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Unhappy with Pentagon’s religious liberty guidance, lawmakers set up meeting with top defense official

A group of 20 conservative lawmakers have asked for and received a meeting with top Defense Department officials “to discuss the steps that need to be taken to protect the religious freedom of our servicemembers.”

The Congress members, led by Reps. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., have written several letters to Defense Secretary Mark Esper in which they objected to the military’s limitations on service members’ attendance at worship services during the coronavirus pandemic. They are also upset with the Pentagon and services’ responses to complaints by Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, regarding three recent actions by military chaplains. Weinstein argued that those actions violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”

Matthew Donovan, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, has scheduled a July 23 meeting with Collins and Lamborn to discuss the issues outlined in their letter to the defense secretary, according to Christopher Garver, a Pentagon spokesman. Each military service will also have a representative at that meeting.

Specific complaints

The representatives on May 14 sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, copying Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, urging them to protect religious liberty and “ensure that the ongoing pandemic is not exploited by nefarious organizations bent on removing faith from the U.S. military.”

The lawmakers cited three recent MRFF complaints that were met with corrective actions by base commanders in two cases and an investigation in the third.

* Military chaplains at Fort Drum, New York, and Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, shared faith-based videos on the Facebook page for their brigade. Those videos were later removed.

* An Air Force lieutenant colonel at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, was hosting “Sunday Christian porch preaching” on the balcony of his apartment building. That officer has since moved his preaching sessions outside the military residential complex, according to Weinstein, which his foundation believes to be a more appropriate venue.

* A senior Army chaplain in South Korea used military email to send 35 chaplain subordinates of different faiths copies of a book that described the coronavirus as part of God’s punishment for sinful actions. That case is under investigation, Army officials have said.

In a June 11 response letter to Collins, the Department of the Army, responding on behalf of the defense secretary, said it was standing by the commanders’ decisions in all three instances.

“In all cases outlined in your letter, the commands that received a complaint sought assistance from their higher headquarters and the Army staff, wrote E. Casey Wardynski, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs. “In response to inquiries, the Army provided guidance to ensure chaplains and commands are able to continue to use social media for religious support activities in compliance with applicable laws and policy.”

Weinstein, who noted that many of MRFF’s clients are practicing Christians, said some of the service members who complained to his organization about the chaplains’ actions were, themselves, chaplains.

“All three of these distinct issues highlight the overwhelmingly critical imperative to emphasize to all members of the military (not just chaplains) the need to consider the lawful and appropriate time, place, and manner in which protected religious activity is exercised,” Weinstein’s foundation said in a response to the lawmakers’ letter.

In a July 1 follow-up letter, Collins wrote that the lawmakers were “discouraged to learn that the Army is not only standing behind the decisions of commands that have restricted the religious liberty of their chaplains and servicemembers, but the Army and the Department of Defense … are also supporting these actions and guiding commands’ responses to the aggressive demands of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and Mikey Weinstein.”

Collins also wrote that the legislators were unhappy that “the Navy’s recent order that seeks to keep servicemembers and chaplains from worshiping indoors while continuing to allow other gatherings signals a pervasive and dangerous misapplication and misunderstanding of Federal law.

Since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, the military has issued policies and guidance designed to halt the spread of the virus in the military community. These policies have included limiting workspaces to essential employees, travel restrictions, quarantines for infected service members, requirements for social distancing and mask wearing, and limitations on the size of social gatherings, to include worship services, and more. These policies have evolved over time as more has become known about the virus and as rates of infection have grown or declined. Commanders can also seek adjustments in the restrictions based on local conditions.

U.S. Fleet Forces Command issued a fragmentary order regarding the service’s coronavirus response March 20 that has been updated several times “per updated higher headquarters guidance,” said Capt. Sarah Self-Kyler, a spokeswoman for the command, in a statement to Military Times.

That order has recently been updated “to allow attendance at [off-base] religious services where COVID-19 transmission mitigation measures may be appropriately applied,” Kyler wrote. “All service members assigned to Navy units must continue to follow force health protection protocols, such as maintaining social distance and use of face coverings should they choose to participate in religious services or visit places of worship. This change applies to those service members within the continental United States that remain at [Health Protection Condition Charlie].”

The guidance, which was previously updated June 23, emphasizes “prudent measures to protect naval force health” and applies to all service members serving at Navy installations in the continental United States,” wrote Lt. Cmdr. Robert Myers, another spokesman at Fleet Forces Command, in an email to Military Times.

The intent is to ensure readiness in the fleet and prevent coronavirus outbreaks such as that suffered by the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in Guam.

“The DoD places a high value on the rights of members of the Military Services to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all,” wrote Myers. He noted that the Navy Chaplain Corps “has developed creative ways in which to minister to the fleet.” But if installation commanders believe they can implement virus protection measures that would permit the opening of on-base chapels, which generally remain closed across the nation under HPC Charlie, the CO may submit request that request through the regional commander to Fleet Forces.

New legislative push

The House lawmakers, along with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have also introduced language into both the House and Senate versions of the defense policy bill that they hope will further protect religious liberty.

In the House on Monday, Collins, an Air Force Reserve chaplain, introduced an amendment that would prohibit the secretary of defense or the service chiefs from issuing any guidance, order or regulation related to public health — in other words, the COVID-19 pandemic — that would restrict service member attendance at religious services or gatherings if similar guidance does not exist for other activities or gatherings.

“For too long, the Pentagon has turned a blind eye as our military leaders have completely disregarded their obligation to protect the religious freedom of its service members,” Collins said in a statement to Military Times. “While I look forward to sitting down with leaders at the Department of Defense to further discuss this issue, military leaders and commands first and foremost need to step up and stop giving in to baseless demands from individuals like Mikey Weinstein whose sole mission is to eradicate faith in the military. Even more, the military has to create and implement a program to train JAGs, chaplains and commands on how to deal with religious liberty issues in line with Federal law.”

Cruz, has also written to the defense secretary to complain about the restrictions on worship attendance and the military’s recent actions involving chaplains.

“Service members give their lives to defend the principle of religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution, and that principle must be protected within the military,” he wrote in a June 9 letter to Esper. “These unlawful infringements must end. We urge you to ensure that DOD implements the religious liberty training program that Congress has mandated. We also urge you to issue clear guidance, in accordance with the Attorney General’s Memorandum on Religious Liberty, regarding the protections afforded to religious expression and how issues concerning religious freedom should be addressed amidst the pandemic.”

Cruz introduced language in the Senate’s version of the defense policy bill requiring that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act be taught to all commanders, chaplains and judge advocates.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act stipulates that “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless it can demonstrate that the limitation is in “furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

At their meeting with Esper, the Congress members are demanding:

♦ A detailed explanation of the “comprehensive policies and training concerning religious freedom” mentioned in the Army’s June 11 letter.

♦ An explanation of how and when such guidance is circulated.

♦ An explanation on how the decisions were made about the military’s response to the chaplain’s actions, following the MRFF’s complaints.

♦ An explanation of the Navy’s recent “unlawful order” regarding worship services.

Weinstein said the lawmakers are trying to circumvent the constitutional requirements of the First Amendment.

“The shameful actions and statements of Congressman Doug Collins and his fellow Republican Congressional colleagues are nothing but cold, craven, calculated and cowardly attempts to further their illegal, fundamentalist Christian, supremacy and domination agenda by dishonestly leveraging the United States military as a force multiplier, in an election year, while running roughshod over the United States Constitution, its construing federal case law and clear DoD Directives, Instructions and Regulations,” Weinstein said in a statement to Military Times.

“Collins and his fundamentalist Christian ilk are blatantly attempting to force their illicit sectarian Christian proselytizing efforts via decree in our American armed forces and they must be stopped at all costs,” he said.

[Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that, prior to publication, defense officials had agreed to meet].

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