Serving God and country
Religious Liberty | The Pentagon moves to protect military members’ religious liberty
by Steve West
Posted 9/18/20, 02:09 pm
When Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling posted favorite Bible verses in her workspace at Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base, her boss ordered her to remove them. “I don’t like those,” her supervisor said. “I don’t like their tone.” When Sterling declined, the military court-martialed her.
That was 2013, but her fate might be different today, thanks to the Pentagon’s new policy protecting religious liberty for service members.
The Department of Defense on Sept. 9 released new guidance requiring leaders in the armed forces to accommodate individual expressions of religious belief that do not compromise “military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, or health and safety.” The shift brings DOD policy in line with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act: Leaders who override religious expression must do so in the least restrictive way possible and prove a compelling military interest.
The move follows a number of incidents of religious discrimination in the military. Earlier this summer, the Navy banned personnel from going to off-installation indoor religious services. It later revised the order to allow attendance as long as services followed social distancing and mask guidelines. Earlier this month, the Navy revised a decision to stop bringing in Catholic priests to cover the shortage of Catholic chaplains just 24 hours after the original order.
Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty, said the new guidance brings the military in line with President Donald Trump’s 2017 executive order declaring the executive branch would “vigorously enforce” protections for religious freedom.
Berry, who served a combat tour of duty in Afghanistan and remains a reservist, sent a letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in May urging him to issue clear guidance protecting religious freedom for the troops. He specifically called out military officials who censored chaplains offering spiritual encouragement over livestream and social media during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other provisions of the new policy protect service members from suffering professionally or being denied benefits like promotions and training based on religious expression. And military chaplains don’t have to perform religious rites or activities that would compromise their beliefs. “This resets the playing field,” Berry said. “The default is now going to be in favor of religious liberty.”
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Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.