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OPINION

Herk’s Bible belongs on Remembrance Table

By BOB JONES AND MIKE BERRY | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: July 5, 2019

On July 4, 1944 — not even a full month after D-Day, Herman “Herk” Streitberger and many of his fellow servicemembers couldn’t celebrate America’s Independence. There were no fireworks. There were no picnics. There were no parades.

Along with thousands of other Americans and allies during World War II, Herk was a prisoner of war. It was the price he and others paid fighting to ensure that the freedom we continue to enjoy today would survive.

But in the latest in a series of attacks on the religious liberty of American servicemembers and veterans, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation turned its sights on a Bible that belongs to Herk. Recently, the MRFF filed a lawsuit seeking to remove the personal Bible that Herk donated to display on the POW/MIA Remembrance Table at the Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New Hampshire. But in doing so, the MRFF picked a fight with the wrong veteran.

Herk served the U.S. Army Air Corps as a waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber during World War II. Along with nearly 8,000 other American and British troops, he spent time as “a guest of the German government” in the Stalag Luft IV Prisoner Of War camp.

As anyone might imagine, life in a German POW camp was not pleasant. An International Committee of the Red Cross team visited Stalag Luft IV in October 1944. In the ICRC team’s report of the many sufferings it identified, the team highlighted the prisoners’ spiritual needs. Chaplains assigned to the POW camp complained that the German captors confiscated Bibles and religious books. That’s what makes the MRFF’s lawsuit so cruel.

Herk himself explained the value his faith provided him: “If ever I had fallen behind on my prayers, I made up for it during my captivity.” Herk later described his faith and prayer as providing “great solace.”

As a veteran and a former POW, Herk wanted to ensure others in his community, particularly fellow veterans, are able to experience the same great solace he did. So, he donated his personal Bible to the Northeast POW/MIA Network, whose mission is to honor American servicemembers who have been captured or declared missing. One of the ways the Network does this is by way of a Remembrance Table at the Manchester VAMC.

Historically, the Bible has been included in the POW/MIA Remembrance Table as a symbol of the strength gained through faith. There are countless tales of POWs whose strength through faith is what enabled them to persevere and endure the unimaginable.

The Department of Veterans Affairs also recognizes the great solace faith offers. Thus, VA policy allows for POW/MIA Remembrance Tables that include a Bible to be put up in VA facilities and has voiced strong public support for the inclusion of Herk’s Bible at the Manchester facility.

Until just this week, VA policy guidance delegated the discretion to authorize such displays to individual VA facility directors. But after First Liberty Institute, a legal organization dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans, urged Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie to issue a policy applicable to all VA facilities that permits the inclusion of a Bible in POW/MIA remembrance displays, the VA announced directives “permitting religious literature, symbols and displays at VA facilities to protect religious liberty for Veterans and families while ensuring inclusivity and nondiscrimination.”

This new policy is a welcome breath of fresh air and honors our veterans and the sacrifices they made for our country.

In the meantime, First Liberty is intervening in the case to defend the display of Herk’s Bible against MRFF’s attack.

Sadly, as many have done throughout history, the MRFF wants to confiscate and ban Bibles and other religious books. Predictably, the MRFF attempts to do so through litigation. Too often, activist groups such as the MRFF are met with little resistance. The threat of a lawsuit is typically enough to force capitulation.

As we celebrate America’s Independence, let us not forget that many brave Americans have died so that others may live free. But as we all know, freedom demands eternal vigilance. We must fight to preserve it — on the field of battle or in the courtroom — which is precisely what we intend to do in this case.

Bob Jones, a Vietnam veteran, is president of the Northeast POW/MIA Network. Mike Berry, a former active-duty judge advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps, is First Liberty Institute’s director of military affairs.

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