WASHINGTON – Advocates on both sides of the debate over the place of religion in the military are offering starkly contrasting views of the situation, some asserting that excessive proselytizing exists within the ranks while others fear Christianity in particular is being shut out.
Travis S. Weber, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, told members of the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel on Wednesday that the Department of Defense “continues to err on the side of constraining religious speech, running afoul of constitutional and statutory standards,” resulting in “damaged troop morale, injured public trust in our Armed Forces” while creating the perception “that religious convictions are not welcome in the U.S. military.”
“This reality is deeply troubling, particularly when one considers our heritage of religious pluralism,” he said.
But Michael Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said military success depends on “each individual valuing, respecting, and depending upon the excellence of their comrade standing beside them” and that overt religious expression detracts from those goals.
“Muslim must serve with Christian, atheist with Jew, and Hindu with Sikh, if we are to be successful,” Weinstein said. “Such distinctions must be irrelevant, lest we descend into a miasma of preferential treatment, unit segregation, animosity, and fatal doubt among comrades and between cooperating units.”
“If a leader overtly declares to their unit, during the assumption of command, that they will lead their unit based upon Christian principles, does that not alienate those who don’t self-identify as Christian?” Weinstein posed to the panel. “Might they question their place in the unit and their fair and equitable treatment?”
The hearing was convened to provide the subcommittee with input regarding recent changes in regulations controlling religious expression within the ranks. The National Defense Authorization Act, adopted last year, directs the Department of Defense to accommodate religious expression without damaging the military’s mission. The law also exempts chaplains from performing religious duties that run counter to their faith.
The Defense Department subsequently adopted rules easing restrictions on military personnel whose faith requires them to wear beards, turbans and other religious garb.
But Weinstein said some personnel of various religious stripes continue to feel pressure from higher-ups to embrace their religious views, running counter to regulations. He maintained that all members of the military should feel “confident that no single religious perspective is a necessary or sufficient condition for honorable service — where they are all respected as individuals committed to the mission of defending this nation.”
“In the U.S. military, when you are told by your command leadership that you lack courage, integrity, intelligence, character, trustworthiness, competence and honor, solely because of your religious faith or lack thereof, there is no difference between that abject bigotry and the searing prejudice of denigrating someone in the very same terms just because of the color of their skin or because they were born female,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein received some support from Rabbi Bruce Kahn, a retired U.S. Navy chaplain, who insisted chaplains are obligated to take into account the religious belief of all those seeking his or her counsel.
“It is not only logical, reasonable, and caring to provide a thoroughly inclusive ministry but necessary to serve the command’s goals for unit cohesion, readiness and mission accomplishment,” Kahn said. “In what manner would unit cohesion be served by praying, teaching, counseling, and advising in a way that favored and included some unit members while excluding others? How would the motivation to attain the maximum level of readiness be stimulated when diminishing the value of some troops compared to others?
“How would mission accomplishment be enhanced when acting to create thoughts in unit members that their importance to the command is less than that of other personnel of the ‘right’ faith?”
But Weber expressed concern that the regulations “demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of and hostility towards religious belief and its expression in the military. As our society as a whole faces policy questions related to the role of religion, the military also has been confronted with questions regarding the permissibility of displays of personal faith.”
While no one in the U.S. military should be coerced into religious participation, Weber said, there is no reason to implement prohibitions on expression “just because a service member encounters faith or opinions with which that person may disagree or take offense. Simple objection to another’s religious speech is not a basis for silencing that speech.”
“Unfortunately, that seems to be the current view adopted by many commanders and some military policy,” he said.
Weber told lawmakers the commander of the Ohio Air National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing required the medical group commander to remove an essay from a newsletter because it made reference to the commander’s personal religious faith as an important element of his life.
“Such censorship of religious speech, uncorrected as of early November 2014, reveals that the Air Force has continued to view religious expression by an officer as immediately suspect because of misplaced concerns that such communication may run afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” Weber said.
As a result of “a seeming pattern of reflexive hostility towards religious expression in the military,” Weber said, “some service members have encountered confusion, unlawful restrictions on speech and even career consequences for religious views.”
Weber was supported by Michael Berry, senior counsel and director of Military Affairs at the Liberty Institute, who testified that religion and faith have been connected to the nation’s armed services throughout their existence.
“Since before the founding of our nation, American civil and military leadership have taken deliberate steps to meet the religious needs of service members and to prevent it from becoming a purely secular entity,” Berry said.
Despite that firm foundation, he added “the American military — coincident with American culture in general — has become increasingly secular during the past several decades.”
“The result is that many service members perceive hostility against overt religious expression within the military. Unfortunately, this perception has now become a sad reality. This is evidenced by an alarming increase in instances of religious hostility over the past few years alone.”