For some veterans visiting the Manchester, New Hampshire VA Hospital, a Bible that sits on a table display honoring prisoners of war and those missing in action is “a symbol of hope and of courage and of home.”
For others, “it’s a gang sign to military of all faiths.”
The debate is culminating with a federal lawsuit filed on Monday that’s motivated in large part by a Military Freedom From Religion group dedicated to eradicating references to religion from the armed forces.
The issue began in January, when MFFR founder Mike Weinstein alleged he received a complaint from a group of 14 veterans who use the New Hampshire facility about the Bible on display as part of a “Missing Man” table in the front foyer. The table – with a white table cloth, inverted goblet, single red rose, candle and salt, along with an empty chair – is a traditional way of honoring soldiers who went missing during war or were captured by the enemy.
Weinstein told the Manchester Link he contacted Corey Beem, acting staff assistant to the director of the Manchester VA, to inform him about the alleged complaints, though he contends none of the 14 complainants would go on the record. Initially, Beem obliged Weinstein’s request to remove the Bible, but the VA reversed course a short time later.
“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,” Beem wrote in an email to Weinstein. “As such we are going to be removing the Bible from the display to better serve all Veterans.”
The Bible disappeared from the display, but it returned by late February, ensconced in a thick plexiglass lock box. MFFR then recruited U.S. Air Force veteran James Chamberlain to go on the record with a formal demand letter sent directly to Manchester VA Director Alfred Montoya.
The response: the Bible stays.
“Manchester VA Medical Center consulted with appropriate legal counsel before placing this treasured WWII artifact, which happens to be a Bible, with the display, and is confident that this does not impinge on Constitutional protections,” Kristen Pressley, spokeswoman for the VA, wrote in a prepared statement to the Manchester Link.
She said the Bible was put in the lock box to protect it during the controversy.
Vietnam veteran Bob Jones worked with the Northeast POW/MIA Network to set up the display, and he said the group included the Bible a symbol of hope for a special reason.
“The Bible came from Herk Steinberger. It’s the Bible he had while locked up in a prison camp. He escaped after 18 months and made it through enemy lines, and that Bible was with him, all the way,” Jones said of the 95-year-old WWII veteran. “It’s important, not because it was used as a religious symbol. But it was a symbol of freedom, of family, of hope, of America. He had to keep it hidden. If they’d have found it, they probably would have taken it away, or shot him or something.
“It didn’t matter if you were a Jew or an atheist or a Catholic, that Bible meant something to everyone in that camp,” Jones said.
The brouhaha is boiling down to a war of words between Jones and Weinstein, though it was Chamberlain, a self-professed Christian, who filed a federal lawsuit against Montoya and the Manchester VA on Monday.
“It’s fundamentalist Christian nationalism exceptionalism supremacy and triumphalism. If this particular Bible meant something to a POW at the VA, that’s great. We all have sentimental things that mean something to us. I assure you if a Muslim or Jew wanted to put their book out on a POW display, the explosion would be incalculable coming out of Manchester,” Weinstein said.
“It’s an affront. That Bible in that display case is like a tarantula on a wedding cake,” he told the Manchester Link. “It’s like sticking the middle finger up to everyone else who doesn’t believe what they believe.
“It’s a gang sign to military of all faiths,” Weinstein alleged.
“I forget; when we took our oath to the military, did it say ‘God’ in it? How about when we get paid, on that money, it says ‘in God we trust.’ They don’t turn in their money, though, right? So now there’s a Bible on the table and they don’t like it. You know what? They are free to believe what they want to believe, and so am I. It’s called freedom,” Jones said. “The Bible stays.”
And while the case is pending in federal court, the MRFF is taking its war against the Bible to a new level.
According to the “Friendly Atheist”: “MRFF says it plans to fly a plane over the Manchester VA this morning with the following message: ‘VAMC — Honor all POW/MIA — Remove Bible.’”