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."

"When it is in conflict with those around, that is denouncing them, or intruding them, there's a sensitivity there that we have to try to help that individual understand through training, and through other means like that. But they're never told they cannot share their own personal faith of any sort," Bailey continued, adding faith can't be expressed in a "suppressing sort of way."

He said if a commander has a Bible or a Quran on his desk, it's the chaplain's role "to advise the commander of the impact that would have, or possibly any repercussions of that."

"The commander would make a wise decision at that point, understanding his or her role as a leader of all faiths, in a regard of religious accommodation, or a lack of faith, whatever it may be, the choices of a service member they lead," Bailey said.

Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-Miss.) said the stories lawmakers hear from service members, usually linked to the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, show that they're not isolated incidents.

"April of 2013, the Pennsylvania Army Reserve Unit, Evangelical Christians are examples of religious extremists. Catholics are equated to the Ku Klux Klan, al Qaeda, and Hamas," Nunnelee said. "Fall of 2013, Fort Hood, same institute, Christians are a threat to the nation. Any soldier that donates to these groups will be subject to punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice."

"October 2013, similar statements at Camp Shelby. December of 2013, soldiers were told, 'Don't use the word Christmas. Might be offensive.'"

Penrod said she didn't have the specifics on the cases, but would look them up.

Multiple groups entered statements into the record for the hearing, ranging from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union to the Family Research Council.

About 10 Sikhs showed up at the hearing and more waited in the overflow crowd outside the door, as the hearing came on the heels of new Defense Department guidance on beards and religious headgear.

One was Army Major Kamal Singh Kalsi, a Bronze Star recipient who went through a lengthy process that ultimately required the help of his congressman to get a waiver that allowed him to keep his religious beard and turban. Two other Sikhs have also received waivers allowing them to serve.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said last week that religious accommodation "has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, evaluated by the unit commander, and the mission can't suffer as a result of accommodating some of these religious requirements."

"A Sikh can request the wearing of religious attire, but, again, it has to be looked at case-by-case," Kirby continued. "…One, we're saying as a department we will accommodate these preferences and religious requirements. Number two, the mission can't suffer as a result."

"If a service member is requesting a waiver for something that doesn't require changes to a uniform, like, for instance, or grooming an appearance standard set by the service, those can be handled at the unit level, and we think they should be handled at the lowest level possible. If, however, the request requires a waiver of service policy with respect to grooming standards or appearance or the wearing of a uniform, then it's going to go higher in the chain of command, perhaps all the way up to the personnel chief of the service… Now, whether it opens us up to legal challenges, then I guess we're just going to have to wait and see."

Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) was concerned about Sikhs needing a new waiver every time their assignment changes.

Heck said even the new guidance seemed to amount to "a presumptive ban on members of the Sikh religion from joining -- from having to give up their articles of faith, from having to seek an accommodation every time they have a change of assignment, and whether or not there's still some question as if they are allowed to assess into the service, whether or not they have to stop wearing their headgear or shave while going through boot camp until an accommodation is granted."

"When you look at military readiness, each unit of assignment has a different responsibility," Penrod responded. "The service has to make that determination. If, now, this new position or new job that the individual would be performing impacts safety, health, the unit, they may deny the accommodation."