Lawmakers question Pentagon’s removal of military insignia from Bibles

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Editor’s note: The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal filed this story for the Associated Press wire.

WASHINGTON — Twenty-two members of Congress, including Mississippi Republican Alan Nunnelee, are asking Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta to clarify the Pentagon’s decision to revoke permission for a religious publishing house to use U.S. military insignia on its Bibles.

They cite “religious freedom” and the First Amendment right “to worship our creator without the obstruction of the government” in urging Panetta to clarify the decision to reverse a 2003 decision authorizing use of the official trademarked symbols of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

“As you are aware, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) is claiming responsibility for the revocation of permission by B&H Publishing group to use official emblems on its military-themed Bibles,” the letter says.

B&H Publishing is a division of Nashville-based LifeWay Christian Resources associated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

In a statement accompanying the letter, Rep. Nunnelee refers to the MRFF as an “atheist group” and says that “the military should not be succumbing to pressure from outside groups to alter longstanding policy.”

The group’s founder, Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, a Jewish graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a lawyer, calls the characterization “actionable.”

Weinstein, a former military lawyer who worked in the Reagan White House, said yesterday that the civil liberties group represents 28,414 members of the armed services, 96% of whom are “practicing Christians,” who object to proselytizing by representatives of one fundamentalist Christian sect. They believe some in the military are indoctrinating subordinates while holding the constitutional separation of church and state in contempt. Some fear retaliation for speaking out and ask MRFF to speak for them, he said.

He noted that the Bibles they object to are a Protestant version with Scripture recognized by Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians removed. The Bibles also contain advertising for the Officers’ Christian Fellowship, an organization that says it seeks “to glorify God by uniting Christian officers for biblical fellowship and outreach, equipping and encouraging them to minister effectively in the military society.”

A U.S. Naval Academy chapter website says its “vision” is “a spiritually transformed military, with ambassadors for Christ in uniform, empowered by the Holy Spirit.”

Weinstein said MRFF members are not outsiders but insiders objecting to unconstitutional official acts. “To Congressman Nunnelee: if you call us an atheist organization again, I’m going to sue you,” he said in phone call from Albuquerque.

In one area, however, he said he agrees with the letter writers. He, too, would like to know how the decision to revoke the permission was made. Letters from senior military officials in the Air Force, Army and Navy indicate the decision was made last fall, before the MRFF wrote to Panetta objecting to the use of the insignia but after it made Freedom of Information Act records requests. The Air Force’s letter states the revocation occurred “for reasons unrelated to your inquiry.”

Messages left yesterday with the Office of the Secretary of Defense were not immediately returned. LifeWay spokesman Marty King, in a statement, said the company was notified that the authorization granted in 2003 had been withdrawn. King said the company’s existing inventory had been sold and that the new military-themed Bibles have “generic” insignia.

In letters to Panetta and the secretaries of the military branches in January, MRFF’s San Francisco-based lawyer, Katherine S. Ritchey, explained what she said is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment in the endorsement or implied endorsement of a religious symbol by the U.S. government. She explained that under U.S. Supreme Court rulings dating to 1971, government action touching on religion must have a secular purpose.

“The prominent placement of the Army emblem on such a profound religious instrument reveals an intent to convey a message of endorsement of religion,” Ritchey wrote. “That the emblem’s placement does not serve any logical secular purpose further underscores this point.”

Paul W. Dodd of Austin, Texas, who retired as a U.S. Army chaplain with the rank of colonel, said chaplains have always shared Scripture with service members “and nothing in the law restricts that as long as that right is secured for those of all faiths, not just the Judeo-Christian faith.” Dodd, who moved from the Southern Baptist to the American Baptist tradition, said “the very idea of a military Bible” is a “clear and unconstitutional overreach of the federal government into religion.”

Peter Montgomery, a spokesman for People for the American Way, which promotes the idea of the constitutional separation of church and state, said the members of Congress who wrote the letter are “manufacturing a controversy for political purposes and trying to blame the Obama administration for a threat to religious liberty that doesn’t exist.”

He added: “Nobody is preventing servicemen from getting Bibles or reading Bibles.”

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