(CNSNews.com) – A Christian company that produces replica dog-tags bearing Bible verses says it has “never fought a more important fight” after the U.S. military – confronted by complaints from an advocacy group – said they could no longer feature both the biblical references and trademarked military branch emblems.
The company is essentially being given a choice: Drop the biblical references or stop using the official military logos.
For more than 20 years, Texas-based Shields of Strength has provided service members with memento dog-tags featuring inspirational messages based on verses of scripture such as Joshua 1:9 (“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”) and Psalm 27:3 (“Though my enemies attack me, I will not fear; though battles rage around me, I will still trust in God.”)
Over the years since then, hundreds of thousands of the items have been donated to military units and individual personnel.
But last July, after Fox News reported on the dog-tags, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) formally complained to the Department of Defense. The company, in MRFF’s words, was “illicitly using its DoD merchandise license to intentionally spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The U.S. Army’s trademark licensing program then notified Shields of Strength (SoS) owner Kenny Vaughan in an August email, “You are not authorized to put biblical verses on your Army products. For example Joshua 1:9. Please remove ALL biblical references from all of your Army products.”
First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm representing SoS, wrote this month to the Army’s trademark licensing program, calling its directive unconstitutional.
In a six-page letter, First Liberty Institute chief of staff Mike Berry wrote, “The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause forbids the government from formally establishing religion, and from coercing Americans to follow it.”
“It prohibits the government from officially favoring or disfavoring particular religious viewpoints or expression. Your directive that SoS remove all biblical references from its products demonstrates precisely the type of government hostility towards religion that the Establishment Clause forbids.”
Berry requested that the decision be rescinded, and for the licensing office to provide “written assurance that SoS will be able to include Biblical references on its Army-licensed products.”
“It’s bad enough that the Army is violating the Constitution and federal law,” Berry, a Marine Corps combat veteran, told CNSNews.com in an email on Monday. “But what’s worse is that the Army appears to be ignoring the Commander-in-Chief’s Executive Order on respecting religious liberty.”
“We have been praying non-stop and we have never fought a more important fight,” said Vaughan. “We are so encouraged and humbled by the outpouring of support for Shields of Strength. It shows just how much Americans value the rights of our military. Shields of Strength will continue to fight for our military to the very end.”
CNSNews.com submitted queries to the trademark licensing divisions of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, although only the latter responded substantively by press time.
Capt. Christopher Harrison, a Marine Corps communication strategy officer, said the USMC trademark licensing office follows DoD policy. He pointed specifically to a Sept. 2013 Pentagon instruction stating that, “DoD marks may not be licensed for any purpose intended to promote ideological movements, sociopolitical change, religious beliefs (including non-belief), specific interpretations of morality, or legislative/statutory change.”
‘Much more than just pieces of metal on a chain’
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.) wrote to Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week, asking for clarification on the “troubling reports” about the licensing policy relating to Bible verses on products, saying he understood the licenses were under threat “due to a complaint and negative press.”
MRFF describes itself as an organization “dedicated to ensuring that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.”
On its website MRFF founder Mikey Weinstein reacted to Vaughan’s description of the campaign against the SoS dog-tags as “insane” and “selfish.”
“If SoS feels that either I or MRFF are ‘insanely selfish,’ we would suggest that it take a good, hard look into the nearest mirror,” he said.
“Illegally using military logos and symbols to further the SoS organization’s partisan and sectarian fundamentalist Christian religious agenda of proselytization is the REAL selfishness here!”
Weinstein said by phone Monday the issue was one of copyright agreement violation.
“This isn’t anti-Christian. It’s pro-Constitution and pro-trademark law.”
“These are souvenir dog-tags that people are buying from a for-profit Christian company that negotiated supposedly in good faith with the DoD to get a license to use their logo,” Weinstein said.
“The license agreement makes it clear that whoever gets a license cannot use it to advance a partisan or sectarian political or religious purpose,” he added.
In a recent op-ed for the publication Law Office, First Liberty Institute president and CEO Kelly Shackelford wrote that the MRFF threats were directed at “one of the most basic rights for which our service members sacrificed – the freedom to live out their faith.”
“It’s simply a cruel insult that the MRFF would seek to deny military service members and their families the right to wear inspirational jewelry just because it has a religious message,” Shackelford said.
“For the brave men and women who serve in uniform, Shields of Strength are much more than just pieces of metal on a chain. These tags are a source of encouragement, a symbol of sacrifice and a tangible reminder of the strength gained through faith.”