Lawsuit filed after U.S. Department of Defense bans private company from making faith-based products

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WASHINGTON, DC — A private company that has made military-inspired dog tags and jewelry containing Bible verses for over two decades has filed a federal lawsuit after the U.S. Department of Defense decided to prohibit the business from producing or selling licensed items containing religious content.

First Liberty Institute and the law firm Fish & Richardson filed a complaint earlier this month on behalf of Shields of Strength (SoS) in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Tyler Division.

The complaint states that the Department of Defense (DoD) violated several clauses of the U.S. Constitution when it abruptly prevented SoS from making or selling its licensed, religious-themed products.

First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit public interest law firm that focuses on defending religious freedom for Americans. 

According to First Liberty Institute’s press release, SoS has been making replica, military-themed dog tags and jewelry with encouraging Bible verses on them for various branches of service for over 20 years.

SoS’ owners, Kenny and Tammie Vaughan, started their company in 1998. Their mission was to encourage military members by providing them with a tangible and hopeful reminder of protection and strength through their faith.

SoS has sold or donated over 5 million dog tags over the years.

Each military branch licenses the use of their trademarks for private or commercial use. SoS received licenses from the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force, but after a complaint by an anti‑religious activist organization in 2019, the DoD stripped SoS of its license to make the inspirational dog tags.

According to SoS’ complaint, the DoD’s policy declaring that, “DoD marks may not be licensed for any purpose intended to promote….religious beliefs” violates the Free Exercise Clause, the Establishment Clause and the Free Speech Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit declared that the DoD’s policy and actions violated three clauses of the First Amendment, which states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In addition, the lawsuit noted that the DoD’s policy and actions also violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1993 to prohibit the federal government from burdening a person’s free exercise of religion.

First Liberty Institute’s General Counsel Mike Berry noted in the press release:

“It’s a cruel insult to our service members to deny them a source of inspiration, hope, and encouragement simply because it contains a religious message.

“DoD officials caved to the empty threats of those who make their living by being offended. There’s no legal reason for the military to discriminate against Shields of Strength.”

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Official military-issued dog tags contain vital identification information about the soldiers wearing them. For example, the tags contain the wearer’s name, number, blood type and religious preference if he or she has one.

Lt. Col. David S. Bowerman, Chaplain, U.S. Army Public Health Command, wrote an article for the U.S. Army in 2014 about dog tags and explained the importance of spirituality:

“The problem is that some people don’t understand how important spirituality is to the whole person.

“Our outlook and world view affect everything we do, including how we treat others.

“According to Army Regulation 600-63 (Army Health Promotion), ‘When a person’s actions are different from his or her stated values, the person lives with inner conflict.’”

Likewise, SoS’ replica dog tags were created to bring comfort and a sense of identity to its wearers.

First Liberty Institute Attorney Keisha T. Russell told Law Enforcement Today:

“Approximately 90% of all operational military units have requested or received shields and SOS has produced over 5 million tags.

“That makes it clear that many servicemembers identify as people of faith and the DoD should respect that.”

The original SoS dog tags began with only an American flag on one side and a Bible verse on the opposite side.

Around 2001, a U.S. Army chaplain contacted SoS and commissioned the production of a replica dog tag with the Army’s insignia, according to the lawsuit.

SoS produced many dog tags and other products at the request of DoD members. In addition, the DoD did not require SoS to obtain licenses to produce and sell military-themed products.

In December of 2003, the DoD invited Vaughan to speak at the Pentagon. After his speech, several DoD employees approached Vaughan and requested his products be placed in Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) outlets, according to the lawsuit.

Between 2003 and 2005, then-General Lloyd J. Austin III, who is the current Secretary of Defense, requested thousands of SoS dog tags for the 3rd Infantry Division and the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army.

The lawsuit noted:

“Secretary Austin actually began a tradition with the 10th Mountain Division that lasted until the Army Trademark Licensing Program informed SoS that it could no longer make the dog tags.”

However, in 2011 something changed.

DoD officials from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines informed SoS that it would now need to obtain trademark licenses before continuing to sell military-themed products.

Obtaining the licenses created “significant and administrative burdens” to SoS, but the company complied with the DoD’s directive and eventually obtained trademark licenses from three of the military branches — the U.S. Army, Air Force and Marines.

The U.S. Navy declined giving SoS a license because it did not approve of the company’s products that contained Bible verses and references, according to the lawsuit.

In 2012, the U.S. Army granted a license to SoS, but restricted the company by telling it to use only three specific Biblical phrases on its products.

In addition, SoS had to delete any reference that indicated the phrases came from the Bible:

“I will be strong and courageous. I will not be terrified or discouraged.”

“I can do all things.”

“Mount up with wings like eagles, run and not get [tired], [walk] and not become weary.”

In June of 2017, Director Jessica O’Haver of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Trademark and Licensing Program Office sent an email to SoS.

SoS was informed by O’Haver that the company could display trademarks owned by the Marine Corps on products containing Biblical passages. However, a stipulation was made that the chapter and verse numbers would now have to be taken out of the product designs.

In addition, “controversial” words, such as “hell, brimstone, lake of fire, eternal damnation, etc.,” would not be permitted, according to the lawsuit.

SoS finally received a Marine Corps license in August of 2018.

In October of 2017, the U.S. Air Force Branding & Trademark Licensing Program (BTLP) granted SoS a license, but also informed the company that “DoD marks may not be licensed for use in a manner that promotes religious beliefs (including non-belief).”

In 2014, the BTLP had denied SoS’ application for a license because it determined that the phrase “I will be strong and courageous, I will not be afraid” was religious despite the lack of any identification indicating it came from the Bible.

Despite all the stumbling blocks, SoS continued to sell its licensed products until it hit a major roadblock in July of 2019, when anti-religion organization Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) submitted complaints to the various DoD Trademark Licensing Offices.

Specifically, MRFF demanded that the DoD and individual service branches prohibit SoS from producing and selling licensed products that contain religious content, according to the lawsuit.

Kenny Vaughan of SoS told Law Enforcement Today:

“The DoD told SoS it can’t put scriptures on dog tags with DoD logos. They also told us we could not have scriptures or crosses or mentions of Jesus or God near any of their logos, in our product descriptions on our website, or anywhere else their logos were displayed.”

Vaughan pointed out the hypocrisy of the DoD’s directives:

“It’s outrageous because Chaplains wear a military uniform with a cross on it. Almost every tombstone in Arlington National cemetery has a cross on it. Most military bases have monuments with scriptures on them and the list goes on.

“It was clear to me they were discriminating against us. What would we do — sue the Department of Defense? We didn’t have the resources. Thankfully, God provided a way with First Liberty’s pro bono help.”

MRFF states on its website that it “is dedicated to ensuring that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom to which they and all Americans are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

MRFF’s founder and president is Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, a lawyer dedicated to battling “the far-right militant radical evangelical religious fundamentalists.”

Weinstein’s biography states in part:

“Reviled by the radical fundamentalist Christian far-right, Mikey has been given many names by his enemies including ‘Satan’, ‘Satan’s lawyer’, ‘the Antichrist’, ‘That Godless, Secular Leftist’, ‘Antagonizer of All Christians’, ‘Most Dangerous Man in America’ and ‘Field General of the Godless Armies of Satan.’”

Oddly, Weinstein appears to promote his own version of religion. He is quoted as saying on his website:

“When one proudly dons a U.S. Military uniform, there is only one religious symbol: the American flag. There is only one religious scripture: the American Constitution. Finally, there is only one religious faith: American patriotism.”

MRFF’s letters to the DoD’s various military branches threatened “administrative and litigation complaints” to “compel compliance” in prohibiting SoS from selling items with religious references.

The DoD quickly caved in and issued stern directives to SoS.

Just one day after receiving MRFF’s letter, April Rowden of the Air Force Intellectual Property Management Office, Branding, Band Support, & Trademark Licensing, emailed SoS, asking it to “review all your USAF-branded merchandise and verify they are using inspiration quotes instead of quoted scripture.”

Just three days after receiving MRFF’s letter, Phillip Greene, Marine Corps Trademark Counsel, complied with the anti-religion organization’s request and sent a cease-and-desist notice to SoS on July 11, 2019.

In August of 2019, the U.S. Army’s Trademark Licensing Program Office (TMLPO) emailed SoS, according to the lawsuit. Citing “negative press,” the TMLPO wrote:

“You are not authorized to put biblical verses on your Army products. For example Joshua 1:9. Please remove ALL biblical references from all of your Army products.”

Attorney Russell told Law Enforcement Today that the DoD’s choice to listen to MRFF was not a good one:

“It’s shocking that the DoD responded to an obviously discriminatory complaint from MRFF.

“The MRFF is twisting the law in its cruel attempt to deprive service members and their family members from having Shields of Strength.

“MRFF is the same group that called a veterans monument created by an Eagle Scout a dumpster fire.

“The DoD’s choice to listen to MRFF was a bad decision.”

Regarding the inconsistent approaches the various military branches had toward SoS, Russell noted:

“The law protects Shields of Strength from being discriminated against simply because their products contain a religious message of hope and encouragement.

“There’s no legal reason for the military to discriminate against Shields of Strength.

“If the DoD focused on the Constitution, that might help the Department be consistently fair.”

Recalling then-General Austin, Kenny Vaughan of SoS told Law Enforcement Today that he is hopeful that Secretary of Defense Austin will be instrumental in having the DoD make positive changes:

“It was surreal to see Secretary of Defense on the complaint. Just because he was one of my favorites. I never talked to him personally but those who called or emailed told me General Austin wanted them for his troops.

“The first request came from 3rd Infantry Division. They asked that we put the 3rd ID logo on one side with Joshua 1:9 and the USA flag with One Nation Under God on the other.

“When they went to purchase, they did not have the funds to buy one for every soldier in the division. I asked how many were in the division. They told me 15,000 if I remember correctly. We donated the difference. 

“I still have hope General Austin will correct this problem. He knows the difference God’s word makes to a soldier in battle.”

SoS has requested a jury trial and is seeking to have the DoD reverse specific policies and actions deemed unconstitutional.

The lawsuit may help protect against First Amendment restrictions for religious military members and private companies that do business with the federal government.

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