DOD should not allow promotion of religion on branded dog tags

The headline immediately caught my eye: “Anti-religion group seeks to deny troops inspirational dog tags.” It’s a shocking claim and seemed unbelievable — open religiosity was one of the components of military life I found most surprising when I joined, and it’s hard to imagine any organization trying to deny troops something as innocuous as dog tags with inspirational sayings on them.

A careful read validated my suspicion: It is not the case that a nonprofit has been denied the ability to donate innocuous dog tags with inspirational sayings to individual service members by a supportive nonprofit.

Rather, the Marine Corps — which is notoriously protective of its brand — denied a license for the private business Shields of Strength to produce and sell dog tags with both verses from the Bible and Marine Corps trademarks on them.

Dog tags with Air Force and Army symbols and religious verses are still for sale. Additionally, while coverage for this decision has blamed the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s complaint, the letter from Shields of Strength’s counsel to the Marine Corps Trademark Licensing Office includes a 2011 quote from the Marine Corps that they did “not feel comfortable licensing religious materials” and another from 2017 referencing a DOD policy prohibiting DOD licenses “for any purpose intended to promote … religious beliefs.”

The only surprise is that multiple services appear to have violated that policy by issuing Shields of Strength such licenses, which do risk “creating a perception of DOD endorsement.” Setting aside Constitutional issues, both national trends and recent events support DOD’s policy.

A rapidly-shrinking share of adults identify as Christians; at the same time the percent who identify as religiously unaffiliated is climbing dramatically and there has been slow but steady growth in the number of those who identify as holding non-Christian faiths. The Army, which missed its recruiting goal in 2018, is seeking to expand recruiting outside its traditional stronghold in the South — home of the highest percent of Evangelical Protestants — and into regions where potential recruits are more religiously diverse. During this era of rapidly-changing demographics and recruiting challenges, licensing military trademarks to those seeking to promote their own Christian religious beliefs does not align with the DOD community relations objectives its branding and licensing policy references.

The problem extends beyond recruiting to issues with how well the military supports non-Christians within the ranks.

The Marine Corps drill instructor sentenced to 10 years in prison for tormenting recruits particularly targeted Muslims. Serious concerns have been raised about Evangelicalism and proselytizing in the Air Force. Atheists regularly report uncomfortable, frustrating experiences while serving, alongside outright discrimination. Licensing the use of a service branch’s symbol on replica dog tags along with Christian bible verses does nothing to dispel the perception among troops that this type of intolerance is tacitly allowed — if not outright encouraged. 

Nor does framing the separation of church and state as “anti-religion.”

The argument that not only is spiritual readiness an important part of combat readiness but also that commercial dog tag replicas co-branded with Bible verses and military symbols is a crucial part of sustaining faith in a combat zone boggles the mind. Every military ceremony I ever attended included remarks by a chaplain. Bibles were readily available. Attending religious services during basic training was the only respite from the cleaning responsibilities that otherwise occupied Sunday mornings. Troops are allowed to wear and carry religious items. Official military-issued dog tags are stamped with the religious affiliation of their choice. No one is denying service members the right to wear a or carry a symbol of their faith — rather, the Marine Corps has denied a for-profit corporation license to sell an item that includes both a religious verse and its trademarked symbol.

During my combat tour in Iraq, the soldiers with whom I served had a range of religious beliefs and experiences. For some, faith was deeply sustaining; others could not sustain belief in the face of war’s horrors. Some troops found religion irrelevant throughout the deployment, while others developed a deeper reverence for a higher power.

The presence — or absence — of a commercial product with our branch’s logo and a verse of scripture was not the deciding factor for any of their spiritual experiences.

Baseless claims that such items are vital to “spiritual readiness” among some Christian troops is an inadequate argument to override reasonable DOD policy against promoting a particular religious belief. DOD and all of the branches of service should stand firm and not bow to this pressure.

Kayla Williams is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served two years as Director of the Center for Women Veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs, serving as primary advisor to the Secretary on policies, programs and legislation affecting women veterans. Prior to that, she worked at the RAND Corporation, where she did research related to veteran health needs and benefits, international security and intelligence policy. She is the author of “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,” a memoir of her deployment to Iraq.

Tags Chaplain DOD dog tag Religious symbolism in the United States military U.S. Department of Defense U.S. Marine Corps

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