CONCORD, N.H. — A judge on Wednesday granted the dismissal of a lawsuit over a Bible displayed on a table at a New Hampshire veterans hospital after the plaintiffs’ lawyer proposed a separate display.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed the federal lawsuit in May 2019 on behalf of an Air Force veteran against Alfred Montoya, the director of the Manchester VA Medical Center, seeking the removal of a Bible on display at a POW/MIA table within the hospital. The display violates the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause, according to the lawsuit.
A second Air Force veteran joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff in October 2019.
The table, usually set up near military dining facilities, is set for one person and features a white tablecloth, single rose, a lit candle and more. In some displays, a Bible is also displayed on the table.
The lawsuit said the table should be a memorial to all missing or fallen veterans, not just Christians. The veterans had suggested replacing the Bible with a Book of Faith containing the writings and prayers from seven religious groups. Government lawyers argued the lawsuit should be dismissed, saying some of the allegations were vague and undefined, and that the lead plaintiff acknowledged he wasn’t offended by the display. The matter then went to mediation.
“One of the focuses was us putting up our own table,” attorney Lawrence Vogelman, who represents the veterans, said at a hearing in requesting the dismissal. He said the VA has a specific procedure for requesting a table and would negotiate the details with the hospital’s lawyers in an effort to avoid any more litigation.
“I think that we’re close enough, or hopefully we are, and in the event it doesn’t work out, then you’ll see us again, but I am very optimistic,” Vogelman said to the judge.
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 attorney representing the hospital director did not object to the voluntary dismissal request and agreed it would be fine for the veterans to use the hospital’s procedure for the display of the additional table.
U.S. District Judge Paul Barbadoro approved of the idea and noted that it doesn’t involve any necessary change to the current missing man table.
Barbadoro told Vogelman that from the beginning, “I’ve had some confusion about exactly how to conceptualize your claim.” He said he thought it would be better poised for resolution if it were a “restricted or limited public forum case, rather than a government speech case.”
Weinstein said MRFF is now waiting to see if the VA will approve and display its proposed table. If not, the group plans to swiftly refile its lawsuit, he said.