Wheaton ROTC Under Review for Christian Requirement

Wheaton College — an unabashedly Christian university — has had an ROTC program since a few years after the close of World War II. Wheaton requires its faculty to be of the Christian faith, a requirement also levied upon its ROTC instructor, as the instructor is considered to be a member of the Wheaton faculty (though they are paid by the US military, not the school).

When the position of ROTC instructor was recently advertised among Army officers, the “must be of Christian faith” requirement caught the attention of a Soldier who pointed it out to Michael “Mikey” Weinstein’s MRFF.  Weinstein was typically unmoved [emphasis added]:

Wheaton and its fundamentalist Christian ROTC unit are to the United States Constitution what a dog with a full bladder is to a curbside fire hydrant. In MRFF’s nearly 10 years of fighting this precise, illicit version of Christian extremism in the U.S. military, this Wheaton College/ROTC travesty is one of the most disgustingly blatant, appallingly bold, and mercilessly atrocious attacks on the foundational principles of our U.S. Constitution that we have EVER witnessed!

Except for the mere association of Christianity and the military, Weinstein never explains how this is “extremism.” Nor does he say how it is an “attack[]” of any sort on the Constitution, never mind one that is “disgustingly blatant, appallingly bold, and mercilessly atrocious.”

The school noted that Wheaton has always had this requirement for the lead ROTC instructor:

“We have historically required that the lead professor of military science meet the same basic religious standards as the rest of our faculty, as this person is fully a member of our faculty and serves as the interface of the ROTC program with the rest of the Wheaton College academic program,” Wheaton spokesperson LaTonya Taylor told me.

Other ROTC instructors are not required to meet the same standard, she said. However, they are expected to understand and respect Wheaton’s religious mission.

Can the US military require that an ROTC instructor hold certain religious beliefs?

No, it cannot.

Can a private university require its faculty, including any military instructors, to hold certain religious beliefs?

Yes, it can.

Can the US military accede to the restrictions of a university in order to sponsor an ROTC unit there?

That’s a far more interesting question.

Despite Weinstein’s pontificating (and a lengthy personal attack on the current ROTC faculty and ROTC cadets by Weinstein’s assistant Chris Rodda), the program at Wheaton does not violate the US Constitution. In fact, one legal opinion seemed to make a point of saying the Army policy was religiously neutral, even if the Army policy required ROTC instructors to meet the (religious) faculty requirements of the school:

“The Army is not imposing a religious test,” said Stanford University law professor Michael McConnell, who once served as a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge. “It reads as if the Army has a neutral policy that its professors of military science at the various colleges and universities meet the standard criteria for faculty of those institutions, whatever they happen to be.”

There is also the simple fact that the position of ROTC instructor at a private university is not a public office. The position of military officer is (generally speaking), but the position of military officer at Wheaton is not. Therefore, the constitutional “religious test” clause — the only substantive argument proposed by Rodda — does not even apply.

It’s also interesting to look at how the Army and schools have dealt with similar or related issues in other places. That’s an important point: This isn’t exclusively a military issue or a school issue. In essence, a college ROTC program exists at the pleasure of both the military and the college. So, should the military actively support ROTC programs in schools that discriminate?

It has before. In just one of the easier examples, for decades the US military has had large and active ROTC programs at VMI and the Citadel — both of which were, until fairly recently, exclusively male. Would it be any surprise to learn that ROTC instructors at those schools were always male? Similarly, students could go to those universities on fully paid four-year ROTC scholarships — unless they were female.

The US military did not endorse the all-male nature of those universities by its presence, nor did it unlawfully discriminate by acceding to the school’s gender restrictions.

There are still other “discriminating” schools today that have ROTC programs.  Most probably rely on the fact that people who want to teach at their university are probably self-selecting. That is, someone who wants to be an instructor at a specific university probably does so because of what they know about the university (though some will always be motivated by other factors, like geography).

The US military has the ability to determine if it has a “compelling interest” in maintaining an ROTC program at a specific university, even if that university discriminates among its students or staff. If the school imposes restrictions on the faculty, including the ROTC instructor, it is up to the military to determine if the military’s interest in the school warrants acceding to the restriction.

The Wheaton program is not “unconstitutional,” despite the academically-challenged machinations of Weinstein’s Chris Rodda. Weinstein and Rodda were so eager to attack Christians that they defaulted to their standard and hyperbolic “egregious constitutional violation” argument — which doesn’t apply — and actually missed a far more compelling argument:  Army policies may not permit a school to even have an ROTC program if admissions are based on faith:

Robert Tuttle…pointed to Army Regulation 145-1, which outlines the requirements for establishing a ROTC unit.

The rules state that organizations wishing to stand up a ROTC unit must have “no discrimination in admissions based on race, sex (unless the school is a single sex school in its overall admissions policy), color, national origin, or religion.”

Wheaton College’s Community Covenant — which affirms explicitly Christian principles — is part of the school’s application process, and it also requires a pastoral recommendation from a “mature Christian.” The Wheaton program almost certainly predates the Army regulation (AR 145-1), and the constitutionality of the Army regulation itself could be questioned — but it is a far more interesting argument than simply saying Wheaton and the Army are making a “disgustingly blatant [etc, etc, etc] attack[] on the foundational principles of our U.S. Constitution.”

The Wheaton ROTC program is also not required. Either the Army or Wheaton can drop the program at any time for any reason — for example, if Wheaton imposes a restriction to which the Army objects, or if the Army imposes a policy to which Wheaton objects. Acceding to such restrictions or policies, however, is neither an endorsement of them or illegal conduct on either party.

Thus, both Wheaton and the Army are free to review their relationship and the productivity of the ROTC program and, together, determine its future. They may yet choose to continue as they are, they may both agree to changes, or they may simply choose to end the program.  Given their nearly seven decade history, it would seem a tragedy if the program was made untenable or simply shuttered due to a shift in activist — not social or political — pressure.

As it stands, the Army can continue to adhere to the restrictions of Wheaton for its faculty without serious issue. The “discovery” that the 60+ year ROTC program has (presumably) always had a Christian instructor changes nothing.

Still, there are a variety of ways both Wheaton and the Army could try to assuage the “controversy.”  Whether they choose to do so or not is wholly within their purview.

Hopefully, the review the Army now says they are conducting will consider the value of the program, and not just the volume of its critic.

Also at WORLD Magazine, Christianity Today, the Religion Clause, TownHall, FoxNews, and CharismaNews.