Dispute over Bible at Manchester VA hospital divides veterans

  • John Newman, pastor at Higher Ground Ministries in Barnstead, holds his Bible in front of the cross at his home compound on Lucas Pond in Northwood on Friday, May 10, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • John Newman, pastor at Higher Ground Ministries in Barnstead, holds up his Bible on his property on Lucas Pond in Northwood on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • An Air Force veteran is suing the Manchester VA Medical Center over the display of this Bible.

Monitor staff
Published: 5/10/2019 6:13:36 PM

Religion played an important role in John Newman’s Irish-Catholic family when he was a young boy growing up in Newfoundland, Canada, but he says it wasn’t until he faced combat in Vietnam that he fully realized his belief in God.

“Your most heavily involved combat veterans, they find a piece of faith in there somewhere, and they cry out to God one way or another, I know I did, when you think you’re going to get killed and the bullets are flying,” he said.

Newman recalled several close brushes with death during his service, including a harrowing rescue mission where he and his men went into enemy territory to find a U.S. aircraft that had wrecked. The pilot died when the plane went down, he said, but Newman and his men made it out alive. He later received a Bronze Star for that mission.

Through the decades that followed the war, Newman’s faith grew. He is the pastor at Higher Ground Ministries in Barnstead, a church he established in 1986.

His identity as a veteran has also remained important in his life, attending reunions with other men from his battalion and playing bagpipes at memorial services at the Veteran Cemetery in Boscawen.

Newman has been receiving medical care at the Manchester VA ever since he returned home. When he learned that a group of veterans was calling for the removal of a Bible on display at the hospital, he grew frustrated and feared it could set a precedent to remove other religious symbols from veteran memorials.

In Newman’s opinion, the Bible in dispute over at the VA – which was carried by a prisoner of war in World War II – represents more than Christianity.

“That Bible is probably the best thing there because it represents all religions and so many different sects of religion,” he said in an interview at his Northwood home tucked away on Lucas Pond. “I’m very disappointed in these guys.”

The display is called the Missing Man Table and honors missing veterans and prisoners of war. The table is stationed at the main entranceway to the hospital and is sponsored by Northeast POW/MIA Network.

A federal lawsuit was filed against the VA this week in Concord, demanding the Bible be removed immediately and permanently.

The plaintiff is James Chamberlain, an Air Force veteran and New Hampshire resident as well as a devout Christian. The lawsuit, penned by Chamberlain’s attorney, Lawrence Vogelman, argues the inclusion of the Bible is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit says the government cannot “give favoritism to one religious belief at the expense of others.”

“We would all be outraged if the MVAMC only provided care to Christians, or denied care to non-believers, or those who worship their God in other ways,” the suit reads. “The placement of a Christian Bible on this sacred table is just as objectionable.”

In January, 14 veterans who also receive care at the Manchester VA submitted complaints about the Bible display to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a civil rights advocacy organization for active military members and veterans, according to the suit.

Shortly after the MRFF received the complaints, the organization’s president, Michael Weinstein, called the Manchester VA leadership and demanded the Bible be removed, according to the lawsuit. Weinstein received an email later that day from the acting staff assistant to the director of the Manchester VA saying the Bible would be taken off the display.

“I want you to know that can inform your clients that the Manchester VAMC has the utmost respect and admiration for all Veterans, regardless of belief,” the email read, according to the suit. “As such, we are going to be removing the Bible from the display to better serve all veterans.”

Less than a month later, on Feb. 23, some of the veterans who called for the Bible’s removal reported to the MRFF that the Bible had returned to the display and was locked in a plexiglass box.

It was at this point, according to the court papers, that Chamberlain came forward as another complainant and was willing to be the named plaintiff in a lawsuit, despite also receiving care at the VA.

“Despite his strong personal religious beliefs, he believes that the Christian Bible has no place being displayed on the POW/MIA table,” the lawsuit reads. “As a Christian, he respects and loves all his military brothers and sisters and does not want to be exclusionary by the placement of the Christian Bible.”

The other complainants, who come from a variety of religious backgrounds, wanted to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation, according to the suit.

The press secretary for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Curt Cashour, issued a statement shortly after news broke that the Manchester VA was being sued.

“This lawsuit – backed by a group known for questionable practices and unsuccessful lawsuits – is nothing more than an attempt to force VA into censoring a show of respect for America’s POW/MIA community. Make no mistake: VA will not be bullied on this issue,” Cashour said.

When the Bible was removed, officials at the VA say they received “an outpouring of complaints from Veterans and other stakeholders – many of whom dropped off Bibles at the facility – in protest of this action.”

The Bible was returned to the table after the hospital consulted their lawyers. Cashour said the decision to initially remove the Bible was made “out of an abundance of caution.”

“We apologize to the veterans, families and other stakeholders who were offended by our incorrect removal of this Bible,” he said.

Newman, a Vietnam veteran from Northwood, said he believes the VA made a knee-jerk decision to pull the Bible off the table after hearing the complaints.

“Every time there is one voice against something ... we immediately bend,” he said. “This erosion, it starts with this Bible issue, and when one thing starts there’s a domino effect. We have a table with a Bible on it at our Veterans Cemetery. Once they start with this, do they want to take everything away?”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)




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