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After two years of litigation involving a Christian display inside a government-run hospital, the display will remain up… but it may have company very soon.

The history of this “Missing Man” table

This case goes back to 2019, when the Manchester VA Medical Center in New Hampshire allowed a “Missing Man” table display in the front entrance. These displays are dedicated to prisoners of war or those missing in action, and they’re fairly commonplace at military bases. But this particular display had a Christian Bible on the table, suggesting that POW/MIAs were only Christian and that atheists and other non-Christians didn’t make the same sacrifices as other soldiers. Even if that wasn’t the intention, that was the takeaway.

The person who requested that display, Vietnam veteran Bob Jones, didn’t hide his pro-Christian desires either, telling a local paper at the time why the Bible needed to stay:

“I forget; when we took our oath to the military, did it say ‘God’ in it? How about when we get paid, on that money, it says ‘in God we trust.’  They don’t turn in their money, though, right? So now there’s a Bible on the table and they don’t like it. You know what? They are free to believe what they want to believe, and so am I. It’s called freedom,” Jones says. “The Bible stays.”

His argument was extremely weak. Just because the government caved in to religious messaging in the past didn’t give it license to promote religion in the future. This wasn’t religious freedom at work; this was the majority pushing its religious will on the minority. Jones, of course, was free to put up the display on private property, but this display appeared to have a stamp of approval from the VA hospital itself. That was the problem.

The Bible was removed from the display temporarily, following a complaint from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, but it soon reappeared inside a “locked plexiglass box.” (Not entirely surprising given how the Trump administration bent over backwards to appease conservative Christians.)

So the complaints continued. One even came from James Chamberlain, an Air Force veteran who belonged to the United Church of Christ and received medical care from that VA. His attorney sent a letter to the hospital director asking for the Bible to be removed, and the hospital’s lawyers said no, arguing that the Bible placement “was not unconstitutional.”

That’s when a federal lawsuit was filed.

Without getting into every single legal twist and turn here, the case was finally resolved yesterday when a judge dismissed the case at the request of MRFF.

The alternative “Missing Man” table

The group’s founder and president Mikey Weinstein told me last night this dismissal was effectively a win for his side because it created a path forward that would hopefully lead to a display honoring all POW/MIAs to go up right beside the Christian-only one.

Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, is also representing the Air Force veterans who filed the lawsuit. He said the table, which MRFF is sponsoring, would have the American flag draped on it and contain a published, generic Book of Faith. A granite stone would display the opening words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“We want them to honor them all,” he said.

An artist’s rendition of MRFF’s proposed display.

The generic Book of Faith he mentioned is glorious in its own right; it’s a reminder to everyone that the Bible isn’t the only game in town. The book includes short prayers representing 18 belief systems—including a passage written by Thomas Paine for the non-religious.

What happens now

Weinstein said they would go through the formal process to apply for a table of their own, and if the VA ends up rejecting it or refuses to process the application in a timely manner, the plaintiffs will refile their lawsuit “at warp speed” citing religious discrimination. But all signs point to the new table being approved without much pushback.

Weinstein also told me he would have preferred the Biden administration take a more religiously neutral approach by either removing the Bible from the Christian table or at least putting in place a policy requiring such displays in government buildings to be secular.

So why is he considering this a victory? Because the Christians who requested the first table “want to be alone,” he said. They wouldn’t be happy about the prospect of sharing space with a display that isn’t explicitly Christian, just as Christians who put up Nativity scenes outside courthouses get furious when Satanic or atheist displays get erected next to them.

Given that the groups representing the Christian display haven’t issued any press releases (as of this writing) about the lawsuit’s dismissal, Weinstein seems to have a point.

Ultimately, this case is all about which soldiers deserve to be honored and whether the government should give a leg up to people who want to use the Bible as a symbol to stand in for all those who have sacrificed for the country. MRFF’s proposed table isn’t anti-Christian in any way. But the one that’s currently up in the Manchester VA Medical Center sends a clear derisive message to anyone who doesn’t worship Jesus.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.