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GOP congressman targets church/state separation group with defense bill amendment
An amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act would ban the military from communicating with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation
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A Republican congressman is attempting to prohibit members of the military from having interactions with a church/state separation group that has spent years calling out intrusions of Christianity in the Armed Forces.
Ohio Rep. Mike Turner’s proposed action would block service members from communicating with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and prevent military officials from correcting mistakes pointed out by the group.
The attempt comes in the form of an amendment by Turner, a longtime Republican member of Congress who’s currently the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, to the National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA is usually passed on a bipartisan basis despite criticism about specific measures as well as the bloated price tag. (This year’s version would authorize approximately $886 billion in defense spending.)
The fact that it gets passed every year also makes it a perfect vehicle for lawmakers to add their personal priorities to it. Just last week, Turner celebrated the bill’s passage in the House Armed Services Committee by bragging about all the ways it would benefit the military and his district. There’s nothing unusual about that, but he curiously didn’t mention one of his own proposed amendments anywhere in that press release even though it was included in the version of the bill that passed on June 21:
None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or otherwise made available for fiscal year 2024 for the Department of Defense may be used—
(1) to communicate with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, its leadership, or its founder; or
(2) to take any action or make any decision as a result of any claim, objection, or protest made by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation without the authority of the Secretary of Defense.
In essence, (1) would block service members from using their official email addresses to report bad behavior (e.g. the promotion of Christianity by a superior officer). And (2) would prevent officials from correcting the mistakes (or intentional acts of overreach) of military leaders without first getting a green light from the head of the entire Defense Department. The Defense Secretary, who shouldn’t have to put out small fires, would personally have to oversee church/state issues… or ignore them altogether, which is likely the point.
Mikey Weinstein, MRFF’s president, rightly sees this as an assault on church/state separation:
“If they don’t like what we do at MRFF on behalf of our 84,000-plus military and veteran clients, they can take a number, pack a picnic lunch and stand in line with the rest of those fundamentalist Christian extremist bastards who constitute our enemies,” said Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the group.
For what it’s worth, I have a number of complaints about MRFF myself, from treating every potential church/state problem as if it’s a five-alarm fire started by an arsonist, to overreacting to any criticism, to making numerical claims about how many clients their represent in their complaint letters that are all-but-impossible for outsiders to verify. In this particular case, Weinstein referred to the amendment as “the most insidious, evil, vile, putrescent, shameful, disparaging, and disgusting thing I've ever seen anybody who's a Republican do.” (I mean, it’s bad, but Republicans do this shit all the time. January 6 was objectively worse than this amendment.)
But on principle, the group isn’t wrong when it comes to the fact that the military is supposed to be religiously neutral. Christianity shouldn’t be promoted by our military in any way and MRFF calls out every example of it that they can find.
That’s probably why Turner went after them specifically.
Back in 2016, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (in Turner’s district), there was a POW/MIA table display in the base’s medical center honoring soldiers lost in battle. That display, however, included a Bible, wrongly suggesting that POW/MIAs were all Christians and that atheists and other non-Christians didn’t make the same sacrifices as other soldiers. Even if that wasn’t the intention, that was the takeaway.
MRFF called out that problem and demanded the Bible be removed from the display. Officials at the base complied with the request, a move that infuriated Turner:
“It is simply unacceptable that (Wright-Patterson) personnel removed the Bible from the display, and I am concerned that similar efforts to restrict religious freedom may be made at other military installations,” Turner, R-Dayton, said in the April 13 letter to Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command headquartered at Wright-Patterson.
(Similar changes have indeed been made at other military bases.)
It’s no wonder, then, that Turner is now trying to block the military from having any interactions with MRFF, a group that seems to “win” every single time, probably because they have the benefit of being right.
Weinstein says if the amendment makes it into the final bill, MRFF will file a lawsuit over the matter.
A senior policy staffer with familiarity with House Armed Services Committee matters that spoke to the Indy on condition of anonymity named two recent incidents:
• MRFF objected to a painting of Jesus walking on water at the Merchant Marines Academy, and it was removed.
• MRFF objected to a cross being displayed at a Veterans Administration facility in San Antonio, Texas, and it was removed in less than two hours.
"There should be some sort of procedure dealing with requests coming from this organization," the senior staffer told the Indy. "It is our believe MRFF should not have the ability to berate and bully their way through having crosses and paintings taken down without approval from the top."
So… MRFF objected to public displays promoting Christianity and the military complied with their requests (in order to preserve religious neutrality). And yet that’s seen as MRFF berating and bullying the military to get their way.
It’s hard to imagine anything MRFF could say that wouldn’t be seen as bullying; there’s no polite way to dismantle Christian Nationalism.
How weak must the military be then, in that staffer’s eyes, to cave so quickly? At no point does that person consider that MRFF was right to criticize the displays of Christian symbolism, which is why military brass agreed and fixed the problems immediately.
When it comes to Turner’s amendment, it’s not like MRFF is alone on this matter. They’re getting support from like-minded groups that could just as easily be targets:
The MRFF has received support from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which said in a statement it "deplores Rep. Mike Turner’s Kafkaesque amendment" and that it's "shocking" that the House Armed Services Committee approved it.
"Rep. Turner’s amendment violates the First Amendment free speech rights and right to petition the government by MRFF and the members of the armed services that they serve," FFRF's co-founder and co-president Annie Laurie said in the statement.
That just highlights the absurdity of Turner’s actions.
Military members can always contact FFRF, or Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or the ACLU if they perceive any church/state violations. Turner isn’t going to stop the complaints; he’s just trying to settle some petty grievance that exists only in his mind.
More importantly: He’s trying to hide it. As I mentioned earlier, he didn’t explicitly mention it in his own press release last week, and members of the committee didn’t mention (much less debate) the amendment before their vote. Turner’s amendment was simply included as part of a larger package (“Log 3163” is brought up around the 1:01:00 mark below) and it’s possible committee members, including some Democrats, didn’t pay close attention to which amendments they were passing.
For what it’s worth, all of this could be moot. The NDAA will go through a number of revisions over the next few months and a lot of score-settling amendments will eventually be excised.
But that doesn’t change how one lawmaker decided to go after a church/state separation watchdog group, not the people attempting to turn the U.S. military into a Christian Nationalist organization. It’ll be up to the full House and Senate to reject this part of the bill. There’s a sample letter you can send your own representatives right here.
In the meantime, Mikey Weinstein had a message for anyone supporting this amendment: “We will never go away, and all of you can go F yourselves.”
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