A “devout Christian” and Air Force veteran is suing the Department of Veterans Affairs to remove a Bible display at the Manchester VA Medical Center (MVAMC) in New Hampshire.
The lawsuit was filed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation on behalf of veteran James Chamberlain.
“Despite his strong personal religious beliefs, (Chamberlain) believes that the Christian Bible has no place being displayed on the (Prisoner Of War/Missing In Action) table at the entrance way to the MVAMC, where he gets his care,” the lawsuit says. “As a Christian, he respects and loves all his military brothers and sisters and does not want to be exclusionary by the placement of the Christian Bible.”
The Bible was carried by a World War II prisoner of war, USA Today reported, “commemorating missing and imprisoned service members.”
That table is also known as “the missing man or fallen comrade table,” according to the lawsuit.
In the lawsuit, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation says fourteen patients of the MVAMC complained during the first week of January about the Bible on the table at the main building’s entrance lobby.
Of the 14 who complained, nine identify as Protestant or Roman Catholic, the lawsuit said. The others identify as Jewish, Muslim, Native American, Buddhist or atheist/agnostic.
“All fourteen objected to the placement of the Christian Bible on that POW/MIA table and believed it to be an unlawful display,” the lawsuit says. “All fourteen requested that (the foundation) give immediate voice to their objections to the leadership at the MVAMC ... They did so on the condition that MRFF would protect their identities. They feared reprisal.”
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation says the Bible display was removed on Jan. 28, 2019, after President Michael L. Weinstein called and demanded that it be taken down.
About a month later, though, the Foundation received more complaints about the Bible being back on display.
“It was in a locked plexiglass box on the POW/MIA table located right near the main entrance of the MVAMC,” the lawsuit says.
It was then that a 15th military veteran complained about the display, according to the lawsuit. That veteran was Chamberlain.
He was “willing to publicly prosecute this action, although he receives his medical care at the MVAMC,” the foundation said in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says the table “has special meaning to all service members and veterans,” as it “helps honor the men and women who have sacrificed to protect and serve us all.”
Because of that, the foundation says the memorial should be for all who have served — regardless of religious beliefs.
“The original POW/MIA table tradition was started by a group of Vietnam combat pilots and did not include a Bible as one of the table items,” the lawsuit said. “We would all be outraged if the MVAMC 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.”
Chamberlain is seeking the Bible to be removed from the display.
Weinstein “declined to make Chamberlain available for an interview,” according to USA Today.
“This lawsuit – backed by a group known for questionable practices and unsuccessful lawsuits – is nothing more than an attempt to force VA into censoring a show of respect for America’s POW/MIA community,” VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour said in a statement to McClatchy. “Make no mistake: VA will not be bullied on this issue.”
In the statement, Cashour confirmed that officials “temporarily removed the Bible from the display out of an abundance of caution,” but put it back on display after complaints that it was removed.
Cashour said the VA consulted with legal counsel before placing the Bible back on display, “where it will remain indefinitely as part of the POW/MIA table, a secular tribute to America’s POW/MIA community.”
“We apologize to the Veterans, families and other stakeholders who were offended by our incorrect removal of this Bible,” he said in the statement.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is a “nationally recognized civil rights advocate organization with the primary mission of protecting the separation of church and state in the United States military and the Veterans Administration,” according to the lawsuit.