The commanding officer of Marine Corps Base Hawaii says the "God bless the military" sign on base will remain where it is, despite a complaint from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation that it is unconstitutional.
"This sign will remain in its present location and not be altered in any way," Col. Sean Killeen, commanding officer of the base, wrote in a letter Oct. 9 to Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the MRFF.
"Our legal team has conducted exhaustive research on this issue," he wrote. "Several Supreme Court cases and other federal cases, to include the 9th Circuit, support the conclusion that the message on the sign does not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. 'God bless' is commonly used in our culture in a number of contexts and there are numerous references to God in this nation's symbols, songs, mottos, and oaths. This sign has the secular purpose of conveying a message of support, but does not advance or inhibit religion or any particular faith, nor does it foster excessive government entanglement with religion."
The sign at the corner of E Street and 2nd Street on base, which reads "God bless the military, their families and the civilians who work with them," was erected not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, as service members were preparing to deploy, according to base officials. Weinstein has demanded the sign by moved to the grounds of the base chapel or taken down entirely.
If it remains as is, Weinstein has said, the foundation's clients at the base, which he says have grown to 72, demand the right to build and display signs that start with "Yehweh bless," "Allah bless," "Odin blesses," Vishnu blesses," "Goddess bless" and "There Is No God." On Monday he added three more groups to his original list of six that want their own signs — the Church of Satan, the Baha'i faith and the "Jedi Church." The latter group's sign would begin "May the Force be with the Military ...."
In his Oct. 9 response to Killeen's decision, Weinstein wrote that the "Military Religious Freedom Foundation completely rejects both your comprehensively wrong decision and your extremely faulty legal analysis." He predicted the commander's decision "will never hold up in court."
In a separate letter to Killeen, MRFF's legal affairs coordinator, Tobanna Barker, noted that the commanding officer's rationale for keeping the sign appeared to rely on the Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, in which the court presented a three-pronged test for determining if an act or policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
To pass muster, such an act or policy must have a secular purpose; its principle and primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and it must not foster excessive government entanglement with religion.
"Your claim that the sign 'has the secular purpose of conveying a message of support' is implausible," Barker wrote. "First, the sign plainly fails to show support toward service members whose religious faiths do not include the Judeo-Christian 'God,' or toward those who practice no religion at all. Second, a truly secular message of support could be easily accomplished with a sign stating, 'We support our military members, their families, and the civilians who work with them.' No reference to God is necessary to show support for all men and women in uniform."
She went on to say that Killeen's failure to provide facts supporting his determination that that the sign neither advanced religion nor fostered excessive government entanglement with religion forced her "to conclude that no such supporting facts exist."
"Your presumed denial of MRFF's demand to allow similar signs in accord with different religious faiths makes this violation of the Establishment Clause even more offensive," Barker wrote.
"Your claim that the sign is merely a message of support simply cannot hold water if you simultaneously refuse to allow service members of other religious faiths or of no faith to display similar 'messages of support.' To the contrary, your insistence to display the sign in isolation demonstrates an intent to promote religion over no religion and to show preference for one religion (Christianity) over others."
Others hailed the decision.
"It was a great letter," Army Reserve Col. (Chaplain) Ronald Crews (ret.), executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, said. "I thought he was right on the mark. And I appreciate the Marine commander doing what I had trusted he would do right from the beginning. I commend him for maintaining that sign."
He faulted Weinstein and the foundation for overreacting to something "as innocuous as military families on a Marine base wanting to just simply say, 'God bless.' "
"There's nothing inherently religious in that sense, in that, that is common vocabulary used in our country," Crews said. "And just because someone is offended by something doesn't mean that it is wrong or should not be done. I'm not an attorney, but there is no heckler's veto. Just because someone doesn't like it doesn't mean that it's not OK.
"I am grateful that the commander has taken the stand that he did."