Military Officials Tell Congress Faith Can be Expressed Unless It's in a 'Suppressing Sort of Way'

WASHINGTON -- A House Armed Services subcommittee hearing Wednesday attracted a line of Republicans not on the committee who hoped to get a shot at querying Defense Department officials about the "fine line between accommodating and respecting all religions and restricting religious freedom," in the words of Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio).

Military officials, though, answered concerns that Christians were being discriminated against by stressing that the department only keeps an eye out for religious "coercion" or words and actions that affect unit morale.

"Historically, the armed services have supported religious freedom and, when possible, accommodated service members' religious beliefs and practices. I believe we can maintain a proper balance between religious accommodations which will promote military readiness, unit cohesion and good order and discipline," said Military Personnel subcommittee Chairman Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). "This should not present challenges to the military services."

"Military chaplains must provide spiritual care for all those who serve in the military, most of which may not share their particular faith or religious beliefs," Ranking Member Susan Davis (D-Calif.) said. "This challenge has often created the perception that the Department of Defense or the services are prohibiting chaplains and service members from practicing the tenets of their faith."

"Often in these discussions, what is lost is a recognition that a military chaplain's responsibility is not just to his or her tenets of their faith and those that follow that specific faith," she added. "…Our armed forces is a reflection of our country, our country which is comprised of individuals from all walks of religious beliefs to those who have no belief in a specific religion, including atheists and free-thinkers."

Virginia Penrod, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for military personnel policy, said that in response to concerns from members of Congress about religious freedom she conducted teleconferences with more than 30 chaplains.

"I asked if they're allowed to preach or practice according to the tenants of their faith. Their response was an overwhelming yes," Penrod said. "They felt they were given the support they needed from command. When asked if they were forced to perform ceremonies that went against their faith, 100 percent said no."

The Right Rev. James Magness, Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries of the Episcopal Church and a retired Navy chaplain, testified that he'd once read from his prayer book at a retirement ceremony for a Navy captain, ending with the phrase "through Jesus Christ our Lord," only to find out afterward that the captain was Jewish.

"It didn't take me long to realize that I had just excluded and offended the honoree and all the members of his family by offering an inappropriate prayer," Magness said. "I learned that when in uniform, my responsibility is to care for all of those who are present, not just those of my own faith tradition, for all people, Christian, Jew, Muslim, non-theist, straight, gay or lesbian, all people."

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) mused about what would have happened if the people who approached Magness "said 'Well, we're atheist, and we're offended by any prayer,' would that have motivated you to say, 'Well, we won't pray at all'?"

Under questioning from Davis, the officials said they weren't aware of "complaints by service members who were subject to inappropriate proselytizing by other service members or by military chaplains."

Magness, though, said he believes that "when we find ourselves offending others by the use of sectarian prayers, that has a significant negative impact upon good order, discipline, and unit cohesion."

Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) noted that "it seems that in the military, people of my faith can get reprimanded for a statement as simple as one saying that my priorities in life are a commitment to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, a commitment to my family, and a commitment to my country, in that order."

"I'm aware of a colonel that got reprimanded in a change of command for saying that on stage. He didn't say that anybody in the crowd had to believe as he did, or share his priorities," Scott said. "And my question is, can you give me any example of a person of a faith, other than a Christian faith, where they were reprimanded for a statement that was that simple?"

"I cannot give you an example of anyone that was reprimanded for expressing their religious belief, because along -- to the right to free speech, we become concerned in the department if an individual is coercing any other individual or impacting unit cohesion," Penrod replied.

"So as long as the person of authority, as long as it's clear that what he is saying is personal and not official, not an expectation, he's free to practice his faith and speak of his faith," said Brig. Gen. Bobby Page, deputy chief chaplain of the Air Force.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) noted "current DOD policy states that service members can share their faith, or evangelize, but must not force unwanted intrusive attempts to convert others of any faith, or no faith, to one's beliefs."

"My question is, who makes the determination of the relative comfort of others?" he asked. "And what's the practical application of that policy?"

Army Deputy Chief of Chaplains Brig. Gen. Charles Bailey said "that's something that's worked out between the individuals."

"If an individual says, 'Thanks, I'm not interested,' that's an appropriate time for the other person to step back," Bailey added.

Bailey said things deemed inappropriate would include "a statement that would indicate that their religious beliefs are better, or more -- have more importance than another belief system, and how they would phrase something like that, and state that in some sort of way, that their God, or their higher being that they call, would be something that is the supreme over anything else, or maybe that would suppress another individual to think that they are not less in their faith. That would be a wrong statement to make in that sense."

It's "perfectly OK for that individual to state what they believe openly, understanding who's around the area."