The Northeast POW/MIA Network is an organization with the goal to “heighten public awareness to the plight of American Prisoners of War and Missing in Action.” As part of this mission, this group sets up displays with physical reminders that are meant to cause visitors, patients, and employees to pause, reflect, and remember those who are prisoners of war and who are still missing in action. The group currently has a display at the Manchester VA Medical Center in New Hampshire that has recently come under attack because it includes a donated Bible.
Since the Vietnam War, our nation has maintained the sacred tradition of setting a separate table in countless Department of Defense and VA 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. A 2016 Veterans Administration memo states that when a VA facility permits a POW/MIA Remembrance Table, it must “remain neutral regarding the views expressed by the group, to include the use of any religious or secular items in the display.”
At the Manchester VA Medical Center, the NE POW/MIA Network donated such a display. A local WWII veteran and former prisoner of war in Germany, Hank Streitburger, donated a Bible to be included in the display.
It was then that the outside activist group, Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), sent a letter to the hospital claiming it is unconstitutional for the Bible to be included in such displays.
Though MRFF claims the display of a Bible is illegal, VA policy says that as long as the facility director approves, outside groups are welcome to put up or maintain a display just like this, including displays of religious content. First Liberty sent a letter encouraging the VA to abide by its current policy, and remember the service and sacrifice of Prisoners of War such as Hank Streitburger.
“If outside activists want to desecrate this POW/MIA display they will have to come through us,” says Mike Berry, First Liberty Institute’s Chief of Staff and Director of Military Affairs.
In May, a local activist, with the help of MRFF, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the display.
In response, Berry added, “POW/MIA Remembrance displays have a long, cherished history in our nation. Veterans organizations like the Northeast POW/MIA Network should be able to honor and remember those killed, captured or missing with a display that includes a Bible donated by a WWII veteran that represents the strength through faith necessary for American service members to survive.”
Until early July 2019, VA policy guidance delegated the discretion to authorize such displays to individual VA facility directors, leaving it possible for some VA facilities to authorize POW/MIA remembrance displays that include Bibles and some not. But after First Liberty Institute urged Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie to issue a policy applicable to all VA facilities that permits the inclusion of a Bible in POW/MIA remembrance displays, the VA announced directives “permitting religious literature, symbols and displays at VA facilities to protect religious liberty for Veterans and families while ensuring inclusivity and non-discrimination.”
“This new VA policy is a welcome breath of fresh air,” Berry said.
In the meantime, a federal judge in New Hampshire allowed First Liberty to intervene in the case on behalf of the Northeast POW/MIA Network to defend the display of Herk’s Bible against MRFF’s attack.
“Our clients, who are all patriots from the New England area, sacrificed too much for this country to let some activists from thousands of miles away bully them,” Berry said. “The Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of religious displays with historic roots such as those commonly found in VA facilities. First Liberty will fight alongside the VA to make sure the Bible stays.”
For Immediate Release: 9.25.19
Contact: Lacey McNiel, firstname.lastname@example.org
Judge Allows Religious Liberty Firm to Join in Defense of Bible on POW/MIA Remembrance Table at New Hampshire VA Hospital
First Liberty Institute represents veterans organization that owns and maintains display at Manchester, New Hampshire VA Medical Center
Concord, NH—A federal judge today granted First Liberty Institute’s motion to intervene on behalf of its client, the Northeast POW/MIA Network (the Network), in a lawsuit filed against the inclusion of a donated Bible on a POW/MIA Remembrance Table owned and maintained by the Network at the Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The judge also allowed the case to move forward.
“Our clients, who are all patriots from the New England area, sacrificed too much for this country to let some activists from thousands of miles away bully them,” said Michael Berry, Director of Military Affairs and Chief of Staff for First Liberty Institute. “The Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of religious displays with historic roots such as those commonly found in VA facilities. First Liberty will fight alongside the VA to make sure the Bible stays.”
A local veteran, supported by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), filed the lawsuit earlier this year. The lawsuit claimed that by allowing a private display to include a Bible at the medical center, the VA had violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on the “establishment of religion.” Attorneys with the VA and First Liberty argue that because the display is owned and maintained by a private organization, it is private speech, and therefore protected by the First Amendment.
In July, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it updated and clarified its policies “permitting religious literature, symbols and displays at VA facilities to protect religious liberty for Veterans and families while ensuring inclusivity and nondiscrimination” after First Liberty sent a letter urging the VA to issue such a clarification.
The Bible included in the display at the MVAMC was donated by former U.S. Army Air Corps Technical Sergeant (TSgt) Herman “Herk” Streitburger, of Bedford, NH, who was held captive in a German Prisoner of War camp during World War II.
First Liberty is working on behalf of the Network with attorney Jeremy Eggleton of Orr & Reno, P.A
About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
You can download a PDF of this news release here.