Counteroffensive campaign

Military | Conservative groups unite to offer assistance to soldiers facing infringement of religious liberties while serving in the U.S. armed forces
by Edward Lee Pitts
Posted 7/10/13, 02:25 pm

WASHINGTON—On the week that marks the 237th anniversary of George Washington’s general order establishing chaplaincy in the U.S. military, a chaplains organization has launched a project to educate service members of their constitutionally guaranteed right to live out their faith. The group is trying to catalogue and stop what they call a growing threat to religious liberty.

The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, which represents more than 2,400 chaplains in all branches of the U.S. military, will distribute “Religious Liberty Palm Cards” to soldiers. The cards outline what a soldier’s religious liberties are and provide a website address for soldiers to report a suspected violation of their religious liberty and to seek counsel from attorneys and retired chaplains.

“We believe that those who are wearing the uniform, those who are putting their lives on the line to protect the religious liberties of all Americans should not themselves have to give up those religious liberties that they are willing to die for,” said Ron Crews, the alliance’s executive director, at a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday.

Crews announced the new campaign on the same day that numerous conservative groups officially formed a coalition, along with launching a website, to continue to push for greater religious liberty protections in the U.S. armed forces. In addition to the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, the organizations involved include the Center for Security Policy, the Media Research Center, Judicial Watch, the American Family Association, Liberty Counsel, American Values, Family-Pac Federal, Patriotic Veterans, the Center for Military Readiness, the American Civil Rights Union, and the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers.

The Family Research Council (FRC), another member of this coalition, also released a report this week documenting numerous examples of threats to free religious expression within the military dating back to 2005.

“We have entered a period in which members of the armed services are being subjected to speech codes and restrictions on the free exercise of religion,” the report states.

The incidences chronicled in the report include: The 2011 suspension, after 20 years, of an ethics training course conducted by a chaplain at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., because it included texts from the Bible; the Air Force’s 2012 removal of the word “God” from a unit’s logo; a March 2012 Army presentation that labeled evangelical Christians and Catholics as extremists along with al-Qaeda, Hamas, and the Ku Klux Klan; and the June 2013 removal by the Air Force of a video honoring first sergeants because it mentions God.

The report also highlights a 2012 West Point study linking pro-life groups to terrorism. That study argued that right-wing extremism in the pro-life movement is based on the belief that “since every human being is created in the image of God, it is by definition a sin to end their lives before they have been able to ‘enjoy love and life of this planet.’”

And in 2012, according to the report, the Army censored Catholic chaplains in worship services. The chaplains had a sentence deleted from a text in a letter issued to them by the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Military Services. The letter asked Catholics to resist implementation of the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare. The edited letter was distributed but not read publicly after it was edited.

The FRC report does include one example of resisting attacks on religious expression inside the military: When an anti-religious group threatened a lawsuit over a nativity and menorah display on California’s Travis Air Force Base in December 2011, the base refused to remove the display.

“This is just a sampling,” said FRC President Tony Perkins, referring to the number of incidences threatening religious liberty that have gone public. “Increasingly, each one of us have been getting confidential calls and other reports and information from members of military pointing to this growing hostility to religious freedom. Unfortunately, members of the military cannot speak out about these things.”

Rep. John Fleming, R-La., is spearheading an effort to add a layer of new laws protecting both the religious beliefs and actions of service members. This year, the House passed his religious freedom amendment to a defense-spending bill. Fleming’s amendment would ensure that military officials comply with the Constitution when it comes to the military’s own members.

“We have a situation in my district going on right now where DOJ [the Department of Justice] is removing funding for grants for a Young Marines program simply because they have the word God in their pledge,” Fleming said.

Conservatives argue that new language is needed because some top Pentagon officials are acting under the assumption that religious liberty does not protect the actions and speech that are based on one’s beliefs.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, in a bipartisan vote, also passed a version of Fleming’s amendment. But the Obama administration “strongly objects” to the amendment, saying in a June 2013 statement that it “would have a significant adverse effect on good order, discipline, morale, and mission accomplishment.”

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said service members who hold strong religious views might leave the military if their First Amendment rights are not protected.

“To take away religious flexibilities that have always been there will not only devastate the military; it will devastate this country,” he said.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., noted that Washington’s order starting the chaplain service was issued on July 9, 1776. That order stated, “The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger.”

“We are suggesting that the president allow soldiers to have the right to live and act like Christians or whatever faith they may hold dear,” said Bridenstine, a former U.S. Navy pilot.

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.

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