VA sued by former Military Intelligence analyst due to Bible display

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Air Force Veteran Sandra Bell has joined the “VA Bible” lawsuit. Courtesy Photo

MANCHESTER, NH — Air Force Veteran Sandra Bell has joined the “VA Bible” lawsuit demanding that a Bible on the Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s POW/MIA “Missing Man Table” be removed from the war memorial, permanently. Bell joins fellow Air Force Veteran James Chamberlain as a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs, which was brought by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation now represents 17 Manchester VAMC users who object to the Bible display.

Sandra Bell, who came forward after the lawsuit was filed, recently decided she would join it as a public litigant. Bell and Chamberlain are asking for both a preliminary and permanent injunction to remove the Bible from the Manchester VAMC’s Missing Man Table.

Earlier in the year, MRFF President Michael “Mikey” Weinstein asked the Manchester VAMC to remove the Bible from the POW/MIA Table, and his request was promptly honored. On social media, members of the Northeast POW/MIA Network, the organization that set up and sponsors the war memorial, vowed to fight back.

The Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. subsequently intervened, mandating that the Bible be returned to the “Missing Man Table” at the Manchester VAMC.

POW/MIA Tables traditionally are placed in a facility’s cafeteria, as the war memorial mimics a dinner honoring a fallen or missing comrade. The Manchester VAMC broke with that tradition by allowing the “Missing Man Table” to be placed in an area where it cannot be avoided by most people entering the six-story building. 

The display is situated in the foyer of the main entrance to the Manchester VAMC, across from pictures of President Donald J. Trump and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie. The only bank of elevators for veterans is located at the main entrance. 

The Bible in question is a large, altar-sized New Catholic Standard edition of the Old and New Testaments. 

 “Utmost Respect for Veterans”

When the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s original request for the Bible’s removal was made on January 28, 2019, Weinstein was speaking on behalf of 14 Manchester Veterans Medical Center users who objected to the display. Approximately three hours after the original complaint was made, Corey Beem, the staff assistant to Manchester VAMC Director Al Montoya, informed the MRFF that the Bible would be removed.

In an email to Weinstein, Beem said, “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 the beliefs. As such, we are going to be removing the Bible from the display to better serve all veterans.”

Less than a month later, the MRFF was receiving complaints that the Bible was back on the Missing Man Table. For the intervening three weeks, the Manchester VAMC had put the big religious book in a display case not far from the Missing Man Table. Now, it was back on the war memorial, interned in a large Plexiglas box, prominently padlocked with a Master brand lock on top.

When Weinstein contacted the Manchester VAMC on February 23 to forward fresh complaints about the Bible’s resurrection, the federal facility’s reaction was quite different. The Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. apparently had decided to draw a line in the sand on religious displays.

The MRFF has been successful in its efforts to curb these violations of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which for over 230 years, prohibited the federal government from favoring one religion over another. Weinstein initially was surprised when the Department of Veterans Affairs took such a hardline stance over the Manchester VAMC’s Bible.

The change in the V.A.’s attitude likely reflects an attempt to court favor with evangelical Christians, one of President Donald Trump major constituencies. Support by evangelicals was critical for Trump in countering charges of sexual harassment and corrupt and immoral behavior during the 2016 Presidential sweepstakes.

A great many Evangelical Christians believe Donald Trump is their protector. 

After the Bible was returned to the Missing Man Table and placed in its plastic sarcophagus, James Chamberlain subsequently became the 15th Manchester VAMC user to complain about the display via the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. When the Department Veterans Affairs began to defiantly defend the religious display, a lawsuit was filed under Chamberlain’s name.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has refused to let any other holy books from another religion grace the table, forcing the removal of a Jewish prayer book and other texts from the Manchester VAMC Missing Man table immediately after they were placed there.

Christianizing the Armed Services

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation-backed lawsuit was filed in May 2019 by Lawrence Vogelman of the Manchester-based law firm Nixon Vogelman Slawsky and Simoneau. Remarkably, a response by the Manchester VAMC claimed that the Bible display was “a secular tribute to America’s POW/MIA community.”

Vogelman is the son of a Jewish veteran who fought during World War II. He told the press, “The armed forces in the United States, small pockets of it, are really trying to Christianize the armed services.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs responded to the lawsuit with a statement that attacked the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.  V.A. Press Secretary Curt Cashour accused the MRFF of bullying and claimed the department would not capitulate.

This lawsuit  —  backed by a group known for questionable practices and unsuccessful lawsuits  —  is nothing more than an attempt to force VA into censoring a show of respect for America’s POW/MIA community,” was Cashour’s claim in the press release.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie justified the Bible being put back on the war memorial by announcing the Veterans Administration would now allow both religious displays and proselytizing at all V.A. facilities. This was a turnaround of V.A. policy under previous presidents.

Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian who had sworn Wilkie in, eventually got into the act, defending the Bible display.

The Trump Administration has been very close to evangelical Christians in the “religious freedom” lobby. The First Liberty Institute that now represents the Northeast POW/MIA Network in court has enjoyed great favor with the administration. 

President Trump appointed former First Liberty General Counsel Matthew Kacsmaryk to the federal bench. Kacsmaryk’s nomination met with a great deal of opposition, as he was considered hostile to the LGBTQ community. Trump’s nomination of Kacsmaryk’s former boss at First Liberty, Jeff Mateer, was withdrawn  because of his controversial remarks that transgender children “were part of Satan’s plan.” 

 Steeped in History

The lawsuit triggered by the Manchester Veteran Administration Medical Center’s controversial “Bible in a Box” likely will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the federal judge hearing the case. Sandra Bell and James Chamberlain may well become part of history.

A Missing Man display at the Manchester VA includes a personal Bible, which trigged a lawsuit. Photo/Carol Robidoux

The Bible is a large, altar-sized Catholic Standard Bible. Northeast POW/MIA Network President Bob “Doc” Jones claimed that it was carried by WWII vet Herman “Herk” Streitburger into combat and during his incarceration in and escape from a German POW camp in Hungary.

This story, which was repeated by Vice President Mike Pence and First Liberty Institute Chief Consul Mike Berry, turned out to be false. For a religious display to pass constitutional muster, the item would have to be considered having “historical significance.”

Just such historic significance was claimed by the Manchester VAMC when the Bible was put back on display, in a locked Plexiglas box. Those claims do not appear in the legal briefs filed by the Department of Justice of First Liberty. 

Indeed, the First Liberty Institute lawyer representing the group that created the display and demands that the Bible be a part of it, claimed in federal court that the Bible display was “steeped in history.” His argument was ignored by the judge.

Interestingly, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie  —  who visited the Manchester VAMC in April of 2019, as the facility is spearheading the new semi-privatization plan put forward by the Trump Administration as The Mission Act  —  was sworn in on two Bibles by Vice President Mike Pence, an act witnessed by President Donald Trump. One of the Bibles was a large, altar-sized version that Wilkie claimed was carried into combat in the First World War by one of his wife’s relatives. Its resemblance to the Manchester VAMC’s “Bible in a Box” is uncanny.

Once a Christian

Sandra Bell was once a Christian, but now is an atheist, according to the amended lawsuit. A resident of New Hampshire who gets her medical care art the Manchester VAMC, Bell finds the Bible display to be “unwelcome.”

During her four years on active duty, Bell served as a signals intelligence analyst with the Air Force. Stationed at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, she was involved in crypto-analysis. 

According to Weinstein, Bell held a Top Secret-Secure Compartmentalized Information clearance while in the Air Force. TS/CSI is a high-tier clearance granted a thorough background investigation that can last more than a year. 

After serving her country, Bell attended the University of New Hampshire, studying psychology, graduating with a bachelor’s degree cum laude in 2004.

The complaint filed with the federal District Court of New Hampshire says that Sandra Bell “believes that the POW/MIA table is meant to honor all POWs and those missing in action regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.”

The amended lawsuit states, “Plaintiff BELL considers herself to be an atheist. She derives her strength from within and through for self and all living things, compassion, not religion. She too believes the POW/MIA table is meant to honor all POWs and those missing in action regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.”

In a February interview with Carol Robidoux of manchesterinklink.com, Bob “Doc” Jones of the Northeast POW/MIA Network said that anyone offended by the Bible display could take another entrance to the medical center.

There are two other entrances to the Manchester VAMC, one on the same first-floor level as the elevators, the other being a back entrance on the basement floor. A veteran taking the alternate first-floor entrance can see the Missing Man table when walking to the elevators, such is its prominence.

Because of the placement of the Bible in the main entrance of the medical enter, Bell “…is forced to have unwelcome direct contact with the Bible each time she enters or leaves the MVAMC,” according to the amended complaint.

“Direct and unwelcome contact” with a religious display in a government facility is grounds for filing a federal lawsuit. 

Standing in Federal Court

The addition of Sandra Bell to the V.A. Bible lawsuit is significant, due to her being an atheist. At the first hearing of the lawsuit in federal district court on September 25th, the U.S. Department of Justice argued that a believing Christian lacked “standing” to sue the federal government for violations of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause when the religion being privileged by the government is Christianity.

 “Standing” means that a person has the right to sue in court. 

According to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, to have standing in a federal court, a person (the “plaintiff”) “must have suffered an injury in fact’” with the injury covered by law. The injury must be both “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent.” There also must be a connection between the conduct of a federal government actor and the injury, and there must likely be a favorable judgment the will provide redress to the plaintiff.

The question of standing was central to the arguments heard by federal District Court of New Hampshire Judge Paul J. Barbadoro.

This remarkable defense of a government-sanctioned Christian display – that a “Bible-believing Christian” in the words of Judge Barbaroro – lacked standing was made by Cristen C. Handley, of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Federal Programs Branch, Civil Division in Washington, D.C. Her argument was made in response to Judge Barbadoro’s assertion that an atheist or non-Christian would undoubtedly have standing in the case.

James Chamberlain, left, with attorney Vogelman outside the courthouse on Sept. 25. Photo/Jon Hopwood

Handley of the DOJ argued that original plaintiff James Chamberlain, a self-avowed “devout” Christian, did not have standing to sue the Department of Veterans Affairs. She asserted that the V.A.-sanctioned display of a Christian Bible did not injure Chamberlain as he was a Christian, and thus he hadn’t suffered a concrete and particularized injury. 

Judge Barbadoro countered that the V.A. Bible display did offend his religious and philosophical scruples. He also pointed out that an atheist offended by the display would have standing to sue. Handley of the DOJ agreed, as did the First Liberty lawyer representing the Northeast POW/MIA Network that sponsors the display.

In response to the government’s argument, Lawrence Vogelman informed the court that he was planning to amend the complaint, to include one or two non-Christian plaintiffs. It was now New Hampshire vet Sandra Bell’s turn to make history.

“Appalling”

Weinstein, in a telephone interview, said that it was appalling that the federal government would take such a stand on standing, and require a non-Christian to be party to the lawsuit for it to proceed. He praised Sandra Bell for her courage.

“It’s not easy to be the public face in such a lawsuit,” Weinstein said. 

According to Lawrence Vogelman, the attorney representing Bell and Chamberlain, Weinstein is under the protection of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, due to the death threats he has received. 

Weinstein said that no Prisoner of War/Missing in Action table had a Bible on it until 1999. He noted that even the very conservative veterans group the American Legion does not put a Bible on the MIA/POW tables it sponsors.

Weinstein claims that the original Bible placements that began around the turn of the new millennium were the action of militant evangelical Christians, who sought to force their religious views onto others. Bible placements on POW/MIA tables began to proliferate after the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks, according to Weinstein, winding up at military bases, aircraft carriers and even on submarines. 

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation was founded in 2005 to combat the militant proselytization of fundamentalist Christian beliefs onto military personnel. Not only was such behavior unwelcome by military personnel, it was plainly unconstitutional.

Given such a background, the case of Bell and Chamberlain v. the Manchester Veterans Administration Medical Center likely will prove historic.