The Military Religious Freedom Foundation isn’t satisfied with claims that a “God bless” sign on a Marine base in Hawaii is non-religious in nature. The group believes that the sign represents an expression, by a government agency, of preference for one religion over others, or religion over non-religion — an act that courts have determined, in past cases, violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. (The question for the courts, of course, would be whether this sign is indeed an act of establishment.)
The sign, in full, reads: God bless the military, their families and the civilians who work with them.
It isn’t new, either. It was placed shortly after September 11, 2001, according to Military Times, near the entrance of a Marine Corps base in Hawaii. Of course, if courts should determine it violates the First Amendment, the length of time the sign has been present will be irrelevant.
Currently, though, no legal filing has been placed regarding the “God bless” sign. Instead, Michael Weinstein, of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has been contacting the base to officially request compliance with the law, and lay out specific requests — or rather, demands.
“Demands” is actually the word Weinstein uses in his latest letter, addressed to Colonel Sean C. Killeen, USMC.
Now it must be understood here that there are two general ways that Establishment Clause violations can be settled. The first is to remove the policy or item that violates the clause. The second is to broaden it, so that it is inclusive.
In the case of, for instance, a monument, sign, or other item that appears to show government preference for a single religion, this means that the agency in question would allow members of other belief systems to also place a sign or monument representing their views.
To be more specific, in this case, a court could order an “open forum” — that is, if a court determined that the “God bless” sign was an establishment of Christianity, it could be ruled that other religions must be permitted equal representation. (You can see a similar example in the case of the Ten Commandments monument at the Oklahoma State Capitol, where Satanists requested the right, if the monument was not removed, to place a monument of their own alongside. The result, as you may know, was the removal of the Christian monument.)
In fact, that’s exactly what the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is currently asking for: to add nine additional signs, alongside the “God bless” sign that currently stands, representing belief systems ranging from Islam to Jedi. Six of these, seen below alongside the original “God bless” version, were mentioned in initial communications last month.
In fact, the initial communications between Weinstein and Col. Kileen did suggest removal of the “God bless” sign, and Marine Corps Times reports that earlier this month, the colonel responded, saying that legal counsel had assured him that “God bless” was thoroughly enough a part of the nation’s culture that it did not represent religion, and thus would not violate the Establishment Clause.
Weinstein mocks this assertion in his latest letter, suggesting that if “God bless” is not religious in nature, then there is no reason to refuse to allow the other requested signs.
“…since you’ve officially concluded that the ONLY religious message board you are allowing to be displayed to EVERYONE at MCB Hawaii is, in fact, not ‘religious’ at all, but is merely (and I directly quote from your letter to me here) a ‘secular symbol of general support and encouragement to military members, their families, and the civilians who work with them,’ then you SURELY would NOT EVER deny the very SAME Constitutional (1) freedom of religion and (2) freedom of speech and (3) equal protection civil rights of those 72 U.S. Marines under your direct command who share religious (or nonreligious) faiths OTHER than the ONE FAITH tradition represented in that one ‘Col. Killeen-approved’ religious message board of ‘secular perfection,’ eh, sir?”
The signs requested carry much the same message as the current one, in most cases, merely substituting another higher power in place of the word “God.” They include a sign beginning with “Allah bless…,” another with “Goddess bless…,” and one reading “Satan bless….” In the latest communication, on behalf of the marines he represents, Weinstein added three new signs to the list of demands: the Satanist and Jedi versions mentioned above, and one for the Bahá’í faith.
A few of the requested signs do stand out for being a bit different: the one beginning “There is no God to bless…” and adding, at the end, “…we have each other,” (intended to offer equal representation to the nonreligious), and one beginning “May the force be with….” for those who identify their religious group as “Jedi.”
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is acting on the behalf of 72 marines serving at the base in question, who, according to the Friendly Atheist blog, include not only atheists, but Jews, pagans, Hindus, and Satanists. (As well as Jedi, obviously.)
At this time, MCB Hawaii has issued no official response to the second letter, demanding equal representation for minority belief systems alongside the “God bless” sign. However, a number of comments and posts on the base’s official Facebook page show that the public is weighing in, both in favor of, and in opposition to the “God bless” sign.
[Image via: Military Religious Freedom Foundation]