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February 04, 2020 | In The News

Lakeland Ledger: Our View: Let Them Go On Faith

Many military veterans understand the old saying that there’s no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole – especially those well acquainted with Churchill’s war maxim that nothing in life is as “exhilarating” as being shot at “without result,”

Yet the Pentagon recently curtailed efforts by soldiers in foxholes, or anywhere else, to display their faith.

Two lawmakers representing Polk County seek to change that, however, and we hope they succeed.

The dust-up begins in the early days of the war in Afghanistan. An Army colonel bound for the Middle East noticed a replica of the military’s identification, or “dog,” tags emblazoned with a Bible verse. The colonel reached out to Shields of Strength, the company that made the tags, and the firm supplied 500 for the colonel to take with him.

In April 2003, according to the company, a suicide bomber in Iraq killed Capt. Russell Rippetoe, an Army Ranger, and two of his troops. Rippetoe was wearing Shield of Strength dog tags. He became the first U.S. soldier killed in Iraq to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. During a Memorial Day ceremony that year, then-President George W. Bush noted the Shield of Strength tag and read the Bible verse, Joshua 1:9: “Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of good courage. Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with thee.”

Since then, according to the company, Shield of Strength has sold 4 million of the replica dog tags.

Along the way the dog-tag maker reached a licensing deal with the Pentagon. Last summer, a group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation complained, and the Defense Department directed the company to quit selling dog tags that bore religious symbols or references coupled with emblems of the military services.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation maintained the dog tags violate constitutional provisions separating church from state, as well as the Defense Department’s own regulations about what appears on items bearing the military services’ official logos.

On the other hand, a religious group, the First Liberty Institute, has challenged the military’s decision, saying it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Two weeks ago GOP Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota waded into this controversy. He filed a bill that would repeal the military’s regulations and allow its trademarks “to be combined with religious insignia on commercial identification tags.”

Steube told the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news website, that the issue was personal with him. The congressman, an Iraq war veteran, said his father had added a cross to his official dog tags, which gave him comfort while serving overseas.

Rep. Ross Spano, a Dover Republican who represents Lakeland and other parts of western Polk County, is among the six GOP lawmakers who have co-sponsored Steube’s measure.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, as would be expected, remains upset.

Its president, Michael Weinstein, told the Free Beacon that Steube’s effort was “the best example of a domestic enemy (to the Constitution) that I’ve seen recently.”

“Why don’t [Steube] and those who are supporting his bill just shred it and move forward with a new bill that would declare fundamentalist Christianity as the official religion of the United States of America and their version of fundamentalist Jesus Christ as the official lord and savior of America?” Weinstein added. “Because they do one and the same thing.”

Weinstein and those who support him should spare the rest of us the hyperventilating hyperbole – before more people are fooled into believing a legitimate reason to be concerned exists.

Let’s not forget this is a commercial transaction.

Soldiers, who are obviously proud of their service to their country and seeking to honor their religious faith, buy these dog tags from Shield of Strength with their own money. The government does not issue them to our troops, and they are not considered the soldiers’ authorized ID tag. They are, in essence, akin to jewelry. As Steube pointed out to the Free Beacon, the soldiers’ decision to wear religious-themed dog tags made by a private vendor is completely voluntary.

It’s a shame the Pentagon so utterly surrendered on this issue – especially since military leaders apparently saw nothing wrong with Shield of Strength’s operation until Weinstein’s group complained more than 15 years after the fact.

The company’s ally, First Liberty, argues in a letter to the military that the decision to punish Shield of Strength is unconstitutional as “viewpoint discrimination” that “censors or bans only its religious speech, solely because it is religious. This, in turn, demonstrates “precisely the type of government hostility towards religion that the Establishment Clause forbids,” they say.

We agree with their point. And so we appreciate Steube and Spano for trying to correct that. It will be an uphill climb in the Democratic-led House, but we encourage all lawmakers to understand few among us will need the support of strong personal faith more than those who stand in harm’s way to defend our nation.