The head of a watchdog group waging a decade-long fight to ensure the constitutional wall between church and state remains in place in the U.S. military said he's concerned a more conservative president may embolden commanders who prefer a more God-friendly military.
Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said the issue of religion has been particularly noticeable in the Republican primary, in which candidates from celebrity billionaire Donald Trump to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are striving to lobby evangelical Christians for support.
Weinstein said the contest to succeed President Barack Obama is giving fuel to his critics. "With Obama being gone, [some commanders] expect an administration to be more friendly to Christianity," he said. "Now we are sensing more resistance" to church and state separation, he said.
"Many have viewed the President as not being supportive of the military," he added. "But Obama recognizes the importance of separation of church and state, and that there's no more important place for that than in the military."
Weinstein's comments came during a recent interview about his latest complaint with the military involving a sign to the chapel at Marine Corps Base, Kaneohe in Hawaii. After more than 70 Marines contacted him in opposition to the sign, he argues it should be moved to the chapel grounds -- or additional signs reflecting other faiths should be put up alongside it.
Base commander Col. Sean Killeen has thus far disagreed. In October, Killeen told Weinstein that he had no complaints. "We will always support all service members' rights to pursue and practice their own belief sets, whether religious or not," he said, according to a report in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Michael Berry, senior counsel and director of military affairs for the Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, doubts Killeen or other commanders are buying time in the hope the next president will look more favorably on religious displays on bases.
"Our military commanders swear an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, regardless of who happens to be commander-in-chief," Berry said in an email to Military.com. "If Mr. Weinstein claims or suggests our military commanders do otherwise, I think that is incorrect and irresponsible.
"The vast majority of our military leaders desire to do the right thing, especially when it comes to protecting religious freedom in our military," he said. "But nobody is perfect, and when a mistake occurs, we should give commanders the opportunity to do the right thing, not demand their court-martial and imprisonment, as Mr. Weinstein demands."
Berry also said it is "difficult to predict what impact a new administration will have on the military. I hope the incoming president places a high value on ensuring our service members do not lose their religious freedom by virtue of their military service. Protecting religious freedom is vital to ensuring we maintain a strong and capable military."
Robert Boston, communications director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the political landscape must always be considered when dealing with religious issues.
"The composition of the courts is what really matters," he said, "and the federal judges are appointed by the president -- and that includes the Supreme Court on down to the lower federal courts -- so obviously the president does have the ability to impact the federal courts.
"We saw that during the Reagan presidency, for example, when the courts became a good deal more conservative," he added. "Under President Obama, there's been some movement in the other direction."
Boston said the sign on Marine Corps Base Kaneohe, Hawaii, probably could withstand a court suit -- which Weinstein is now threatening -- but he said the time is coming for courts to finally take action against what he calls the government's ceremonial uses of religion.
Pushing Back against Separation?
Weinstein has had any number of victories in his decade-plus long fight with the military over separation issues.
He pressured the Air Force Academy about 10 years ago to remove a "We are Team Jesus" sign in the locker room of the school's football team. In 2007, he prompted an investigation that led the Defense Department Inspector General's Office to criticize high-ranking officers for appearing in uniform in their Pentagon offices to espouse their Christian beliefs for a video by an organization called Christian Embassy.
In recent months, Weinstein successfully prodded Army units to take down signs that bore Christian Crusader imagery, arguing not only that it indicated a religious preference but could be used by Islamic State and other U.S. enemies across the Middle East to buttress their claims that the U.S. is engaged in a war or "crusade" against Islam.
But in three recent cases, the military has either said no or ignored Weinstein's efforts to have public displays of religion by military personnel stopped.
In December, the Air Force Academy rejected his demand that Falcons, the school's football team, stop holding public prayer circles before a game. The school said it investigated the matter and determined the prayer was consistent with the Air Force instruction on religious accommodation.
Last month, he tried to halt Army Col. Thomas Hundley from referencing the Bible and his religious beliefs in a fitness blog posted on an official Defense Department website. The Monday Motivational Message blog now includes other contributors and a disclaimer noting the views are "the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Defense Health Agency, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, or the Defense Department."
On Feb. 8, he notified Killeen at the Marine base in Hawaii that he would sue the Corps unless the sign by the base marina is removed to the chapel grounds, or similar signs oriented to different faiths groups or atheists are erected alongside it.
Berry of the Liberty Institute said it's perfectly legal for the Marine Corps to post a sign to a base chapel.
"When it comes to the ‘God bless the military' sign at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Mr. Weinstein is, once again, incorrect on the law," he said. "I encourage the Marine Corps to reject his demands."
Religion as Government Ceremony
On the other hand, Boston of Americans United said he sees the Hawaii base sign as an example of a "ceremonial uses of religion by government." Others include nativity scenes in public buildings. "In God We Trust" on our money and the insertion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, he said.
"We're supposed to operate under a separation of church and state," he said. "But the courts have kind of carved out this area where by government can endorse religion in a general sense … Those types of things can be difficult to challenge in court because there have been a couple of cases over the years and they haven't been very successful."
Even so, Boston said he understands why a sign such as that on the Marine base bothers some people. Putting up a sign is not neutral on religion, it's taking a stand, and that can make some troops -- of different religions, no religion or agnostic -- feel second class.
"I think the way the MRFF [Weinstein] is approaching this is pretty clever, because they're asking for equal terms for other Gods, or no God," he said. "That's a pretty good way to go after this."
Americans United won a similar case in Florida, Boston said, after an official in one city allowed a Christian nativity scene and a Jewish menorah to be displayed in the city hall but barred others. Rather than fight the displays on constitutional grounds, he said, they demanded that other faith groups have the right to be represented.
It may not be the optimal ruling in terms of the Constitution, Boston said, but courts so far have not been willing to reject religious displays entirely.
"Regardless of what the prevailing political sentiment is in the country, [these cases] haven't really been looked at seriously by the courts," he said. "The courts kind of just blow these cases off. I think that's a mistake."
As more Americans drift away from established religions, the courts are going to have to confront commonplace generic endorsements of religion by government, including the military, Boston said.
"Because not everyone agrees with them, and not everyone who disagrees with them is an atheist," he said. "This sign [on the Marine base] is an example of the kind of linkage between God and country and the military … that seems harmless to some people but to others is disturbing."
"It implies God blesses everything this country does, and I think that's a simplistic reading of reality and dangerous from a historical perspective because it blinds us to the times in the past when we haven't done the right thing," he said.
Note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of the name Michael Berry on subsequent references.
--Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.
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