groups to be generic," he said. "Our nation was founded as a Christian nation. Our forefathers established the country on Biblical concepts or precepts. And I feel that if our forefathers knew how we were interpreting the First Amendment, they'd probably roll over in their graves."
A call to the VA's National Chaplain Center was not returned.
Triplett said the Fayetteville hospital did not have enough space for a separate room for non-Christians. He said the hospital received at least one complaint after a memorial service on Sept. 11, 2007.
"During that service, a chaplain gave a very pro-Christian speech, and at the end of the speech they said if anyone in the audience was a Muslim, a Buddhist or believed in the Dalai Lama, that they could get out of the chapel," Triplett said. "And that did generate some problems."
Triplett would not say which of the VA Medical Center's chaplains made that speech. The National Chaplain Center's roster lists six full-time, part-time and contract chaplains for the Fayetteville hospital, including Barringer.
"What I really want people to understand is that our primary mission is to provide health care," Triplett said. "It's not to provide religious services, although we do that as part of our holistic approach to health care, and I think we do that as well as any hospital in this area."
Barringer said he has been in contact with the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit conservative legal organization that defends religious liberties and human rights. The Institute is representing Laud Pitt Jr. and Joseph McKinney, two veterans living in the Fort Bragg area who have been outspoken against the VA's decision to remove the Christian symbols.
Both men have written columns and letters voicing that opinion in The Fayetteville Observer. McKinney is a member of The Observer's Community Advisory Board, a 12-person group that writes opinion pieces and meets with the newspaper's editorial board to discuss issues.
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, said the institute is considering suing the VA over the removal of the symbols.
"We will do something about it, whether it's a lawsuit or something else," Whitehead said. "You're dealing with veterans who have spiritual needs. We want to make sure the veterans are taken care of, and we have a chaplain resigning in protest."
Barringer said he plans to ask the Fayetteville City Council at its March 17 meeting to draft a resolution condemning the removal of the Christian symbols and to ask the city's congressional representatives to rewrite the regulation that mandates federal chapels be religiously neutral.
"I believe in providing for people of all faiths, but I do not believe in mixing oranges and apples," he said. "I do not believe in using a room designated for Almighty God for other faith groups when we can provide other rooms for them."