CONCORD, N.H. — A battle over a Bible on display at New Hampshire’s veterans hospital was the focus of a federal court hearing Wednesday, with lawyers for the government arguing that a lawsuit demanding its removal should be dismissed because the Air Force veteran who filed it hasn’t shown he was harmed in any way.
Justice Department attorney Cristen Handley told a judge Wednesday that James Chamberlain has acknowledged he was a devout Christian who wasn’t offended by the display at a table honoring missing veterans and POWs. But Chamberlain’s lawyer Lawrence Vogelman said his client’s religion should not matter and that he was filing the lawsuit on behalf of his fellow veterans who might feel the VA is choosing Christianity over other religions.
“My client seriously believes that it diminishes him as a veteran and as a Christian to exclude these other people he served with,” Vogelman said, adding he may consider adding another plaintiff to the case who is not Christian to bolster his case.
Vice President Mike Pence weighed in on a First Amendment lawsuit challenging a Bible on display at a New Hampshire veterans hospital, saying under the current administration, “VA hospitals will not be religion-free zones.”
The Bible became part of the missing man table honoring missing veterans and POWS at the entranceway of the Manchester VA Medical Center. The Department of Veterans Affairs said the table was sponsored by the Northeast POW/MIA Network and has been up since last September. The POW organization said the Bible was owned by a prisoner of war in World War II from New Hampshire.
Vogelman said that the Bible’s inclusion is in violation of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination of anyone based on their religious beliefs. He said the issue was that the group had chosen to put the display up inside the VA.
“They could put up in front of their office anytime,” Vogelman said. “But they have chosen to involve the government.”
Since the lawsuit was filed in May, the dispute has sparked a national debate that caught the attention of Vice President Mike Pence. In a speech last month, Pence said his message to the Manchester VA was that the “Bible stays.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs unveiled new policies surrounding religious and spiritual symbols in VA facilities, following several incidents where prior policies were “interpreted inconsistently.”
The medical center initially removed the Bible in January after another group, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, objected, saying it got complaints from patients, from a variety of religious backgrounds, who felt it violated the First Amendment.
But the Bible reappeared on the table in February after the medical center received complaints from veterans and others, “many of whom dropped off Bibles at the facility” in protest, said Curt Cashour, a spokesman for the state departments of veterans affairs.
The lawsuit said the original POW/MIA table tradition was started by a group of Vietnam combat pilots and didn’t include a Bible as one of the items.
A missing man table is usually set up near military dining facilities and is in honor of fallen or missing service members. It’s a table set for one person and features a white tablecloth, single rose, a lit candle and more. In some displays, a Bible is also on the table to represent spiritual strength.
On Wednesday, the Northeast POW/MIA Network was granted a request that they be included in the lawsuit supporting the display. The group cited VA policy, which dictates that religious symbols may be displayed in public areas of VA facilities.
“Under the Constitution and federal law, our client has the right to put up a display in the form that our client wants to have. Our client wants to have a Bible donated by a World War II POW,” said Michael Berry, the chief of staff for First Liberty Institute, which was representing the POW organization in this case.
“If somebody else wants to put up a display that looks different, that has some other elements that represent their beliefs, they are free to do so. We would encourage them to do so,” he continued. “What they shouldn’t be doing is trying to use the court system as a bullying tool to force the VA to injure our client’s free speech rights.”