Beginning in February 2016 MRFF began taking action on behalf of its clients regarding the inclusion of Bibles on POW/MIA Missing Man Table displays at several military and VA installations (VA Facilities in Akron, OH; Youngstown, OH; Houston, TX; Tobyhanna, PA along with Wright-Patterson, AFB). These actions began with objections raised by 11 MRFF clients to the overtly religious display at the Akron, Ohio VA clinic. After this religious display was removed following MRFF intervention, a similar dispute involving 7 MRFF clients arose in March 2016 at the Youngstown, Ohio VA clinic. This religious display was also immediately removed after MRFF intervention.
In response to MRFF’s successful challenges to the overt religious display of the Bible on these POW/MIA Missing Man Tables there was the usual and expected backlash from those complaining of a perceived Christian persecution. However, as MRFF’s Senior Research Director Chris Rodda succinctly pointed out in an Huffington Post article posted on July 19, 2016, the American Legion’s official Chaplain’s Manual does not include a Bible as part of their POW/MIA Missing Man Table display.
In response to MRFF’s ongoing challenges to these unconstitutional religious displays, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration of the VA issued updated policy guidance on religious expression and exercise at VA facilities on August 19, 2016. Of particular note in the updated policy guidance was this passage in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) associated with this updated policy:
If a VA facility director authorizes an outside group or individual to set up a display, similarly-situated groups or individuals must be permitted to set up a display. At all times, the Federal government must ensure that it does not act in a manner that would lead a reasonable observer to conclude that it is sponsoring, endorsing, or inhibiting religion generally or that it is favoring or disfavoring a particular religion.
Example: If the head of the facility or designee approves a Veteran Service Organization’s request to set up a display recognizing Prisoners of War and Missing in Action (POW/MIA), the decision to authorize the display must be based on whether doing so will benefit VA patients, beneficiaries and/or employees, and whether the activity will interfere with the operations of the facility. VA must remain neutral regarding the views expressed by the group, to include the use of any religious or secular items in the display. VA may request the Veteran Service Organization to clearly indicate ownership of the display through signage.