The Pentagon says the commander of a St. Louis recruiting station may allow groups to make available to recruits copies of the New Testament Bible – or the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita or any other religious text.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen told Military.com that the Bibles kept at the Military Entrance Processing Station and offered to recruits are covered by existing regulation. But so would be the holy books of Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and any other faith, he said.
"A commander who accommodates one [faith group] must be prepared to do the same for other, similar [groups]," Christensen said. "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."
The Pentagon’s defense of the Bibles came in response to a threat by an atheist group over the books being offered to recruits processing into service through the St. Louis station. The American Humanist Association says it will take legal action unless the MEPS stop storing and offering the Bibles – actions it says violate the Constitution’s prohibition on establishing a religion.
The Bibles were donated to the MEPS by The Gideons’ International, the organization known for placing Bibles in hotel and motel rooms around the world, as well as schools and prisons.
AHA Legal Director David Niose said Thursday that the Defense Department appears to be relying on an "open forum" argument in that the accommodation will be made equally to any religion.
"If this is an open forum, the process for utilizing the forum seems to be a mystery," he told Military.com. "The Gideons got into the forum and put their books up and promoted their religion with seemingly little trouble."
When someone representing the AHA went to the Spruce Street, St. Louis, building to check out the Bible display and distribution, he said, the person wasn’t allowed entry.
"One can’t help but be suspicious that there is some religious favoritism going on here," Niose said. "The Christian religion and Christian Bible are allowed quite easily, but if we try to get an atheist book up there, are we going to have a tough time doing so?"
MEP Command did not reply when asked whether permission for the Bibles was given by the station commander or by the regional MEP Command at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago. It also wasn’t clear whether any other religious texts besides the Bible have been made available to new recruits at the location.
Christensen said the DoD respects, values and supports the right of service members to observe the tenets of faith or have no religious beliefs at all.
"The Defense Department provides, to the maximum extent possible, for the free exercise of religion by all members of the military services who choose to do so, and does not endorse any one religion or religious organization," he said.
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