MANCHESTER, N.H. — A Church-State separation group that objects to the government promotion of Christianity in the military has filed suit to challenge the inclusion of a Bible on a Missing Man table at a New Hampshire Veterans Administration (VA) hospital.
“We would all be outraged if the MVAMC (Manchester Veterans Medical Center) only provided care to Christians, or denied care to non-believers, or those who worship their God in other ways. The placement of a Christian Bible on this sacred table is just as objectionable,” reads the lawsuit filed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF).
The organization filed the suit on behalf of complainant James Chamberlain, who identifies as a Christian, but “believes that our Constitution prohibits the establishment by the government of any specific religious belief,” according to the legal challenge.
“Here, the placement of the Christian Bible in a locked case on the POW/MIA table puts forth the Christian beliefs of some, at the expense of the beliefs of non-Christians,” the filing states.
As previously reported, MRFF says that it received 14 complaints about the inclusion of the Bible on the foyer-area table at the Manchester Veterans Medical Center. The organization reached out to the facility in January to request that it be removed.
“[U]nconstitutional POW/MIA displays like the one solely featuring and highlighting the Christian New Testament at issue here in your VA Medical center in Manchester, NH should ‘Honor Them All’ and not just those VA patients of yours who are Christians,” wrote President Mikey Weinstein in one email.
Corey Beem, the acting staff assistant to the director of the hospital, responded hours later to advise that the Bible had been relocated.
“Please know that as a Marine, retired, and now a VA employee, I hold this table and its significance close to my heart,” he stated. “I want you to know that you can inform your clients that the Manchester VAMC has the utmost respect and admiration for all veterans, regardless of their beliefs. As such we are going to be removing the Bible from the display to better serve all veterans.”
The Bible was then moved to a display shelf, which displeased MRFF and its complainants as being an even more prominent location.
In the meantime, the Texas-based First Liberty Institute contacted the Manchester Veterans Medical Center on behalf of the POW/MIA Network to contend that there is nothing unconstitutional about including the Bible on the Missing Man table.
“The VA is absolutely within the law in its decision to allow the display of a donated Bible,” Michael Berry, director of military affairs, said in a statement, noting that the Bible belonged to U.S. Army Air Corps TSgt. Herman “Herk” Streitburger, who was a captive in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II.
First Liberty Institute also noted that the Veterans Administration outlined in a 2016 memo that if a government facility allows the setup of a POW/MIA table, it must “remain neutral regarding the views expressed by the group, to include the use of any religious or secular items in the display.”
The POW/MIA Network soon announced that the Bible had been restored to the table, and that it was inside of a plexiglass case, with the case bearing the name of the POW the Bible belonged to.
MRFF decided to sue over the matter after Chamberlain came forward as the 15th complainant and a staff attorney at VA’s national headquarters disagreed that the presence of the Bible was constitutionally problematic.
The government entity says that the Manchester hospital actually received complaints itself that the Bible had been removed in the first place.
“Manchester VAMC received an outpouring of complaints from veterans and other stakeholders – many of whom dropped off Bibles at the facility – in protest of this action,” the VA said in a statement, according to The Daily Caller. “We apologize to the veterans, families and other stakeholders who were offended by the facility’s incorrect removal of this Bible.”
As previously reported, according to the National League of POW/MIA Families, the Bible is traditionally present at Missing Man tables, and “represents the strength gained through faith to sustain us and those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God.” The display additionally includes a place setting, a rose and a candle.
Weinstein says, however, that the “sectarian Christian Bible bolted down to that POW/MIA table at the Manchester NH VAMC is a grotesque gang sign of fundamentalist Christian triumphalism, exceptionalism and supremacy, indeed a middle finger of unconstitutional repugnance to the plurality and separation of church and state. … The VA has ignominiously made sure that that sectarian Christian Bible sticks out like a tarantula on a wedding cake.”