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Bill would allow companies to use military logos on religious jewelry

Kenny Vaughan holds a dog tag with a Bible verse sold by his company, Shields of Strength. The Marine Corps has asked the company to stop using its trademarked logo on similar products.

LIBERTY FIRST INSTITUTE

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 13, 2020

A Florida congressman introduced legislation to change a Defense Department policy that prohibits licensees of its trademarked logos from using them alongside religious symbols.

The move comes after the Military Religious Freedom Foundation pointed out that a Christian jewelry company was doing just that and spurred the Marine Corps to ask the business to stop.

Army veteran Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., said he filed the Religious Insignia on Dog Tags Act in January because of the importance of religion during his deployment to Iraq as an officer in the JAG Corps. The bill, which has been referred to the House Armed Services Committee, ensures lawful trademark licensees of military products can include religious symbols on commercial identification tags, commonly known as dog tags. This is currently prohibited by Defense Department policy and the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

“When I deployed to Iraq, I took great comfort in my faith in God and my savior Jesus Christ, and I carried scripture and a cross my father had given me on my dog tags,” Steube said in a statement. “Our service members fight for our freedom and our Constitution, and one of those freedoms is our freedom of religion. Our service members should have access to dog tags that display that religious freedom and companies should not be penalized from producing those tags.”

The tussle over commercially produced dog tags — not those issued to service members by the military — began in July when Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force JAG officer and current founder and president of the religious freedom foundation known as MRFF, sent a cease and desist letter to the Marine Corps stating that the jewelry company Shields of Strength was violating the No Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution as well as a DoD instruction related to its trademarks and branding.

Trademarked military logos or emblems “may not be licensed for use in a manner that creates a perception of DOD endorsement of any non-federal entity or its products and services. 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,” according to the policy.

“In this case, it’s a complete violation of their license agreement and they know it,” said Weinstein, who said he chose to send the letter after the foundation received numerous complaints about the dog tags – many of those people identified as Christians.

The replica dog tags in question are similar in size and shape to those worn by service members as a means of identification. Where a service member’s personal information would be, the company places Bible verses on one side and, on the other, the trademarked emblems of the military departments for which they have signed license agreements. The tags have been around for more than 20 years, sell for about $10 and can be custom designed.

The company’s website currently sells dog tags with the Army and Air Force logos.

Mike Berry, chief of staff for First Liberty Institute, which is representing Shields of Strength and its owner Kenny Vaughan, said following the MRFF’s complaint to the Marine Corps, the service banned the company from continuing to make any dog tags that have Bible verses and the Marine Corps logo.

The company has an agreement with the Army for use of its trademark logo with three preapproved Bible verses, and Berry said the Army has not requested they stop making the product.

First Liberty Institute sent a letter in January to the Marine Corps urging officials to reconsider and allow Shields of Strength to sell the dog tags.

“Events of the past several weeks make clear that our military personnel are constantly exposed to danger. And yet the MRFF seeks to deny them the freedom to wear Shields of Strength,” Berry said. “Denying our troops a source of inspiration, hope and encouragement simply because it contains a religious message is an outrage. The Marine Corps should tell the MRFF to support our troops, not punish them.”

The debacle led Shields of Strength to decline a request for 2,000 replica dog tags from a Marine Corps unit to be distributed upon request to individual Marines, Berry said.

“It’s frustrating that those who are fighting for our freedom can’t have a shield simply because the military is afraid of an outside activist group,” Vaughan said in a statement. “I hope the Marine Corps reverses course and restores the ability of our brave military members to own a Shield of Strength.”

Weinstein noted that Shields of Strength can continue to make dog tags, they just can’t have the trademarked logos. He also noted that nothing stops a service member from buying a dog tag with a Bible verse and wearing it. They could even add a sticker with a military logo to the dog tag, he said.

Berry, a former Marine Corps JAG officer, said that’s not good enough.

“It’s not what service members are demanding,” he said. “They want to have their unit logo on one side and the Bible verse on the other.”

As for Steube’s legislation, Berry said he appreciates his support.

“We’re hopeful that the DoD will be able to see the benefit that these replica dog tags bring to the military and their families and allow Shields of Strength to make and distribute those,” he said.

The bill currently has seven Republican co-sponsors. Steube intends to present the bill to the For Country Caucus, which is made up of post-9/11 combat veterans in Congress, in an effort to gain support. The bill’s passage in unlikely in the Democrat-controlled House, according to analysis from GovTrack, an independent website that tracks legislation.

Thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori
 

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