The U.S. Navy has ordered service members on a military base in Bahrain to discontinue a long-standing tradition of a "Live Nativity" after a military atheist group complained that the manger scene not only violated the Constitution, but endangered Americans serving in a Muslim country as well.
The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty and others in the armed services community have expressed disappointment over the Navy's decision to "inhibit the religious liberty" of military personnel at the military facility in Bahrain.
"This is another example of the military wrongly yielding to those who promote freedom from religion while squelching the constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion," said Chaplain (COL) Ron Crews, USAR retired, executive director of the chaplain alliance. "Every American, especially those who wear the uniform, should be allowed to exercise their religious liberties. We are very disappointed in the Navy's decision not to support the free exercise of religion of the personnel assigned to NSA Bahrain."
For several years, military personnel at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain have chosen to include a tree-lighting ceremony along with a live Nativity scene in celebration of Christmas. They also announce the arrival of Santa Claus, sing carols, and enjoy refreshments. Children who were looking forward to participating in the live Nativity scene were also disappointed about the announcement.
"This year, after a complaint by the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, the Navy leadership ordered the Nativity scene to be removed from this year's celebration," said the chaplains' alliance, and confirmed by various news agencies.
"To me it's just very sad that we are almost paying homage to the Atheists and Freethinkers' mindset and we are not doing due diligence and equal respect for people of faith," Crews told The Christian Post Tuesday. "Particularly those on the front lines – let's let them worship God."
The Atheists and Freethinkers filed a complaint with the Navy's Inspector General and argued that the Nativity promoted "Christianity as the official religion of the base."
The atheist group also stated they were concerned that the Nativity would put service members in danger, according to Fox News.
"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 letter. "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," Jason Torpy, a spokesman for MAAF 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," the Navy was reported to have informed the MAAF in a statement.
Fox News also reported that some service members in Bahrain 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, according to Fox News. "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 said he had started building the structure for the Nativity scene, but was given orders to dismantle.
"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."
Apparently, the fact that the live Nativity was a long-standing tradition at the Bahrain base was not a defense for its existence, according to Torpy.
"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.'"