The Youngstown, Ohio VA clinic — which threatened to have a decorated veteran arrested if he continued photographing its POW/MIA display featuring a Christian Bible — appears to have flouted the First Amendment and agency bylaws.
“It’s not hard to understand why some areas in governmental facilities should be off-limits to photography for reasons of security or privacy,” an experienced civil liberties lawyer told the Washington Gadfly, but the clinic’s prohibition of lobby photographs is clearly “unconstitutional.”
In fact, even VA regulations expressly allow photographs in all its facilities’ “entrances, lobbies and foyers.”
The veteran on Friday filed a complaint with the VA Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Fearful of reprisal, he, she or it (notice the trans sensitivity) is identified here under the pseudonym “Erik Wemple.”
Wemple was contacted by an office staffer Friday morning just hours after this column exclusively reported his March 14 confrontation with a private security guard, citing the clinic director’s instructions.
Wemple had visited the Multi-Specialty Outpatient VA Clinic, with a camera phone, hoping to take pictures for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation — which just got accused by Republican Congressman Doug Collins (D-GA) and the Family Research Council of anti-Christian histrionics because it convinced a nearby facility to remove the King James Bible and scriptural quotations from their own POW/MIA display table.
Echoing arguments by MRFF president Mikey Weinstein, Wemple says using the Bible in this matter violates military and VA regulations against the promotion of any particular religion, plus the constitutional prohibition against government endorsement.
“When I was at war I fought for everybody–for my brothers in green for my country. The war was for everybody. I sacrificed everything for all faiths and somebody is marginalizing [POWs and MIA personnel] to one sect.”
After the Akron dispute made national news, Wemple complained to the VA Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the VA Chaplain officials.
He also called the personal cell phone number of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, who famously released it to show his devotion to vets.
They all pulled a deaf mute routine.
But the director of the Youngstown, Ohio clinic seems to have followed the controversy closely.
When Wemple arrived at the clinic in the morning, a private security guard was seated directly next to a nearly identical POW-MIA display table in the facility foyer, complete with the Christian Bible.
The waiting area for veterans at the other side of the room was left unattended.
Wemple noted sardonically he was surprised to see a guard next to the table, “in case, God forbid,” somebody wanted to take a picture of the Bible.
The guard told him to leave because he was supposedly on private property and pictures were not allowed.
He snapped three anyway.
When the guard threatened to have him arrested for trespassing, Wemple hotfooted it out the door.
“I didn’t understand why I didn’t have right to take a picture of [a] public display. It just bewildered me that we ran into this scenario.”
Wemple, who is Jewish, unlike the primarily Christian MRFF client base, said he felt “hurt,” “outraged” and “betrayed.”
“I have war injuries, and for some services, I need the VA [and] to say I don’t belong because I don’t believe in the New Testament and object to it being used to subtly [proselytize] is beyond comprehension.”