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‘The Bible stays’ – Vice President Pence weighs in on fight over Manchester VA POW/MIA display

Then-Governor Mike Pence speaking with supporters at a campaign rally for Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

“The Bible stays.”

That’s the message Vice President Mike Pence sent to the Manchester VA Medical Center on Wednesday, during a speech at the American Legion’s national convention.

“You might’ve heard even today that there’s a lawsuit to remove a Bible that was carried in World War II from a Missing Man Table at a VA hospital in New Hampshire,” Pence told the veterans gathered in Indianapolis. “Let me be clear: Under this administration, VA hospitals will not be religion-free zones.”

“We will always respect the freedom of religion of every veteran of every faith,” said Pence, an evangelical Christian. “And my message to the New Hampshire VA hospital is: The Bible stays.”

The vice president reiterated the point in a Tweet.

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The Bible featured in the Missing Man Table display at the Manchester VA Medical Center was donated by a Bedford man, now 100 years old, who was a former POW in a German prison camp. He actually did not carry it during the war, but was given the Bible by a family member after he escaped captivity and returned home.

The lobby display, sponsored by the Northeast POW/MIA Network, has divided the veterans community. Earlier this year, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), based in New Mexico, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of an Air Force veteran against the Manchester VA, claiming the inclusion of the Bible in the display is unconstitutional.

VA officials initially removed the Bible from the display, then reversed course and returned it after an outcry from other patients.

Michael Weinstein, founder and president of the MRFF, issued a statement Thursday about Pence’s comments, calling the vice president “one of the most repulsive and repellent fundamentalist Christian supremacists and bullies on the scene today.”

“It is hardly surprising that he is lending his ugly bigotry and pervasive prejudice in support of keeping that Christian bible bolted down on that POW/MIA table at the Manchester NH VA Medical center,” said Weinstein, an Air Force veteran and an attorney.

“This is just a further perpetuation of fundamentalist Christian privilege,” Weinstein told the Union Leader on Thursday.

Texas-based First Liberty Institute is representing the Northeast POW/MIA Network in a motion to intervene in the court case. Mike Berry, chief of staff for First Liberty Institute, said in a statement Thursday, “We are grateful to Vice President Pence and the entire administration for their steadfast defense of religious liberty and America’s veterans.”

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“Anti-religious hostility has no place in the VA, yet we continue to see activists roaming the country seeking to purge any and all religious symbols,” Berry said. “Removing a Bible donated by a WWII POW for display at a VA hospital would be a cruel insult and dishonors our veterans. First Liberty will fight to make sure the Bible stays.”

In a commentary published in the Washington Times in May, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie called the lawsuit “shameful.”

“And I have no fear that this petty action will do anything to stop our veterans from continuing to exercise the freedoms they fought to protect,” he wrote. “But I would ask this. Are we so insecure in ourselves that we cannot respect the force that sustained so many of our fellow citizens during the incommunicable experience of war?”

“If we can no longer be civil and respectful in a place of honor such as our veterans hospitals then we have to wonder about the future of this great country,” Wilkie wrote.

Wilkie’s remarks on the issue sparked criticism this week from the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a nonprofit organization that, by its own description, “strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.”

Jason Lemieux, director of government relations, said CFI “has been sounding the alarm for years about unchecked Christian privilege and proselytization in the military, and documented the entrenchment of Christian fundamentalism in particular.”

Lemieux, a Marine Corps combat veteran who served three tours in Iraq, said more than 30 percent of military members are religiously unaffiliated. And he said, “These men and women have every right to a Department of Veterans Affairs that equally affirms and respects their service to their country.”

The U.S. Constitution “enshrines the government’s neutrality between religion and nonreligion,” Lemieux said.

Last month, in response to a request from First Liberty Institute to clarify the policies governing such displays, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued updated directives stating that “religious symbols may be included in a passive display in public areas of VA facilities.”

In a letter to First Liberty, Juliana Lesher, national director of the VA Chaplain Service, said the July 3 directives “are designed to uphold the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which ensures that the government does not establish one state religion as well as ensures the free exercise of religious faith by all people.”

A hearing on a motion to dismiss the Bible lawsuit is set for Sept. 16 in federal court in Concord.

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© 2019 The New Hampshire Union Leader