The United States Air Force made pre-emptive strike against a memorial display in a Patrick AFB dining hall last week that has landed commanders in hot water. The display is what has become known as a Missing Man Table.
The Washington Times reports that the Patrick AFB commanders, after catching some flack in the press, brought back the display they had removed about a week earlier. The removal action was taken due to its having a Bible on the table as part of the display.
The Missing Man Table takes on a wide variety of configurations but usually is set up as a small table with a white table cloth and a single place setting that includes an upside-down drinking glass. In this case it also included a Bible which led to complaints from an undisclosed number of people.
In a statement from the 45th Space Wing headquarters, the commanders said, “Unfortunately, the Bible’s presence, or absence on the table at the Riverside Dining Facility ignited controversy and division, distracting from the table’s primary purpose of honoring POWs/MIAs.”
As a temporary measure, the table was replaced with a solitary POW/MIA flag while commanders sought another acceptable solution.
These actions became news when a retired Air Force Master Sergeant from the Vietnam War era noticed the Missing Man Table was missing. He told FloridaToday he wrote a letter to the commanders complaining about the removal of the table. He said his reaction to the removal of the table was one of disbelief.
Last week, the table returned, sans Bible. The Bible was replaced with a small American flag.
The controversy continues as the National League of POW/MIA Families weighed in saying the “Bible represents the strength gained through faith in our country, founded as one nation under God, to sustain those lost from our midst.” They claimed doing away with that portion of the display was an injustice.
The Air Force has been coming under fire for perceived attacks against religion recently. According to a Fox News report, an Air Force Academy cadet leader had a hand-written Bible verse removed from a white board that was displayed on the outside of his door. The Academy said the verse offended non-Christians and could “cause subordinates to doubt the leader’s religious impartiality.”
The issue is looming so large in the public realm, that the subject of religious freedom became a hotly contested debate during congressional hearings on the Air Force’s budget last month, according to The Washington Post. Congressman Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) told Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, that religious freedom “is not to make sure no person on the planet is offended, it’s to say that cadet ought to have the right in an own personal board to put that verse up there.”
Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh jumped in and responded that the white board in question was not located inside the cadet’s room, but rather was in a shared hallway where “hundreds of quotes” have been removed.
Breitbart News’ Ken Klukowski reported on the issue in March and referred to 2013 congressional investigation into the military’s attacks on religion including Bibles being temporarily banned from Walter Reed Military Hospital where many wounded warriors are sent for treatment and rehabilitation. Klukowski wrote, “After these stories went viral on the Internet, Republicans in Congress launched an investigation, then introduced legislation to specify that religious expression is a protected right for men and women serving in uniform. Although President Obama originally threatened to veto the legislation, those protections were signed into law in December 2013.”
Breitbart News contacted the Liberty Institute’s military affairs director, Mike Berry about the latest event at the Air Force Academy. Berry responded:
We met with Col. Paul Barzler, the Air Force Academy Staff Judge Advocate, to find out what really happened and to ask about the Academy’s policy on religious exercise. It turns out that, contrary to Mikey Weinstein’s claims, the cadet may have voluntarily removed the Bible verse from his white board. But I was stunned to find out that, had the cadet not removed the verse, Academy officials would have ordered him to do so. I asked why, and Col. Barzler explained that, because the cadet held a leadership position, it could create the perception that he was forcing his religious beliefs on subordinates. I pointed out that under the Constitution, federal law, and military regulations, cadets have the right to religious exercise. I was shocked when he responded that Air Force policy, from the Pentagon, is that the term “religious exercise” does not include written or verbal speech. [emphasis added]
Berry then reminded the colonel regarding the specific legal protections service members have, from the Constitution itself, to Acts of Congress, to military regulations. He says of the colonel’s response:
He went on to state that the Air Force interprets [Department of Defense] Instruction 1300.07 to only apply to religious grooming and apparel matters, but not writing a [Bible] verse on a white board or even verbally sharing a verse. This means that, under Air Force policy, cadets and airmen are not free to express their religious beliefs through words or writing. This policy appears to come from a March 2013 Air Force JAG memo that interpreted federal law in that way.
Now with the incident in Florida still underway, it appears the dogfight over religious expression in the Air Force is still well engaged.
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