Under pressure, the Navy has dropped its ban on sailors attending indoor religious services off-base, so long as they wear face masks and maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The change in Navy policy followed new guidance late Wednesday to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday from Gregory Slavonic, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
In a memo, Slavonic said that Navy orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should not "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."
In response to the new guidance, the service changed its rules Thursday to allow indoor church attendance off-base.
"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," Capt. Sarah Self-Kyler, public affairs officer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said in a statement.
The Navy's restrictions on attending religious services off base, imposed in late March to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, had been challenged by the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal firm focused on religious freedom issues.
The service's action to lift the restriction is "a major victory for the Constitution and for religious freedom within our military," said Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, in a statement. "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."
The Navy's previous restrictions had also brought criticism from Roman Catholic Most Rev. Timothy P. Broglio, the Archbishop for the Military Services.
In a statement Friday, Broglio said ,"The revision of the U.S. Navy's orders to allow for the participation by Navy personnel in indoor religious services, provided that the appropriate guidelines are met, is most welcome."
He added, "The change recognizes that worship is a part of the exercise of religious liberty and helps to ensure the readiness of the forces who defend us."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.