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Navy changes course, allows service members to attend off-base religious services

Recruits attend Catholic worship service inside the Recruit Memorial Chapel at U.S. Navy Recruit Training Command in April 2020.

MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST 1ST CLASS CAMILO FERNAN/U.S. NAVY

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 9, 2020

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The Navy has pulled back on an order barring attendance at off-base religious services after at least five service members took action to fight the coronavirus-related restrictions.

Gregory Slavonic, acting Navy undersecretary, released a memo Wednesday that stated the service will not “restrict attendance at places of worship where attendees are able to appropriately apply [coronavirus] transmission mitigation measures, specifically social distancing and use of face covering.”

Service members assigned to Navy units are now able to attend religious services where mitigations to limit the spread of coronavirus are appropriately applied, Capt. Sarah Self-Kyler, spokeswoman for U.S. Fleet Forces, said Thursday.

“This change applies to those service members within the continental United States that remain at [Health Protection Level Charlie],” she said.

In an initial order issued June 24, attendance at off-base services was prohibited along with most other locations or events that encourage group gatherings. However, the order did allow attendance at on-base religious services, depending on available opportunities.

Five service members, who are stationed at Navy bases, retained First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal office focused on defending religious freedoms, to challenge the order.

Last week, Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty, sent letters on behalf of the service members to each member’s chain of command to ask for an accommodation from the order.

Air Force Maj. Daniel Schultz, who is assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School in California and therefore falls under the order’s restrictions, is one of the service members who challenged the order. Schultz is part of the leadership and worship team of his off-base church, and the letter to Schultz’s commander stated the Navy’s June 24 order banning attendance of off-base services “substantially burdens Maj. Schultz’s sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“We are grateful to acting Undersecretary Slavonic and Navy leadership for righting this ship, and to commander in chief [President Donald] Trump for making religious liberty a priority,” Berry said in a statement. “This is a major victory for the Constitution and for religious freedom within our military. This memo means tens of thousands of our brave service members will be able to safely and freely exercise their religious beliefs.”

Thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori

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