- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Texas-based Christian jeweler is challenging the Army’s trademark office, which told the company this summer that it no longer can display military insignia and Bible verses on the replica dog tags it has sold to service members since the 9/11 attacks.

Shields of Strength has manufactured imitation dog tags and other religious-themed military memorabilia for nearly 20 years under a licensing agreement with the Army Trademark Licensing Program. In a letter Tuesday to the program’s director, the company accused the military agency of violating its speech rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“Your directive that SoS remove all Biblical references from its Army-licensed products is unconstitutional and violates [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act],” wrote Mike Berry, a lawyer with the First Liberty Institute who is representing Shields of Strength.

The Army trademark office’s directive was prompted by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a church-and-state separation watchdog group whose airing of grievances over the replica dog tags ignited the dispute this summer.

“These dog tags are not the ones given out by the military,” foundation founder Mikey Weinstein said Wednesday. “These are souvenir ones they can buy from Shields of Strength, a for-profit company.”

Mr. Weinstein sent letters in July to the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines demanding that they end their licensing agreements with Shields of Strength of Beaumont, Texas. Mr. Weinstein said he was approached by 50 service members in May and June who said Shields of Strength was illegally profiting from and proselytizing with military logos.

In August, Paul Jensen, director of the Army Trademark Licensing Program, said in an email to Shields of Strength owner Kenny Vaughan that the company’s licensing agreement did not authorize it “to put biblical verses on your Army products.”

The decision caught the Texas jeweler flat-footed. The company said 90% of operational units within the Department of Defense have received biblical-themed replica dog tags or crosses since 2002. It estimated that it had made more than 4 million imitation dog tags and given hundreds of thousands to the U.S. military.

“I was shocked that there are groups in America that would go on the attack against Shields of Strength that have inspired millions of our fighting men and women and their loved ones,” Mr. Vaughan said in a written statement.

What’s more, the Army provided a licensing agreement to Mr. Vaughan in 2012 that explicitly authorized the use of Scripture passages on replica dog tags, according to First Liberty records. But the Army was crumbling under pressure from negative press, Mr. Berry, the attorney, said in his letter to the trademark office.

In the August email to Shields of Strength, under the subject line “Negative Press,” Mr. Jensen, the licensing program director, linked to a story on the Friendly Atheist website that detailed Mr. Weinstein’s demand for the military branches to end licensing agreements with the jewelry company, saying this violated the Defense Department’s rules against endorsements.

The Army trademark office did not respond to a request for comment.

In a July letter to the Marine Corps, Mr. Weinstein threatened legal action if the military continued to allow the private, faith-based company to use military-trademarked insignia on its religious products.

“These Christian proselytizing dog tags are blatantly religious and wholly sectarian in representing solely the Christian faith,” wrote Mr. Weinstein, whose group is suing the Department of Veterans Affairs over the display of a Bible in a New Hampshire VA hospital.

The Department of Defense website states: “We understand that the use of Military Service seals, emblems, logos, and coats of arms by [nonfederal entities] on products, programs, and through social media is usually intended in good faith to honor and show support of our armed forces. We also understand that there are many military appreciation events and other special circumstances with dedications to our service members where event organizers may wish to use the military service marks.

“However, many people are unaware that these official DOD and military service marks are protected by law from unauthorized use. … Consequently, when the DOD seal or military service insignia are used without permission, the Department(s) may take appropriate action upon notification,” the website states.

The dog tag that Mr. Berry’s letter said has been Shields of Strength’s biggest seller features the one-star Army emblem on the front and “I will be strong and courageous. I will not be afraid, I will not be discouraged” on the back, along with the company’s logo. It retails for $9.99 on the store’s website, which describes the tag as an “impressive piece of Christian jewelry.”

According to First Liberty, Army Capt. Russell Rippetoe wore a Joshua 1:9 tag from Shields of Strength. He became the first casualty of Operation Iraqi Freedom to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

In a speech at his funeral, President George W. Bush referenced the biblical engraving on Rippetoe’s dog tag.

Mr. Berry’s letter also threatened legal action, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision this year that upheld the constitutionality of a cross-shaped veterans memorial on government property.

In that majority opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito warned that a “government that roams the land … scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.”

⦁ Lauren Meier contributed to this report.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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