The Army's ROTC program is undergoing a "holistic review" after a religious-freedom group blasted the service for advertising a Christian-only officer position at an Illinois college and a 19-year-old Sikh student at a different school filed a lawsuit when he was denied entry over grooming standards.
The review covers "ROTC agreements and policies in effect to ensure compliance with Army regulations and policies," Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Alayne Conway said in a Wednesday email. Officials did not respond to questions on specifics, including what triggered the review and when it would wrap up.
Fox News first reported the review was in process in a Tuesday opinion piece on the first issue: The posting of an assistant professor of military science position at Wheaton College in Illinois that came with the advisory, "Must be of Christian faith." The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a group that claims 39,000 active-duty troops among its members, found out about the posting late last month, founder and president Mikey Weinstein said.
"We thought it was a joke, at first," Weinstein told Army Times, later calling the arrangement "an abhorrent nightmare."
He penned a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh, dated Nov. 6, that suggested the Army "immediately eliminate the Constitutionally noxious ... job requirement for the APMS slot at Wheaton College" and demanded the service begin an "aggressive and comprehensive investigation into all aspects of the Army's ROTC program at Wheaton."
That program has been in place since 1952, and the school has "historically required that the lead Professor of Military Science meet the same basic religious standards as the rest of our faculty," Wheaton spokeswoman LaTonya Taylor said Thursday via email. "Other ROTC instructors are not required to meet the same standard, but instead are expected minimally to understand and respect the religious mission of our institution."
A 2013 article on the Wheaton website, written by the Wheaton Record, describes the program as "the only Christian ROTC program in the nation." The Army did not respond to questions seeking confirmation of that claim, nor to questions about the job position's current status. MRFF officials said the posting had been removed.
The MRFF claims the position, as advertised, marks a clear violation of Article VI of the Constitution, which states, in part, that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Other legal opinions vary.
"The Army is not imposing a religious test," said Stanford University law professor Michael McConnell, who once served as a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge. "It reads as if the Army has a neutral policy that its professors of military science at the various colleges and universities meet the standard criteria for faculty of those institutions, whatever they happen to be."
The Rolling Thunder Battalion, which hosts ROTC members from multiple schools, has been based at Wheaton College since the 1950s
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Wheaton College
"I don't think the Army, based on the regulation, can do that. Nor do I think it ought to do that," said professor Rick Rosen, who retired as a colonel in 2003. "I think it's unhealthy for the cadets. If they're thinking about a military career, they should be exposed to diversity.
"I just don't think a college should dictate to the Army the religious beliefs [of officers that the Army] sends, that it's paying. I was surprised when I saw that they do that. If I were the Army, I would assign the best officer to the position, and if the officer wasn't Christian, so be it. Either Wheaton accepts the officer, or it loses the program."
A professor of law and religion at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., raised that very issue.
Robert Tuttle, who has written multiple pieces on connections between religion and military service, primarily dealing with chaplains, disagreed with McConnell, saying "the idea that you can restrict that [position] based on faith seems to me to be deeply violative of basic commitments that we've made ... to nonestablishment [of religion], because it really means that the government is saying, 'We're going to Christian-ize this program.'"
He also pointed to Army Regulation 145-1, which outlines the requirements for establishing a ROTC unit.
The rules state that organizations wishing to stand up a ROTC unit must have "no discrimination in admissions based on race, sex (unless the school is a single sex school in its overall admissions policy), color, national origin, or religion."
At Wheaton, all "students, faculty and staff annually affirm the Community Covenant, which is a voluntary social compact that expresses the commitments and values that flow out of the community's shared Christian faith," Taylor said.
The covenant is included in the school's application. That "raises serious questions under Army regulations about whether they can have an ROTC program," Tuttle said.
As of Friday, the Army had not responded to questions posed regarding AR 145-1, including whether it applied to existing programs.
Iknoor Singh's requests for waivers that would accommodate his turban, beard and long hair, symbols of his Sikh faith, have been rejected by Army officials.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of ACLU
Weeks after the faith-based job posting came to light and a day after the first report of the ROTC review, the American Civil Liberties Union and United Sikhs sued the Army on behalf of Hofstra University sophomore Iknoor Singh, the end result of a string of rejected requests for a religion-based waiver to grooming and uniform regulations, according to the lawsuit.
Singh began his pursuit of such a waiver in 2013, the suit claims, and the most recent denial stated the Army would not consider accommodating Singh's requests until he shaved his hair and beard, removed his turban, enrolled in the ROTC program and then sought a waiver.
"Telling Mr. Singh that he must violate his religion in order to seek a religious exemption is a classic Catch-22, and is an independent violation of [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act]," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the Nation's Capital, in an ACLU news release.
Three practicing Sikhs, including two officers, already serve in the Army under religious accommodations that allow for the wear of a turban, long hair and full beards. Their exemptions are listed in the lawsuit, which was published online by BuzzFeed.
The Army does not comment on pending litigation, Conway said.