Mikey Weinstein, Chris Rodda Panic over Dog Tag Legislation

Last July, Michael “Mikey” Weinstein’s MRFF complained to the US military that Shields of Strength was combining US military trademarks with Bible verses on novelty dog tags. SoS did have authorization to use the military trademarks, but the Army told SoS to stop to prevent the “negative press.” A few weeks ago, the Marines did the same thing. First Liberty has come to their defense.

In an op-ed published at the Military Times earlier this week, First Liberty’s Mike Berry told the story:

Kenny Vaughan started Shields of Strength (“SoS”). SoS is a small, faith-based company from Texas that produces military-themed items inscribed with encouraging Bible verses. For more than two decades, Kenny has been making these inspirational replica dog tags for service members and first responders. To date, SoS has donated hundreds of thousands of its replica dog tags to military units…

Over the years, SoS replica dog tags became so popular and so nearly ubiquitous that, according to author and historian Stephen Mansfield, “aside from the official insignias they wear, [the SoS dog tag] is the emblem most often carried by members of the military in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Berry and First Liberty sent letters to the Services explaining that the Services’ conduct toward SoS is inappropriate, if not outright discriminatory. Shortly thereafter, US Congressional Representative Gregory Steube (R-FL) introduced legislation that would specifically direct the DoD to allow its trademarks on items associated with religion. The bill would

direct the Secretary of Defense to revise and update the Department of Defense regulations to allow trademarks owned or controlled by the Department of Defense to be combined with religious insignia on commercial identification tags (commonly known as “dog tags”) and to be sold by lawful trademark licensees…

The move flustered Mikey Weinstein and Chris Rodda. Rodda took to the Op-Ed pages herself to proclaim that Berry was being deceptive, because the dog tags were in “violation of military trademark regulations,” which Rodda quotes thusly [her emphasis original]:

These are the restrictions, according to Department of Defense Instruction 5535.12, “DoD Branding and Trademark Licensing Program Implementation,” Section 2.d. of which states (emphasis added):
“In accordance with subpart 2635.702 of Title 5, Code of Federal Regulations (Reference (i)), DoD marks may not be licensed for use in a manner that creates a perception of DoD endorsement of any non-federal entity or its products and services. DoD marks may not be licensed for any purpose intended to promote ideological movements, sociopolitical change, religious beliefs (including non-belief), specific interpretations of morality, or legislative/statutory change…”

Rodda’s summary [emphasis added]:

The Department of Defense trademark and licensing regulations are clear: you can’t use official military emblems on items that promote religion.

For a moment, pretend Rodda is right, and that the use of the trademarks on items “promot[ing] religion” is correctly prohibited.

If that’s the case, by Chris Rodda’s own statement, Shields of Strength is free to continue producing the dog tags — because they don’t “promote religion.” They have Bible verses on them, certainly. But, despite the wailing of Rodda and Weinstein, a dog tag that says “I will be strong and courageous” no more promotes Judaism or Christianity than does the phrase “don’t steal.” That the source of a phrase, mantra, or other quote may be a religious faith does not make the item on which it is seen a promotion of that faith.

By Rodda’s logic, the Washington Monument would be a government promotion of religion, as it proclaims “Praise be to God.”

Since religion is not promoted by the dog tags, the only point at issue is religious association.  If the military trademarks can be associated with other commercial products and novelty items with quotes and phrases (and others), why not those whose inspiration is religious?

Some of the MRFF’s supporters are under the mistaken impression that Shields of Strength is not allowed to use the trademark at all, but SoS had the necessary permission to use it. The only question is whether or not the trademark can appear next to a sentence that may be connected to religion. With that knowledge, even a few MRFF supporters acknowledged the dangerous ground Rodda proposed – denying something to one person but not another based solely on a religious connection to the work. If the government can arbitrarily deny access to a group the MRFF opposes, what’s to stop them from denying access to a group the MRFF supports?

Rodda has mocked First Liberty’s defense of the religious viewpoint by asking the pejorative

Do Bible verses lose their meaning if they don’t have government endorsement?

It’s a non sequitur, since the mere proximity of a trademark with a Bible verse does not imply endorsement. As has been said here many times in the past, the fact that troops can visit a Burger King on military bases around the world but not a Wendy’s does not mean Burger King is the recipient of a federal endorsement while Wendy’s is not. Mere association between an entity and the government is not endorsement.

Or, to put it in more recent context, just because the Air Force is sponsoring Call of Duty does not mean the US government endorses everything Call of Duty represents.

The only reason given by the government for their kowtowing to the MRFF has been the “negative press” generated by Weinstein’s whining – attention now far more outweighed by the negative press they’ve received for pulling the dog tag permission. That’s a weak position to begin with, and the thought of Congress intervening has Rodda and Weinstein worried.

In past years, First Liberty and other religious freedom groups have been quite effective at getting the military’s inappropriate treatment of religion – action taken at Mikey Weinstein’s behest – reversed. That’s the reason so many of Weinstein’s press releases about his “victories” read like an anonymous tip line: “An anonymous Service member at an anonymous location was being vaguely affronted by an anonymous superior, and MRFF saved the day!” The claims are completely unverifiable, which is what Weinstein wants. When other people are able to look into his accusations, they’ve been able to reverse his “victory” into defeat. Congress has acted before and required the DoD to respond, including specific laws governing the practice of religion in the military. Similarly, military leadership has stiffened its protections of religious liberty in the face of public and congressional pressure brought by religious freedom groups. Both have happened as a result of Weinstein’s attacks, and both reactions weakened his position.

With Congress now actively involved, Mikey Weinstein and Chris Rodda know their “victory” is either short-lived or hollow.

Why, though, is Mikey Weinstein so concerned about protecting military trademarks?

More importantly, consider this: What does anyone gain by Shields of Strength being allowed to put a military trademark only on dog tags that don’t have biblical quotes? Whose religious freedom or civil liberties benefit? What Service members benefit? What “harm” is undone?

What positive is added to the world by virtue of Weinstein’s complaints about the dog tags?

Think about that. That should give you an idea of what motivates him, and it isn’t religious freedom.

More at the Family Research Council. The ACLJ has a petition with more than 140,000 signatures.