Religious freedom is in question as Recruit Training Command ( RTC ) at Naval Station Great Lakes has announced that it is canceling volunteer-led religious services.
The policy officially went into full effect April 19. According to Recruit Training Command Public Affairs Officer, Lt. Adam Demeter, the change in policy was made to align with Navy policy regarding how worship services are led.
Demeter explained that in March 2014, RTC's Command Religious Program ( CRP ) began a review of how to respond to the religious needs of recruits at RTC and whether the command was following the guidance contained in U.S. Navy regulations. These regulations set a hierarchy for which spiritual leaders should be utilized.
Demeter reported the CRP was not in compliance with this regulation and as a result needed to be overhauled to ensure "the professional delivery of religious ministry including professional accountability, recruit safety, responsiveness to command needs and an emphasis on following the hierarchy laid out in regulations."
"All recruits are able to freely practice their religion at RTC," Demeter emailed Windy City Times. "Religious needs are constantly evaluated based on feedback via the recurring monthly CRP assessments, written feedback from recruits, verbal feedback via recruit training division chaplains and recruit division commanders ( RDCs ) and required weekly recruit debriefs with command staff. Recruits are on station for eight weeks; thus, the CRP is very attuned to the actual demand signals from recurring monthly religious assessment numbers provided by the RTC administration department. Although RTC has limited facilities and limited available resources, the CRP is continually adjusting to maximize its response to the needs of recruits."
John Chantry, a civilian and practicing Druid, has been working at the training camp for about four years. For about two of those years, he has been leading Earth-centered religious services for up to 200 recruits at the Great Lakes facility.
Chantry was shocked and outraged when he received an email April 3 with orders from Capt. Douglas Pfeifle ( commanding officer of RTC in Great Lakes ) that, due to a change in policy, civilian volunteers for seven minority religious communities would no longer conduct religious services at RTC. Instead, RTC would follow policy only using uniformed chaplains, uniformed volunteers, contract clergy, and then civilians if needed.
"There are clear Navy regulations specifying they need to provide services for recruits for whatever religious group they belong to," Chantry said. "It's important for all the armed forces, for centuries, they've understood that people who are under that kind of stress and strain like basic training or under stress and strain out there in the field in battle, need support. They need something to encourage them, they need something to help them build resilience to deal with those difficult challenges."
Chantry said his Earth-centered religion has a non-discriminatory rainbow flag. With it, he wants to make sure it is obvious right away to the recruits who look at the chapel and enter that chapel, that the group is supportive of all God's children and all mother earth's children.
Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein, founder/president of The Military Religious Freedom Foundation ( MRFF ), and Dr. Ronald A. Crews, CH ( COL ) USA retired, executive director of Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, released a joint statement against the new policy, stating the Navy went too far, violating religious liberty of sailor recruits. They call the new policy a gross violation of the constitutional rights of recruits who practice minority religions, including Unitarian Universalism, Buddhism, Baha'i or Earth-centered, Christian Science, among others.
"This is causing lady liberty to cry and this is an absolute scandalous outrage," said Weinstein. "The captain should be severely, aggressively investigated and visibly punished along with anybody who's supported him."
Weinstein and Crews, on behalf of their organizations, also sent letters addressed to Pfeifle on the issue and have in turn received responses.
"The spiritual well-being of every recruit at RTC is a high priority for the command," said Demeter in his email to WCT. "RTC's Religious Ministries Department consists of 10 chaplains and five staff members to meet the needs of the approximately 39,000 recruits that graduate annually. RTC values and protects the rights of its service members to practice according to the tenets of their faith and respects the rights of each individual to determine their own religious convictions."
On a separate occasion, this RTC decision arose in 2014. Beginning in January 2014, the RTC Religious Ministries Department ( RMD ) began reviewing and updating the CRP with the same reasoning as this year's case. In April 2014, civilian volunteers were informed of upcoming changes and, by May 9, volunteers were informed that RTC would continue to maintain close relationships so as to assist with future needs.
With the new policy at RTC, as Demeter listed, the religions and services that have an active chaplain or religious leader of their own religion are Reflection and Contemplation ( self-guided ), Latter Day Saints, Jewish Shabbat, Islamic Jumah', Catholic Mass, Lutheran Missouri Synod, Traditional Christian with Communion, Gospel Service, Contemporary Christian and Seventh Day Adventist.
"People put their lives on the line," said Weinstein, who strongly expresses the deprivation of liberty and violation of Constitutional rights. "We've had chaplains forever and we just don't think we should mix chaplains with military rank anymore. This is an open and shut case. As our lawyers have said, Captain Pfeifle has decided on behalf of the United States Navy [and] will decide who are the religious winners and who are the religious losers."
"We have only received positive feedback from the recruits as it relates to how the CRP is addressing religious needs," Demeter said in his email. "Any recruit request for religious support will be timely addressed. RTC will consider all options, which do not adversely impact mission accomplishment. This includes inviting civilian volunteers to conduct services at RTC, if necessary."
An additional source, who has requested to remain anonymous, associated with Great Lakes Naval RTC's religious landscape, comments that the faith groups kept on base have anti-LGBT beliefs, while the more liberal ones that were cancelled, support LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.
"I tell people all the time, to be a member of the military you have to shoot straight; you don't have to be straight," Weinstein said in response. "It is my hope that in a few years from now, whether you are gay or straight, will be as important to people as whether you are right handed or left handed. I don't know the degree to which the disenfranchised denominations are pro-LGBTQ rights or not."
For more information on each organization, visit www.bootcamp.navy.mil/index.asp, militrayreligiousfreedom.org, chaplainalliance.org .