US Navy Relents as Group Defends Military Religious Freedom
Though it occurred somewhat under the radar these past two weeks, new US military policies clashed with religious freedom, resulting in outside groups coming to the aid of US troops and their liberties.
Late in June, the US Navy Fleet Forces Command, which administratively oversees Naval forces based within the continental United States, issued “additional Force Health Protection guidance” regarding COVID-19 mitigation procedures. In theory, Fleet Forces Command had already declared “HPCON C minus” in late March, and the late June message was a “reiteration” or reminder of that status. However, the latest release was notable (making the local news in many places) and very specifically clarified the somewhat vague HPCON C- with detailed mandatory procedures and prohibitions – including a specific statement on religious services – even those off military installations.
As printed in the Navy message (PDF):
5.A.7.B.4. (U) SERVICE MEMBERS ARE PROHIBITED FROM VISITING, PATRONIZING, OR ENGAGING IN THE FOLLOWING OFF-INSTALLATION SPECIFIC FACILITIES, SERVICES, OR ACTIVITIES…
5.A.7.B.4.F. (U) DINE-IN RESTAURANTS (TAKE-OUT AUTHORIZED), BARS, NIGHT CLUBS, CASINOS, CONFERENCES, SPORTING EVENTS, CONCERTS, PUBLIC CELEBRATIONS, PARADES, PUBLIC BEACHES, AMUSEMENT PARKS OR OTHER EVENTS DESIGNED TO PROMOTE LARGE GATHERINGS, TO INCLUDE INDOOR RELIGIOUS SERVICES.
While seemingly neutrally inclusive of all “large gatherings,” the wording of the full order seemed to leave room allowing public protests, and it specifically permitted social gatherings in homes. If a group of people could gather in their private residence, why could they not gather in a church building?
If a large group of people can board mass transit, while trying to adhere to social distancing and mask requirements, why can a church building not be open under the same?
It would seem much of the rest of the DoD had already come to the same conclusion, so why did the Navy suddenly need to disagree?
This was particularly relevant to US Air Force Major Daniel Schultz, who is attending the Naval Postgraduate School in an exchange position and thus subject to their restrictions. Major Schultz is a member of the worship team at his local church, meaning the order affects not only him, but also his congregation.
First Liberty Institute represented Maj Schultz in filing (PDF) a request for religious accommodation. After some initial resistance, the Department of Defense issued a clarification, and the Navy relented. The Acting Under Secretary of the Navy issued a memorandum (PDF) saying [emphasis added]
The [DoD] advised that nothing in the [Secretary of Defense pandemic guidance] should be construed to restrict attendance at places of worship where attendees are able to appropriately apply COVID-19 transmission mitigation measures…
Accordingly, I am directing you…to inform Commanders to incorporate this clarification allowing attendance at religious services where COVID-19 transmission mitigation measures may be appropriately applied.
While that is the right ultimate outcome, as with many issues of religious freedom in the military, it should never have come to that. Apparently, the Navy has just provided further justification of the need for the Senate’s proposed mandatory training on religious freedom and the law.
Note, too, that this was not an issue of a Christian being restricted from exercising their faith. This policy affected every faith: Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and Wiccans – well, unless the Wiccans were chanting outside, as they sometimes do. That said, Archbishop Timothy Broglio noted it might affect Catholics disproportionately, because they were less likely to be served by a military chaplain to begin with – meaning the policy effectively restricted them from any religious service. The same is true for minority faiths underserved by military chaplains. (Broglio praised the policy reversal.)
A religious service is not a sporting event. There is no human or constitutionally-protected right to watch or participate in sports, while there most certainly is a human and constitutionally-protected right to participate in religious exercise. The Navy erred when it broadly restricted specifically religious gatherings. While the reversal – at the behest of the DoD – was appropriate, it should not have required an “accommodation” to begin with.
It is true that some policies may unintentionally impact religious exercise, or only do so in an ancillary way. When that occurs, it is reasonable that someone might point out the second or third order effects to the office that wrote the policy, and then they would change it to rectify their error. Certainly, no one is perfect, and not everyone acts out of malice.
This, however, was not a subtle reference. The policy specifically called out “religious services.” As soon as those words hit the Navy message text, it should have been obvious they needed a review of heightened scrutiny. That the US Navy had to be told by the US Department of Defense to correct their error, and that they did so only after a servicemember complained, both indicate the Navy’s presumption is not that religious liberty should, in the norm, be both accommodated and protected.
Unfortunately, it would seem there is more work to be done to protect military religious freedom. Fortunately, there are organizations like First Liberty who stand ready to help troops do that work.
Did you notice, though, that despite the US military restricting free exercise of all religious faiths – including minority faiths – the self-proclaimed defender of military religious freedom, Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, has been silent? It would seem that while other groups have stood to defend military religious freedom, Weinstein has been focused on a tattoo that no one can see under a civilian police officer’s sleeve.
Good thing US troops don’t rely on Mikey to defend military religious freedom. It would seem he’s easily distracted.
Also at the Christian Post.