MANCHESTER — A Bible once owned by a prisoner of war — and on display at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center — has launched a battle over religious freedom.
An Air Force veteran filed a lawsuit Tuesday looking to remove the Bible displayed on a POW/MIA table.
“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,” attorney Lawrence Vogelman wrote in the seven-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Concord.
“The placement of a Christian Bible on this sacred table is just as objectionable,” he said.
Curt Cashour, press secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, called the lawsuit “nothing more than an attempt to force VA into censoring a show of respect for America’s POW/MIA community.
“Make no mistake: VA will not be bullied on this issue,” he said in a statement.
Cashour also apologized to veterans for the VA temporarily removing the Bible a few months back.
According to the lawsuit, 14 veterans — all patients at the medical center — made complaints to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation during the last weekend of January regarding the placement of a Bible on the display table, which was off to one side in the entrance lobby, the suit said.
Nine of the 14 identified themselves as Protestant or Roman Catholic with the others practicing other faiths or identifying as atheist/agnostic, according to the suit.
The foundation, a civil rights advocacy group representing active military personnel and veterans, flew a banner Tuesday morning over the VA Center with the message: “VAMC — Honor all POW/MIA — Remove Bible.”
On Jan. 28, MRFF founder Michael Weinstein phoned the medical center leadership and received an email hours later saying the Bible would be removed, which it was that day, according to the court papers.
On Feb. 23, the organization heard from some veterans stating the Bible was back on display on the POW/MIA table, this time in a locked plexiglass box in a new location right near the main entrance, the suit said.
Following that, a 15th veteran, James Chamberlain, a New Hampshire resident who identifies himself as a Christian, came forward in opposition and became the plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“Here, the placement of the Christian Bible in a locked case on the POW/MIA table puts forth the Christian beliefs of some, at the expense of the beliefs of non-Christians,” Vogelman said.
Vogelman sent a letter March 25 to the center’s director, Alfred Montoya, requesting the Bible’s removal. On April 4, Vogelman received a letter from a staff attorney at the Department of Veterans Affairs claiming the Bible placement wasn’t unconstitutional, according to the suit.
The Bible was once owned by a 95-year-old veteran and POW and was donated by a third party to the VA Medical Center, according to a statement from the foundation.
Cashour explained the reasoning for the VA’s actions.
“After receiving a complaint in late January about a Bible included in a Northeast POW/MIA Network-sponsored POW/MIA table, Manchester VAMC officials temporarily removed the Bible from the display out of an abundance of caution,” Cashour said.
“Following that removal, Manchester VAMC received an outpouring of complaints from veterans and other stakeholders — many of whom dropped off Bibles at the facility — in protest of this action,” Cashour said.
“After consulting with legal counsel, 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,” Cashour said.
“We apologize to the veterans, families and other stakeholders who were offended by the facility’s incorrect removal of this Bible,” Cashour said.
First Liberty Institute, which says it defends religious freedoms for all Americans, defended the Bible being placed there.
“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,” said Mike Berry, FLI’s chief of staff.
“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,” he said in a statement.