A conservative Republican provision of the fiscal 2024 defense policy bill that would prohibit Defense Department personnel from communicating with an established civil rights group survived a contentious House vote Friday.
The amendment, slipped into the House version of the defense authorization bill by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, would forbid service members from contacting the Military Religious Freedom Foundation or its leadership. The legislation would also bar commanders from taking “any action or mak[ing] any decision as a result of any claim, objection or protest” made by the group “without the authority of the Secretary of Defense.”
MRFF’s founder, Mikey Weinstein, described the provision’s progression to the Senate as the “Pearl Harbor” in a far-right campaign to erode the rights of military personnel.
“Members of the military have the right under the First Amendment to free speech, as curtailed appropriately by the Supreme Court; they also have the right to petition their government for grievances,” Weinstein told Military Times. “Both of those have been viciously violated today by the actions of the far-right Christian nationalists in Congress.”
Weinstein, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate and veteran, founded the organization in 2005 with the stated goal of “ensuring that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.” The nonprofit claims to have served around 84,000 service members over the course of its 18-year history, defending its clients from unwanted proselytizing and scrubbing DoD installations clean of religious symbolism.
The MRFF’s activism has provoked the ire of conservative organizations and lawmakers. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was one of several GOP legislators to slam leaders of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy for removing a 190-square-foot painting titled “Christ on the Water,” which depicts an image of Jesus appearing before merchant mariners adrift in a lifeboat, from a public space in the academy’s main administration building at the behest of MRFF in February.
Turner’s office did not elaborate on why the congressman introduced the amendment. A senior House Armed Services Committee staffer previously told Military Times that the stipulation aimed to ensure that military personnel don’t “overreact” to the foundation’s work. Weinstein suspects more personal grudges — the MRFF pressured Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, located in Turner’s district, to remove a Bible display from its dining facilities in 2016.
Weinstein says his group has assembled a “litigation SWAT team” to challenge the provision in federal court should it become law. In the meantime, Weinstein and his team are lobbying senators to strike the clause from the bill. Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of the legislators with whom Weinstein claims to be “coordinating,” did not respond to a request for comment.
“We’ve been told by Senate staff and even senators that they’re not sure that all of the toxic cancer put in by the fundamentalist Christian nationalists in the House will be able to be found in conference,” Weinstein said of the difficulties involved with weeding out certain sections of the NDAA. But, he stressed: “This is hardly over.”
Jaime Moore-Carrillo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News. A Boston native, Jaime graduated with degrees in international affairs, history, and Arabic from Georgetown University, where he served as a senior editor for the school's student-run paper, The Hoya.