MANCHESTER, NH – Battle lines have been drawn at the Manchester VA Hospital, where a Bible on a table has pitted one veteran against another. It’s a stalemate that could wind up being settled in court, says Mikey Weinstein, Founder and President of Military Freedom From Religion.
At the heart of the controversy is church-state separation in the military, says Weinstein, and that extends to the VA hospital which is government-run and paid for by tax dollars. The Bible must go, he says.
Not so fast, says Bob Jones, a Vietnam Veteran active with Northeast POW/MIA Network, the group that set up the display with a Bible donated by a 95-year-old local former POW.
“I forget; when we took our oath to the military, did it say ‘God’ in it? How about when we get paid, on that money, it says ‘in God we trust.’ They don’t turn in their money, though, right? So now there’s a Bible on the table and they don’t like it. You know what? They are free to believe what they want to believe, and so am I. It’s called freedom,” Jones says. “The Bible stays.”
Weinstein’s organization is continually chasing down disputes similar to this one across the country. On Wednesday, Weinstein happened to be in Washington, D.C., for a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court involving a century-old 40-foot cross-shaped monument in Maryland, the Bladensburg Peace Cross. It commemorates the dead from World War I, and happens to stand on state-owned ground.
The Supreme Court will soon decide the limits of these disputed spaces where church meets state, and identify the ones that are an unconstitutional embrace of religion. Both Weinstein and Jones believe the Maryland case and the constitutional question of the Establishment Clause will trickle down to the Manchester VA.
Both are confident it will come down in their favor.
“I actually just passed Michael Cohen in the hallway here,” says Weinstein, a retired Air Force veteran and attorney. He served as White House Counsel during the Reagan administration before taking a job working for two-time Presidential candidate H. Ross Perot
His main mission these days is assuring that freedom of religion for those serving in the military is not just lip service. It’s a fundamental right that he says is being trampled on by the heavy-footed far-right militant radical evangelical religious fundamentalists.
“Our organization represents just under 62,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces, all branches and civilians, 95 percent are practicing Christians, but not all. There are atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, you name it. That’s why this thing happening in Manchester, it’s unacceptable,” Weinstein says. “If there are people going to the VA who aren’t comfortable with that display, and are intimidated to speak up for fear of retribution at the place they’re going for psychological and physical healing, well, excuse my French, but it’s effing bullshit.
He’s not the only one speaking French over Bible brouhaha.
“This Mikey, he says there are 14 people who were disgusted by the Bible at the VA. He said they didn’t want to give their names, but you know what? If it were me, I would have the courage to get up and say hey – I’m Bob Jones and I don’t like this,” Jones, says.
“I don’t care if it’s 14 people or 14,000. I don’t give a fat rat’s ass. If you have a problem, stand up and say so. I’m happy to talk about it with anyone. I’m just not moving the Bible,” says Jones. “If someone doesn’t want to see it in the lobby, take another entrance. Turn your head. The Bible stays.”
And to that, Weinstein says, Jones can “tell it to the judge.”
So, how did these two men – who agreed after several weekend phone chats that they’d probably have a fine time sitting down for a beer together – find themselves so diametrically opposed?
As Weinstein explains it, he got a complaint back in January from a group of 14 veterans who use the VA medical center for services. They contacted him through MFFR after a few of them noticed the Bible placed on an “empty table” array. The empty table is a traditional way of honoring prisoners of war and those listed as missing in action.
In this case, Jones and others from the Northeast POW/MIA Network, and volunteers from the VA decided it would be nice to create a permanent “Missing Man” table inside the VA. Jones insists a Bible has always been part of the tradition, since it began some 40 years ago.
Weinstein can’t believe what he’s hearing.
“First of all, we would object to calling it a ‘Missing Man’ table – what about all the women who’ve been imprisoned, or are missing or killed in action? So there’s that, right off the bat,” he says.
And secondly, Weinstein disputes Jones’ assertion that the Bible is an original facet of the POW/MIA table. Weinstein says it was only added in the past 15 or 20 years. The memorial was never intended to have religious overtones, he says.
“Wrong, wrong, wrong,” sputters Jones.
Although the Bible is literally debatable, there are other symbolic aspects to the POW/MIA display table always included. It’s always round (everlasting concern) with a white tablecloth (for purity) and an empty chair tucked underneath. On the table is a vase with a single rose (uncertainly and hope for loved ones) and yellow or red ribbon tied around it (safe return), a plate with salt (tears) and lemon (bitter fate), an inverted goblet (inability to share a toast), and a lit candle, never giving up.
When Weinstein heard about the Bible he called the Manchester VA and got Corey Beem on the phone. He says Beem seemed at the time to understand why the Bible was out of synch with a government-run establishment. Beem sent him a follow-up email:
Mr. Weinstein,I appreciate the phone call this morning concerning our POW/MIA table in the front foyer. Please know that as a Marine, retired, and now a VA employee I hold this table and its significance close to my heart. 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.I also would like to thank you for your service to this great nation.Semper Fidelis,Corey D. BeemActing Staff Assistant to the Director
“Manchester VA Medical Center consulted with appropriate legal counsel before placing this treasured WWII artifact, which happens to be a Bible, with the display, and is confident that this does not impinge on Constitutional protections.”
Pressly explained that the Bible, which is a treasured personal possession of a VA volunteer, was locked in the display case for safe keeping – not to make it more prominent. But it was also in deference to the MFFR complaint, until it was sorted out.
“It occurred to me that it was not wise to just leave the Bible on the table where anyone could grab it, given it’s value, so that’s when we put it in the case,” Pressly said.
Jones, 72, gets a little frustrated in trying to talk the whole thing out. He’s got one good ear and one good leg, and sometimes his voice rises too quickly and spills over the edges.
He’s sorry about that. He just never saw this coming.
“Our issue is, that on the day we put the Bible on the table back in September we had 250-300 people there at the VA. The Bible came from Herk Steinberger. It’s the Bible he had while locked up in a prison camp. He escaped after 18 months and made it through enemy lines, and that Bible was with him, all the way. It’s important, not because it was used as a religious symbol. But it was a symbol of freedom, of family, of hope, of America. He had to keep it hidden. If they’d have found it, they probably would have taken it away, or shot him or something,” Jones says. “It didn’t matter if you were a Jew or an atheist or a Catholic, that Bible meant something to everyone in that camp.”
Jones admits he’s skeptical of Weinstein’s motivation.
“I was checking out his website. It says he graduated from the Air Force Academy where they picked on him for being Jewish, and he says his sons who graduated from the academy also experienced the same thing, so at least some of this stuff about religion, you know, I get it. He’s angry,” Jones says.
Jones is also angry that someone who served this country can look at a solemn table setting and quibble about a book that represents something like hope — or whatever gets you though another day in prison camp.
If they don’t like it, they should just turn their heads when they walk in the building, or use a different entrance. I have no sympathy,” Jones says.
Weinstein, in turn, also expressed some skepticism, after seeing an image of the Bible Jones said was carried for 18 months by the POW. It appears to possibly be an altar Bible, he says.
“If it is in fact an altar Bible, and we don’t yet know that it is, it could weigh upwards of about 7 1/2 to 10 pounds. If so, how did the soldier carry that in his backpack or in his back pocket? How did he obtain said Bible in a POW camp? Perhaps someone could answer those questions,” Weinstein says.
The MFFR’s objection has less to do with political correctness, than with Christian privilege, unchecked, Weinstein says.
“A majority of the 14 veterans who brought complaints to us are practicing Christians, by the way – not all but a majority. And while I’m sure some think it’s great to have the Bible, there were also some who thought it was great when only the whites could sit in the front of the bus, or schools were segregated as separate but equal, only they weren’t equal,” Weinstein says.
“It’s fundamentalist Christian nationalism exceptionalism supremacy and triumphalism. If this particular Bible meant something to a POW at the VA, that’s great. We all have sentimental things that mean something to us. I assure you if a Muslim or Jew wanted to put their book out on a POW display, the explosion would be incalculable coming out of Manchester,” Weinstein says.
“I just checked my pocket Constitution and there’s no exception where it talks about separation of church and state,” Weinstein says. “In the Gospel of Jesus Christ is says if you don’t accept him as your lord and savior you’ll have a crappy life and when you die, you’re going to burn in the fires of hell.”
“This makes some veterans furious because they remember their brothers and sisters they fought alongside, and bled with and, in some cases, watched die, he says, good people of different faiths. It’s offensive, to be frank,” Weinstein says.
“And they understand in the military when that uniform goes on, it’s not Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-a. If those private organizations want to display the Christian Bible at the exclusion of all other faiths, that’s fine. We’re not in this fight because we’re bashing Christianity; we’re bashing the religious activists taking our tax dollars,” Weinstein says.
Jones plans to build a clear box of some kind that attaches to the table to protect the Bible once it’s back in place.
“I think Mikey’s a bully. I just want to say this one more time, without all the confetti around it: That Bible was a symbol for those POWS. Didn’t matter if they were Jews, Athiests, Muslim, whatever, whoever happened to be there, it didn’t make any difference. It wasn’t about get on your knees and bow to my God. It was a symbol of family and of hope and of courage and of home — and of release,” Jones says.
Weinstein suspects whoever’s in charge at the VA is suffering from Christian privilege.
“Next step? They can tell it to the judge or the Human Rights Commission. It’s an affront. That Bible in that display case is like a tarantula on a wedding cake. It’s like sticking the middle finger up to everyone else who doesn’t believe what they believe,” Weinstein says. “It’s a gang sign to military of all faiths.”
Below: A listing of religions among active duty personnel.