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Bibles are back in Navy Lodges, for now

Aug. 14, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
NEXCOM has made an about-face in its decision to remove donated Gideon Bibles from Navy Lodge rooms. The books that have been removed will be returned, officials say, pending a review by senior service officials.
NEXCOM has made an about-face in its decision to remove donated Gideon Bibles from Navy Lodge rooms. The books that have been removed will be returned, officials say, pending a review by senior service officials. (Lynn Milbrett/Special to Navy Times)
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The Navy has decided to put Bibles back in Navy Lodge rooms while leaders review policy on keeping donated Bibles in Navy Lodge guest rooms. The Aug. 14 announcement followed a widespread backlash from religious, conservative and veterans organizations after officials with Navy Exchange Service Command ordered the Bibles removed in June.

NEXCOM made the decision without consulting senior leadership, Navy spokesman Lt. Chika Onyekanne said in a statement, to remove Gideon Bibles from the rooms and transfer them to local religious commands earlier this year.

“That decision and our religious accommodation policies with regard to the placement of religious materials are under review,” he said. “While that review is underway, religious materials removed from Navy Lodge rooms will be returned.”

Members of religious, conservative and veterans groups, and individual active-duty, reserve and retired sailors, began protesting the Bibles’ removal immediately after NEXCOM ordered the Bibles removed in a bulletin to lodge managers in June. They vowed to fight the removal, and some even threatened to take their business elsewhere.

There are 40 Navy Lodges in 16 states and five countries around the world, which offer discounted hotel rooms for active, reserve and retired sailors and their families.

The NEXCOM message explained that while managers had historically allowed Gideons International to place free Bibles in guest rooms, in the future, all requests to distribute religious materials would have to go through the chaplain’s office of each installation.

“This will allow the commanding officer to determine, in accordance with personnel readiness and military regulations, whether the materials will be accepted and how they will be handled and distributed,” the statement said.

The order required lodges to remove the Bibles from the rooms and to treat any religious materials left behind in the future as lost-and-found property.

The policy change came three months after the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to NEXCOM and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, arguing that Bibles in Navy Lodges are unconstitutional.

“It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that a government entity cannot in any way promote, advance or otherwise endorse religion,” FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel wrote.

However, since word got around that the lodges were removing the Bibles, religious and veterans organizations have sent letters to Navy officials asking them to reconsider.

John B. Wells, executive director of Louisiana-based Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc., sent a letter to NEXCOM chief executive officer, retired Rear Adm. Robert Bianchi, arguing that the removal of the Bibles violated his right — and the right of his fellow members — to read the Bible at a Navy Lodge.

“Depriving us of access to religious solace via the Scriptures would appear to be discriminatory and anti-Christian,” he wrote.

The Bibles will be returned to the rooms during the review, Onyekanne said.

“The Navy makes every reasonable effort to accommodate the religious practices of our members, and places a high value on religious freedoms for all,” he said.

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