Vice President Mike Pence weighed in on a First-Amendment lawsuit challenging a Bible on display at a New Hampshire veterans hospital, saying under the current administration, "VA hospitals will not be religion-free zones."
"We will always respect the freedom of religion of every veteran of every faith," Pence said in a speech addressing the American Legion National Convention in Indianapolis on Wednesday. "And my message to the New Hampshire VA hospital is this: 'The Bible stays.'"
The military religious freedom foundation that originally objected to the Bible called the president a "repulsive and repellent fundamentalist Christian" bully.
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The Bible became part of the missing man table honoring missing veterans and POWS at the entranceway of the Manchester VA Medical Center. The Department of Veterans Affairs said the table was sponsored by a veterans group called the Northeast POW/MIA Network.
A federal lawsuit was filed in Concord in May by U.S. Air Force veteran James Chamberlain against the center's director, Alfred Montoya, saying the Bible's inclusion is a violation of the Constitution. The First Amendment stipulates "that the government may not establish any religion. Nor can the government give favoritism to one religious belief at the expense of others," according to the suit.
Chamberlain, a devout Christian, said in the lawsuit the table should be a memorial to all who have served, regardless of their beliefs. The suit said the original POW/MIA table tradition was started by a group of Vietnam combat pilots and didn't include a Bible as one of the items.
A missing man table is usually set up near military dining facilities and is in honor of fallen or missing service members. It's a table set for one person and features a white tablecloth, single rose, a lit candle and more. In some displays, a Bible is also on the table to represent spiritual strength.
Pence, in his speech, said the lawsuit is no surprise because under the last administration, "VA hospitals were removing Bibles" to be "politically correct."
"But let me be clear: Under this administration, VA hospitals will not be religion-free zones," he said.
Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, in a statement called Pence "one of the most repulsive and repellent fundamentalist Christian supremacists and bullies on the scene today" and added that "it is hardly surprising that he is lending his ugly bigotry and pervasive prejudice in support of keeping that Christian bible bolted down on that POW/MIA table at the Manchester, New Hampshire VA Medical Center."
The medical center initially removed the Bible in January after the foundation objected, saying it got complaints from 14 patients who felt it violated the First Amendment. A variety of religions were represented among the 14.
But the Bible reappeared on the table in February. It was put in a clear case and secured to the table. A Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman said the Bible was put back after the medical center received an outpouring of complaints from veterans and others.