A dispute over a Bible display at the Manchester Veterans Affairs hospital in New Hampshire is erupting into a full-fledged war, to include close-air support and vows from both sides to trample the enemy underfoot.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of an Air Force veteran against Alfred Montoya, the director of the Manchester VA Medical Center, seeking the removal of a Bible on display at a POW/MIA table within the hospital. The display violates the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause, according to the lawsuit.
“The Christian Bible clearly doesn’t represent all of the myriad religious faiths and non-faith traditions of the U.S. armed forces veterans using the Medical Center and to presume that it does is quite blatantly unconstitutional, unethical and illicit" said Michael L. “Mikey" Weinstein, MRFF’s founder and president, in a statement.
To drive the point home, MRFF hired a plane to fly near the medical center trailing a banner that read: “VAMC — Honor all POW/MIA — Remove Bible.”
At the center of the dispute is a Bible carried by a prisoner of war in World War II, which was added to the missing man remembrance table honoring missing veterans and POWs at the entranceway of the medical center. The Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday the table was sponsored by a veterans group called the Northeast POW/MIA Network.
In January, after MRFF was contacted by 15 veterans who are patients at the medical center — 10 of them practicing Christians, according to Weinstein — VA officials agreed to, and did, remove the Bible from the display.
But that brought an outcry from other veterans, who objected to the Bible’s removal, and it reappeared on the table in February, this time encased in an acrylic box and bolted to the table.
It had been removed “out of an abundance of caution,” Curt Cashour, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman, said in an emailed statement Tuesday. But VA officials changed their minds after a slew of complaints from veterans and others, “many of whom dropped off Bibles at the facility” in protest, Cashour said. After consulting with VA lawyers, it was moved back to the table.
Mike Berry, chief of staff at First Liberty Institute, a religious freedom advocacy group, defended the VA’s decision.
“Veterans organizations like the Northeast POW/MIA Network should be able to honor and remember those killed, captured or missing with a display that includes a Bible donated by a WWII veteran that represents the strength through faith necessary for American service members to survive,” he said in a statement.
“First Liberty recently represented the Northeast POW/MIA Network in successfully ensuring that the POW/MIA Remembrance display it donated would remain intact at the Manchester VA Medical Center.”
The lawsuit filed in Concord by Air Force veteran James Chamberlain says the Bible’s inclusion is in violation of the Constitution. The First Amendment stipulates “that the government may not establish any religion. Nor can the government give favoritism to one religious belief at the expense of others,” according to the suit.
Chamberlain, a devout Christian, said in the lawsuit the table should be a memorial to all who have served, regardless of their beliefs. The suit asserted that 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.
Cashour calls the table “a secular tribute to America’s POW/MIA community” and apologized to anyone offended by the Bible’s “incorrect” removal.
But Weinstein said it is the message that is offensive.
“That 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 guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution,” Weinstein told Military Times.
“As a state actor, the VA cannot elevate one faith over another or no faith,” he continued. "The VA is wretchedly disrespecting millions of American veterans by doing so. The VA has ignominiously made sure that that sectarian Christian Bible sticks out like a tarantula on a wedding cake in that POW/MIA display, and they’ve done so for a reason! It’s immoral, unethical and blatantly illegal under our Constitution.
"We look forward to aggressively prosecuting our case in federal court.”
Berry is also looking forward to that confrontation.
“I’m confident the MRFF will continue their losing record,” he said. "It’s sad that the MRFF continues its efforts to bully the VA at the expense of our veterans and service members.
“But as I’ve said, if the MRFF wants to destroy or disturb the Manchester VAMC display, they’ll have to come through us.”