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Boot camp officials stand by decision to bar some religious services

Despite pressure from both sides of the religious divide, Navy boot camp officials are standing firm on their decision to bar more than a half dozen civilian volunteer religious leaders from conducting services on the base.

In late April, Capt. Douglas Pfeifle, head of Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Ill., ordered the volunteers, who represent a cross section of minority religious faiths, to stop conducting services on base. He also ordered that the recruits be given time and materials to worship on their own.

That provoked an immediate reaction from Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who lodged a complaint on behalf of one the volunteers, a practicing Druid, and gave Pfeifle 24 hours to reverse himself.

That didn't happen. But it produced some mighty strange bedfellows.

Weinstein joined forces with Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, who is frequently at loggerheads with Weinstein over MRFF's very public opposition to Christian influences in the military.

They put out a joint statement calling for the reinstatement of the volunteer religious leaders at boot camp.

"We have testified before the same congressional panels. We have spoken out on the same incidents in the services. And, we are always on opposing sides," they wrote, "but in this instance it is easy for us both to say that the Navy went too far and is clearly in violation of the constitutional religious liberty rights of American sailors at the Recruit Training Command."

In an April 30 letter to Weinstein, however, Pfeifle stated that the policy is staying put. In fact, he said, the policy has been well-received.

"Since our realignment, my command staff has received only positive feedback from the recruits," Pfeifle wrote. "Not one recruit has complained or filed a request."

The change of policy, which took effect in April, upset at least some of the volunteers who were leading Sunday services during holiday routine. John Chantry, the Druid volunteer, said he led earth-centered services for as many as 200 recruits each week.

But base officials said that, per the Navy's instruction, services should be conducted by a uniformed chaplain. If no chaplain is available, then an accredited military member should conduct the services, followed by a contracted chaplain or — if no one else can do it — civilian volunteers.

Recruits who practice minority religions will still be provided with time and materials during holiday routine to worship as they see fit. If recruits request a spiritual leader, the Navy will follow the guidance for identifying a suitable candidate, the official said.

In addition to Druids, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist, Baha'i, Church of Christ, Christian Science and non-liturgical Protestant recruits were left without clergy at boot camp.

Last Tuesday, the attorney for MRFF sent a letter to Pfeifle claiming the group was violating recruits' constitutional rights.

Specifically, attorney Robert Eye said, the Pfeifle's order violates the First Amendment's prohibition of establishing religious "winners and losers," in whichwhere one religion is given preference over another.

"Discrimination on the basis of religion should not be tolerated in the U.S. Navy," the letter reads. "But discrimination is what the subject order sanctions."

The boot camp kerfuffle has created strange bedfellows.

The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty and its head, Ron Crews, frequently at loggerheads over Weinstein's very public opposition to Christian influences in the military, put out a joint statement calling for the reinstatement of the volunteer religious leaders at Boot Camp.

"We have testified before the same Congressional panels. We have spoken out on the same incidents in the services. And, we are always on opposing sides," the statement reads. "But in this instance it is easy for us both to say that the Navy went too far and is clearly in violation of the Constitutional religious liberty rights of American sailors at the Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois."

Crews said in the statement that Pfeifle went too far.

"Religious liberty is guaranteed to all, whether you are Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Druid, or any other small group faith," Crews said. "If the freedom to worship and live your faith is not available to one service member, it's not available to any. We sincerely hope that the command will reread the Navy regulation and reverse course on this dangerous and unconstitutional decision."

Weinsteing said he will continue to press the issue.

"This isn't about civil privileges," he wrote. "It's about civil rights. ...

"We will not rest until the Navy reinstates religious services for the approximately 250 earth-based worshippers impacted by this misguided decision."

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