A Shields of Strength nameplate with the US Marine Corps logo on one side and a Bible verse on the other. A multi-year dispute over the use of licensed military logos on replica religious-themed nameplates has resulted in a federal lawsuit against the Department of Defense. (Trial image)
A multi-year dispute over the use of licensed military logos on replica religious-themed nameplates has resulted in a federal lawsuit against the Ministry of Defense. The decision to deny the use of licensed logos alongside Christian Bible verses is religious discrimination, according to the lawsuit.
Shields of Strength, a Christian jewelry company based in Beaumont, Texas, filed a lawsuit Dec. 15 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas in Tyler. The named defendants include the Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, as well as the trademark offices and related branch of service branch.
The products in question are replica name tags that feature inspirational faith-based phrases or Christian Bible verses on one side and the logo of a branch of military service on the other side. Shields of Strength owner Kenny Vaughan began manufacturing the tags in 1998 and received a trademark license in 2011 from the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, when the military began requiring them, according to the lawsuit. At that time, the Navy did not license due to the religious nature of the products.
The company lost its agreements in 2019 after a group that advocates for the separation of religion and the military, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, filed complaints with the Department of Defense trademark offices, according to the trial.
In the years that followed, the company attempted to strike a new deal, but ultimately felt it had to take legal action, said Mike Berry, general counsel for the First Liberty Institute and counsel for Shields of Strength. The Plano, Texas-based nonprofit law firm focuses on cases involving religious freedom.
The Defense Department’s denial of a trademark license is “purely because of religious content,” Berry said.
“It is a cruel insult to our military to deny them a source of inspiration, hope and encouragement just because it contains a religious message,” said Berry. “DOD officials have yielded to empty threats from those who make a living by being offended. There is no legal reason for the military to discriminate against Force Shields.
A Shields of Strength nameplate with “Army Mom” on one side and a Bible verse on the other. A multi-year dispute over the use of licensed military logos on replica religious-themed nameplates has resulted in a federal lawsuit against the Department of Defense. (Trial image)
The lawsuit asks the court to recognize the violation of constitutional rights under the First Amendment and the Department of Defense to allow the company to revert to its previous agreement to use the licensed logos on its products. The lawsuit also seeks financial reward related to damages, legal fees and expenses.
Contacted about the lawsuit, a Defense Ministry official said the ministry was not commenting on the ongoing litigation.
Replica identity tags became popular among members of the Christian services deployed during the wars that followed September 11, 2001, and were even sold for several years in Army and Air Force Exchange stores.
The first soldier killed in the Iraq War, Captain Russell Rippetoe, wore a force shield that has since been placed in the Smithsonian Museum of American History with his uniform, according to the lawsuit.
The company estimates that prior to 2011, it sold or donated around 3 million different name tags with military-related words or badges on them. He is often contacted by the military or chaplains to make custom products with specific unit logos to mark special occasions such as deployments or graduations, Berry said.
“At one point, [Shields of Strength] sent 500 to 1,000 identity tags per month to the Pentagon chaplain’s office for Pentagon leaders and military guests, ”according to the lawsuit.
Even Austin, now Secretary of Defense and accused in the lawsuit, contacted Shields of Strength for unit-specific products while he was the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division and the 10th Mountain Division, according to the trial. The court document also included a photo of the tags provided to the 3rd Infantry Division for deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force JAG officer and current founder and chairman of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said putting military logos on religious-themed products was a violation of the license agreement. He said he originally sent a letter to the Defense Ministry about Force Shields because his organization had received many complaints, including from many who identified themselves as Christians.
While the company is allowed to continue selling its products without the logos, Berry said most troops who contact Shields of Strength with a specific request request a military logo alongside a Bible verse. They must now turn down orders, which most Shields of Strength would have donated, Berry said. Products without the combination are just not as popular.
“It is to deny our soldiers and their relatives something they ask for. They are asking for this, ”Berry said. “It’s this weird riddle where the military asks, ‘Hey, will you provide this to us?’ And then another army office said [Shields of Strength], ‘No. .. you can not do that.'”