All or nothing: Veteran suing VA over Bible display applauds anonymous addition of other religious texts

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

Editor’s Note: The following Soap Box post was submitted to Manchester Ink Link by James Chamberlain, the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed May 7 against the Manchester VA. Chamberlain says he was prompted to write this after being notified by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation that on May 16  several religious texts representing other faiths were placed on the POW/MIA “missing man table,” inside the VAMC lobby. Chamberlain is one of 15 local veterans who complained to the MRFF in January about the placement of a Christian Bible on a military display that is meant to represent all those who serve, no matter their faith. According to Chamberlain, it should be all or nothing. The additional texts now include an armed forces-issued Jewish prayer book, a Koran, a book of Wicca, The Book of Mormon, and a blank notebook, representing atheism. 

Additional religious texts were added to the POW/MIA missing man table at the Manchester VA on May 16. Photo/MRFF

This country is the greatest country in the world because of the freedoms we have. These freedoms are protected by our Constitution.  One of these freedoms is the freedom to believe in any faith or no faith. This Constitution is protected by the mightiest military in the world and contains personnel which exercise all of these same freedoms.

President Trump has expressed his Christian beliefs but that does not give the U.S. government the right to push Christianity on others such as at the VA Medical Center here in Manchester, NH.  You can invite and share Christianity with those who ask.  Being a devout and believing Christian, I wish there were Bibles everywhere but that would be ridiculous. It is not the book that I revere and hold dear, it is what is in the book that is the basis of my belief. If one has the Bible but doesn’t hold its teachings in one’s heart, then the Bible is a meaningless paperweight.

What do we have in Manchester?  We have a beautiful Bible, LOCKED in a plexiglass box, with no way of knowing its contents. What message does that give to our military brothers and sisters?  Jesus instructs us to love everyone, even our enemies.  We are instructed to love our neighbor and that to me is all of my military brothers and sisters, even though many do not share my beliefs. I still love and respect them for their service.

POW/MIA missing man table in the lobby of the Manchester VA now holds six books of faith and a blank notebook, to represent atheism. Photo/MRFF

The POW/MIA table was meant to honor ALL of our personnel who are Prisoners Of War and/or Missing In Action no matter what their religious beliefs or lack thereof.  The table, although filled with very meaningful symbolism, is not a religious memorial.  If it were a religious memorial, then it would have to display all religions and non-faith traditions represented in the U.S. military. That would be a pretty crowded table with a Bible, a Koran, a Torah, some Hindu texts and a myriad of other religious artifacts to represent all faiths and non-faith philosophies. 

The solution; put nothing representing any one religion or non-faith tradition that would be exclusionary of all others. 

I appreciate and respect the reasons the gentleman placed his Bible on the table but I feel it is inappropriate and, indeed, unconstitutional, for this display.  By placing the Bible there, you are saying “this display honors Christians” and that is disrespectful to service personnel of other faiths and no faiths.  

If the POW/MIA table contained an Air Force hat, that would tell people “this display is for Air Force personnel.” That would be inappropriate also, but not unconstitutional, as it is here with the inclusion of the Bible.  I believe we should say this is a military display representing ALL POW/MIAs in all branches of the service, of ALL beliefs. 

Additional religious texts and a blank notebook have been added to the missing man table anonymously, by one of 15 local veterans who object to the current Bible display. Photo/MRFF

As the VAMC is refusing to remove the Bible, as it initially did immediately when demanded to do so by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation in early January of this year. Thus, the only alternative left is to file suit against the VA to force them to abide by the Constitution.

I am very grateful that the Nixon Vogelman law firm, and especially trial attorney Larry Vogelman, have taken this case to Federal Court on my behalf and on behalf of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and American military veterans everywhere.

I am also very appreciative that the MRFF has been the civil rights advocacy voice in this matter for not only me but 14 of my fellow military veterans who, like me, are patients at the Manchester Veterans Medical Center. Nine of those veterans, like me, are practicing, believing Christians.

James L. Chamberlain
New Hampshire

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