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 insignias 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, Nunnelee refers to the MRFF as an “atheist group” and writes “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, said Wednesday that the civil liberties group represents 28,414 members of the armed services, 96 percent of whom are “practicing Christians,” who object to proselytizing by representatives of one fundamentalist Christian sect.
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.”
Weinstein said 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 insignias 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.”
Navy Cmdr. Leslie HullRyde, a Department of Defense spokeswoman, said in a statement that Panetta “… will respond promptly and privately.” She said the Pentagon does not discuss the specifics of correspondence between the secretary and members of Congress.
LifeWay spokesman Marty King said the new military-themed Bibles have “generic insignias.”
MRFF’s San Francisco-based lawyer, Katherine S. Ritchey, explained that in 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.”