Navy Cancels Some Boot Camp Chapel Services

In early April, the Navy commander of Recruit Training Command at Great Lakes — the basic training site for all incoming Sailors — told civilian volunteers they were no longer permitted to conduct religious services for recruits.

On the orders of Capt. Doug Pfeifle, the commanding officer of RTC, civilian volunteers for seven minority religious communities have been asked to stop conducting services.

An RTC official who spoke on background said the volunteers were asked to leave in accordance with Navy guidance, which stipulates that a uniformed chaplain or a religiously accredited military member should conduct the service before the service pursues other avenues.

Viewed optimistically, it appears to be a sincere action poorly executed or communicated. It seems the volunteer system had “gotten away from” the RTC leadership, and they found themselves unable to justify the program under Navy guidelines. It seems the RTC program was suffering from some logistical issues, including a formal way to control who could and could not conduct recruit services.

To be clear, the US military is not obligated to allow a random civilian onto a military base, as well as provide him space, simply because he wants to provide the opportunity for a specific religious sect to exercise its faith. In general, a member of the military would request such resources, and then the military would execute its processes to provide that support. It appears that Navy policies have a fairly specific process which results in civilian volunteers being the last option — and the Navy couldn’t verify it had exhausted the other options, as it was required to do.

The Navy said this was precisely the case, and that recruits would still have the ability to exercise their faiths:

Recruits who practice minority religions will still be provided with time and materials during holiday routine to worship as they see fit. If recruits request a spiritual leader, the Navy will follow the guidance for identifying a suitable candidate, the official said.

Still, unilaterally closing the gate one day to a fairly significant group of people without substantial communication probably wasn’t the best way to handle it.

It came to a public head when the same Navy RTC posted an article discussing Christian recruits being baptized. One of the now-banned volunteers complained:

It appears John Chantry, “a practicing Druid,” took his complaint to Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, who fired off a demand letter to Navy CAPT Doug Pfeifle, commander of RTC, last week. Weinstein was typically unhindered by the facts [emphasis added]:

Today the hundreds of affected sailors want to know why it is that they will no longer be allowed to practice their religion.

We demand to know why you are essentially raping our 250 Navy recruit clients’ constitutionally  guaranteed civil rights of free exercise to worship…We demand that you remediate this repugnant and illicit behavior immediately.

We fully expect to expeditiously hear from you or your office in the next 24 hours to work
together to resolve this abysmal situation.

Notice that Weinstein claims “250 recruit clients,” though he reportedly represents a single person who isn’t even in the Navy.

There is no indication the Navy responded to Weinstein’s demand.

For the record, other agencies (including chaplains’ organizations) have expressed concern about the sudden “change” in Navy policy as well.  Notably, they have communicated that concern to the Navy and are awaiting a response, rather than publicly accusing a Navy officer of “essentially raping” recruits’ rights.

That’s probably why almost as soon as the letter (PDF) was public, some of Chantry’s erstwhile allies expressed regret, noting that Weinstein’s letter likely made the situation worse. Weinstein is widely known for his hate and invective, and inserting that into the tension at Great Lakes is not likely to improve anything.

Also interesting was the fact that Weinstein based his outcry on persecution of six faiths:

The…programs which have been maliciously taken from your recruits include Unitarian Universalist, Earth Centered, Buddhist, Bahai, Christian Science, and Church of Christ.

By contrast, the press reported that seven groups were affected [emphasis added]:

The religions affected by the order include: Unitarian Universalist, earth-centered, Buddhist, Baha’i, Church of Christ, Christian Science and non-liturgical Protestant.

It seems Weinstein has an issue with services being “denied” to every group except “non-liturgical Protestants.”  A few of his supporters were more conspiratorial, claiming the Navy included token Christians in the “ban” to mask the fact they were trying to persecute specific faiths.

While Navy RTC hit Master Reset on their civilian chapel volunteer program, they have indicated they will continue to provide for the spiritual needs of all recruits, even of those faiths. Whether there are any future issues remains to be seen. Those issues, though, should come from the recruits who are entitled to such support, not outside civilians who want their own access.

Local civilians and other para-church organizations can provide an immense help to military chaplains in supporting the religious rights of those in uniform.  Hopefully, the RTC will complete its re-evaluation of how it is complying with Navy policies quickly, and, where it can, allow civilian volunteers to support the Navy’s obligation to protect the free exercise rights of its recruits.

Also at The Blaze.