A Bible on display at a memorial at New Hampshire’s veterans hospital should be removed because it is a violation of the First Amendment, a U.S. Air Force veteran said in a federal lawsuit Tuesday.
The Bible was carried by a prisoner of war in World War II and became part of the Missing Man Table honoring missing veterans and POWs at the entranceway of the Manchester VA Medical Center. The Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday the table was sponsored by a veterans group called the Northeast POW/MIA Network.
The lawsuit filed in Concord by James Chamberlain against the center’s director, Alfred Montoya, says the Bible’s inclusion is in violation of the Constitution. The First Amendment stipulates “that the government may not establish any religion. Nor can the government give favoritism to one religious belief at the expense of others,” according to the suit.
Chamberlain, a devout Christian, said in the lawsuit the table should be a memorial to all who have served, regardless of their beliefs. The suit said the original POW/MIA table tradition was started by a group of Vietnam combat pilots and didn’t include a Bible as one of the items.
The medical center initially removed the Bible in January after another group, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, objected, saying it got complaints from 14 patients who felt it violated the First Amendment. A variety of religions were represented among the 14.
But the Bible reappeared on the table in February. It had been removed “out of an abundance of caution,” Curt Cashour, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman, said in an emailed statement Tuesday. Afterward, the medical center received an outpouring of complaints from veterans and others, “many of whom dropped off Bibles at the facility” in protest, Cashour said.
After consulting with lawyers, the medical center put the Bible back on the table indefinitely, Cashour said. He called the table “a secular tribute to America’s POW/MIA community.”
He apologized to those were offended by the Bible’s “incorrect” removal.
But Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said it is the presence of the Bible that is offensive.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful, dishonorable, and most importantly, it’s illegal,” he said.
Which made it surprising to us that plans for a public elementary school in Akron, Ohio that four-time NBA MVP LeBron launched in 2018, to help students who are struggling to stay on track academically, largely ignored how important race is in educational attainment.
While we can appreciate the NBA great using his star power and considerable wealth to open a school for children in his hometown who are struggling academically, much like LeBron once was himself, we levy this criticism from our vantage point as scholars and students who study race in education. One of us – Kevin O’Neal Cokley – is an education scholar who has studied and written a book about the psychological and environmental factors that impact black student achievement. Two of us – Nolan Krueger and Marlon L. Bailey – are doctoral students in an educational psychology department.
Before we explain why we believe the I Promise School should deal with race more boldly and more explicitly, let us first identify the areas where we believe the school is getting things right.
Instead of relying on suspensions and expulsions, which tend to disproportionately impact black children, the I Promise School relies on what the school’s leaders refer to as the five “habits of promise.” Those are: problem-solving, perspective, partnership, perseverance and perpetual learning. This is especially important given how school suspensions and expulsions lead to higher dropout rates.
Values and supports families
One of the things that stands out most about the school is its “I Promise Family Plan.” This plan offers a range of supports and resources for students and families. The resources include a food pantry, a barbershop and hair salon, and help for parents to improve English comprehension and earn their GED.
Especially noteworthy is the school’s treatment of fathers. Instead of assuming that fathers are not involved in the lives of their kids, the I Promise School has a Father’s Walk Day in which fathers are formally welcomed to the school.
The school also features a seven-week summer session focused on STEM designed to help prevent the “summer slide” – that is, the loss of learning students suffer during summer vacation.
Questions about race
Despite the many things to like about the I Promise School, we question whether and to what extent the school deals directly with issues of race. Scholars such as Richard Milner suggest that schools must confront both poverty and race in the classroom in order to create optimal learning.
Educators with a critical understanding of how race and poverty manifest in the classroom might rely less on an one-size-fits-all curriculum and instead ground learning in an understanding of the lived experiences of their students.
Since the I Promise School has students from diverse backgrounds, some might ask why we think the I Promise School should confront race and poverty.
It is true that students are selected for the school based on their test scores and how behind they are in reading, not on race or any other demographic characteristic. However, the reality is the I Promise School is located in Akron, where the student population is disproportionately black – 46.1% – compared to 13.8% of national K-12 enrollment. Furthermore, Ohio has a staggering “achievement” gap between black and white students, with only 37% of black children in Ohio reading at grade level compared with 70% of white children.
The I Promise School’s 20-page master plan document does not focus on issues of race or race-equity despite research that shows some of the most vexing issues facing students – such as disparities in graduation rate, literacy and higher education admissions – are linked to race and poverty.
Prominent educational scholars such as Tyrone Howard have asserted
that when educators ignore race or adopt colorblind approaches, they fail to realize that avoiding the topic denies students an essential part of their being. This in turn only increases the likelihood of race becoming an explosive topic.
One critical factor to consider is the racial composition of the school’s staff, administrators and, in particular, teachers. Research suggests that students do better when their teachers look like them and can relate to their experiences. For example, it has been shown that black children are assessed more harshly for disruptive behavior when their teacher is white as opposed to black. Research has also shown that exposure to just one black teacher between grades 3 and 5 reduces the rate of dropout for black male high-schoolers.
Based on the school’s staff directory, the I Promise School appears to be lacking in teacher diversity – something we believe that the school should be more mindful of in the future.
Will the school defy the odds?
To be clear, we are celebrating LeBron James for fulfilling his dream and creating the I Promise School. He deserves praise for caring enough to give back to the community where he grew up.
The I Promise School could be a big “win” for students and LeBron James, a man who has dedicated countless hours and millions of dollars toward positively impacting Akron’s youth. We believe if the I Promise School incorporates social justice and the primacy of race into its approach, it could be transformational for its students. If, however, the school fails to address issues of race and equity in its design, the school likely won’t spur the generational change that proponents of the school envision.
Editor’s note: Officials affiliated with the I Promise Academy declined to comment directly for this story but cautioned against judging a school based strictly on publicly available documents.
Days before Good Friday, the Rev. Stacey Hamilton continued to contemplate what she would preach about some of the last words of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Hamilton, one of seven black women preaching at “Women With a Word,” a service hosted by the Fellowship of Churches of Atlantic City and Vicinity at Faith Baptist Church in Pleasantville, N.J., prayed and did her “due diligence” by studying the meaning of the passage’s original Greek as she prepared to write her sermon.
In a growing tradition, at least a dozen churches across the country are hosting Good Friday services this year that feature seven African American female preachers, expounding in seven short sermons on the last seven phrases uttered by Jesus before his crucifixion.
“It’s a big deal because historically black women have been underrepresented,” said Hamilton, associate pastor of innovation and engagement at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville.
“There’s still a lot of traditional views as they relate to women in leadership and having the ability to actually declare the Word and people actually come out and listen to women,” added the pastor, who also works as a computer engineer. “It’s definitely a shift within the last couple of years.”
Vanderbilt University Divinity School Dean Emilie Townes said she’s seeing “more and more” instances of black women preaching in “Seven Last Words” services.
Though some black women preachers recall being featured in Good Friday services decades ago, the phenomenon got a boost five years ago, when seven millennial black women preachers spoke at a Chicago church for an event sponsored by ShePreaches, a group that creates opportunities for younger African American clergywomen. The organization developed an online toolkit to encourage services on Good Friday featuring young adult black women in pulpits using womanist interpretations of the Bible.
The increased attention comes at a time when womanist theology, which focuses on the intersection of gender, race and class and empowerment of the marginalized across the African diaspora, is gaining momentum.
In March, womanist scholars of religion gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate their first consultation, at the city’s Howard University School of Divinity, in 1988. Last April, a Center for Womanist Leadership opened at Virginia’s Union Presbyterian Seminary with Alice Walker, the novelist and poet and one of the founders of the womanist movement, as the keynote speaker for the inaugural gathering.
The Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune, director of Ecumenical Advocacy Days for Global Peace with Justice, said black women, similar to the women who remained at the foot of Jesus’ cross, can speak of resilience despite difficult circumstances facing their communities.
“It is also significant that the collective Black church is recognizing our gifts and allowing them to be exercised in pulpits across the country during the holiest week of the Christian calendar,” said Copeland-Tune, who will be preaching at a predominantly black church in Largo, Md. “Space is finally being made for us to edify God’s people. There are cracks in the stained-glass ceilings.”
The Rev. Jacqueline Thompson, the first woman pastor-elect of the predominantly black Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., said in an emailed statement that African American women can particularly relate to Jesus’ suffering and injustices that led to his crucifixion.
“Many live and work in the reality of what Womanist Scholar Jacquelyn Grant calls the ‘triple oppression’ of race, class and gender,” said Thompson, whose church’s Seven Last Words service will feature “six African American women and one Euro-American woman who is a daughter of our church.”
“The message of life after death remains a critical one in light of the present day racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric and policies we see rampant in today’s society.”
The Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches, cited more than half a dozen churches featuring seven black women speaking at Seven Last Words services, from “Womanists of the Bay” in Berkeley, Calif., to “Sisters at the Cross” in Alexandria, Va.
The tradition’s inclusion of black women may be a result of concerted efforts to put them in pulpit positions.
More than a decade ago, the Rev. Valerie Bridgeman, dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, founded WomanPreach! Inc., which offers a Jarena Lee Preaching Academy to train women of African descent, and expanded it to include women and men.
She said many black women’s sense of calling to preach is now being undergirded by theological training.
“I think more women have gone to seminary and so they have gotten the degrees, not just the call but the training with that call,” said Bridgeman. “And so they’re unmoved by what might have been a historic resistance to their call because they’ve solidified for themselves their call.”
The Association of Theological Schools reports that the number of black women graduates of its affiliated schools almost tripled from 1988 to 1998 — increasing from 151 to 444. The number more than doubled again by 2018, reaching 994.
The Rev. Christine A. Smith, author of “Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors,” said she’s seen an uptick over at least a decade in instances of seven black women preaching on Jesus’ seven last sayings, including in her Akron, Ohio, area.
“This is a wonderful movement, but there are still major barriers that remain for women in ministry,” said Smith, a pastor dually aligned with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, who is set to speak at a “He Is Risen” Seven Last Words service with six other black women preachers.
“Churches particularly in the African American community, particularly in the Baptist denominations, African American Baptist denominations, there still remains strong resistance to women becoming senior pastors.”
Hamilton and others say African American women preachers are likely to address issues of justice during their 10 minutes or so in the pulpit during the Seven Last Words services. The New Jersey pastor said she intends to mention human trafficking and the stricter requirements proposed by the Trump administration for some who have qualified previously for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Hamilton studied several years ago at Bridgeman’s Jarena Lee Preaching Academy (named for the first African Methodist Episcopal Church female preacher) and said it was “transformational” in helping her learn about womanist preaching. She then recognized that she brings a unique perspective to preaching and not “the same as if a man is standing up to preach.”
Thus, the associate pastor said, she thinks it’s fitting that some churches are highlighting black women in their pulpits on one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar.
“On Good Friday, we’re able to share in a way that says there’s room for you, there’s room for you here in the midst of Jesus’ struggle and Jesus’ suffering,’’ she said, “that you may have a place in salvation and that this is for you. You matter.”
The crowdfunding campaign to raise money for three African American churches gutted by arson in Louisiana began a week ago, but donations surged after flames engulfed the roof of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the outcry provoked a conversation about the disparate reactions to the tragedies.
Nearly $1 billion had been pledged to the Notre Dame rebuilding effort within hours of Monday’s blaze. The massive attention focused on the French landmark prompted Megan Romer to take note and tweet: “My heart is broken over the loss of Notre Dame. The Catholic Church is also one of the world’s wealthiest entities. If you are going to donate money to rebuild a church this week, I implore you to make it the black churches in St. Landry Parish.”
GoFundMe spokeswoman Aja Shepherd confirmed in an email that giving to the destroyed Louisiana churches increased Tuesday after Romer’s tweet and a challenge from freelance journalist Yashar Ali to his nearly 400,000 Twitter followers.
Other online reminders of the black churches’ plight followed, including this Tuesday tweet from Hillary Clinton: “As we hold Paris in our hearts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana.”
Donations that totaled about $300,000 nearly a week into the campaign surged to $1.5 million by Wednesday night. The money is to be distributed equally among the three century-old churches to help them recover from the fires intentionally set from March 26 to April 4. White suspect Holden Matthews, 21, has been charged with arson and hate crimes.
Among the calls for more giving to the black churches, there was concern that they were already being forgotten as flames leapt from the roof of Notre Dame.
“It’s terrible what happened to Notre Dame. … But, 3 black churches in LA were purposely burnt down b/c of hate. Let’s not forget to be even more outraged about that,” Twitter user Joe Boyd wrote.
Native American Terrell Johnson, a 19-year-old Columbia University student and member of the Assiniboine Tribe, wondered: “Why are we not as worried about these sites being hurt that are historic to our minority groups, rather than majority groups?”
“It shows how little we are valued. These black churches, the mosque, Native American sites, they are not as valued as Catholicism or Christianity in that aspect, and it’s frustrating,” Johnson said in a Wednesday interview.
But journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a series of tweets, took issue with the notion that concern about Notre Dame could be boiled down to a matter of race.
“It’s a tragedy when black churches + mosques are bombed, burned or vandalized, but of course the world pays more attention to an 800-year-old architectural masterpiece in the heart of a city everyone visits! That’s not white supremacy, and nonwhites who love Paris aren’t dupes,” he wrote.
The Rev. Roderick Greer of St. John’s Cathedral, an Episcopal place of worship in Denver, acknowledges that Notre Dame has higher visibility as a cultural, artistic and religious landmark than the three rural church buildings in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish.
Still, in a Wednesday interview, he questioned whether white Americans would pay as much attention even if the fire happened at high-profile black churches, such as Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta or Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
“Even if Mother Emmanuel or Ebenezer or 16th Street Baptist Church went up in flames, do white Americans, in particular, have the same emotional and visceral connections that they have to Notre Dame, which is on another continent?” said Greer. “That’s such a telling commentary on the white American imagination that support for black churches lost to arson surged only in the wake of a historic European cathedral fire.”
The Rev. Mason Jack, an officer with the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, which includes the burned churches, said Wednesday he was grateful for the surge in donations. He acknowledged that the Notre Dame fire raised consciousness about the Louisiana fires but downplayed any concerns that black churches were being overshadowed or forgotten.
He said publicity surrounding all of the fires helped increase awareness of the need in Louisiana. “Maybe, for some, it was an awakening for them to bring healing and restoration,” he said.
Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this story.
The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case regarding the constitutional validity of a war memorial in Maryland in the shape of a Christian cross. The memorial is known as the Bladensburg Peace Cross and stands on government property. At issue in the case is a 40-foot cross erected as a memorial for those who died in service during World War I. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case later this summer.
Constitutional law scholar Garrett Eppsnotes that the result from this case “may help resolve disputes over local memorials around the country.” It might also tell us something about the approach of a new conservative Supreme Court.
While the case underscores the ongoing conflict over the place of religion in American public life, as a scholar who studies this area, I believe there is more to understand here. This is not the first such conflict. In a diverse society, these symbols can have meanings that go beyond religion.
The memorial sits on public land, at the center of a busy intersection in Prince George’s County, in Maryland.
In 1919, a local group of citizens including 10 mothers who lost their sons in World War I formed the Prince George’s County Memorial Committee. Together with the Good Roads League of Prince George’s County, they launched an effort to memorialize those who died in service during the war. In 1922, American Legion Post 3 volunteered to join the effort to build the memorial.
The memorial effort set out to dedicate the highway between Bladensburg to Annapolis as the “National Defense Highway.” It also decided that a memorial cross be included at the beginning of the highway. The intent behind the design was to invoke “patriotism and loyalty to the nation” as well as, in the words of treasurer of the Memorial Committee, to serve as a “grave stone” for her son.
Donors who supported this the initiative signed a pledge which stated,
“We, the citizens of Maryland, trusting in God, the Supreme ruler of the universe, pledge faith in our brothers who gave their all in the world war to make the world safe for democracy. Their mortal bodies have turned to dust, but their spirit lives to guide us through life in the way of godliness, justice and liberty. With our motto, ‘One God, One Country and one Flag,’ we contribute to this memorial cross commemorating the memory of those who have not died in vain.”
The memorial was dedicated on July 12, 1925. A plaque on the memorial is inscribed with the names of 49 soldiers from Prince George’s County who died in the war.
In 2014, three citizens filed a suit in the District Court of Maryland claiming that the display of a massive Christian cross on public property was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
In 2017, the case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Virginia. In a ruling, the judges said that the cross “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles government in religion.”
Mount Soledad Cross case
This wasn’t the first war memorial in the shape of a cross that was legally challenged. For over a quarter century, the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla, California, was subject to litigation.
The Mount Soledad cross is a 43-foot cross which was once on publicly owned land. In 1989, a Vietnam War veteran filed suit against the city of San Diego in U.S. District Court over the presence of a religious symbol on public property. In 1991, the court ruled the cross was “unconstitutional and had to be moved off public land.”
The 1991 ruling led to a series of appeals in the federal court system that spanned decades. To end the protracted and ongoing legal drama, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association agreed to purchase the public land beneath the cross.
Upon passage by the House, Hunter stated, “Across the country and beyond our shores, America’s military and veterans are proudly represented by war memorials that also display symbols of personal faith and religion.”
Though not law, the passage of the bill by the House demonstrates the extent of the conflict around the presence of religious symbols in American war memorials.
Both people of faith and those who are non-religious can feel uncomfortable with memorial crosses. For example, Daniel Headrick, an associate pastor, lawyer and 2018 fellow of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, writes, “To reduce the cross to a symbol memorializing war sacrifice is a quintessentially American act, but such a meaning is profoundly at odds with the theological significance of the cross.”
In other words, Headrick doesn’t believe a cross can be stripped of its religious meaning.
In a religiously plural democracy, war memorials with religious symbols can have different meanings for different citizens. These different meanings can be a source of conflict. Perhaps for this reason, the 19th-century French observer of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the political effects when religion gets “mixed up with the bitter passions of the world.”
The Bladensburg Peace Cross case like the Mount Soledad Cross and the War Memorial Protection Act are present-day reminders that there is always more than one meaning of religious symbols.
Each church catered to an African American congregation. Each graced a rustic, country setting. Each fronted a small cemetery. And each is now a charred disaster scene, the result of three conflagrations that brought echoes of civil rights-era violence to Opelousas, a city of about 16,000 people in rural St. Landry Parish, Louisiana.
Thursday brought news of an arrest.
At a news conference, Gov. John Bel Edwards identified the suspect as Holden Matthews, a 21-year-old white man. He faces three counts of simple arson of a religious building on the state charges, said state Fire Marshal Butch Browning, who added that federal investigators also were looking into whether hate motived the fires.
St. Landry Sheriff Bobby Guidroz confirmed that Matthews is the son of a deputy. Guidroz said the father knew nothing of his son’s involvement and broke down over the arrest, which he helped facilitate by getting Matthews away from home.
Harry Richard — pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, the site of the second fire — said he’s relieved about the arrest: “This takes a lot of the pressure off us.”
But the Rev. Freddie Jack, of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association said, “I would like to know whether he was working alone or not. We can’t let our guard down.”
At the news conference, however, Browning was confident that the danger to churches had ended. “This community is safe again,” said Browning, surrounded by local and federal authorities who had worked on the case. “We are extremely unequivocally confident that we have the person who is responsible for these tragic crimes.”
Edwards said the fires had stirred concern among people around the nation. “It has been especially painful because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear,” Edwards said.
A Facebook page that appears to belong to Matthews shows him with the words “black metal” spray painted on a wall behind him. He also posted a comment on a movie’s portrayal of black metal musician Varg Vikernes, a far right figure convicted of manslaughter and arson at three churches. Black metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal with lyrics that often espouse Satanism and Paganism. A smaller subset of black metal bands feature neo-Nazi beliefs. The black metal scene was associated with Christian church burnings in Norway in the 1990s.
In the days leading up to the arrest, pastors and parishioners at the churches acted with dismay — and a kind of restraint.
“It’s like the ’60s again,” said Earnest Hines, a deacon at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church — the site of the last fire.
Yet Hines, and others connected to the churches, were careful not to automatically label the fires as racist acts.
“I don’t know why this happened, and we don’t need to jump to conclusions,” said Hines, a member of the church for more than 40 years. “We need to let them investigate, let the evidence come out.” Jack and Richard expressed similar sentiments.
The first fire torched the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre last month. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old.
The churches were empty at the time of the fires, and no one was injured. Investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were still combing the scene at Mount Pleasant and warning onlookers away on Wednesday, a week after the fire.
Investigators had retreated from the ruins of St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, a town just outside of Opelousas and the site of the first fire on March 26. There and at Greater Union, which burned April 2, evidence of the fires’ intensity was more visible. Exterior walls of brick and wood had collapsed on rows of metal folding chairs at Greater Union. All that was left of what looked to have been an upright piano was the lattice-work of steel strings.
McGill reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writers Stacey Plaisance in Opelousas, Louisiana, and Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland, contributed to this report.