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Trump makes a questionable claim about Bibles and U.S. troops while pressing for religious liberty

President Trump smiles at Vice President Pence before signing an executive order focused on religious liberties on May 4. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Trump appeared to mischaracterize a 2011 controversy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Thursday while signing an executive order on religious liberty, saying that wounded troops were once unable to receive religious articles while receiving treatment.

Trump did not reference Walter Reed specifically but said that patients were “forbidden from giving or receiving religious items at a military hospital where our brave service members were being treated.” That’s almost certainly a reference to a controversy that erupted after a senior military official at the hospital issued a September 2011 policy that said no religious items, including Bibles, were allowed to be given away or used during a visit with a patient.

“These were great, great people. These are great soldiers,” Trump said, speaking Thursday in the Rose Garden. “They wanted those items. They were precluded from getting them.”

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If Trump was referring to the Walter Reed case, it is untrue that troops actually were “precluded” from receiving religious items because of the memo. The policy was never enforced and was quickly overturned in December 2011 after it was brought to the attention of the conservative Family Research Council, which in turn notified several members of Congress.

The hospital released a statement upon rescinding the policy that said that religious materials “have always been and will remain available for patient use” at Walter Reed.

“The visitation policy as written was incorrect and should have been more thoroughly reviewed before its release,” the statement said.

Hospital officials said the intention of the policy as originally written was to prevent proselytizing, in which someone attempts to get another person to adopt a new religion or denomination. Not only were religious materials always available to patients, but the hospital offered daily religious services, bedside Eucharist services and studies involving Christianity, Judaism and Islam, they said.

Conservative lawmakers who met with Walter Reed officials shortly afterward acknowledged that the memo appeared to create confusion that would be resolved.

“The Defense Department appears to have acted in good faith by retracting the original statement and releasing a statement of regret,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R.-Iowa) said in a statement at the time. “I appreciate that officials are making efforts to get to the bottom of how this horrible language came about. I look forward to seeing the new policy and will reserve judgment until that time.”

The controversy at Walter Reed has been raised and often mischaracterized since. In one example, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R.-Tex.) criticized President Barack Obama during a July 2013 interview on Fox News, saying that “it’s considered an act of hostility if you give somebody a Bible on their deathbed or mention God.”

The Family Research Council, which Trump addressed during a conference in September, also has continued to mischaracterize the 2011 incident. In one instance, a 2014 essay on religious liberty published by the group said that Bibles “have been banned at Walter Reed military hospital.”

Other incidents involving the Bible and religious articles in the military have stirred controversy since. In one case, Bibles were removed from hotel rooms on Navy bases, prompting an outcry after news reports. The service eventually overturned the 2014 decision, according to a Stars and Stripes report.

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