Lawyers at First Liberty Institute have announced a settlement of a years-long litigation over a POW/MIA display at the Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center (MVAMC) in New Hampshire. The display, called a “Missing Man Table” or “Fallen Comrade Table,” is a common sight at military installations and medical centers and typically consists of a table with a white tablecloth, an empty chair, a red rose, a yellow ribbon, a slice of lemon, a pinch of salt, a candle, an inverted glass, and a Bible. All are symbolic in some form and represent the plight of soldiers either taken prisoner or missing in action.
The Bible included in the display at the MVAMC was donated by former U.S. Army Air Corps Technical Sergeant Herman “Herk” Streitburger, of Bedford, New Hampshire, who was held captive in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II.
The Missing Man Table at the MVAMC caught the attention of an activist organization, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, in early 2019 which said it represented over a dozen veterans who objected to the inclusion of a Christian Bible in the display. The MVAMC initially removed the Bible from the display, but later reconsidered and restored it. Then, one of the objecting veterans sued, alleging the presence of the Bible made the display unconstitutional as a government endorsement of religion.
The POW/MIA network that sponsored the table, represented by First Liberty, asked the federal court to allow it to join the lawsuit to defend the constitutionality of the display, and the dispute has been in the courts ever since.
The settlement will allow the Bible to remain as part of the display. The MRFF will be allowed to sponsor another table that will include a generic “Book of Faith,” along with a granite stone with a phrase borrowed from the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
“The Bible stays and our veterans win,” said Michael Berry, Director of Military Affairs for First Liberty Institute, in a press release. “We are pleased with the dismissal of this lawsuit. Public officials across the nation must ignore the empty threats of anti-religion organizations using fear and intimidation to purge religious symbols from the public square. First Liberty is honored to stand with the Northeast POW/MIA Network in its tireless efforts to honor and remember our nation’s heroes. If anyone tries to threaten this POW/MIA Remembrance Table, they’re going to have to go through us.”
At First Liberty’s request, the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) issued a directive in July 2019 clarifying its position that the inclusion of religious content in various displays at VA facilities is appropriate.
The case is Chamberlain v. Montoya.
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