Army bans faith-based business from selling Bible verse dog tags

Shields of Strength dog tags
Shields of Strength dog tags | YouTube/First Liberty Institute

The U.S. Army’s licensing office has banned a faith-based company from engraving Bible verses on Army-licensed dog tags and jewelry, an action that has outraged at least one member of Congress. 

Last week, the religious freedom law group First Liberty Institute sent a letter to the U.S. Army Trademark Licensing Office arguing that the office is violating the U.S. Constitution by requiring a licensed military vendor to remove all “biblical references” from its licensed Army products. 

Shields of Strength has been authorized for the last seven years to sell products with Army trademarks and seals. Its jewelry products are available for sale in some military exchanges and stores. 

Having been around since 1998, Shields of Strength has produced 4 million dog tags, hundreds of thousands of which have been donated.

In August, Shields of Strength owner Kenny Vaughan received an email titled “Negative Press.” 

In the email, Vaughan was told: “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.” 

The email Vaughan received came after the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a secular legal organization, sent a letter of complaint to all branches of the military about Shields of Strength. The complaint was then shared by the "Friendly Atheist" blog at the Patheos website. 

MRFF argued that the company violated the Department of Defense rules that state: “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.” 

MRFF also threatened “administrative and litigation complaints” unless Shields of Strength stopped including religious references on its licensed products. 

But in a Dec. 3 letter, First Liberty Institute Chief of Staff Mike Berry told Paul Jensen, director of the Army Trademark Licensing Program, that his agency’s directive to Shields of Strength is unlawful. 

“Just as with the MRFF’s demands, your directive is unsupported by the law, and is, in fact, unconstitutional,” Berry wrote. “We request you immediately rescind your unlawful directive and take immediate steps to clarify your policy to comport with the United States Constitution and federal law.”

Berry, a Marine veteran, stressed that the U.S. Constitution prevents the government from favoring or disfavoring religious viewpoints.

“Your directive that SoS remove all biblical references from its products demonstrates precisely the type of government hostility toward religion that the Establishment Clause forbids,” Berry wrote. 

“The First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause also protects private entities from impermissible government interference with religious exercise. This includes the prohibition against government censorship of religious expression by a private, for-profit corporation, such as SoS.”

According to First Liberty, former President George W. Bush requested his own dog tag in 2003 when he honored Capt. Russell Rippetoe, the first soldier from Operation Iraqi Freedom to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. 

Bush gave a Memorial Day speech reciting the words of Joshua 1:9, the verse on Ripptoe’s Shield of Strength dog tag. 

Fox News reports that Republican Rep. Ralp Abraham, R-La., sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper asking for clarification. 

“These dog tags belong to the individual service member and not allowing Bible verses to be inscribed on them, per their wishes, is an infringement on their personal freedom — the same freedom they fight to protect on our behalf," Abraham told Fox News. 

"They provide comfort to our troops during difficult times and in some cases, they are the only personal effect left for families of the fallen if they don’t make it home.”

In a statement provided to ABC 13, an Army spokesperson said that the “Army can confirm receipt of the [First Liberty Institute] letter.”

“We are looking into the matter,” the Army spokesperson added. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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