Based in New Hampshire, the Northeast POW/MIA Network is an organization whose mission is to “heighten public awareness to the plight of American Prisoners of War and Missing in Action.” In 2018, the VA authorized the Network to create a display at the Manchester VA Medical Center (MVAMC) in New Hampshire. As part of its mission, the Network creates such displays with physical reminders that are meant to cause visitors, patients, and employees to pause, reflect, and remember American prisoners of war and those who have been declared missing in action. A local WWII veteran and former prisoner of war in Germany, Herman “Herk” Streitburger, donated his Bible to be included in the MVAMC display.
That display is now the subject of a lawsuit, Chamberlain v. Montoya, because some view the inclusion of Herk’s Bible as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
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. Traditionally, the Bible is included to represent “the strength gained through faith to sustain us and those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God.”
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.” Under the 2016 policy, the VA 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, while other VA facilities did not.
In July 2019, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie issued a new policy applicable to all VA facilities that permits the inclusion of a Bible in POW/MIA remembrance displays. The VA announced new directives “permitting religious literature, symbols and displays at VA facilities to protect religious liberty for Veterans and families while ensuring inclusivity and non-discrimination.”
First Liberty Institute, on behalf of its client the Northeast POW/MIA Network, is seeking to intervene in the Manchester VA Medical Center lawsuit. The case comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association in which the court upheld, 7-2, the constitutionality of a cross-shaped veterans memorial on government property. While the court noted the age of the display—over 90 years—at issue in The American Legion as a factor for consideration, the display at issue in New Hampshire is less than one year old. Thus, Chamberlain presents one of the first opportunities to define the contours of The American Legion.
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Mike Berry is Chief of Staff for First Liberty Institute, a legal organization dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans.