An atheist organization is demanding that the Missouri National Guard stop offering Bibles to new recruits at its recruiting station in St. Louis.
The American Humanist Association, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, also requested the New Testaments volumes displayed in the building be removed.
"Numerous cases have ruled that when the government offers biblical literature, even if done indirectly, it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion," Monica Miller, an attorney for the association's Appignani Humanist Legal Center, wrote in a letter to the General Services Administration and to the Missouri National Guard. The GSA owns the building housing the Guard recruiting station and other military offices.
The Missouri National Guard office in Jefferson City referred questions about the matter to the Defense Department's U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command, based in North Chicago, Illinois.
Christine Parker, a spokeswoman for the command, said officials are trying to determine if the commander of the recruit station in St. Louis permitted the Bibles to be stored and distributed from the site. She said commanders are authorized to "honor requests from non-federal entities that want to place written materials" in the stations.
Air Force Capt. John Fesler, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., would only say that "this is a state issue, as of now," and referred requests for comment to the Missouri National Guard.
The humanist organization has about 29,000 members and some 180 local chapters and affiliates across the country. Its legal center provides assistance to humanists, atheists and other freethinkers.
The center is representing an unnamed soldier who entered the Guard in July at the GSA building, where he witnessed the camouflage-covered New Testament Bibles offered to new recruits during the swearing-in process.
"The Bibles are tailor-made for military recruits, adorned with camouflage book covering," Miller, the attorney, wrote in the Aug. 4 letter. "In light of the coercive atmosphere of the recruitment office, our client felt pressured to take a free Bible." The distribution, she added, is "a clear breach of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution."
The Bibles handed out at the recruiting station were donated by Gideons International, the evangelical Christian organization known for donating the Bibles found in hotels. They also donate Bibles to schools and prisons around the world, according to their website.
Miller said numerous courts, including the federal appeals court in Missouri, have previously ruled that a government's practice of assisting organizations distributing Bibles violates the Constitution. She said the GSA has two weeks to avoid legal action by removing the Bibles and halting their distribution to recruits.
A spokesman for the agency didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Two years ago, the Defense Department withdrew its consent for a Bible publisher to use the official emblems of the service branches on Bibles after the Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed a complaint.
LifeWay Christian Resources' Holman Bible Publishers, a subsidiary of the Southern Baptist Bible Convention, began putting out Bibles for each of the four armed forces starting in 2003, after the Army granted its permission.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.