- The coronavirus pandemic has led US military chaplains to share their faith through videos on social media.
- But some of the military’s official social media accounts have shared these sermons — a violation of the separation between church and state, legal experts say.
- Most bases have taken down the sermon videos within minutes or hours of complaints, according to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. But one Alabama Army base kept a video up for days.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping the country, military chaplains have turned to social media to share their faith.
But dozens of soldiers at Redstone Arsenal, a missile-maintenance Army base near Hunstville, Alabama, say their chaplain’s online sermons are violating their First Amendment rights.
Some 43 soldiers alerted the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) that the official Redstone Arsenal Facebook page shared a video of the chaplain proselytizing — a violation of the Constitution and Pentagon policy alike, experts say.
On April 17, Redstone’s official Facebook page posted a video of Maj. Christian Goza, a chaplain. “Jesus gave me a peace,” he said in his sermon, before telling listeners that the “only way” to find God’s messages is “in the Bible.”
“Read the scriptures, study the scriptures, and when all these things — like tidal waves and pestilence and tornadoes — we can be held, and we can hold onto the promises God gives us,” Goza said. “So God bless to the Redstone Arsenal.”
Most of the people who complained about Goza’s sermon told the MRFF that they’re Christian, according to Michael Weinstein, the organization’s founder. But they said the chaplain’s message was not inclusive.
If a religious message is shared on an official military page, it must be “pluralistic,” Weinstein told Business Insider.
Otherwise, it serves as an endorsement of a particular faith. And the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — also known as the separation of church and state — prohibits the US military from endorsing particular religious messages, experts say.
Redstone isn’t the only military base with this problem
Frank Ravitch, a professor of law and religion at Michigan State University, told Business Insider that the Facebook post “violates the Establishment Clause as currently understood.”
“The problem here is not the clergy member [Goza],” Ravitch said. “The big issue is: Why was this posted to the base’s website?”
“There’s a fundamental difference between the minister doing this on a page that does not represent the base [versus] the military as a whole,” he added. “This has what we call ‘the imprimatur of the state.'”
Between mid-March and mid-April, soldiers on other bases have complained to the MRFF about potential proselytizing on social media. Working diligently to maintain “the separation between church and state,” as Weinstein put it, the MRFF filed complaints and the videos were removed.
After receiving the complaints about Redstone, the MRFF went on the offensive, asking officials at the base to remove the video.
The request was answered, but only after 10 days. Weinstein said such requests are typically honored within hours.
This time, none of the complainants felt they could speak up except by contacting him, Weinstein said.
“If they felt they could go up to the chain of command to ask for those videos to be taken down, they would do it,” Weinstein told Business Insider. “Our clients fear reprisal, retribution, and revenge.”
“Nobody’s willing to talk,” Weinstein added.
Proselytizing on military bases can be common, Weinstein said. Weinstein said that one soldier at Redstone told him it’s been ongoing since at least 2016, telling him of a mandatory sexual assault prevention training that year where a speaker told soldiers that “the only way to truly overcome the horrors of rape and sex trafficking is to have Jesus as your ‘King.'”
Even though the video on Redstone’s Facebook page was removed, the posting is still “legally actionable,” Ravitch said, if soldiers “were aggrieved by it.”
“It’s not legally moot, because those people could sue for a violation of their constitutional rights,” he said.
Redstone officials didn’t respond to Business Insider’s questions about the videos. An Army press office representative didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.