Turner Upturned: New Legislation Bolsters Religious Freedom in Military

person wearing camouflage holding bible standing in front of us flag

By Josh Worthington

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) is an organization dedicated to ensuring that every service member has the right to religious freedom including, importantly, the rights conferred from a separation of church and state. Since its creation, the organization has assisted in complaints from JROTC members to active-duty service members, veterans, civilian personnel, and everything in between.

The MRFF has, of course, angered many people who see no problem with unwanted evangelism taking place within the military—one such man being Republican Representative Mike Turner who sought to prevent entirely any communication between the MRFF and the Department of Defense. He even went so far as to sneak an amendment doing just that into the House’s version of a bill relating to the budget and expenditures for the Department of Defense.

Not only would this amendment have made it such that there could be no communication with the MRFF, but that any complaint raised by the MRFF would not be considered or allowed to affect future decisions without the approval of the Secretary of Defense. The Senate, fortunately, replaced Turner’s amendment with one of their own—one that has more than a few revisions. This version, which upends and completely counters Turner’s version, was signed by President Biden in December of 2023.

What is in this new bill?

First, all complaints related to a violation of separation of church and state now must be dealt with by the relevant department secretary in a timely manner (no more than 30 days), including all those submitted by the MRFF. Whereas Turner’s amendment would have prevented any action undertaken based on an MRFF complaint, responses to these complaints are now mandatory, and the MRFF now must be informed of the decision made. This ensures that every complaint reported will be dealt with at a powerful level and resolved quickly. 

Complaint is immediately sent to department secretary, ensuring anonymity and effective action

One problem that the MRFF was having was ensuring the anonymity of their clients. While usually not a problem, given that most demands can be dealt with by contacting the offending officer’s superior, occasionally administrative remedies are sometimes required, always requiring the name of the affected individual to be revealed. This is obviously a problem given that, often, the violation of religious rights occurs between an officer and their superior.

However, given that complaints now go straight to the department secretary, there is no appeals process. Moreover, if the MRFF is dissatisfied with the result, the only other option they have is to go to the federal court, meaning that their clients can still remain anonymous. While all of these things are of incredible benefit to the MRFF, one part of the bill may limit the organization’s efficacy. 

Restrictive new definition of a “covered complaint or request”

Unfortunately for the MRFF in this new amendment is the change to what is considered a “covered complaint or request.” Now, in order to be a covered complaint, the complaint can’t be made by a member of the armed forces, a civilian employee of the Department of Defense (DoD), or by a contractor of the DoD. Of course, this eliminates a huge percentage of the MRFF’s cases given that many of their clients are members of the armed forces or, otherwise, employees of the DoD who experience or witness the offending event and choose to report it themselves.

Worse still, an additional requirement that, to be covered, a case must occur on DoD property limits the MRFF’s influence further. Two years ago, the MRFF shut down military bands that were booked to play Christian nationalist events that did not take place on DoD property and, thus, would not have violated this rule. If that same event happened today, the case would not be considered covered. 

So what?

This amendment was a huge win for the MRFF and for separation of church and state within the military in general. Whereas before, the MRFF had to fight to have its complaints be taken seriously, now the opposite is true. Given the power that the amendment gives to church-state violation complaints (namely, now such complaints are sent directly to the relevant secretary), the threat of a complaint is powerful enough to enact change within the branch, with an actual complaint only needing to be used as a plan B.

The only side effect of this is that, now, the MRFF’s effective scope has been severely limited. However, they can still file the complaints, they just won’t get the expedited process outlined in the amendment.

Overall, the MRFF considers this amendment to be a success for the organization and for every service member, despite the limitations to the process.