Leave POW Remembrance Tables Alone

April 21, 2018
editorial on how a radical group is attacking a sacred military tradition honoring POW/MIA’s with POW Remembrance Tables.

First Liberty attorneys Hiram Sasser and Mike Berry publish a recent editorial on how a radical group is attacking a sacred military tradition honoring POW/MIA’s. This article was originally published in The Washington Examiner on April 17, 2018.

Last week, our law firm, First Liberty Institute, filed a lawsuit on behalf U.S. Air Force veteran Oscar Rodriguez and Chuck Roberson. Oscar was assaulted and forcibly removed from a fellow airman’s retirement ceremony by Air Force officials because his flag-folding speech contained the word “God.”

In response, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a small, but vocal anti-religious liberty outfit, complained, “Allowing Rodriguez to yell like a fundamentalist Christian hurricane is the antithesis of good order and discipline.”

But the foul wind blows from the MRFF’s own cyclone. It recently complained to the U.S. Navy about a Bible and a “One Nation under God” placard placed on a POW/MIA table at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Okinawa, Japan.

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. According the National League of POW/MIA Families this symbol of all faiths is meant to represent “the strength gained through faith to sustain those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God.”

This is not the first complaint by the MRFF over a POW/MIA remembrance table. Sadly, it probably won’t be the last. Previously, MRFF demanded an Akron, Ohio VA clinic remove the Bible from its POW/MIA remembrance table. In 2014, it attacked remembrance tables in the Air Force and Navy.

According to the MRFF, the Bible’s symbolic inclusion on a POW/MIA remembrance table is a “loathsome message” and a “disgustingly bigoted statement.”

Only someone with a heartless animus toward these traditional symbols and ceremonies that bring such comfort could make such wild, hurtful, and unfounded claims.

If what the MRFF says is true, wouldn’t a diverse chorus of retired American servicemen and women and former POWs join its protest? Instead, we find just the opposite. For example, American POWs frequently cited faith in God as a source of comfort and strength during their captivity:

  • U.S. Air Force Capt. Lance Sijan, who received the Medal of Honor for his selflessness and courage while in enemy captivity, helped devise the famed “tap code” by which American POWs were able to encourage each other. Each night, they tapped “GNGBU,” which meant “Good Night, God Bless You.”
  • U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Jeremiah Denton, who later became a U.S. senator, was a POW who famously blinked the word “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse code during a forced television interview with his North Vietnamese captors. The late Adm. Denton once recounted, “A man does a lot of praying in an enemy prison. Prayer, even more than sheer thought, is the firmest anchor.”
  • U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. James “Robbie” Risner, who became an ace fighter pilot during the Korean War, was the highest-ranking officer in the famous Hanoi Hilton POW camp. During captivity, Gen. Risner would brief newly-arrived POWs on how to survive, exhorting them: “Pray; if you haven’t been, start.” Gen. Risner also organized rudimentary church services and required POWs to attend. Years later, Gen. Risner revealed during an interview that his survival was due to his “faith in God and love of country.”

So much for the MRFF’s accusation that the Bible or the mention of God hurts morale and discipline. Under the MRFF’s grand vision, Gen. Risner would not have a statue on the hallowed grounds of the Air Force Academy, but rather a court-martial conviction for requiring troops to attend church: MRFF President Michael Weinstein has stated that he wants “400 trials by general court martial” of Christian officers who express their faith to others.

The POW/MIA remembrance table and similar religious expressions like Oscar Rodriguez’s flag-folding are permitted by the law, military code, and court precedent. Allowing today’s service members to continue similar traditions serves to honor all our veterans and the memory of America’s POW/MIAs.

More importantly, they enable our service members to freely and openly exercise their religious beliefs as an essential component of our military’s ability to fight, survive, and win. Simply put, religious freedom in the military is vital to our national security.

And for those whose loved ones are missing or never returned home — religious freedom gives comfort, compassion, and hope. Why would anyone try to remove these or tarnish the memory of those who served?

Liberty Watch news is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.

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