Like most heroes in the fight for religious freedom in the military, he—or she—remains anonymous. But on July 31, a naval officer at Naval Weapons Station, Joint Base Charleston, home to the Nuclear Power Training Unit, emailed the Military Religious Freedom Foundation seeking help for an all-too-common violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
"I noticed a few months back that at my base, NWS Charleston, there are often Christian flyers and handouts on a table as you leave the building," the officer wrote. "I generally ignored it, but recently I noticed that they have full Bibles being distributed, that are labeled 'NPTU Bible' (NPTU is our command). It seems like a clear promotion of Christianity by our command to have the label "NPTU Bible", coupled with the exclusive access to being distributed at the table. I looked into it, and I believe the Bibles to be distributed either by something called Operation Worship or Gideon's International. It seems wrong that we should be providing a designated space for proselytizing to sailors."
Boy, was (s)he right!
The flyers that had been there for months are the sort of violation of the Establishment Clause that’s commonplace throughout the military—innocent seeming to some, perhaps, but it subtly works to erode morale and unit cohesion that are central to the military mission, the distinct importance of which is why the Supreme Court’s 1974 decision in Parker v. Levy draws a significant distinction between how the First Amendment can be applied in military vs. civilian situations—and why a large body of military regulations—including the Navy Core Values Charter have further enshrined the importance of creating an inclusive atmosphere to promote that core mission.
The Navy’s core values are “Honor, Courage, and Commitment.” Under “Commitment” the charter states, “I will:…Show respect toward all people without regard to race, religion or gender," as well as "Care for the personal and spiritual well-being of my people,” neither of which are done when religious proselytizing is officially promoted or even just allowed in public spaces. Such so-called “minor” violations—not so minor for those who feel the weight of exclusion—also serve to normalize more acute violations, such as the Bibles that followed, and finally led this officer to do something.
“The Bibles are located in the westmost of the four main buildings on site. This is the building where all students and staff enter and exit from the site,” the officer wrote. There could not be a more prominent location, giving the unit-branded Bibles another layer of de facto official endorsement.
“It is just so unconstitutional and so horribly manifests itself in the rapid destruction of good order, morale, discipline in unit cohesion among our service members,” MRFF Founder and President, Mikey Weinstein told Crooks and Liars. He quickly took action, speaking with the NPTU Commander, Capt. Stephen Mongold for about 12 minutes that afternoon. Mongold seemed unaware of the situation, and non-committal about what he might do, he told Crooks and Liars. But the next time the officer to returned to duty—Lo and behold!—the Bibles were gone.
But that doesn’t solve the problem. The problem was what put them there in the first place, and would do so again, in a heartbeat.
“Preposterous!” is how Weinstein described Mongold’s shoulder-shrugging response in email sent to his superior, Vice Admiral William J. Galinis, the next day:
He’s the COMMANDER of NPTU, and he is apparently UNAWARE that Christian bibles (often several dozen at a time) with the “NPTU" acronym CLEARLY visible on their hard front cover have been on blatant display (as well as an array of sectarian Christian flyers, handouts and pamphlets) for distribution and proselytizing RIGHT UNDER HIS NOSE for at least the last few MONTHS??!!
The NPTU branding flies directly in the face of another regulation, MRFF’s Research Director Chris Rodda pointed out to Crooks and Liars. Joint Ethics Regulation - DoD 5500.07-R includes the following provision, with emphasis added by Rodda:
3-209. Endorsement. Endorsement of a non-Federal entity, event, product, service, or enterprise may be neither stated nor implied by DoD or DoD employees in their official capacities and titles, positions, or organization names may not be used to suggest official endorsement or preferential treatment of any non-Federal entity ...
“The Bible is an ‘Operation Worship"’ Bible, so the use of the organization name on it endorsing the non-federal entity. ‘Operation Worship,’" Rodda explained. She provided the image at the top of this story, showing a stack of similarly branded Bibles. “Our first encounter with Operation Worship was way back around 2008 or so, if my memory serves me correctly. They're definitely been doing it for many years,” she said.
“They've always done that. That's why I assumed it was an Operation Worship one.” Rodda said, but she also added a caveat. “The client actually said the Bible was either from Operation Worship or Gideon's International. I assumed it's Operation Worship because they are the organization that personalizes their military Bibles with the unit name. Either way, even if it was Gideon's, it's still in violation of the regulation because Gideon's is also a non-federal entity.”
To bring home the impact of the situation for the admiral, Weinstein painted a vivid, but most improbable picture:
Imagine the unbridled chaos, indignation, and infuriation if, instead of that unconstitutional “NPTU” Christian bible, there was an official “NPTU” Koran, or “NPTU” Satanic bible, or “NPTU” Book of Mormon or “NPTU” Torah or “NPTU” Bhagavad Gita, or, in point of fact, an official “NPTU” front book cover label on Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great,” or Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith"!?
Why, sir, had THAT occurred there would have FREAKING been blood in the street and you know it!
By the time of his letter, just one day after the initial complaint, an additional 24 clients had joined the initial officer,18 of them practicing Christians. “Justly fearing reprisal, retribution, revenge, and retaliation from their U.S. Navy chain of command, they came to MRFF to make their demands that this ‘NPTU’ Christian bible ‘ministry’, and associated Christian flyers, handouts and pamphlets be ordered to immediately cease and desist forthwith!” Weinstein wrote, adding:
Quite a telling and sad commentary, Admiral, on the NPTU Command Climate when so many of its constituent Naval personnel are too fearful to reach out to their own NPTU/Naval Sea Systems chain of command with such grievances and are, consequently, left with no reasonable alternative but to come to MRFF for this advocacy aid and support.
And Weinstein laid out three demands:
(1) immediately order the cessation of any further “NPTU” Christian bible and related Christian flyer, handout and pamphlet displays/distributions/proselytizing at the NPTU building complex and anywhere else in Naval Sea Systems Command;
(2) immediately order a thorough investigation (including under NCIS auspices) into this matter to include how and why an “NPTU”-emblazoned Christian bible ever came to exist in the first place;
(3) swiftly, visibly and aggressively punish all Navy personnel who are either directly for indirectly responsible for allowing these repugnant, unconstitutional matters to ensue.
The Navy has yet to respond.
While MRFF’s clients come from a diverse range of backgrounds, the initial client’s experience reflects common themes across MRFF’s years of advocacy. In a long post-script to the initial email, supplied with redactions by MRFF, the client wrote:
I was sworn into the Navy in 20(XX), and since then, I have been often surprised by the degree to which Christian religious identity is center stage. I went to public school in (U.S. State name withheld), and great lengths were taken to maintain a clear line between religion and a government institution. I expected the military would be even more strict about this. I was wrong. Between the prayers at graduation ceremonies (in one case the requirement to bow our heads in unison during the prayer), closing the oath of enlistment/office with "so help me god", and more subtle references, like leaders saying that we are "doing god's work", the Navy seems to make clear where it stands on religion.
I've generally been quiet about stuff like this besides discussion with friends. The military isn't generally a place that praises disruption of systems or norms. The Bibles were a breaking point. Placing a stack of Bibles in the most high traffic location on sight is a clear and exclusive promotion of Christianity. The title "NPTU Bible" is even more bold. Young sailors in the Navy's nuclear pipeline take a lot of pride in being a nuke and are beginning to adjust to the Nuclear Navy culture. Seeing this title sends the message that part of that culture is being Christian.
And that’s a message that’s clearly at odds with Navy’s own core values.