A private company says it’s fighting a directive from the Army Trademark Licensing Program to halt sales of replica dog tags stamped with the service’s emblems alongside biblical scripture.
Shields of Strength LLC, which describes itself as a “faith-based business," started selling the trinkets under an Army-granted license in 2012, but the company operated without a license before that, selling millions of replica dog tags since 1998.
However, the company’s ability to use Army emblems was put in jeopardy this July following formal complaints from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, or MRFF, an advocacy group focused on service-related First Amendment issues.
Mikey Weinstein, founder of MRFF, told Army Times that the “proselytizing merchandise” was “a clear-cut violation” of Pentagon policy, which doesn’t allow trademarked logos to be used to promote religious beliefs, as well as non-belief.
The Marine Corps Trademark Counsel was also sent a complaint by MRFF in July and agreed that month to disallow its emblem’s use on similar products by Shields of Strength.
The Army responded on Aug. 12, but not to Weinstein. Kenny Vaughan, president of Shields of Strength, said he received an email from Army Trademark Licensing Program director Paul Jensen with the subject line “Negative Press."
“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," Jensen wrote.
The email was included in a complaint sent to Jensen on Tuesday from Michael Berry, the chief of staff for First Liberty Institute, a religious freedom organization representing Vaughan. The complaint urges the Army to allow Vaughan’s business to continue producing military-themed items such as the replica dog tags, or face further legal action.
Jensen did not return a request for comment sent Tuesday afternoon.
“The subject line of the email that Kenny, our client, received said ‘Negative Press,’" Berry told Army Times. “That should be a dead giveaway that there’s not really any legal concern here. They didn’t like the negative media attention they received.”
At this time, Army logos still appear on products sold on the Shields of Strength website.
Weinstein called the replica dog tags with biblical scripture “Christian proselytizing," and said he only filed the complaint about Vaughan’s trademark violation after more than 50 active-duty service members brought it to his attention.
“Such craven utilization of American military logos and related symbology by this sectarian Christian group (Shields of Strength) not only viciously violates well established DoD regulatory law but also poisons the Constitutionally-mandated separation of Church and State,” Weinstein said in a prepared statement.
The attorney representing Vaughan disagreed in his letter to the Army Trademark Licensing Program director.
Once the Army created a limited public forum through trademark licensing, and allowed private companies to obtain licenses, service officials cannot “discriminate against speech on the basis of its viewpoint” in awarding licenses, Berry wrote.
“The government grants licenses to people and entities all the time,” Berry said over the telephone. “What the government can’t do is discriminate when it grants those licenses. ... It is basically saying ‘we’re happy to grant licenses to anyone, as long as it’s not religious.’ And that’s clearly what the Army is doing here."
Weinstein called the First Liberty Institute’s legal argument an attempt to “obfuscate and pollute the well” of settled law.
Shields of Strength has been operating since 1998, but only applied for a trademark license in 2011, when the Army first notified the company that it would need to obtain a license in order to continue selling their Army-themed products.
While waiting to receive its license in 2012, Vaughan was told in an email from the Army Trademark Licensing Program that “if it’s not approved, it would most likely be due to the biblical scripture. There is a big concern in the Army right now, as some religious groups have been challenging the Army on different issues.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer