Rules set for religious access at MEPS sites
January 4, 2009
• Read the policy letter here.
WASHINGTON — One of the last voices many recruits have heard before boarding a bus to boot camp has been from a member of the Gideons, which distributes Bibles and other evangelical Christian literature around the world.
For decades, the group has been allowed to set up shop at Military Entrance Processing Stations, or MEPS, across the United States, handing out New Testaments to classrooms of freshly sworn-in troops, wide-eyed and ready to serve. Soon, the Gideons may have company.
In November, the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command, or USMEPCOM, sent its station commanders new guidelines on behavior for religious and other "nonfederal entities" that seek access to military applicants and recruits. Religious groups may not, among other restrictions, "proselytize, preach, or provide spiritual counseling to," nor ask for money from applicants, recruits and employees on MEPS premises.
Additionally, "A commander who accommodates one [group], must be prepared to do the same for every other similar [group]," or allow no groups at all, the order states.
The rules come more than a year after the American Civil Liberties Union, in an August 2007 letter to the command, asked for clarification about the military’s policy on the Gideons’ presence at the stations and sought permission to send retired Army intelligence Col. Michael Pheneger, an ACLU board member, to observe several stations across the country.
The ACLU had received a complaint last year from a new soldier who said he was approached by Gideon’s representatives at the entrance processions station in Louisville, Ky.
"If these sites were available to all groups in the United States, on an equal access basis to hand out literature, that’s one thing. But if groups were given particular privileged access to hand out religious tracts, then that’s a constitutional problem," said Jeremy Gunn, a lawyer and director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief in Washington.
In leased office spaces, federal buildings and military installations across the U.S., 65 MEPS process incoming members of all military services. Applicants take entrance exams and undergo physicals, and recruits raise their right hand in swearing-in ceremonies.
According to MEPSCOM spokesman Dan Trew, the Gideons have been welcomed in MEPS for decades per each station commander’s discretion. In the last 15 years, he said, MEPSCOM has received no complaints from servicemembers. The new regulation, published in November, only formalized an understanding among MEPS commanders, he said.
"We have not changed our policy whatsoever. What we did was just put it on paper," Trew said. "We’re certainly not hiding anything, and it’s not a result of anything that went wrong."
But Pheneger, who visited five MEPS beginning in fall 2007, said that at each location he saw Gideons either being granted exclusive access to soldiers or overtly approaching them with religious materials, and that MEPSCOM lawyers had counseled the New Orleans center for being too permissive of Gideons activities.
"I think that the fact that we were going around and exhibited concern about what was going on made the command rethink their policy," he said.
‘Here’s your Bible’
Under the orders, Trew told Stars and Stripes, Gideons are allowed to sit at exhibit tables only in common areas of the stations and wait for applicants and recruits to approach them, but not to proselytize, preach or otherwise reach out.
But as newly sworn-in recruits in Jacksonville, Fla., New Orleans and Dallas sat in transportation briefings, the final step before many leave on buses for boot camp, officers brought Gideons members to the front of the room, introduced them and allowed them to present their mission and pass out copies of a camouflage-covered New Testament, Pheneger said.
"In Jacksonville, it was pretty interesting. The Gideon walked up to one of the recruits and said, ‘Here’s your Bible, and here in the front it has a place for your name,’ " Pheneger said. "He just basically opened it, handed it to him, put it right in his face and shook his hand, and by that time the recruit had the Bible whether he intended to take one or not."
For Gunn, the episode could be construed as an official government endorsement of religion.
"That’s coming from an officer in the U.S. military. Some, or maybe all, of the New Testaments that were handed out were in camouflage covers, so it looked as though it would be something that you would carry in the military."
"When recruits are going through a MEPS station, that’s the first step that the Army and the services have to put them in lockstep," added Pheneger, 69, a Vietnam veteran and expert in national security and civil liberties issues. "If you give an organization like the Gideons exclusive access under those circumstances, it begins to look like a government endorsement of what they’re doing. Constitutionally, that’s one thing that they’re not allowed to do."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, who heads the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said allowing the Gideons in MEPS exemplifies a problem of "consistent encroachments" on the religious freedom of servicemembers.
"The government, including the U.S. military, ought to be scrupulously neutral about these matters, not attempting to influence enlistees, would-be enlistees or people in the service already about religious matters," he said.
A better option, Lynn suggested, may be for MEPS commanders to close their doors altogether.
"It’s a bad idea for the military to assume that one powerful group — and the Gideons are pretty powerful; I mean, everybody’s heard of them — that because they want in, everybody gets in, and you turn what was previously a government-operated facility into an open forum for everybody to pontificate about whatever they want."
The Gideons International
The Gideons International, headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., comprises male volunteers who place Bibles and New Testaments "through designated traffic lanes of life, thus efficiently reaching a large number of people."
The organization boasts having printings in 80 languages and a distribution in 180 countries. The group has faced challenges for distributing religious literature to fifth-graders in Missouri and Ohio, and last year outside a public elementary school in Florida.
Steve Smith, a spokesman, said he would not comment "on scripture distribution matters," including their military outreach, and was unaware of the ACLU’s investigation. Smith said his office received a letter from MEPSCOM in early December informing them of the new regulation.
According to the group’s Web site, the Gideons aim to provide Bibles or New Testaments to every member of the armed forces and patients and staff at VA hospitals, through military chaplains who leave them in, among other places, "dayrooms, libraries, and guardhouses on military bases and military chapels."
— Kevin Baron