The Navy directed service members serving in Bahrain to cancel and dismantle a “Live Nativity” after receiving a complaint from a military atheist group who said the manger scene endangered Americans serving in a Muslim country and violated the U .S. Constitution.
The chaplain at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain confirmed to Fox News the nativity scene was cancelled – but referred any further comments to the NSA’s public information officer.
The “Live Nativity” was a long-standing tradition at NSA Bahrain that featured the children of military personnel dressed as shepherds, wise men, along with Mary and Joseph. It was part of a larger festival that included a tree lighting, Christmas music and photographs with Santa Claus and a camel.
But the Military Association of Athe
ists and Freethinkers objected to the Nativity and filed a complaint with the Navy’s Inspector General. They argued the Nativity promoted “Christianity as the official religion of the base.”
The atheist group also worried that the Nativity put service members in danger.
“Also of concern is the likelihood that the predominantly Muslim local population will see the U.S. military as a Christian force rather than a secular military support U.S. – but not necessarily Christian values in their Muslim country,” the MAAF wrote in their complaint. “This even threatens U.S. security and violates the Constitution as well as command policy.”
“It’s unconstitutional, it’s bad for the military and in a Muslim country it’s dangerous,” MAAF spokesman Jason Torpy told Fox News.
“Upon further review, the CRP (Command Religious Program) will be removing the Living Nativity Program from the general base secular holiday festivities and co-locating it more appropriately with some of our other private religious and faith-based observances at the chapel at a separate time,” read a statement the Navy reportedly sent the NAAF.
Some service members in Bahrain told Fox News called the cancellation heartbreaking and children who were supposed to act in the Nativity were devastated.
“It was horrible,” said one officer who asked not to be identified. “It was devastating. Here we are serving in the Middle East, defending our country and other people’s religions and we couldn’t understand why we can’t enjoy our own religious freedoms.”
Crews had already started building the Nativity structure, but orders were given to have it dismantled.
“You can go outside the gate and hear Christmas music, but on the base you can’t have a Nativity,” said another officer. “The sense of hypocrisy is overwhelming.”
Torpy said the idea that the Nativity has been a long-cherished tradition at NSA Bahrain doesn’t make it right. He compared it to slavery.
“We’re talking about the United States promoting Christianity to defenseless little kids in bathrobes,” he told Fox News. “We’re talking about the United States government saying, ‘Hey – we’re going to have a bunch of kids out here and we’re going to promote Christianity in a Muslim country to service members.’”
The website Christian Fighter Pilot first exposed the controversy – and noted sarcastically that service members in Bahrain “have now experienced the friendly influence of atheism on their holiday.”
Pastors and religious liberty advocates are expressing shock and outrage over the yuletide controversy.
“It is unthinkable that our own military would violate the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religious expression–a freedom that our forefathers sacrificed their lives to provide for us,” said Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. “Taxpayers give the military hundreds of billions of dollars every year to protect our constitutional freedoms, not to trample upon them.”
Ron Crews, of Chaplains Alliance for Religious Liberty, told Fox News he was disappointed the Navy “has caved in and not stood their ground to allow military personnel to express their religious beliefs.”
“It appears we have some leaders who have become overly sensitive to any threat of a lawsuit,” Crews said. “This is another example of this group’s effort to promote freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion.”
Crews said it’s nothing less than a “war on Christmas.”
Hiram Sasser, of the Liberty Institute, said the law is clearly on the side of the service members.
“Once again the Grinches prove their hearts are two sizes too small,” Sasser told Fox News. “The Supreme Court already saved nativity Christmas displays in 1984 and the Navy of all organizations shouldn’t back down against Grinches when law and history are on its side.”
Torpy said he is pleased with how the Navy handled the matter.
“We want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to exercise their religion freely and we want to make sure people on the base have fun and exciting activities available for them without feeling like the base itself is establishing Christianity as the preferred belief system,” he told Fox News.