2019-11-13 – The Bible and the Missing Man Table
Recently I was dragged into a debate about the appropriateness of the Bible setting on the Missing man (POW/MIA) table that is set at many military installations and organizations.
The argument against it is that it discriminates against those not of the Christian faith. That it marginalizes other religions such as the Jews, Muslims, and even atheists. All are welcome.
My position is that all are welcome WITH the Bible on the table. It is a symbol of faith. Secular in nature that covers all comers. It is NOT a religious symbol, but rather one of faith that honors all that are MIA or were POWs.
The National League of POW/MIA Families is the group who created the Missing Man Table. From their web site:
“The National League of POW/MIA Families is also responsible for the creation of the POW/MIA flag. The original flag was created in 1971 and has been altered many times. In 1990 the 101st Congress passed Public Law 101-355 which recognizes the well-known black flag, with white and black center which contains the bust of a POW and a watch tower in the back ground. This law recognizes this flag, which includes the motto ‘You are not Forgotten’, as “a symbol of our nations concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing and unaccounted for.” These bracelets, flags and other similar programs, helps to keep this issue in the public eye and to remind Americans that there are still thousands of individuals whose whereabouts are unknown. One of the most touching and impressive ceremonies which military personnel have developed to commemorate unaccounted for service members is known as the Missing Man Table. The Missing Man Table has become a part of dining-in and dining-out services for all branches of the military over the last decades.  It is a formal ceremony which honors POW/MIAs and reminds everyone in attendance the cost some soldiers have paid for America’s freedom. The table is set up in a specific style and each item at and around the table has a specific meaning. “
The group further states:
“ I would like to explain the meaning of the items on this special table. The table is round — to show our everlasting concern for our missing men. The tablecloth is white — symbolizing the purity of their motives when answering the call to duty. The single red rose, displayed in a vase, reminds us of the life of each of the missing, and the[ir] loved ones and friends of these Americans who keep the faith, awaiting answers. The vase is tied with a red ribbon, symbol of our continued determination to account for our missing. A slice of lemon on the bread plate is to remind us of the bitter fate of those captured and missing in a foreign land. A pinch of salt symbolizes the tears endured by those missing and their families who seek answers. The Bible represents the strength gained through faith to sustain those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God. The glass is inverted — to symbolize their inability to share this evening’s [morning’s/day’s] toast. The chairs are empty — they are missing. Let us now raise our water glasses in a toast to honor America’s POW/MIAs and to the success of our efforts to account for them(sic). “ (Emphasis added).
The point being that the Bible is included with a typical setup of the Missing Man Table. It is a SYMBOL of faith for all religions, it is Secular and historical in nature. It has been this way since the 1970s.
Does the Bible have to be included with the table? Probably not. But the national organization does include it with the description of the Missing Man table. So why would you NOT include it?
The U.S. Supreme Court in American Legion v. American Humanist Association ruled:
“Opinion of the Court IV The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent. For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark. For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment. For all these reasons, the Cross does not offend the Constitution. * * * We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and remand the cases for further proceedings. It is so ordered “
As you can see, the court believed (in a 7-2 decision) that the the Cross that had stood for 70 years on public land, represented in part, a “symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home” that “destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment. “ The court found the cross did not offend the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment.
Similarly, the Bible should not offend anyone but those who openly hate honoring our MIA and POWs, or those openly opposed to Christianity such as Mickey Weinstein who filed had filed multiple lawsuits across the nation to get rid of what he calls religious symbols on government or public property.
There are two other law suits that merit discussion. The first is the law suit brought by Weinstien against the Navy in Okinawa. He had previously (or the Military Religious Freedom Foundation) filed a complaint against the inclusion of the Bible on their Missing Man table. The Navy removed the Bible at that time but has now reinstated it on the Missing Man table as one of none symbolic references. Rear Admiral P.D. Pearigen stated “As one of nine symbolic references on the table, the purpose of the book and accompanying description is not to promote religion, but to commemorate the strength and resolve required of POW and MIA personnel in the most difficult of times… each item on the table contributes to an atmosphere of remembrance and solemnity without emphasizing the book as a religious text… In light of the forgoing, neither a further review nor an investigation of this matter is necessary.”(2018)
The Bible is a tradition as found on Missing Man tables.
It should be noted that The National League of POW/MIA Families is it’s own 501C charity and not affiliated with the Legion or VFW or any other organization. These organizations (the American Legion and VFW)are listed as partnerships but there is no other connection per se. And they can specify how the Missing Man table should or should not be setup without interference from any government entity.
The second case occurred at the Manchester NH Veterans Hospital. MRFF again filed a complaint. This time, the First Liberty Institute got involved and told the Veterans Hospital that there was nothing unconstitutional about including the Bible on the Missing Man table. They also noted that the VA had in a 2016 memo stated that if a POW / MIA table were to be setup, the VA must “remain neutral” and must not take a position on any of the secular or non-secular items included “in the display”. (2019)
The bottom line is that the inclusion of the Bible on a Missing Man table does NOT marginalize or show a discriminatory practice to other religions and when included in the display.
Those who believe the establishment clause in the 1st Amendment is a hard line on separation of church and state need to abandon their myopic view of the Amendment and understand the government is to be NEUTRAL in regard to religion. They can neither endorse nor should they ban religion form the public sector. The government itself is to always remain neutral and that is exactly what the VA came to the conclusion of in their 2016 memo.
Many organizations such as the American Legion operate on a set of by-laws. And in those by-laws it states the organization is to remain neutral it can not endorse religion or politics. Though some in those organizations believe it means the organization must not allow political or religious speech on site, it should be noted it does not limit individual speech, only the organizations own endorsement of a particular religion or political stance. For example, if the American Legion believed it’s neutrality implied a complete ban on political speech, then they would have to ban every t-shirt, hat, or other apparel worn by members and non-members along with any and all bumper stickers in it’s parking lot that favored a particular party or candidate or religion. Nothing could be more stupid than that stance or belief.
Public schools and especially schools of higher education should also take note of this fact: Neutrality does not mean banning the thought in the name of political correctness. If it offends someone then great! Raise your voice in opposition rather than trying to ban that which triggers your flight response to your safe space. Being inclusive does not mean excluding one view point in favor of another. All should be welcomed.
Those who think otherwise need to do their research before criticizing.
Sources – downloaded on 11-13-2019: