Navy updates coronavirus policy to allow church attendance, 'major victory' for religious liberty advocates

First Liberty Institute celebrates the memo as Constitutional win

The Navy updated its coronavirus restrictions policy to allow service members to attend houses of worship after chaplains and a religious liberty law firm complained last week.

Acting Undersecretary of the Navy Greg Slavonic put out a memo Wednesday night obtained by Fox News with the subject line: "Clarification of Guidance Related to Attendance at Religious Services." The acting assistant secretary of defense issued guidance on Tuesday regarding religious liberty.

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In the Slavonic message, commanders were advised that the guidance should not "be construed to restrict attendance at places of worship where attendees are able to appropriately apply COVID-19 transmission mitigation measures, specifically social distancing and use of face covering."

"I am directing you to ensure that all Service guidance reflects the reference message and to inform Commanders to incorporate this clarification allowing attendance at religious services where COVID-19 transmission mitigation measures may be appropriately applied."

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, archbishop of U.S. Military Services, celebrates Mass with U.S. and Italian service members deployed in Niamey, Niger, Nov. 3, 2019. (Courtesy Photo)

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, archbishop of U.S. Military Services, celebrates Mass with U.S. and Italian service members deployed in Niamey, Niger, Nov. 3, 2019. (Courtesy Photo)

Capt. Sarah Self-Kyler, US Fleet Forces Command PAO, confirmed to Fox News the order has been updated.

“All service members assigned to Navy units must continue to follow force health protection protocols, such as maintaining social distance and use of face coverings should they choose to participate in religious services or visit places of worship,” Self-Kyler said. “This change applies to those service members within the continental United States that remain at HPCON C.”

On June 29, Major Daniel Schultz, USAF, currently assigned to a Navy command, requested a religious accommodation to attend the church where he leads worship. He said a newly issued order banned attending indoor services, but permitted house parties and protests.

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Two days later, the U.S. Fleet Forces told Fox News it updated the order for in-residence gatherings, which had been in place since March, limiting it to 10 people and removing the word "social."

Mike Berry, the First Liberty Institute general counsel who sent a letter on behalf of Shultz last week, celebrated the clarification as a "major victory" for the Constitution and religious freedom within the military.

“We are grateful to Acting Undersecretary Slavonic and Navy leadership for righting this ship, and to Commander-in-Chief Trump for making religious liberty a priority,” Berry told Fox News. “This memo means tens of thousands of our brave service members will be able to safely and freely exercise their religious beliefs.”

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Prior to the memo, Reps. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., sent a letter Thursday to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper blasting the Department of Defense for failing to protect service members' religious liberty.

Collins celebrated the order but said, "changes still need to be made."

"For too long, the Pentagon has turned a blind eye as our military leaders have completely disregarded their obligation to protect the religious freedom of its service members," Collins said Thursday. "I look forward to sitting down with Secretary Esper and leaders at the Department of Defense to further discuss how we can protect religious freedom across all branches of our military.”

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