Air Force officials from the base confirmed to Fox News on Monday that the entire Missing Man Table display was removed because of the Bible.
The Missing Man Table is a tradition among veterans to honor the plight of the American soldiers who are missing in action or being held as prisoners of war. The dining hall tables remain empty as a rememberance of the missing soldiers, and the Bible is part of the customary arrangement of the tables, as detailed in an official ceremony document by the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. "The Bible represents the strength gained through faith in our country, founded as one nation under god, to sustain those lost from our midst," the document states.
But the Air Force, who has long stood behind the traditional placement of the Bible, has changed their minds on the issue. The entire table was removed following a dispute over the placement of the Bible in this instance, which drew even further controversy.
"The 45th Space Wing deeply desires to honor America's Prisoners of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) personnel," Air Force commanders said in a written statement. "Unfortunately, the Bible's presence or absence on the table at the Riverside Dining Facility ignited controversy and division, distracting from the table's primary purpose of honoring POWs/MIAs. Consequently, we temporarily replaced the table with the POW/MIA flag in an effort to show our continued support of these heroes while seeking an acceptable solution to the controversy."
The decision to remove the entire table display was met with harsh criticism from veterans and officials alike. The Air Force agreed to return the table itself, but did not mention whether or not the Bible would be returned as well. "After consultation with several relevant organizations, we now intend to re-introduce the POW/MIA table in a manner inclusive of all POWs/MIAs as well as Americans everywhere." the statement said.
Retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin told Fox News' Todd Starnes that the Air Force is wrong in this case. "I'm still looking for somebody in a leadership position in the Air Force with an ounce of courage. They buckle to an extreme minority group every time and constitutionally they are simply wrong."
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) added, "The First Amendment is very clear on this. Speech may offend some people - in this case maybe Christianity offends some people in the Air Force - but that doesn't matter. We're stil allowed to speak about our closely held beliefs.
"Since when does one unnamed, unknown individual have veto power over the First Amendment rights of all people in the military and in this case the Air Force?"
This is not the first time the U.S. Air Force has been in the news regarding the removal of Christian symbols that have previously been allowed. Last month's forced removal of a Bible verse on a cadet's personal whiteboard prompted the Air Force to address what seems like a new standard for the military branch. But the Air Force doesn't see it that way. "The single biggest frustration I've had in this job is the perception that somehow there is religious persecution inside the United States Air Force," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told members of the House Armed Services commitee in March. "It is not true."