MRFF’s Original 2019 Victory at Manchester VA Medical Center Affirmed and Expanded

Published On: March 1, 2022|Categories: Achievements|0 Comments|

February 23, 2022

On January 28, 2019, MRFF President/Founder Mikey Weinstein contacted the administrative staff of the VA Medical Facility located in Manchester, New Hampshire on behalf of 14 (currently up to 17) veteran clients regarding the unconstitutional placement of a clearly sectarian religious text on the POW/MIA Missing Man Table located in the facility’s entry area.  These MRFF clients, who identified themselves as Christian (9) and Jewish/Muslim/Native American Spiritualist/Atheist/Agnostic (5), correctly noted the constitutionally inappropriate placement of a religious text on the POW/MIA memorial.  However, they all receive their medical care at the Manchester VAMC and feared reprisal, retribution and/or revenge if they tried to complain themselves.   As such, as so many other military veterans in similar situations have done, they contacted MRFF for assistance in resolving this matter.

Within 3 hours of contact by Mikey, the Acting Staff Assistant to the Director of the Manchester VAMC emailed the following confirmation that the religious text would be immediately removed from the memorial display:

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 [emphasis added].   I also would like to thank you for your service to this great nation. 

Semper Fidelis,
Corey D. Beem 
Acting Staff Assistant to the Director

(please note) While the swift, definitive and constitutionally appropriate actions described above were categorized as a ‘MRFF Victory’, the naked politicization of this issue by aggressive Christian Dominionists within the Trump Administration has created a longer story and another/bigger MRFF Victory.

Approximately 1-month after receiving the definitive response from the Manchester VAMC, the bible in question was moved to a prominent display case nearer the main entrance of the facility.  Additionally, a claim was made by the Northeast POW/MIA Network (the group that set up the display) that the Bible in question was donated by a then 95-year-old local former POW who carried that Bible during his time as a POW and subsequent escape. It was later verified that the Bible in question was definitely not carried in WWII https://jonhopwood.medium.com/new-hampshire-journalist-reveals-truth-about-mike-pences-va-bible-in-a-box-deception-a476255df62.

In response to this action, MRFF President/Founder Mikey Weinstein stated in an interview (source:  https://manchesterinklink.com/will-it-stay-or-will-it-go-should-bible-be-part-of-pow-mia-display-at-va-hospital/ – February 27, 2019):

As of this past weekend, it’s back. And, even worse, now it’s in a display case near the entrance, and we just heard that they’re planning to put it back on the POW table in an alcove. They’re going to encase it in glass or something, saying it’s not a religious symbol, that it’s an artifact. Gimme a break.        I wrote back to Corey Beem and said, ‘What the hell? You promised to take it off the table, we sent you a congratulatory press release. What changed? What happened to your ‘utmost respect and admiration for all Veterans”? Can someone answer that question for me?

In this same article where Mikey’s comments appear, Bob Jones (representing the group that placed the table- Northeast POW/MIA Network) stated, in part:

I don’t care if it’s 14 […the number of MRFF clients] people or 14,000. I don’t give a fat rat’s ass. If someone doesn’t want to see it in the lobby, take another entrance. Turn your head. The Bible stays.  

It should be noted that the non-traditional practice of Bible placements on POW/MIA remembrance tables has been clearly addressed by MRFF Senior Research Director Chris Rodda in response to the following claim of “tradition” in Bible placement by Hiram Sasser and Mike Berry of the First Liberty Institute:

Since the Vietnam War, the military has maintained the sacred tradition of setting a separate table in its dining facilities to honor POW/MIAs. The table is decorated with several items, each carrying symbolic meaning used to help remember those who were captured or declared missing. Traditionally, as a common symbol of faith, one of those items is a Bible [emphasis added].

(source: https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/op-eds/leave-pow-remembrance-tables-alone – April 17, 2018)

… Chris Rodda’s research showed:

The original POW/MIA table items did not include a Bible. And neither does the American Legion’s version. The American Legion, which adopted a resolution in 1985 calling for a POW/MIA table at all of its official meetings, includes in its official Chaplain’s Manual a list of the items to be included on the table and a script explaining the meaning of each item. The Bible is not included among the items.

But this so-called “tradition” of including a Bible didn’t emerge until three decades after the original tradition of the POW/MIA table was begun.  After an extensive search of newspapers, books, and other sources going back five decades, the earliest appearance that I’ve found of the Bible being added was in a 1999 issue of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary magazine. And, according to the Wayback Machine on archive.org, which archives previous versions of websites, the script including the Bible didn’t appear on the National League of POW/MIA Families [the source cited by Sasser/Berry for “tradition”] website until early 2000.

(https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/op-eds/bibles-dont-belong-on-pow-remembrance-tables – April 23, 2018

In response to one of many ‘hate mails’ received, MRFF Board Member Brig. Gen. (Ret.) John Compere (https://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org/brig-gen-ret-john-compere/) provided additional historical context for POW/MIA Tables:

Originated in 1967 by a group of our Vietnam War combat pilots, the River Rats, without religious scripture and continued thereafter by the American Legion without religious scripture, the POW/MIA display purpose was & is to leave a place at the dinner table for those military comrades and not forget them. It has always been about remembrance – not religion. Religious scriptures can be placed in hospital chapels for those who want to see them.

On or about March 18, 2019, two months after its constitutionally appropriate removal, the Bible was returned to the POW/MIA table at the Manchester VAMC bolted down under a Plexiglas/acrylic box. This blatant attempt to mark territory by privileged Christian Supremacists was further driven home when it was reported by WMUR in New Hampshire that the Veterans Administration released a statement saying in part, “We will not tolerate interference with and/or alteration of approved displays – such as this Northeast POW/MIA Network-sponsored POW/MIA table – and as a result these items will be removed.” (https://www.wmur.com/article/va-orders-removal-of-religious-texts-added-to-missing-man-table-at-medical-center/27500129).  MRFF clients had placed faith and non-faith texts on the Manchester VMAC POW/MIA Table includingWicca, Jewish Prayer Book for Armed Forces Personnel, White Blank Notebook for Atheist, Agnostic, Secularist and Humanist, The Book of Mormon and the Koran.  The VA statement, in obvious support of Christian privilege, was released after these texts were removed from the display.

In May/2019, MRFF, through one of its courageous military veteran complainants, filed a Federal lawsuit (https://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Final-Complaint-5.6.19.pdf) against the Manchester Department of Veterans Affairs over this unconstitutional Christian bible display.  To mark the filing of this lawsuit, MRFF flew an airplane banner over the Manchester VAMC on May 7, 2019 calling on them to “Honor all POW/MIA – Remove Bible.” 

On June 20, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the ‘Bladensburg Cross’ case (AMERICAN LEGION ET AL. v. AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSN. ET AL.) which allowed the ultimate symbol of one sectarian religion (Christianity) to be maintained on public property based on a poorly defined historical context exemption to the ‘Lemon Test’ in which the Court had previously established:

government conduct (1) must have a secular purpose, (2) must have a principal or primary effect that does not advance or inhibit religion, and (3) cannot foster an excessive government entanglement with religion. 

Quick to pounce on this nebulous ‘historical context exemption’, former VA Secretary Robert Wilke issued a press release on July 3, 2019 announcing the VA would move quickly to amend/create a ‘religious materials display and distribution policy’.  For context, contrast this pledge for quick action by former VA Sec. Wilke to dismantle the Lemon Test goal of church/state separation with his foot dragging when asked by members of Congress to remove swastikas from the gravestones of German prisoners of war who were buried in VA cemeteries:

I WOULD HAPPILY ENGAGE IN A VERY LONG PROCESS RIGHT NOW IN ORDER TO– I WOULD HAVE TO ENGAGE IN A VERY LONG PROCESS IN ORDER TO ERASE.

(source:  https://www.c-span.org/video/?472527-1/secretary-wilkie-testifies-va-coronavirus-response&live&vod)

The Religious Symbols in VA Facilities (VA Directive 0022), quickly implemented by Wilke, was finally published for full dissemination on January 31, 2020.  VA Directive 0022 states:

Religious symbols may be included in a passive display, including a holiday display, in public areas of VA facilities (see subsection a. below), if the display is of the type that follows in the longstanding tradition[emphasis added] of monuments, symbols and practices that simply recognize the important role that religion plays in the lives of many Americans.

The wording of this policy indicates a clear intent of allowing new displays of religious symbolism within VA Facilities based on ‘longstanding tradition’.  The tortured logic of this policy is based on the newly minted ‘Bladensburg Test’ based on a nebulous ‘historical context exemption’ that was applied to a pre-existing government supported religious display.  Based upon a longstanding tradition of the religious majority expecting (and receiving) government preference and privilege as well as the unconstitutional cacophony from Christian Dominionist belching the refrain that “America was founded as a Christian nation”, MRFF wonders how non-Christian faiths will fare as “longstanding traditions”:

MRFF President/Founder Mikey Weinstein’s statement on July 3, 2019 regarding new VA “Religious and Spiritual Symbols Policies”: 

… nothing more than a transparent and repugnant attempt to further buttress and solidify fundamentalist Christianity as the insuperable official religion of choice for the VA, our Armed Forces, and this country.

On July 20, 2019, Shawne K. Wickham posted an article in the New Hampshire Sunday News entitled Bedford ex-POW at center of VA Bible flap tells his story of capture, survival and escape:

It was he [Herman “Herk” Streitburger] who donated his family Bible to a POW “missing man” display at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, which prompted a federal First Amendment lawsuit.

(https://www.unionleader.com/news/veterans/bedford-ex-pow-at-center-of-va-bible-flap-tells/article_0f871026-795b-5413-ab17-48b4181c0417.html)

At no point, in this article or otherwise, does the donor of the Bible (Mr. Streitburger) ever indicate the Bible in question was in his possession during his captivity as a POW or escape from Stalag Luft IV.  This is an extremely noteworthy omission that clearly undermines a central “fact” put forth by those supporting and/or allowing inclusion of the Bible at the Manchester VAMC POW/MIA Table display.  Here are a few statements by representatives of the VA and the POW/MIA Table Sponsor made previously regarding the “tradition” or status as a “historical artifact” regarding the Bible placed at the Manchester VAMC:

https://www.wmur.com/article/bible-at-center-of-dispute-over-display-at-manchester-va-medical-center/26560320

(Andy Hershberger, WMUR, 2/27/2019)

The Bible was carried by a prisoner of war in World War II and then made part of a memorial at the Manchester VA until a veterans group objected and it was removed. Now, there’s an effort to put it back.

VA officials said they consider the Bible to be an historical artifact,…

VA officials released a statement saying they “consulted with appropriate legal counsel before placing this treasured WWII artifact [emphasis added], which happens to be a Bible, with the display, and is confident that this does not impinge on Constitutional protections.”

https://manchesterinklink.com/will-it-stay-or-will-it-go-should-bible-be-part-of-pow-mia-display-at-va-hospital/

(Carol Robidoux, 2/27/2019)

“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 [emphasis added],” Jones [Bob Jones of the Northeast POW/MIA Network]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.”

https://www.laconiadailysun.com/opinion/letters_to_editor/bible-returns-to-missing-man-table-at-manchester-va/article_d7fec754-4677-11e9-9b14-631128696817.html

(Bob “Doc” Jones, Northeast POW/MIA Network, 3/15/2019)

Well, as of Monday morning, the 18th, the Bible will be in a Plexiglas case that was donated by a Navy veteran and will be attached to the table. The case will have the name of the POW the Bible belonged to before being given to a Navy veteran, member of Northeast POW/MIA Network and Purple Heart recipient.

As stated, the Bible was used as a symbol of Freedom, Hope, Home, Love, Togetherness by all POWs, no matter what religion or no religion at all.

The motto of the Northeast POW/MIA Network has always been Faith, Trust, Truth, Responsibility and Accountability [emphasis added].

It should also be noted here of a remarkably similar story was shared by former VA Secretary Wilke during his swearing-in-ceremony in the Oval Office with former President Trump on July 30, 2018:

The Bible that I will take my oath on reminds me of the 100th anniversary of the end of the war to end all wars. It was a Bible taken into battle [emphasis added] by my wife’s grandfather who had probably never ventured beyond three or four counties in North and South Carolina. But by the time he was 18, he was marching up the Champs-élysées into the cauldron of the Meuse-Argonne.

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-swearing-ceremony-for-robert-l-wilkie-jr-secretary-veterans-affairs

The Bible used by Wilke and seen in the video of this ceremony (8:59mark https://www.c-span.org/video/?449196-1/president-trump-hosts-swearing-ceremony-incoming-veterans-affairs-secretary-robert-wilkie) is similar in size (and presumably weight) to the one donated to the Manchester VAMC.  This is obviously not the average ‘pocket-Bible’ several MRFF supporters noted, that were provided and carried in the field.  This type of Bible is often referred to as an ‘Alter Bible’ and generally weighs in around 7 lbs. or more.

On August 17, 2019, Shawne K. Wickham reported for the New Hampshire Union Leader that “The Northeast POW/MIA Network is seeking intervenor status in the case, filed by a veteran [MRFF client] against the [Manchester] V.A. Medical Center in US District Court.

In a speech to the American Legion National Convention in Indianapolis on Wednesday, August 28, 2019, former Vice-President Mike Pence decided to flex his Christian Dominionist muscles by making the following inaccurate and hyperbolic statements supporting unconstitutional Christian privilege and supremacy:  

-VA hospitals will not be religion-free zones. 

-We will always respect the freedom of religion of every veteran of every faith and my message to the New Hampshire VA hospital is this: ‘The Bible stays.’

-Pence, in his speech, said the lawsuit is no surprise because under the last administration, “VA hospitals were removing Bibles” to be “politically correct.” “But let me be clear: Under this administration, VA hospitals will not be religion-free zones,” he said. 

(source: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/vice-president-pence-says-bible-stays-veterans-hospital-facing-lawsuit-n1048611)

On August 28, 2019, former Vice-President Mike Pence doubled down on Twitter:

(8/28/19, 5:32 PM)

The last Administration was removing Bibles and even banning Christmas carols to be politically correct, but under President @realDonaldTrump, VA hospitals will NOT be religion-free zones. Message to the New Hampshire VA: the Bible STAYS! [email protected]

This clear demand by the former VP for Christian supremacy over government operations at the New Hampshire, VA was soon re-tweeted and supported by former President Donald Trump.  While potentially politically effective, MRFF contends that this type of sectarian religious pandering for political gain are neither factual nor constitutional. This putrid display of Christian Dominionism by the former Trump Administration was a direct result of MRFF’s numerous past successes on behalf of its clients standing up for their rights to be free from government sanctioned religious preferences and tests.

On September 5, 2019, the Universal Society of Hinduism (USOH) issued a press release stating “Hindus would also like to display ancient Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita on the entrance lobby table at Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in Manchester (New Hampshire).  Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada Today, said that the presence of sacred texts at the entrance of hospitals was highly beneficial as scriptures provided us comfort and strength and God wanted us well.”  (https://www.prlog.org/12787456-hindus-seek-display-of-bhagavad-gita-at-manchester-veterans-hospital.html)

Kristen Carosa of WMUR also reported:

Rajan Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, a global organization, is requesting that the ancient scripture be placed on the prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action table in the building’s lobby.

On the same day, Robert Farley of FactCheck.org thoroughly destroyed former VP Pence’s statement to the American Legion in Indianapolis:

In an address to veterans, Vice President Mike Pence said “VA hospitals were removing Bibles” and “banning Christmas carols” under the last administration, and “will not be religion-free zones” under this administration. But VA hospitals have never been “religion-free zones.” And there’s less to the isolated incidents than Pence’s claim suggests.  

However, the Bible in question was not “carried in World War II,” as Pence said. A reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader interviewed the veteran who donated the Bible — a 100-year-old New Hampshire man who was once a POW in a German prison camp. The story noted, “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.”  [emphasis added]

(https://www.factcheck.org/2019/09/pences-politically-correct-obama-va-claim/)

To coincide with the first Federal Court hearing regarding the Manchester VAMC duplicitous actions regarding the “traditional” POW/MIA Table & “historical artifact” Bible Plexiglas Display sponsored by the equally dishonest Northeast POW/MIA Network, MRFF sponsored a billboard in downtown Manchester that went up on September 25, 2019 with the following message:

ATTENTION:
TRUMP*PENCE*VAMC
REMOVE THE BIBLE
HONOR ALL VETERANS

Based upon the Federal Court’s action later that day, Judge Denies Motion to Dismiss Manchester VA Bible Challenge (https://www.nhpr.org/post/judge-denies-motion-dismiss-manchester-va-bible-challenge#stream/0); Mikey/MRFF issued the following statement:

We are very pleased by what happened in Federal Court in Concord, New Hampshire today as skillfully argued by Attorney Larry Vogelman of the Nixon Vogelman law firm.

The Federal judge, Paul Barbadoro, adopted our MRFF client’s argument that discovery had to occur and more facts developed regarding the history of the POW/MIA table and the Christian Bible before he could make the final decision on the merits of the case. 

On the standing issue, the Federal judge understood and seemed to agree with our MRFF client’s argument that our client had standing to object to the Christian Bible on the POW/MIA table despite the fact that he, our MRFF client, is a Christian. On that issue of standing, the Federal judge reserved judgment and will write an opinion to come later.

…and a second MRFF client joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff on October 4, 2019. (https://manchesterinklink.com/va-sued-by-former-military-intelligence-analyst-due-to-bible-display/)

Even after being exposed for his Christian Dominionist lying to the American Legion and U.S. Public back in August/2019, former VP Pence pompously ‘doubled-down’ during a remarks to a meeting of faith leaders in Kalamazoo, MI on December 4, 2019:

In fact […see FactCheck.org analysis above], in many VA facilities, they weren’t allowing people to sing Christmas carols in the hallways. And again, at President Trump’s direction, our Secretary of the VA took action. We implemented new policies and new plans, and we sent a very simple message to a hospital in New Hampshire that they were trying to remove the Bible from a Missing Man Table in the lobby. And our message said, “We got new rules. You got a new President. The Bible stays.” [emphasis added](https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-vice-president-pence-meeting-faith-leaders-kalamazoo-mi/)

On February 23, 2022, the attorney for MRFF’s clients moved to dismiss the lawsuit without prejudice as part of the plan to achieve MRFF’s ultimate goal; to get a second, MRFF-designed, Bible-free POW/MIA table display placed in the same lobby.  If MRFF’s table is denied an equal place by the Manchester VA Medical Center, a new Lawsuit will be immediately filed on those grounds.   

Kathy McCormick reported for the Associated Press:

“One of the focuses was us putting up our own table,” attorney Lawrence Vogelman, who represents the veterans, said at a hearing in requesting the dismissal. He said Veterans Affairs has a specific procedure for requesting a table and would negotiate the details with the hospital’s lawyers in an effort to avoid any more litigation.  “I think that we’re close enough, or hopefully we are, and in the event it doesn’t work out, then you’ll see us again, but I am very optimistic,” Vogelman said to the judge.

(https://apnews.com/article/religion-lawsuits-veterans-manchester-new-hampshire-ee0452f7a686877b20b2878c18cff9e1)

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