Tactical

Defense bill targets religious freedom group for its advocacy work

Military members and staff would be barred from interacting with a well-known advocacy group that has frequently sparred with Christian organizations under an amendment inserted into the House draft of the annual defense authorization bill last week.

Defense officials and troops would be barred from communicating with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation or from making “any decision as a result of any claim, objection, or protest made by MRFF without the authority of the Secretary of Defense,” per language offered by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and adopted with unanimous, bipartisan support by the members of the House Armed Services Committee, according to documents supplied by the committee.

The group’s founder called the legislative language an unconstitutional attack on their efforts and troops’ rights, and vowed to fight the move as the measure winds through Congress.

“If they don’t like what we do at MRFF on behalf of our 84,000-plus military and veteran clients, they can take a number, pack a picnic lunch and stand in line with the rest of those fundamentalist Christian extremist bastards who constitute our enemies,” said Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the group.

A senior committee staffer familiar with the crafting of the memo but not authorized to speak to the press said the actions of the group have raised concerns among lawmakers for years, and the language is designed to ensure that military staffers don’t overreact to the group’s demands without following proper review procedures.

In March, the group boasted that they convinced leaders at an Austin, Texas, Veteran Affairs clinic to remove a prominently displayed cross from a public lobby “in under 90 minutes.” MRFF officials said the display improperly sent the message “that our military is a Christian military and only Christian veterans matter.”

The non-profit has pushed similar efforts in the past, often riling conservative Christian groups. In February, after MRFF officials convinced Merchant Marine Academy leaders to move a painting titled “Christ on the Water” from a public space to a chapel, the move was attacked by Republican lawmakers and outside Christian groups as overreach.

Weinstein said getting singled out in the legislation amounts to a “badge of honor” for his work.

“If the fundamentalist Christian nationalists who are behind this are trying to execute us through legislation, we’ll take that as validation of the positive effect that we’re having for our clients and for the Constitution,” he said. “And they can go fuck themselves.”

Turner’s office declined to comment and House Democratic committee leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment ahead of publication. The defense bill is expected to go through numerous changes over the next few months before becoming law. House Republicans are expected to add more amendments on issues of abortion access and transgender rights when the measure comes up for full chamber debate next month.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s draft of the authorization bill does not include any similar restrictions on communications or response to MRFF requests.

In contrast to the House Armed Services Committee’s legislation, the measure proposed by the Democratic-led Senate committee contains only a few controversial social issues, although Republicans could attempt to add more through amendments during floor debate next month.

A final draft of the legislation is expected to be negotiated later this summer, with an eye towards passage of a final draft sometime this fall. The authorization bill has been passed by Congress for 62 consecutive years, making it one of the most reliable legislative vehicles on Capitol Hill annually.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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