An advocacy group is complaining about the lack of strict orders from the Navy and Air Force to end in-person worship services during the coronavirus pandemic, but officials from those services say the decision to do so rests with local commanders and not their chiefs of chaplains.
The Navy and Air Force stances are in contrast to the Army, which closed all chapels in the United States and Europe this past weekend, according to a memo signed by the Navy chief of chaplains and provided to Military Times.
That move was praised by Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who said that Air Force and Navy leaders should have taken similar steps.
Weinstein said he has had 16 clients, including enlisted service members, chaplains and doctors, reach out with concerns about the lack of top-down leadership during the pandemic.
“If there was ever a time this should be centralized and come from the top, it’s now,” said Weinstein.
Military Times spoke with one of his clients who was worried that even small religious gatherings could provide a conduit through which the coronavirus can be transmitted.
While the Army shut down all in-person services immediately, Weinstein’s clients have reported that some Air Force chaplains plan to continue visiting airmen, particularly those working with trainees stuck on bases.
The Navy chief of chaplains memo does order religious ministry teams to suspend the handling of food and refreshments during services, and tells chaplains to align their services with local health protection conditions.
“Assess the risk of each activity and the way you do day-to-day business as chaplains,” the Navy memo instructs. “Each chaplain [should] consult with their Religious Organization concerning any precautionary measure or ecclesiastical amendment regarding sacraments, ordinances, religious rites or other practices.”
One of Weinstein’s clients who Military Times spoke with said he took the memo to mean “check with your command" and “do whatever they want you to do, but don’t feel like we’re restricting you.”
The memo asks that if a chaplain’s local commander “deems the risk too high, and worship services or religious activities are suspended," pursue religious services through internet chatting tools like Zoom and Skype.
Weinstein’s advocacy group usually handles 1st Amendment issues involving the U.S. military.
“This is not our usual thing, but in this case, people are astonished," he said. "I mean the whole country is trying to pull together, and you don’t gather in groups of 10 and stay more than six feet apart. But the Navy and the Air Force aren’t going to stop them from having services this weekend.”
Leaders from both the Navy and Air Force said the decision to suspend religious services doesn’t lie with their chiefs of chaplains, and said that all chaplains would follow local base guidelines, which could indeed suspend services.
“The chief of chaplains doesn’t have the authority to shut down religious ministry at an individual command, that’s why that’s not in the memo,” said Navy spokesman Lt. Sam Boyle over the telephone.
The Air Force takes a similar stance as the sea service, citing their structure.
Local commanders, advised by their religious support teams, will make decisions regarding religious programming amid concerns of coronavirus, an Air Force official said.
“The Chief of Chaplains maintains regular contact with Major Command chaplains for the purpose of information sharing and to receive updates on ministry challenges and opportunities at the operational and tactical level,” said Air Force spokeswoman Lynn Kirby in a statement.
“Many chapels are finding creative and effective ways of engaging with airmen and their families through the use of social media,” Kirby added. "In the rare case of a small gathering, strict adherence to social (or physical) distancing is practiced.”
The use of social media should not be a optional, but mandated from the chief of chaplain level, Weinstein said.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.