A secular group is petitioning to remove a prisoner of war's Bible from a New Hampshire Veterans Affairs hospital in a lawsuit that has drawn the attention of top White House officials.
The dispute will likely test the implications of the Supreme Court's June decision to preserve a World War I memorial known as the Bladensburg Cross, despite complaints from atheist activists that such displays were unconstitutional. Associate Justice Samuel Alito wrote that "Destroying or defacing the Cross would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment" in the 7-2 ruling. Vice President Mike Pence weighed in on the New Hampshire Bible display Wednesday night.
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"The last Administration was removing Bibles and even banning Christmas carols to be politically correct, but under President @realDonaldTrump, V.A. hospitals will NOT be religion-free zones," Pence tweeted. "Message to the New Hampshire VA: the Bible STAYS!"
V.A. Secretary Robert Wilkie has also shifted departmental policy in favor of keeping the Bible. In July, the department said that it will "allow the inclusion in appropriate circumstances of religious content in publicly accessible displays at V.A. facilities."
The court case centers on a Bible donated by a World War II veteran who spent time in German captivity. It is placed on a POW/MIA [Missing in Action] Table, a memorial found across the country in places frequented by veterans.
The dispute began in January when 14 veterans, nine of whom were Protestants or Catholics, complained to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) that they found the Bible on the commemorative table in the Manchester New Hampshire V.A. Medical Center, according to the lawsuit. The next day, MRFF founder Mikey Weinstein asked the hospital to remove the religious text.
"When you put one particular religious sign on a sacred memorial like that, that's like a gang sign of the Bloods and the Crips, a middle finger to everyone else," Weinstein told the Washington Free Beacon.
The hospital complied to the request within a few hours.
"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," Corey D. Beem, acting staff assistant to the director of the hospital, wrote in an email to Weinstein. "As such we are going to be removing the Bible from the display to better serve all Veterans."
Beem did not respond to requests for comments. The V.A. hospital told the Free Beacon in a statement that it initially removed the Bible "out of an abundance of caution," but returned the exhibit after an "outpouring of complaint" over the removal.
"Manchester VAMC has again placed the Bible on display, where it will remain indefinitely as part of the POW/MIA table, a secular tribute to America’s POW/MIA community," the statement said. "We apologize to the Veterans, families and other stakeholders who were offended by the facility’s incorrect removal of this Bible."
In response, a local veteran, with the help of MRFF, sued the V.A. hospital to remove the Bible from the table in May. First Liberty Institute, a non-profit organization focused on religious freedom, is now petitioning the court to intervene in the ongoing litigation in August. Michael Berry, the institute's director of military affairs and chief of staff, said he is confident that the precedent established in the Bladensburg Cross case is completely applicable here because the POW/MIA Table is a tradition with a long history going back to the Vietnam War.
"We are very optimistic that the Bladensburg decision will be a strong precedent that the court … will look to, and recognize that the POW/MIA display in New Hampshire should be analyzed under the same legal analysis," Berry said. "The court shall declare that this type of memorial is perfectly fine under the Constitution."
The court case could see two accomplished veterans face off against one another: Berry served for seven years as an attorney in the Marine Corps, while Weinstein is a 1977 honors graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. It would not be the first time the two have squared off. Both the First Liberty Institute and the MRFF played a role in the Bladensburg Cross case. First Liberty Institute represented the American Legion, the organization that originally erected the memorial; meanwhile, MRFF submitted an amicus brief in favor of removing it.
Weinstein said the Bladensburg Cross ruling should not apply to the New Hampshire case. The majority justified the cross memorial based in part on its long history in the region. Weinstein said that the tradition of placing a Bible on a POW/MIA Table is relatively new, and thus fails the Bladensburg "history test."
"If they want to argue the Bladensburg case has changed things, they are wrong because they already pulled that Bible in January, we only started seeing Bibles in POW tables near around the turn of the early 2000s, 1999," he said.
Berry said he wasn't aware what is the earliest confirmed case of a Bible on a POW/MIA Table, but noted that it is conceivable that Bibles have been placed on the table for a long time.
"I don't think [Weinstein] is quite accurate in that assessment," Berry said in a phone interview with the Washington Free Beacon. "I've certainly heard of missing man table going all the way back to the Vietnam war, and some group has decided to include the Bible and others have not. And the bottom line is, if a group decides to include a Bible, it's their constitutional right to do that."
Berry welcomed the support of the Trump administration in the case.
"We are grateful to Vice President Pence and the entire administration for their steadfast defense of religious liberty and America’s veterans. Anti-religious hostility has no place in the V.A., yet we continue to see activists roaming the country seeking to purge any and all religious symbols," he said in a release. "Removing a Bible donated by a WWII POW for display at a V.A. hospital would be a cruel insult and dishonors our veterans. First Liberty will fight to make sure the Bible stays."