Nov. 26 (UPI) -- Two advocacy groups dedicated to protecting religious liberty are battling each other over whether a Bible should be part of a display at the Manchester VA Medical Center in New Hampshire.
U.S. Air Force veterans James Chamberlain, a Christian, and Sandra Bell, an atheist, are suing the hospital director in his official capacity to get the Bible taken off a "Missing Man Table" in the hospital lobby. The display honors prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is leading the fight for removal and argues that the inclusion of the Christian Bible violates the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion. The Albuquerque, N.M.-based foundation -- which says it represents more than 66,000 service members and veterans, about 95 percent of whom identify as practicing Christians -- lists its primary mission as protecting the separation of church and state in the U.S. military and the Veterans Administration.
The Northeast POW/MIA Network, which owns and operates the display, was added to the federal lawsuit as a defendant at its request. The network is represented by the First Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas, group that describes itself as the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to protecting religious liberty for all Americans.
Now Rajan Zed, a Reno, Nev., man who is president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, is asking that an ancient scripture from his faith, the Bhagavad-Gita, be added to the display. His request has been pending since September before the medical center's Facility Display Committee.
In a written statement, Zed said the hospital "should not be in the business of discriminating among different scriptures, as every scripture is sacred to its devotees." The inclusion of the Bhagavad-Gita would be beneficial "as scriptures provided us comfort and strength and God wanted us well," he said.
Zed told UPI he has not requested that the Hindu scripture be placed at any other hospital.
The case began with complaints to MRFF during the last weekend of January from 14 patients at the Manchester hospital about the placement of the Christian Bible on the POW/MIA table, according to the lawsuit. Nine are Protestant or Roman Catholic; the others practice other faiths or are atheist or agnostic.
The 14 veterans asked MRFF to complain on their behalf but to protect their identities because they feared reprisal. The group's president and founder, Michael "Mikey" Weinstein, phoned medical center officials to demand the removal of the Bible and three hours after the first call, he received an email from an assistant to then-director Alfred Montoya saying the Bible would be removed. (Montoya became the director of the Connecticut VA Healthcare System in October.)
The email said, in part, "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. As such, we are going to be removing the Bible from the display to better serve all veterans."
Three weeks later, though, the Bible -- which was donated by retired U.S. Army Air Corps Tech. Sgt. Herman "Herk" Streitburger, a World War II POW in Germany -- was back on display in a locked acrylic box after the VA hospital received a flood of complaints about the removal.
Vice President Mike Pence has weighed in on the dispute, saying during an August speech at the American Legion National Convention in Indianapolis that VA hospitals would not be religion-free zones and that "the Bible stays."
MRFF sent an email objecting again to the placement, but the Bible remained, and the foundation decided to sue. Chamberlain, who was not part of the group that complained originally, said he would be a plaintiff in a lawsuit, and Bell later joined the legal action.
The suit, filed May 7 in U.S. District Court in Concord, N.H., seeks an order requiring the removal of the Bible from the display.
In a court filing, the Northeast POW/MIA Network says removing the Bible would violate its First Amendment right to have a display that represents its own viewpoint merely because it contains a religious symbol.
"The network's Missing Man Table is consistent with this nation's history and tradition and does not violate the Establishment Clause," the filing says.
On Zed's request to include the Hindu scripture at the POW/MIA table, Mike Berry, who is First Liberty's chief of staff and one of the network's attorneys, said in an email, "We support the right of any veterans group to create and maintain their own display, consistent with VA policy."
Until early July, the discretion to authorize displays such as Remembrance Tables was delegated to individual VA facility directors, which meant some might be allowed to include Bibles, while others could not, according to First Liberty. But after it urged a policy change, new directives were issued "permitting religious literature, symbols and displays at VA facilities to protect religious liberty for veterans and families while ensuring inclusivity and non-discrimination," First Liberty said.
Weinstein counters that if a judge rules the Bible can stay, "then you better get a MIA/POW table the size of an aircraft carrier."
"If you leave the Bible there, you have to put every religious and nonreligious book there," he said.
U.S. District Judge Paul Barbadoro in September denied a motion to dismiss the case. A few days before a hearing on that issue, MRFF bought a billboard in Manchester urging President Donald Trump, Pence and the VA Medical Center to "Remove the Bible, Honor All Veterans."
Former POW Streitburger, who turned 100 in July, said in an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader that his Bible wasn't meant to represent any particular religion.
"It could be a Catholic or a Protestant Bible, a Jewish Talmud or a Koran for the Muslims," he told the newspaper. "To me, all it represents is a deity. That was my thought."
MRFF says it has gotten Bibles removed from POW/MIA tables at Veterans Affairs facilities in Buffalo, N.Y.; Denver; Houston and Athens, Ohio, among other places.