Group seeks to add texts from a dozen other faiths to Okinawa POW/MIA display with Bible
By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 27, 2018
Last week’s decision by a San Diego-based Navy admiral to nix an investigation into the use of a Christian Bible in a “Missing Man” display in Okinawa apparently did nothing to quash a controversy that has spread to at least 31 other military units worldwide.
At issue is whether exhibits by the Navy, Marine Corps and Army that use the Bible to honor POW/MIAs — prisoners of war and those missing in action — suggest official endorsement of Christianity as a religion. Critics say that would run afoul of the U.S. Constitution and Pentagon regulations barring religious discrimination.
To drive their point home, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is now demanding that the display inside U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa — the Navy’s largest overseas hospital — be amplified to include similar sacred texts from more than a dozen other faiths, plus books championed by atheists and agnostics.
“To claim that the Bible isn’t there for something religious is patently ridiculous,” said Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, a former Air Force officer and the foundation’s founder. “Either the Navy will agree with us, and the table will collapse from too much weight, or he won’t and the table will be moved to the chapel or somewhere else.”
The controversy stems from a complaint made to Weinstein’s nonprofit in early April by 26 service members, Department of Defense civilian workers and their families in Okinawa.
Initially, an official at Navy Medicine West told the foundation that the San Diego-based department overseeing all Navy hospitals in the Pacific region would probe the complaint. But last week commander Rear Adm. Paul D. Pearigen reversed course, telling the foundation in a letter that “neither further review nor an investigation of this matter is necessary.”
On Thursday, Pearigen’s staffers said that they were assessing the foundation’s late Wednesday request to add other religious texts to the table but worry that they’re hamstrung by military regulations. A Navy protocol manual drafted nearly 17 years ago mandates a Bible on the “Missing Man” table and doesn’t mention substitutes or accompanying books.
“As one of nine symbolic references on the table, the purpose of the book and accompanying description is not to promote religion, but to commemorate the strength and resolve required of POW and MIA personnel in the most difficult of times. Each item on the table contributes to an atmosphere of remembrance and solemnity, without emphasizing the book as a religious text,” explained Navy Medicine West spokeswoman Regena E. Kowitz in an email to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Weinstein countered by saying the “bottom line is that the Constitution is going to trump whatever is in a manual by the Army or the Navy or the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs).”
In recent years the Air Force, American Legion, VA and other agencies and organizations quit featuring a Christian book in their displays. Partly that’s because the Pentagon requires the armed forces to honor the religious diversity of all troops, Weinstein said.
To truly honor it, he wants the Okinawa “Missing Man” display to include texts sacred to Roman Catholics, Protestants, Satanists, Muslims, Jews, Shintoists, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons and others, plus several humanist and secularist works that nonbelievers favor.
Pearigen hasn’t responded, but it’s a tactic that’s worked for the foundation in the past.
In early 2016, the VA removed a Bible from a similar display in Youngstown, Ohio, after patients demanded equal treatment for the Torah and the atheist manifesto “The God Delusion.” VA officials replaced the Bible with a generic book designed to represent many faiths — or none at all.
Weinstein said that since news of the Okinawa controversy broke, his foundation has received complaints from troops at 31 other units worldwide who say they’re bothered by Bibles in displays. They include an exhibit aboard an unnamed Navy submarine and another at the Army’s Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, he said.
Even without the religious controversy, Pentagon rules already ban implied command endorsement to any private organization, which is why Weinstein is targeting the Camp Arifjan display.
The Bible at the Kuwait base is emblazoned with the logo of “Operation Worship,” a Placer County-based nonprofit group that distributes free holy books and Christian music to troops worldwide. Weinstein said that tells troops that commanders favor Operation Worship over other groups.
“If the military can’t endorse Ford over Chevy, then it can’t endorse Operation Worship over other Christian groups, much less Jews, Muslims and others,” Weinstein said.
In an email to the Union-Tribune, Operation Worship co-founder Jeff Hilliard said that he was unaware of any complaints about his organization’s Bibles.
“We have been providing free military Bibles to chaplains for years with no complaints,” he said. “With respect to deliveries overseas, we do deliver some at times but are unaware as to where they end up. We have never asked for or received military endorsements for our Bibles either.”
Weinstein said that he doesn’t “blame the organization. We blame the command that put it there.”
He also says it’s a sign that the military too often fails to take seriously the religious sensitivities of citizens overseas, where many American bases are located.
Several Shinto and Buddhist spouses of American personnel objected to a placard on the “Missing Man” display in English and Japanese that said the Bible “represents the strength gained through faith to sustain those lost from our country, founded one nation under God,” according to Weinstein.
As for Camp Arifjan’s exhibit, Weinstein worries it could insult citizens in a Middle Eastern country that’s overwhelmingly Muslim.
“What if Kuwaitis think we should put a Koran there?” he asked.
Soldiers at the Pentagon did not return messages seeking official comment on Thursday.
©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.