Early this month, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) filed a complaint after a Bible was added to a Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) “Missing Man” table display at U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa, the Navy’s largest overseas hospital. An admiral struck down the resulting investigation, but MRFF has responded with a demand that the display add books from over a dozen other religions.
MRFF argued that the presence of a Bible in the display constituted an establishment of religion, and so violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The group suggested an overburdened display in order to illustrate the alleged absurdity of balancing out the alleged religious “discrimination.”
“To claim that the Bible isn’t there for something religious is patently ridiculous,” MRFF founder Michael Weinstein, a former Air Force officer, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “Either the Navy will agree with us, and the table will collapse from too much weight, or he won’t and the table will be moved to the chapel or somewhere else.”
Weinstein demanded the Okinawa “Missing Man” display include texts sacred to Roman Catholics, Protestants, Satanists, Muslims, Jews, Shintoists, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons and others, plus several humanist and secularist works that nonbelievers favor.
The MRFF founder said several Shinto and Buddhist spouses of American personnel objected to a placard on the “Missing Man” display — in English and Japanese — saying the Bible “represents the strength gained through faith to sustain those lost from our country, founded one nation under God.”
The Navy launched an investigation on April 6, after Weinstein and 26 service members filed a formal complaint. Last week, Rear Adm. Paul D. Pearigen told the foundation that “neither further review nor an investigation of this matter is necessary.”
A Navy protocol manual drafted nearly 17 years ago mandates that there must be a Bible on the “Missing Man” table, and the protocol does not mention substitutes or accompanying books.
“As one of nine symbolic references on the table, the purpose of the book and accompanying description is not to promote religion, but to commemorate the strength and resolve required of POW and MIA personnel in the most difficult of times. Each item on the table contributes to an atmosphere of remembrance and solemnity, without emphasizing the book as a religious text,” he told The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Weinstein responded by reemphasizing the First Amendment. The “bottom line is that the Constitution is going to trump whatever is in a manual by the Army or the Navy or the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs],” he said.
Some military branches, including the Air Force, the American Legion, the VA, and other agencies and organizations, quit featuring Christian books like the Bible in their displays.
The tactic of demanding overbroad religious inclusion has worked for MRFF in the past. In early 2016, the VA removed a Bible from a similar display in Youngstown, Ohio, after patients demanded the display also include the Torah and Richard Dawkins’ infamous book, “The God Delusion.” The VA replaced the Bible in question with a generic book meant to represent many faiths.
Weinstein added that since news of the Okinawa controversy broke, MRFF has received complaints from soldiers at 31 other units worldwide expressing distress over Bibles in displays.
The MRFF founder mentioned a complaint where soldiers objected to a Bible with the logo of “Operation Worship,” a nonprofit organization that distributes free holy books and Christian music to troops worldwide. Weinstein argued that since the Bible has the Operation Worship logo, it represents an implicit endorsement of the organization.
“If the military can’t endorse Ford over Chevy, then it can’t endorse Operation Worship over other Christian groups, much less Jews, Muslims and others,” Weinstein argued.
“We have been providing free military Bibles to chaplains for years with no complaints,” Operation Worship co-founder Jeff Hilliard told the Union-Tribune, insisting that he was unaware of any complaints about his organization’s Bibles. “With respect to deliveries overseas, we do deliver some at times but are unaware as to where they end up. We have never asked for or received military endorsement for our Bibles either.”
The MRFF has also objected to an Air Force Academy football coach who tweeted Bible verses.
The Bible has had a tremendous impact on American history — for good and (occasionally) ill. Championing the Bible does not necessarily represent an establishment of Christianity, and no other book can adequately represent the faith and values that drove American soldiers through the ages. In displays explicitly commemorating non-Christian soldiers, it may make sense to use a book that relates to each veteran’s faith, but generic displays like these should be allowed to feature the Bible.
Complaints like this one come off as petty, even though Weinstein seems deadly serious.