Responding to outrage from Christian groups, the U.S. Navy on Thursday reversed its decision to remove Bibles provided by Nashville-based Gideons International from Navy lodges, a system of hotel-like accommodations on military bases for visiting service members around the globe.
The Navy Exchange Command (NEXCOM) issued a directive in June to remove the Bibles from all 26,000 rooms located on military installations, giving housekeepers until Sept. 1 to clear rooms of all religious materials and deliver them to the chaplains' offices located on those bases.
The directive came in response to a letter to the Navy from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to promoting the separation of church and state. The foundation noted that Gideons Bibles were common in those lodgings, but other religious materials, such as the Book of Mormon or the Koran, were not. That practice raised "constitutional concerns," the foundation said.
But when the foundation publicized its success in securing Bible removals on its website earlier this week, Christian groups responded, organizing email, phone and letter-writing campaigns. Christian group the American Family Association issued an action alert urging members to contact NEXCOM to "stop the purge of Bibles." The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, an association of military chaplains, objected. Christian media widely publicized the effort.
On Thursday, the U.S. Navy issued a statement saying NEXCOM had "made a decision without consultation of senior Navy leadership."
The Navy is reviewing that decision, the statement said. And while the review is underway, "religious materials removed from Navy lodge rooms will be returned."
The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty applauded the Navy's decision to return the Bibles, but remained critical of the Navy.
"We would remind Navy officials there is nothing to review," said Chaplain Ron Crews, executive director. "It should be obvious now that the American people want religious freedom in the military to be upheld. There are some in the administration who just do not get it. It is tiresome to see senior military leaders needlessly cave in to activist groups offended by anything Christian."
Sam Grover, staff attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said his agency had first raised the issue after receiving complaints from military service members.
"Because the provision of these Bibles in hotel rooms continues to be an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity over all other religions and over non-religion, we are confident that ultimately the Navy's policy will change in order to conform to the Constitution," Grover said.
Gideons International in recent years has created military-camouflage Bible covers specific to each branch of the military.
Jeff Pack, a spokesman for Gideons International, said his association was aware of the controversy and "prepared to work with the appropriate Navy officials to secure these Bibles for redistribution if necessary."