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Atheist group threatens legal action over Bible display at processing station

Aug. 7, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
An enlistee said camo-covered Bibles were displayed at a military entrance processing station.
An enlistee said camo-covered Bibles were displayed at a military entrance processing station. (Appignani Humanist Legal Center)
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A recent enlistee in the Missouri National Guard said he felt pressured into taking a camouflage Bible that was available in the waiting room of a military entrance processing station — and a humanist group to which he belongs has threatened a lawsuit.

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association — motto: “Good without a god” — sent a letter Monday to the Missouri National Guard and to officials within the General Services Administration, which oversees the St. Louis building that houses the MEPS. It states that “the government is violating the First Amendment by assisting in the distribution of Gideon Bibles to military recruits,” and that the letter’s recipients should send a plan of action to rectify the situation to the AHLC’s lawyer within two weeks “to avoid legal action.”

The lawyer, Monica Miller, said her client would neither identify himself nor speak with Army Times. She did say he was an AHA member, however, and forwarded his emailed response to questions Wednesday, in which he expressed concerns over retribution.

“Many people had taken the religious literature including recruits as well as those beginning the enlistment procedures,” he wrote of his experience, which the letter says took place last month. “I was not approached by anyone with the literature, though it was quite prominently displayed on the shelf.”

U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command allows “nonfederal entities” to distribute materials in their offices, spokeswoman Christine Parker said, but has no umbrella policies regarding what those materials can contain, leaving their contents to the discretion of the individual location commander.

However, she said, “the government wasn’t offering [the Bibles]. They may have been present, but we weren’t offering them, because that would be against our policy.”

Parker referred follow-up questions to a spokesman at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who issued a statement late Wednesday.

“Non-Federal entities may request and when authorized in writing by the unit commander may place secular or religious literature for use (including, but not limited to, Bibles, pamphlets, tracts, and texts) in a location on the base or recruiting station designated by the commander,” Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen said in part. “Should the presence of any provided material adversely impact the accomplishment of the mission, the commander has the discretion to remove all literature that threatens good order and discipline.

“In this particular case, guidance is provided by Army Regulation 165-1 which allows for the display of religious materials, including bibles.”

Miller questioned whether the policy as described by Parker created a true “open forum” for an array of groups to display their materials, and said the chance to provide such materials in that setting had been poorly publicized.

“If they really want to maintain an open forum, they have to really make known that there is one,” she said.

The enlistee assumed the religious books — some with the New and Old testaments, some with just the New — were provided by the government, Miller said, because they were displayed without any explanation.

MEPS received the humanist group’s letter from the Missouri National Guard, Parker said. The letter states that the incident took place “on a floor in which the Missouri National Guard operates,” but there is no Guard office in the building.

The new enlistee said no uniformed personnel directed him toward the literature, and he did not mention the materials to any officials during his time at the MEPS.

“I did not speak to anyone as not to cause any problems that day,” he wrote. “Enlisting for the National Guard was important to me. The last thing I would do is ruin that by allowing myself to be discriminated against. Those Bibles would not be there if a prejudice didn’t exist.”

The nine-page letter includes what’s labeled as a photo of the Bible in question and cites multiple legal cases in support of its contention. Miller said Wednesday that her office had yet to receive a response.

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